Channel your Inner Broadcaster — The first virtual event we did, we made the mistake of running it like we would run an in-person conference. We had an hour-long keynote by one person acting as if they were talking to an audience sitting in a ballroom. We quickly realized that was not the way to go. For our next conference, we really switched our mindset to think of our presentations like TV broadcasts. Rather than one speaker on one topic, we pulled in multiple presenters all doing short segments and then we brought it all together with a host for the event. This is a big investment in production but if you can swing it, we found it led to increased engagement across the board. A professional emcee also really adds that touch of professionalism as well.
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 Corie Leaman.
Corie Leaman is the Director of IT Nation Events for ConnectWise, overseeing the strategy and execution of IT Nation conferences, peer groups and user groups with an emphasis on growing and nurturing the ConnectWise Community. With a background in the event industry, Corie began her channel career in 2012, driving the community-building efforts for LabTech Software. Recently, Corie was instrumental in shifting ConnectWise’s flagship conference, IT Nation Connect, from a product-based user conference to the largest industry conference for Technology Service Professionals. Her passion for connecting people and delivering exceptional experiences has led to growth in event attendance year over year.
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 grew up in a working-class family with a single mom in south Florida. I was the first on that side of the family to go to college. I attended the University of Florida which would shape the rest of my life because it not only provided me with the relationships that led to my career path, but it’s also where I met my husband. I think coming from more humble means has driven me to work hard and go after what I want.
Can you tell us the story of what led you to this particular career path?
Somewhere between high school and college I decided I wanted to go into the hospitality industry. During my internship at a resort in Florida, I was first exposed to the world of events and I fell in love. From that point I knew I wanted to work in the event industry. My first job out of college was for an event production company which really gave me insight into all the various types of social and corporate events. From there, I did a stint at a non-profit before jumping into real estate for a few years. When I moved back to Tampa nine years ago, I found a job doing corporate events for a software company. I had never worked in tech before and I had no idea how much I would love it. It has been a wild ride and I’ve learned so much in my time at ConnectWise. I think I am one of the few people who can say I have my dream job and I feel so lucky I get to do this for a company I believe in.
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?
Oh goodness. There have been so many mistakes! The thing I always tell myself is that we aren’t saving lives here. As much as I might stress over mixed-up rooms, wrong agenda times, or a hotel reservation mistake — it will all be okay in the end and it can all be fixed or made right. I think that’s actually one of the key skills or talents of a good event professional — thinking quickly on your feet. Most mistakes don’t seem funny at the time but you can usually look back and laugh.
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?
In general, I love the book “The Ideal Team Player” by Patrick Lencioni. Lencioni believes that there are three characteristics of people you want on your team — humble, hungry and (people) smart — and it changed the way I looked at hiring. I really look for a balance of the three qualities and Lencioni gives some great practical interview questions that can help you uncover true character. We were also lucky enough to have him as a keynote speaker for one of our conferences and he is one of the best!
A specific podcast I’ve really enjoyed, being in the meeting industry, is In-Person from Bizzabo. I think they do a great job of interviewing planners and not only giving a glimpse at who the person is, but addressing key issues while talking about some really awesome events. Hearing first-hand from the masterminds behind events from companies like Forbes, SAP, Salesforce and Cisco really sparks actionable ideas that I can apply to my own job. It was very helpful to hear how planners were shifting to virtual events during Covid-19. I think in general, Bizzabo is a shining example of content marketing (and we aren’t even customers)!
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“Your value doesn’t decrease based on someone’s inability to see your worth.” Being an event professional, especially in a male dominated tech world, the work we do can often be trivialized or thought of as just party planning. Most people don’t understand how many skills we have to have. For example, the ability to understand company strategy and build that into the event strategy, large scale project management, digital marketing, production and high-level analytics — just to name a few. And we do this all while balancing demands of multiple stakeholders (with opposing needs of course). This quote is a nice reminder to not let ignorant or uninformed comments bother me and to be confident in my abilities and what I bring to the table.
Can you tell us a bit about your experience organizing events in general?
