Creating Connections. Just like in a physical event, it is necessary to find various ways for attendees to engage one-to-one, one-to-many, and many-to-many. Beyond the actual software functionality and feature set that may enable networking at your event, it’s important to design your environment and agenda to foster these connections. Are you using attendee profiles and AI to drive connections? Are you leveraging gamification to incentivize attendees to connect with sponsors? Are you offering dedicated areas and clear calls-to-action to prompt networking? Although it can be difficult to match the engagement level of live events, there are dozens of ways to increase engagement between and among virtual event attendees, sponsors and exhibitors. We highly recommend spending the time to develop an overall strategy and effective tactics in this area.
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 John Capano.
John Capano brings two decades of experience as a strategy and marketing leader across several industries including automotive, technology, travel, and business services. With a wide range of expertise in B2B and B2C strategy, brand development, and experiential marketing, John’s brand experience includes multiple Fortune 100 global clients. Before joining Impact XM, John held a variety of senior strategy and marketing positions on both the in-house and agency sides of the experiential marketing, digital media tech, and brand development industries.
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”?
Of course. I grew up outside of Boston before moving to the New York area to attend college and begin my career. Soon after graduation I started in the banking industry before switching to the entertainment industry in my late 20s. I worked at the William Morris Agency, starting in the mailroom and working my way up to being an agent in television. From there, I started my own agency with some partners and, after we sold it, I joined Wunderman Worldwide, a global marketing services agency. From there, I joined George P. Johnson which is how I entered the Events and Experiential Marketing side of the business. After a great run with GPJ, I joined Impact XM in late 2018. I’ve been here ever since.
Can you tell us the story of what led you to this particular career path?
My first taste of marketing was probably at William Morris where I segued out of representing writers for television into working closely with brands. It was the beginning of the internet, and also when brands really started focusing on entertainment and technology as vehicles for marketing their products and services. I was fascinated (and still am) by the intersection of content and technology, and how that can be leveraged to create consumer engagement and business value. This led me deeper and deeper into marketing where I spent a considerable amount of time in digital before entering experiential.
The through-line in every job I’ve ever had has been strategy. Whether it was banking, entertainment or marketing, I have always focused on understanding a client’s business and helping develop ways for them to create more value out of whatever resources or ideas could be harnessed to do so. This, for me, is the essence of strategy and what we do at Impact XM. Also, in looking back, it wasn’t planned but I guess I’ve been a bit of a Zelig, working in investment banking in the ’80s, entertainment in the ’90s, digital in the 2000s and experiential in the 2010s. It’s been a really interesting career where I’ve been able to apply lessons learned in each phase to step into a new and exciting area.
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?
Way back when I first started at William Morris, I sent an email to “All” asking for some information. Email as a business tool was really new and you can imagine that “All” was kind of still reserved for only the top leadership of the company. It did not land well but, luckily, I survived…
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?
Professionally, I’m a big fan of The Innovator’s Dilemma by Clayton Christianson as well as Fooled by Randomness by Nassim Nicholas Talib. I think both of these present concepts that can be applied to better understand a wide variety of business situations and challenges.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
My favorite quote is: “Know what the magician knows, and it’s not magic anymore.”
It comes from my all-time favorite book and author. I think it says so much about information, knowledge, curiosity, belief, faith, etc. It had, and still has, a huge impact on my career and life. I have this continued desire to discover what the magician knows in all areas which drives me to seek out as much information and knowledge as I possibly can.
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?
Beginning at GPJ and continuing today at Impact XM, I head up what we call the ‘front of house’. I lead a terrific team of professionals across strategy, creative, marketing, new business and client service. We are responsible for helping clients grow their business which is how we grow ours.
Can you tell us a bit about your experience organizing live virtual events? Can you share any interesting stories about them?
As I mentioned, I come out of digital strategy career-wise and, also, the team at Impact XM has been helping clients with digital content and solutions for almost two decades. That said, in early 2020, we pivoted in a big way to focusing primarily on digital which meant many, many (many many) virtual events. We don’t really call them “live virtual events.” We simply call them Virtual Events as most have a mix of pre-recorded and live content and engagement.
