Identify exactly who your ideal attendee is… their industry, role, background and experience… and cater your event to that person. Your marketing will be easier and far more successful as a result.
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 Mike Allton.
Mike is an award-winning blogger, speaker, and author at The Social Media Hat, and Head of Strategic Partnerships at Agorapulse where he strengthens relationships with social media educators, influencers and partner brands. Allton is also the co-author of Ultimate Guide to Social Media Marketing published by Entrepreneur Press alongside Jenn Herman, Stephanie Liu, Amanda Robinson and Eric Butow, available wherever books are sold.
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’m originally from a small sleepy town in Ohio, went to Ohio schools, and worked for a variety of Ohio companies before moving to St. Louis, Missouri in 2007.
That’s when everything changed.
I started my own internet marketing company and began a journey of exploration and education. I taught myself social media and blogging and live video. Despite going to school initially for music and then ultimately, computers & history, it wasn’t until I started this new venture that I discovered a passion and gift for writing.
By 2011, I’d started a second business, The Social Media Hat, focused around publishing blog posts about social media marketing. I learned how to earn money from affiliate revenue, offer consulting and teaching, and ultimately was hired in 2014 to be the Chief Marketing Officer for a website & online business company.
Can you tell us the story of what led you to this particular career path?
In 2016, I was still working as a CMO but had also continued to maintain my personal blog and website. I invested in a cross-country roadtrip so that I could attend Social Media Marketing World in San Diego, CA for the first time.
I only knew four or fewer people but I was determined to get more involved in the social media industry and make more connections. One of the people whom I knew there was the fabulous blogger, speaker and author, Peg Fitzpatrick. During one session I saw with Peg and afterwards it was time for lunch, so i walked with her to main room where there were tables laden with box lunches, and dozens of other tables to sit and eat at. We grabbed our boxes and looked around, and she noticed a table with the topic flag of “International”, and a lone gentleman eating by himself. “We’ll sit with him,” she said and of course I dutifully followed.
As it turns out, she knew him and introduced me to Emeric Ernoult, the CEO of a social media management tool called Agorapulse. Up until then, my tool of choice had been Hootsuite. I even wrote the book on Hootsuite. But that relationship had soured and this was a golden opportunity.
In between mouthfuls of food, Emeric showed me how Agorapulse worked on his phone and gave me free access. It was amazing!
Over the next two years I became an avid fan and user of Agorapulse. I wrote about them in blog posts and articles, taught my clients how to use the tool to ease their social media needs, and eventually, was hired by Emeric in 2018 to be their Brand Evangelist.
Today I’m the Head of Strategic Partnerships at Agorapulse and continue to leverage all of the relationships I’ve built over the years in social media to collaborate on events and virtual activities.
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 story I share often is how, when I first started that internet marketing business in 2007, I didn’t know anything about blogging or marketing. I’d gone to school for computer programming! And one mistake that I made was to blog about topics that weren’t of real interest to my target audience.
I thought that if I wrote about anything business-related, that would attract business-people to my site and content and lead to prospects and sales.
Boy, was I ever wrong.
For instance, when Apple released their iPhone 3GS device (yeah, that was a long time ago), they were doing major live events that walked through all their new products and innovations. So I thought it would be cool if I live-blogged the event, similar to how major tech publications do it.
That was fun for me. And that article received exactly 0 viewers. Impressive, no?
The lesson I took and continue tos hare today is that it’s critical for businesses to identify their target audience and make sure that their content and marketing activities are focused on helping that audience at appropriate stages of the funnel. Even if someone had been interested in my iPhone release blog, they still wouldn’t have turned into a prospect for my business. It had nothing to do with building new websites or an online presence.
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?
Ok, I’m going to share something with you that I don’t think I’ve really ever shared with anyone else before, so this’ll be our little secret.
At my heart I’m a storyteller and people who know me and follow me online are more than aware of my passion for Star Wars. I made a decision over ten years ago that Star Wars would be one of the things about me, personally, that I routinely share and talk about online so as to create a personal, relatable connection. And while Star Wars and it’s hero’s journey are great storytelling, it’s not my favorite film.
That rarified air is reserved for “Roma, Citta Aperta” which is Italian for, “Rome, Open City.” A beautiful film directed by Roberto Rossellini, it’s set in war-time Rome and was actually filmed just after the Nazi occupation. Not only is the story gripping, it’s an inspiring example of the kind of work one can do creatively with limited budget and use of one’s environment and existing resources.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
I’ve studied and taken many such quotes and teachings to heart, but I suppose the one that sticks with me the most is Zig Ziglar’s maxim, “It’s your ATTITUDE, not your APTITUDE, that determines your ALTITUDE!” Once that sunk into my psyche, I stopped questioning whether or not I could do anything that was in front of me. The only questions now are whether a particular task or goal fits my values and objectives.
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?
I started out with live video back in the early 2010’s with Google+ Hangouts on Air. I was a frequent guest on other people’s shows and that helped build my reputation and audience tremendously. As a result, when Chef Dennis Littley, a food blogger, organized the first of several Virtual Blogging Conferences in 2012, I lept at the chance.