I’ve been in the industry for about 15 years. In the role I’ve held for the last nine years, I bring together the channel for some of the largest industry gatherings, including IT Nation Connect. During the conference’s 15th year, we hosted 130 companies and 3,800+ attendees. My team doubled in size, to eight direct reports, and I’m responsible for global strategy and execution for all IT Nation conferences.
I work with ConnectWise’s leadership team to evangelize our partner community, called IT Nation, and drive meaningful business outcomes. I’m responsible for aligning the ConnectWise strategy and goals with our partner- and prospect-facing programs, producing conferences and meetings that cultivate brand loyalty, train partners on our products, and drive revenue and retention for the company. In 2019, IT Nation programs contributed to over 37 million dollars in revenue. The thriving community that is built around our platform is a key differentiator for ConnectWise and nurturing this is of the utmost importance to the business. Bringing 10,000+ people of the channel together to discuss trends, business-building practices, technology and more also contributes to the overall advancement of the IT service industry.
Can you tell us a bit about your experience organizing live virtual events? Can you share any interesting stories about them?
In 2020, we hosted three large-scale multi-day live conferences with keynotes, breakouts, expo halls and networking. For those three events alone, we had over 23,000 registrations. We also host a variety of smaller-scale single or multi-day events and programs. Two of the conferences have long histories of being offered in-person. It was a challenge having to reimagine events where all the stakeholders have specific expectations. One of the amazing things that came from this switch was how many more attendees we were able to reach in the virtual world. We increased our registration for our June conference by over 820%! I’m excited about the opportunity to continue to widen our reach across a virtual and in-person audience.
We also had a unique opportunity during the pandemic to launch a brand-new conference centered around cybersecurity for our industry. Being a new concept, it gave us the freedom to really get creative and try new things without judgment. Now we have the interesting task of taking that virtual event and turning it into a hybrid conference for 2021.
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?
I always idolize the way Salesforce does community and events. They’ve done a great job of establishing their brand identity and it’s everywhere — even when you wouldn’t expect it. I think to replicate it, it’s all about the details. Walking through every step of the journey and imagining ways to make it more memorable, special and impactful.
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?
Especially in the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, we saw people throwing events up left and right. Attendees were all in and then a couple of months later the “zoom fatigue” hit. I think working through strategy exercises and making sure you have the right mix of events for the right audience is the foundation.
Which virtual platform have you found to be most effective to be able to bring everyone together virtually?
What we’ve learned over the last year is that there is no right answer to this question. The rate at which virtual platforms are popping up or enhancing their offerings is mind blowing right now. Something that didn’t work six months ago might be exactly what you need today. As much as I would love to pick one and stick with it, my team is being agile and doing our due diligence for each conference to ensure we have the best product possible for that audience. We are Cvent customers, so we have been closely watching what they are doing for the virtual attendee platform. As we enter the 2021 world of hybrid (in-person and virtual elements) events, we are really looking for technology that will help streamline our processes and avoid double or triple entry.
Are there any essential tools or software that you think an event organizer needs to know about?
I don’t think there is anything that works across the board. There are different tools for different types of events, budgets and more. I think the best thing an event organizer can do is to continue staying abreast of enhancements or new products — which can almost be a full-time job. I do this by being a part of online communities with other planners. Just keeping an eye on what other organizers are using and what tools are receiving positive or negative reviews helps to narrow the scope.
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.)
Start with ‘Why’
Planning virtual events begins the same way that planning an in-person event begins. Start with your ‘why.’ What do you want attendees (and sponsors) to take away from this event? Why are you having it? Common reasons might be to drive marketing qualified leads, to close sales, to teach or to build a community. This step seems simple, but it’s VERY important. We still struggle with this internally sometimes. In a world where we are constantly competing for attention, you must make sure the value proposition for your event is clear and compelling. You’ll need to establish important details here, like whether or not you’ll have sponsors or partners participate in the event and if so, how they will participate? You’ll also have to determine whether you want to charge attendees or make it free. Once you’ve established your vision and goals of the event, the design comes next.
