Make Room for Interaction: Many people attend events to interact, so give them the opportunity to do so. It is important to understand your audience first — what works for some audiences may not work well for others. At a basic level, you can hold breakout rooms in Zoom or do online polling. More engaging live virtual events are using breaks to hold cooking classes, play trivia games, or hold fitness classes. An experienced live virtual emcee can also take over your social media feeds and chats during breaks. The most fundamental form of event interaction is networking, so have a monitored chat room where audience members can connect directly.
As a part of our series about “5 Things You Need To Know To Successfully Run a Live Virtual Event”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Jennifer Best.
Jennifer Best is the Head of Marketing at All American Entertainment (AAE), headquartered in Durham, North Carolina. Jennifer has more than a decade of experience leading high-performing marketing teams. Founded in 2002, AAE provides event planners and meeting organizers with a best-in-class service experience when booking talent for their events. AAE has booked over $200M of celebrity talent on behalf of thousands of the most respected companies and organizations in the world.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to learn a bit more about you. Can you tell us a bit about your “childhood backstory”?
I lived with my parents and younger sister. My dad spent his career in the insurance field and my mom was a stay-at-home mom turned entrepreneur, which inspired both my sister and me to become entrepreneurs too.
Growing up in central New Jersey, one of my favorite spots growing up was the Jersey shore, which was only about a half hour from my home. I was a good student, but I do remember skipping school one day to go to the shore. I remember this because I accidentally locked my keys in my car that day. Fortunately, I avoided getting caught by using a hair barrette to open my door in a true MacGyver-inspired move.
Throughout middle and high school, I was a band kid and played the flute. Although my parents invested in a flute tutor for years, marching band was my favorite part of playing and performing. Until high school, I was a pretty shy kid, but marching band gave me the opportunity to overcome my shyness. During my freshman year of high school, our band drove the 18+ hours by bus to Florida to march at Disney World. After graduation, I headed to the University of Delaware where I earned my business degree with a major in marketing and minor in psychology. I also became active in Greek life on campus and built life-long friendships with some amazing women.
Can you tell us the story of what led you to this particular career path?
Heading into my senior year at Delaware in the early 1990’s, my dad arranged for me to have a summer internship with an insurance company in Wilmington, Delaware. I was responsible for writing user documentation for their homegrown insurance claims software system. While I worked on that internship, I started to realize that sometimes the error messages were a bit confusing and it wasn’t clear what the user was supposed to do. I found this really interesting, so when I returned to campus in the fall, I elected to take an independent study credit class. I found a professor to sponsor my project and I did a deep dive into what makes some systems easier to use and learn than others. This was at a time when user experience (UX) was not yet a thing, and the internet was just emerging.
A few years later, when my kids were very young, I revisited this question and decided to teach myself website design and development. After volunteering my time with a non-profit to learn web design basics, I got into building small business websites based on the user experience best practices I had learned and researched in college. The internet was starting to take off and companies all wanted websites, but DIY tools didn’t exist yet, so this was a service that was very much in demand at the time. After 5 years helping over 100 small, non-profit, and home-based businesses create or improve their websites, I was nominated by my local Small Business Development Center (SBDC) for a Small Business Administration (SBA) award. I didn’t realize the scope of what I’d accomplished until I won two SBA awards in 2008 for my work supporting home-based business — one for the state of Maryland and the other for the entire mid-Atlantic region.
Following the recession of 2008, I decided to pivot my marketing and web skills into the corporate arena, working my way up within a leading cybersecurity company and later taking my skills into the healthcare technology space. I worked heavily with both online and in-person events as part of my past roles. Looking for a change, I now work on the inside of the entertainment and events industry, and I enjoy being able to help our clients to make their events successful and their audiences happy.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
One of my early website clients was my local sheriff’s union. I worked closely with police officers who volunteered for the board of the organization, and while building and later maintaining their website, I got to know many of their names over the years. This came in handy when, one day, I got pulled over for speeding just over the speed limit not far from my neighborhood. I saw the name of the officer (he had a unique name) and I casually mentioned that I recognized his name from building their union website with their current union president. I was able to talk my way out of my speeding mistake and received a warning instead. I didn’t want to push my luck in the future, so I slowed down on that road after that close call. I also gained a new appreciation for the work my police clients were doing every day.
Is there a particular book, podcast, or film that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?