A few years later, while I was CMO of Sitesell, I organized a series of virtual events featuring incredible experts in the industry like Guy Kawasaki. Then, in 2018 at Agorapulse, I started building virtual summits leveraging our incredible pool of ambassadors and social media influencers.
Those initial summits were so successful, reaching thousands and thousands of interested and engaged attendees, I know put on an event every quarter, and have expanded to include partnerships with other brands, and a myriad of live networking activities.
Can you tell us a bit about your experience organizing live virtual events? Can you share any interesting stories about them?
That very first summit I organized in 2018 was, in retrospect, a mess.
I worked with 16 of our social media ambassadors — big names in the industry like Kim Garst, Ian Cleary, and Donna Moritz. At the time, online event technology was still uncommon so we used a webinar platform called Livestorm, which was great for webinars — not so hot for summits.
While we had a landing page for the overall summit, interested attendees had to register for each and every session individually! But it was my first time building a registration-only event and I had a huge learning curve.
I spaced these sessions out over the course of three weeks and each one was delivered live — another big mistake! During one of the live sessions, the presenter’s camera stopped broadcasting and the rest of the session was them talking with only a black screen to look at.
I’ve since learned how important it is to compress online events into a single space of time, and to limit the live component to only what’s necessary to reduce technical issues.
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?
One of the best virtual events I’ve been a part of was the Leap Into Live Bootcamp that Ecamm and Stephanie Liu put on in 2020 and are doing again. Even though it was their first time putting on a virtual event, they approached it with professionalism and an attention to detail that was astounding.
And it paid off.
They brought in over 6,000 attendees to their first event ever!
I was particularly impressed with their melding of recorded training sessions & live Q&A sessions with the speakers. And as a speaker, I was really happy with their organization and structure. It was clear and easy what my responsibilities and expectations were.
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 first big mistake I made, and I see others continue to make, is to spread and event out over several days or event weeks.
No one has time for that.
It’s much better to block off just one or perhaps two days and fill those days with structured, scheduled activities, so that attendees can calendar-block the day and devote as much of their attention as possible to the event.
While that likely won’t have a huge impact on signups for your event, you will have a huge impact on the takeaways your attendees leave with. A full day, immersed in your content and training, will get those attendees buzzing about what they learned and, more importantly, how your event made them feel.
That kind of buzz and excitement will translate into even more success for your next event.
Which virtual platform have you found to be most effective to be able to bring everyone together virtually?
This is a great question and I have used and tested many of the most popular platforms available today. After that first debacle of an event, I turned to HeySummit and used that platform for quite a few summits. It was terrific for delivering pre-recorded content in a scheduled way, but lacked true audience engagement and interaction.
And as I just mentioned, creating an immersive experience for your attendees that they’ll be buzzing about for days should be the #1 goal. Which means a virtual event has to go beyond delivering content… it must deliver an experience that creates opportunities for each individual attendee to have a magical moment.
In person events create these spaces by giving time between sessions for folks to mingle in the hallways, sit at tables and talk, and gather at after-hours activities. Virtual events can do the same by making sure that attendees can meet each other, talk to each other, and network in unexpected ways.
Run The World and Airmeet are two platforms that excel at this! With both, event organizers can schedule sessions as well as table talks, breakout rooms, and even 1:1 speed networking.
My Agency Summit in June will start with 30 minutes of 1:1 speed networking to help attendees create some new connections right from the start of the day. As attendees arrive at the event, they’re invited to network and then the system automatically pairs them with another attendee for five minutes, then another, and another. So after 30 minutes you’ve now met 6 new folks that you will run into at other sessions and other networking times.
Are there any essential tools or software that you think an event organizer needs to know about?
First and foremost, like the decor in an in-person venue, the graphics that you use to promote and customize your event should be the best that you can obtain.
If you have a design team or can outsource a designer, that’s money well spent. If you absolutely must create graphics yourself, use Easil, Canva or Photoshop and stick with a consistent style throughout.
Second, if any of your session content is to be pre-recorded, offer to help your speakers create their recordings and Ecamm Live is a terrific option for that. They can join you in an online studio, share their screen and slides, and you can control and record the entire thing.
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.)
- The first consideration that we touched on earlier is the timeframe and schedule of your event. Since your attendees are remote, it’s more important than ever that you grab their attention and hold onto it for the duration of your event. If it’s spread out over multiple days or weeks, you’re setting yourself up for failure. I mentioned my first event was scheduled that way and while we had a good number of registrants overall… something like 1,500… the most that any individual session saw was 200 viewers. Some got as few as 50. If it were an in-person event with 1,500 attendees, you can bet the individual sessions would have received far higher attendance. My one-day summits now get thousands of registrants and every session is extremely well-attended!