Channel your Inner Broadcaster
The first virtual event we did, we made the mistake of running it like we would run an in-person conference. We had an hour-long keynote by one person acting as if they were talking to an audience sitting in a ballroom. We quickly realized that was not the way to go. For our next conference, we really switched our mindset to think of our presentations like TV broadcasts. Rather than one speaker on one topic, we pulled in multiple presenters all doing short segments and then we brought it all together with a host for the event. This is a big investment in production but if you can swing it, we found it led to increased engagement across the board. A professional emcee also really adds that touch of professionalism as well.
Building an Agenda
When you get into the details of exactly what your virtual event will look like, you will start to notice differences. For one, not all of your attendees are in the same time zone as they are when you meet in-person. We are based on the east coast, so we start our virtual days later to accommodate our west coast customers. We also schedule our keynotes for later in the afternoon rather than the morning so we can be sure we will have the greatest number of attendees watching live.
When building your agenda, make sure to factor in plenty of breaks and gaps for people to eat, check in with work and these days, take care of their kids. Studies show that 90 minutes is about the maximum amount of time that someone can participate virtually without a break. Another key factor to consider when building your virtual agenda is whether or not your content will all be live streamed or be pre-recorded and played later. We did both but ended up really liking the “simulive” experience. We pre-recorded almost everything, but it played on the platform at a certain time as if it were live. We also made sure all our speakers were actively participating in the chat during the session which attendees loved.
Look For The Value Props
One of the most challenging parts of hosting a fully virtual conference is knowing what to charge — for both attendee tickets and sponsors. We experimented with various pricing models in 2020 for our audiences, from totally free to close to in-person prices. We decided in 2021 not to offer free tickets for conferences because we realized it was undervaluing our content. For sponsors, we’ve really had to dig in and understand what their goals are for the event and how we can best facilitate them in a virtual world. Creativity and communication are key to make sure you are delivering value to all your stakeholders in this new world.
Keep It Engaging
The distractions you are competing with in a virtual event environment are unlike anything typical event planners are used to dealing with. Sure, we may have to combat the work distractions, the inviting hotel pool out the window or the occasional hungover attendee, but when someone is spending the day with you from home, there is no limit to what might drag them away from your content. Whether it’s phone calls and emails, social media, kids, laundry — you name it. That’s why it’s absolutely crucial to design engagement points throughout each session. Speakers should be coached (and practiced) before going live to make sure they’ve built in audience polling, places for Q&A with the virtual audience and even short quizzes. Another option is to have audience members do a worksheet or create something during the session.
Fostering engagement with vendors and other attendees is equally as important. We’ve found in-platform gamification and cool vendor giveaways to be essential to giving attendees that push they need to visit virtual booths or meet ups. We had vendors get very creative — giving away things like a home office makeover, a Peloton bike and even a Tesla! Drawing inspiration from social media has worked well for us too — people engage online every day — what can we learn from that and apply to events? Chat was a big one for us.
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?
We can’t start planning a virtual event without ensuring we have the technology to support it. Hosting webinars provides a great starting point for organizations who are already familiar with the technology and have built up a digital audience. With solutions ranging from easy and small to complex and scalable, it’s important to find the tools and resources that work for your organization and its goals. Start with something that’s easy to use, like Zoom, which many of us have used for meetings, or set up a more involved content management system. Adobe Connect is web conferencing software that lends itself well to enterprises and larger businesses, and it’s the one we use, but there are plenty of articles on the internet that compare tools to help you choose.
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.
Something I feel very passionately about is breaking the cycle of poverty through education. As the first in my family to attend college, I’ve seen firsthand the impact education can have to change not just one life, but the generations to follow. I believe that responsibly investing in public education and other programs that benefit underserved youth or women will be the catalyst to change the world.
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.
Haha, can you get me a lunch date with Michelle Obama? Honestly, I’m just in awe of all of the powerful women and minorities who are making moves in our government right now. I can’t wait to see the impact this diversity will have on our country.