When I first read the book “Don’t Make Me Think” by Steve Krug, it was career changing for me. Finally, I had a definition for my interest in how people use systems: user experience. Krug’s tips and explanations were straightforward and easy to apply no matter the industry you work in. Any time I’m asked to review a new system, layout, form, or website, I always evaluate it based on how much it makes me think. If it isn’t intuitive or easy to learn, we need to work harder to make it so.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
As a stay-at-home mother, my mom was always volunteering in our community. Once I had kids of my own, I started to embrace Ghandi’s “Be the change (you wish to see in this world)” quote as a simple guide for being a good human. If you see something you don’t like, like people experiencing hardship or organizations needing help, don’t sit there and complain about the injustices of the world. Instead, change it. I am an active volunteer in organizations that serve my personal and professional communities, and I work hard to set the same example for my kids that my mom set for me at a young age.
Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. For the benefit of our readers, can you tell us a bit about your experience organizing events in general?
My company, All American Entertainment, is a speakers bureau that works on behalf of talent buyers in the talent procurement process. Because we don’t exclusively represent talent, we can remain an impartial partner. We always have the best interest of our clients in mind when recommending talent and negotiating contracts. We have been in business since 2002 and have booked thousands of events, generating over $200M in booking fees over this time. We work closely with top companies, universities, and organizations to bring the best speakers, entertainers, and celebrities to their audiences.
Can you tell us a bit about your experience organizing live virtual events? Can you share any interesting stories about them?
I’ve been fortunate to have hands-on experience organizing virtual events and to have also seen the view from the inside of an event-driven company that has not just survived, but thrived during 2020.
In early 2020 when the pandemic first started, I coordinated a live virtual webinar series with the team at Delivering Happiness. Rather than create a series about COVID-19 as others were, I wanted to do something different that helped others and also humanized our brand. I focused our webinar series and marketing efforts on ways to develop and maintain a positive mindset. This was at a time when we all needed some happiness and encouragement while many states were on lockdown. We were fortunate to also be able to bring in guest speakers, including Jaime Casap, Former Education Evangelist at Google, and Olympic Gold Medalist and cancer survivor Scott Hamilton, to address specific topics during each live session. I’ve run live webinars plenty of times throughout my career, but doing so at a time in which our event planning clients were still apprehensive about virtual as an event medium was definitely risky. Fortunately, the sessions went extremely well and we demonstrated that events can go on virtually, which later helped us successfully position our company in the virtual speaker world in the second half of 2020.
In March and April, our company had hundreds of booked in-person events be cancelled, postponed, or moved to virtual formats. Then in May, the event industry paused and waited, and we watched our competitors lay off large percentages of their teams. It was a scary time, but I’m fortunate to work for a company that saw the potential opportunity in this challenge. Our CEO, Greg Friedlander, said he’d worked too hard to assemble our high-performing team, and he decided to invest in us instead. By allowing us to build the infrastructure to support virtual events, we would be here and ready when more clients realized the potential of pivoting to virtual. This meant creating new contracts, policies, technology features, and marketing materials across the company. Our primary goal became getting ahead of the virtual event trend to be able to guide our clients through their own virtual events. By August, we had started to see business picking up again, especially requests for virtual event speakers and appearances. By the end 2020, we successfully supported well over 650 virtual events. Plus, through the final months of 2020, we started to surpass 2019 pre-pandemic monthly revenue numbers and are optimistic about what 2021 will bring.
At AAE, we always have a lot of interesting stories to tell, and virtual events brought an entirely new angle to them. Virtual events have allowed us to book speakers who normally would never be available to speak or would be well out of budget for many of our clients. For example, we were able to book Dr. Anthony Fauci this year where he normally would not be able to attend an in-person event. Keke Palmer made a speaking appearance for our client from her trailer on set, as did MJ Rodriguez for a different virtual event. We arranged for Billy Blanks to lead virtual Tae Bo sessions. Martha Stewart held a virtual cooking session. We have also brought celebrities and well-known recording artists like Pitbull directly to people’s living rooms, which we hope in some small way helped people get through a very challenging year.
In your opinion, what is an example of a company that has done a fantastic job creating live virtual events? What specifically impresses you? What can one do to replicate that?
We are fortunate to work with some of the top companies in the country. We recently helped Google with their virtual holiday party, which included a number of different speakers, celebrities, and entertainers. They provided a great lineup for their event, including a live band, a mixologist, and several comedians, to make their event a huge success. This is a great example of going beyond the norm by offering a variety of unique and innovative ways to engage and entertain their employees.
Fast Company has also done a fantastic job creating and delivering virtual events that serve individual purposes and goals. The reason they are successful is that they are not looking to just replicate what they miss out on for in-person conferences. Where their conferences typically feature broader topics, they have been able to segment their audience and topics into more targeted messages and themes with virtual events. Providing more targeted topics is a powerful way to leverage virtual events.