- The second consideration needs to be your target audience. It’s easy to look at large, well-established in-person events and see all the incredible tracks of information they’re offering and want to replicate that. But if your event is relatively new, it’s going to be hard enough to attract an audience of attendees without diluting your message across verticals and experience levels.
- Identify exactly who your ideal attendee is… their industry, role, background and experience… and cater your event to that person. Your marketing will be easier and far more successful as a result. My first few summits were for “anyone that wanted to learn more about social media marketing” and then we honed in on social media managers who wanted to learn about specific platforms like LinkedIn or Instagram. Now we’ve focused even more on digital marketing agencies who want to grow and scale their business. And each is more successful than the list as a result! Now that you’ve determined a timeframe and a target audience, it’s time to build an agenda for your event. There are two elements to agenda-building that can make or break your event: 1. Engaging & Relevant Sessions, and 2. Diverse Speakers & Moderators. No one attends a virtual event just to watch a bunch of recorded presentations. They can go to YouTube for that. Your virtual event affords an opportunity to let your audience interact with the speaker in a very real way, which means at least some of your event content should be live. A live presenter can pay attention to comments, engage with the audience, and answer questions directly. You should consider having panel discussions, table talks and other kinds of sessions that create that immersive, engaging experience. It also means that when you’re thinking about the topics you want to have covered, or are proposed by prospective speakers, they must be relevant to that target audience. Think long and hard about topics and do not be afraid to decline applications or work with good speakers on their session working and angle. For one of my past summits, I allowed a speaker to title his session, “Instagram Zombieland.” It was a terrific session but can you tell me, just by reading the name of the session, what he was going to be talking about? Of course not. Taking a little extra time to craft those session titles into ones that are meaningful to your target audience will not only help them get more out of the event, it’ll probably improve your signup rate as well.
- And when you’re selecting speakers, presenters, moderators or hosts for your event, diversity must be a key consideration, both in terms of the personal background and experience. All too often, major events fall into the trap of inviting the same speakers back year after year, never giving their audience anyone new to listen to. Never taking the time to find people in the industry who are doing the real day-to-day work and might have valuable experience to share. And certainly not digging and looking for speakers from minorities who have terrific insights to share. This has always been a point of personal pride for me. I enjoy working with talented and established speakers in the social media industry, but also love to find people who are brilliant but perhaps have never graced a stage. And every event that I’ve run has had a predominance of women and minority speakers so that I do my part to help those voices be heard.
- Finally, the fifth consideration for your next virtual event, which we touched on earlier, is the absolutely requirement for networking opportunities.
My first virtual event had no networking capability at all. The next few used a platform that didn’t let attendees connect directly, but I was able to add a discussion element to the individual sessions. But that was a pale shadow of what these events really needed.
With the use of Run The World or Airmeet or other similar platforms, you can give attendees the chance to actually meet and follow each other. Conversations can happen within sessions, outside of sessions, within table talks, or in global chat.
And as an organizer, your #1 job is to facilitate that and make room for those magical moments. Create time within the day’s agenda for networking and breaks! Encourage conversation and networking and your attendees will love yo for it.
My event earlier this year, Social Pulse Summit: Instagram Edition, was our most successful ever! Not because of the number of attendees, but because of the feedback we received thanks to the experience they had. Those attendees raved about the speed networking, the table talks, and being able to actually meet and ask questions of brand partners.
Which is another fun element that I’ve brought to recent events: partners. Specifically, I partner with other brands in the social media space or whose solutions would be beneficial to our target audience, and give those brands opportunities to be present during the event and engage with attendees.
If you can set up sponsor or partner spaces and be deliberate in your selection of partners, your attendees will benefit greatly.
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, the very first step is to realize that it takes a tremendous amount of time and organization to pull off a great live virtual event, so make sure you have at least six months if this is your first event. I do them quarterly but only because I have established processes that I can duplicate and a team that can assist in key areas, like graphic design.
The point about organization is also very important. Successful events are all about the details. I keep a running Evernote note with ideas and To Do lists and bits of information, and a complex Google Sheet for every aspect of my summits.
You need to be able to build an agenda of sessions, track speaker details, timing, sponsor information, a promotional plan, and more.
One pro tip: make sure that you use a form for your speaker applications — Google Forms is great for this — and collect all of the information you’re going to need from them up front, including name, title, email, bio, company, website, twitter handle, possibly other social handles, session title and description. And have a field for them to upload their preferred headshot. Don’t force yourself to have to hunt for that information later!
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.
I’ve been pleased to see a few major companies and philanthropists recognize the importance of being connected to the internet, and how they’ve attempted to make broadband internet access available around the world.
But it hasn’t happened yet.
I think creating a global network that anyone in the world, at any time, can connect to and access information immediately would be tremendously impactful, particularly in poorer areas. Once that capability to access is established, it of course needs to be followed with technology to take advantage of that access.
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 to spend a meal with Will Smith and chat with him about his feelings on working in entertainment, parenting, marriage, and more. Not only is he tremendously successful, but it’s clear from his interviews and off-the-cuff videos that he’s genuinely warm and funny and insightful.
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.