A key area of interest for us and our clients is how B2B and B2C events and strategies cross-pollinate. B2B can learn a lot about consumer habits and engagement from B2C whereas B2C can learn a lot about event strategy and scale from B2B. It’s often thought that there’s more excitement in B2C but, honestly, B2B is what drives the market and most of the investment in our industry.
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?
My favorite so far has been our client AT&T. We worked with them to create an environment where they can host any type of meeting, external or internal. From leadership summits to tradeshows to team meetings, anything you can dream up to bring people together virtually can be done in this very compelling environment. I’m sure there have been others in the market but that one stands out. As for replicating it, it was just the right mix — an easily navigable environment, great content, advanced features and toolset, and some surprise and delight moments. It has really come together in a great way and delivered for the client and their key audiences.
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?
The biggest mistake is not understanding how virtual events are different from live events. Live events are 80% attendee interaction and 20% content. Virtual events are 80% content and 20% attendee interaction. Once you understand that, you can shift your goals, focus your resources on how to produce and distribute the best, most engaging content possible while also offering fun and engaging ways for people to interact. It generally takes a different mindset and approach: live events require a production-first approach whereas virtual events call for a broadcast/content publisher mindset.
Which virtual platform have you found to be most effective to be able to bring everyone together virtually?
There are so many in the market now, it’s really been flooded since early 2020. The ones I like working with the most are those that offer the best combination of front-end flexibility and back-end functionality. This enables us, as the agency, to design the perfect environment for an event while knowing we are going to get the most bang for our buck when it comes to toolsets, features, scalability and security. Part of what we do is help clients pick the right platform as there is no one-size-fits all for the different types of events we design.
Are there any essential tools or software that you think an event organizer needs to know about?
There is no one answer to that question. But the thing many event organizers miss when picking a virtual event platform is the need for it to easily integrate with their existing technology stack. A platform that allows you to easily integrate your current registration engine, marketing automation software, CRM, CMS, etc. will save you time and money while lowering risk. Most platforms will say they do it all or can easily integrate but there are some really significant differences in the market. It’s very important to bring your agency and technology partners together early in the process to help you pick the right platform, especially if you are doing more than one virtual event.
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.)
Well, before I jump into the answer, I’d like to edit the question a bit…. It may not be possible to exactly recreate the level of excitement and electric energy of live events with a virtual event. What you can recreate (and even improve on) is the business success of an event. Based on your unique goals, objectives, purpose and audiences, you can create an engaging, memorable and useful experience for everyone involved. You might not be able to recreate a live Rolling Stones concert or the best Las Vegas closing party you’ve ever been to, but you can deliver an engaging, shareable event that communicates your key messages, drives more leads, and sells more product than ever before.
To do so, five of the most important things to keep in mind are:
- Selecting the Right Partners. The first (and perhaps most important) thing you need to do is pick the right partners. Your events and experiential agency, your production company, and your platform are all important partners that are going to help with your success. Internally, your digital and IT teams will also play a role. Bringing all of these people together early in the process is key, especially if your day-to-day team is more experienced in live events than in digital. There are some similarities between live and virtual but there are also enough differences that you’re going to want to bring in the experts to augment your own team.
- Selecting the Right Platform. As referenced above, your virtual event platform can either make or break you. Picking the right one for your particular event is very important. Your event format, goals, and audience should largely dictate which platform you pick. That said, there is a lot of confusion in the marketplace because anyone with any technology related to live events has pivoted and now refers to themselves as a virtual event platform. Whereas a year ago, these companies were separated into specialty areas such as virtual meetings, webinars, video streaming or content management, they are all now virtual event platforms. They have added features and functionality around their core solution to try to offer a one-size-fits-all solution to their clients and the market. The problem is one size doesn’t really fit all and the level of maturity on some of the key features is still pretty early stage. Your best bet is to go with a platform that started as, and still is, a robust virtual event platform. Of course, there are other options available that should be considered based on the form and function of your meeting or event but going with one of the industry veterans is a safe bet.