Lastly, a non-profit client based in Philadelphia hosts an annual continuing education conference for therapists, psychologists, and other mental health professionals. The goal is to provide CE credits for their members, and this year was no exception; even with shifting the event to virtual. In fact, going virtual made the opportunity more accessible to their members and kept costs down for both attendees and the client. And because networking is an important aspect of their events, they made room for live virtual event networking to still bring people together.
What are the common mistakes you have seen people make when they try to run a live virtual event? What can be done to avoid those errors?
There are three main areas where people can make mistakes when trying to run a live virtual event.
1. Technology: This includes not choosing the right technology, not having the right equipment, or not having a backup plan for technology issues. While virtual event technology has developed very rapidly over the past year, it is still important to make sure that the virtual event platform has best-in-class technical support and that, as an event planner, you have multiple ways to contact technical support if there is an issue during the event. Ways I’ve seen this work well are by email, chat, Slack, and phone. Having multiple ways to reach support quickly, and having trained support staff to assist is key. Also, having the right equipment (webcam, microphone, lighting, and internet connection) matters a lot. If a speaker does not have the right equipment at home, there are local studios in many areas that speakers can now rent to do their presentation. Lastly, having a backup plan is extremely important in a live virtual event situation.
Here’s an example of the importance of having a technology backup plan. We had an event this year featuring Vernice “Fly Girl” Armour as the keynote speaker. Right before Vernice was about to take the live virtual stage, her internet service went out. Thinking quickly, she knew she could do the presentation from her mobile phone, but she needed a stronger signal. She drove to an area that had stronger reception and her presentation was both on time and without further incident. We all rely so heavily on internet access, especially now, and this example of having and using a technology backup plan was definitely worth it.
2. Engagement: The most important thing to remember for any live event is that you need to give people a reason to tune in live, whether it is exclusive content, networking opportunities, or even giveaways. Humans have FOMO — fear of missing out — so use that to your advantage. Many people know that live virtual events are often recorded for later distribution, so some companies go as far as featuring ‘exclusive’ live content or experiences that are not available after the event. Featuring a big-name celebrity speaker or appearance can also drive live engagement and participation. Another factor to consider is that live virtual events are prone to distraction more than in-person events. This is why most virtual event sessions during conferences are less than 30 minutes and breaks are provided often.
At a minimum, there should be engagement with the audience at least every 10–15 minutes. Some great ways to do this, which most platforms support, include real-time polling or asking questions that attendees can answer via chat. Utilizing virtual breakout rooms for small group networking is another way to achieve engagement, or by offering a live virtual exhibition hall that includes games, giveaways, and resources just as an in-person conference would. The latter allows for virtual event sponsorships if your organization relies on them for your event strategy.
3. Practice. Companies that do not take sufficient time to practice their technology, speakers, handoffs, and content are jeopardizing their live virtual event success. When we work with clients and talent to practice for events, it is because we have seen time and again that the lack of practicing typically leads to unforeseen issues during live events. This can present an emergency situation during a live event (which can be stressful to begin with) and, depending on the severity, can create a bad experience for attendees and sponsors as well. Build practice sessions into your event planning timeline and require your speakers, presenters, and event facilitators to participate.
Which virtual platform have you found to be most effective to be able to bring everyone together virtually?
The one we see most often is Zoom, likely because of its simplicity and that many users are familiar with it. Depending on a client’s budget, we do see a variety of platforms from time to time, like Convene, On24, and Hopin. I believe that whichever platform you choose, the more important decision is to choose how you want to engage your audience, which should happen before you choose a platform.
Are there any essential tools or software that you think an event organizer needs to know about?
Earlier this year, I blogged about the tools needed for holding a successful virtual event. My absolute favorite quote from Jaime Casap in the video featured in that post is this: “People will listen to bad videos, but they will not watch bad audio.” It is so true. Invest in the right microphone, web camera, and lighting. If your presenters don’t have their own, provide a kit with the items you want them to use. Companies are now expecting presenters to have the right equipment already, but consider keeping a kit on hand just in case.
If you want to repurpose your session recordings after your event, it is helpful to determine this prior to booking your speaker or entertainer. This should be included as part of your contract. If you plan to use the recordings after the event, planners will also want to invest in video editing software (like Adobe Premiere Pro or Camtasia) to transfer your recorded sessions into a variety of post-event promotion formats. This can be handled by a creative team internally or outsourced to a provider. Create a teaser video for promoting the session content, then require user registration to access the full recorded event. Lastly, decide where you want to host your post-event videos. There are free and paid options available for that, including YouTube, Vimeo, and Wistia, depending on your budget and needs.
Take the time to fully research your event software options before you select a provider. There are many more players in the virtual event software space now than there were a year ago. Platforms are starting to integrate third-party engagement tools and features as well. Choosing an event platform that will integrate with your marketing automation or desired engagement tools will make your job easier in the long run. Be transparent with your platform provider about the possible number of attendees and the activities planned for your live virtual event, as you’ll want to make sure your event software or provider can handle the bandwidth and their system can deliver on engagement. Make sure any software you select has all of the engagement features you are looking for, solid tech support, and experience hosting events of your size and scope.
Ok. Thank you for all that. Here is the main question of our discussion. An in-person event can have a certain electric energy. How do you create an engaging and memorable event when everyone is separated and in their own homes? What are the “Five Things You Need To Know To Successfully Run a Live Virtual Event” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)
An in-person event absolutely has a certain energy that you cannot replicate virtually. There’s no way around it and honestly, there’s no need to try and recreate it. Virtual events aren’t placeholders. They serve a separate purpose and are an extension of our in-person experiences. They help keep our relationships up to date by taking advantage of technology to connect with each other. Virtual events can serve the same goals as in-person events, but you have to first identify what those goals are. Virtual event goals should be separate and different from your in-person event. Otherwise, you’ll just be trying to compensate for some lost component and you will be frustrated by comparison.
Here are the five things you need to know to successfully run a live virtual event.
- Start With Why: Why are you having this event? You can’t create an event (live, virtual, or otherwise) without knowing your why. Identify the objectives of your event. Knowing your why then helps identify your goals. Virtual event goals should differ from in-person event goals. Once you’ve identified your goals, you can start to build a tactical plan to achieve them.
- Define Success Upfront: Ask yourself what success looks like. Every event should ultimately result in an action, whether it’s brand awareness, increased sales, customer loyalty, or positive user experience. It is important to make sure your goals are representative of the medium, in this case, virtual events. Having the same goals as your in-person events might not set you up for success. One advantage of virtual events is that you get access to real-time data. Utilizing trackable links can allow you to recognize ROI you might not otherwise have been able to track back to your event.
- Combine Live and Pre-recorded Content: One of the BEST reasons to host your event live is to facilitate real-time engagement. That doesn’t mean, however, that every aspect of your program has to be live. When you have a live conference with multiple tracks and thousands of attendees, it can be logistically challenging and risky to run everything completely live. Pre-record sections of the program when possible, such as keynote speakers, announcements, and transition pieces, and then focus your energies during the event on the live appearances. For the live components, be consistent. Use a similar background to any pre-recorded sessions. Use an emcee who can drive real-time interaction with the audience and make transitions smoother, and bring your keynote speakers back for live Q&A chats if possible.
- Make Room for Interaction: Many people attend events to interact, so give them the opportunity to do so. It is important to understand your audience first — what works for some audiences may not work well for others. At a basic level, you can hold breakout rooms in Zoom or do online polling. More engaging live virtual events are using breaks to hold cooking classes, play trivia games, or hold fitness classes. An experienced live virtual emcee can also take over your social media feeds and chats during breaks. The most fundamental form of event interaction is networking, so have a monitored chat room where audience members can connect directly.
- Planning Makes Perfect: Start early by creating a game plan incorporating all of the moving parts, technologies, speakers, engagement activities, and goals. Don’t forget to plan for tracking the success of your event. Build practice sessions into your event planning timeline and create both technology and speaker back-up plans in case of emergencies. Document your entire event game plan in a shared location, including contact details for all key personnel, and communicate this plan to your entire event team so everyone is on the same page. There are no guarantees of having an incident-free live virtual event, but good planning will greatly improve your chances of success.
Let’s imagine that someone reading this interview has an idea for a live virtual event that they would like to develop. What are the first few steps that you would recommend that they take?
It is important to plan before you start building any event. First, is there a unique goal or business need for this event? If so, define your why. Then, use your why to set goals and objectives before you plan anything else. Identify what success looks like and how you plan to measure it. Build in a plan for engagement that reflects the tone and topic of the event. Define what engagement features you want to have before selecting a technology. From then on, you will move into the tactical elements like choosing the right technology and content that your audience will enjoy. Don’t forget to find a great keynote speaker (which we can help with) to help drive higher attendance for and engagement during your event.
Super. We are nearly done. Here are our final questions. You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.
Having volunteered and supported organizations that focus on education, our public school teachers are definitely undervalued and underpaid. These are the people shaping the future of our world by educating our kids, yet they are often in the lowest of salary brackets. I believe a movement that makes teaching both a highly-compensated and highly-competitive profession will benefit all of us.
We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US, with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them.
I would love the chance to meet Tina Fey. She has accomplished so much in her career and always has done so with humility, integrity, and humor. I think we’d have a great conversation.
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.