- Inviting the Right Audience. To say your customers’ worlds have changed is an understatement. What was true for your audience a year ago is likely not as relevant today. It’s important to dig into the new attitudes, norms, and cultural forces impacting your brand, your business and your audience. Identifying these cultural shifts will help you identify the trends that can fuel experiential marketing and events in the future. Determining and attracting the right audience to your virtual event requires a strong partnership between sales and marketing. In addition to partnering with your sales team on direct outreach, leverage your full complement of digital and traditional touchpoints to drive interest and registration. This may include your own website(s), newsletters, emails, and social channels as well as paid channels such as search and display advertising. In addition, leverage partners, sponsors and affiliates to help drive interest and further your registration efforts.
- Designing your Content Strategy. Although virtual event attendees come for many reasons — learning, connecting, sharing — content consumption is the primary vehicle for how they experience the event. Based on this, a good place to start is by asking yourself what types of content your audience consumes and how they consume it. While you’re at it, it’s very important to remember that virtual event content is different from live event content. Virtual content requires you to think like a content publisher, rather than as an event producer. Things like format, timing, extensibility, promotability, etc. all come into play. In addition, considering multiple formats — video, audio, text, live, pre-recorded, etc. — will give you a flexible library of content to apply to various audiences and use cases.
Format and length are also very important. Generally, short, snackable content leading into deeper and deeper layers is a successful strategy. Anything over 30 minutes online can be a very long time, even if it’s a live experience. Shorter promos (30–45 seconds) and episodes (8- to 12-minutes each) offer a better alternative that is more fit for smaller and more mobile screens. It’s also a way to boost audience engagement and keep things moving. Finally, making content easily shareable is key to helping promote the overall experience, before, during and after your event.
- Creating Connections. Just like in a physical event, it is necessary to find various ways for attendees to engage one-to-one, one-to-many, and many-to-many. Beyond the actual software functionality and feature set that may enable networking at your event, it’s important to design your environment and agenda to foster these connections. Are you using attendee profiles and AI to drive connections? Are you leveraging gamification to incentivize attendees to connect with sponsors? Are you offering dedicated areas and clear calls-to-action to prompt networking? Although it can be difficult to match the engagement level of live events, there are dozens of ways to increase engagement between and among virtual event attendees, sponsors and exhibitors. We highly recommend spending the time to develop an overall strategy and effective tactics in this area.
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?
Well, it depends a bit on the source. If it’s an individual, I would recommend spending some time to think about what the event is and who would gain value from it. Is the idea something that appeals to you and the few people like you: maybe a small but passionate few? Or is it an idea that can really expand to a larger audience and bring many, many people together under a shared goal or experience? Based on that, try to gain an understanding of what it will take to achieve your vision and, once you do, go find best-in-class partners that will help you bring your vision to life.
Conversely, if it’s a person that is part of a larger organization with resources and budgets, they can just call us and we’ll be glad to help them get going.
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.
Hmmm.. that is a great question.
From time to time, we sponsor mini-creative contests at the agency on topics unrelated to our business. Our most recent one was on how we could help solve the pandemic. Obviously, we aren’t scientists coming up with a vaccine, but we are a very creative marketing agency that might be able to help motivate people to action. In our most recent contest, one of our teams came up with an incredible campaign around inspiring people to take the vaccine. We have no idea who to give it to, but we think it could really help. So, if there is anyone out there at the Ad Council or the CDC or working in President Biden’s administration that is looking for a brilliant idea that will help defeat COVID and save America, please give me a call. We’d love to help, and we’ll donate the work for free.
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.
If former President & Mrs. Obama are reading this and have some free time, I’d be happy to sit down for a chat. If only to thank them for their service. Short of that, I’ve always been inspired by people that could see the forest for the trees. I think it would be fascinating to sit down with Philip Tetlock and Barbara Mellers, founders of the Good Judgement Open. The whole idea of super-forecasting is fascinating to me. It’s as close as humans get to predicting the future, which has been a life-long hobby of mine.