Focus on the event’s purpose — When we plan an event, we always ask ourselves three questions from the attendee perspective. Who do they want to meet? What do they want to learn? How do they want to feel? This is just as important for a virtual event as it is for an in-person. While we have some best practices for our events, no program is rinse and repeat. One of our events, the X Series, is focused on connecting marketing leaders at large brands. These time-strapped execs weren’t joining events to hear a vendor speak at them — they wanted knowledge sharing with their peers — so we didn’t have any presentations. We also hosted very premium experiences so they knew how much we valued their time.
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 Jessica Vogol.
Jessica Vogol is an experienced marketing professional with a demonstrated history of success at large and small SaaS businesses. As Vice President of Marketing, Jessica’s mission is to drive brand engagement and next-level experiences for Movable Ink’s 700+ global customers. She leads the team responsible for global marketing activities, including demand generation, content, client, partner, and events marketing. During her tenure, she developed and launched the Think Summit, and roadshow event series including the Experience Transformation Tour and the X Series.
Prior to joining Movable Ink in early 2015, Jessica held a number of marketing roles at Unmetric, SecondMarket, and S&P Capital IQ. Jessica holds a B.A. in Economics from Boston College.
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 was born and raised in Middletown, NJ and am the oldest of three children. I’ve always been extroverted and liked being in charge (again, oldest child) — as my parents tell me — always very empathetic, and the spokesperson for my younger siblings.
Can you tell us the story of what led you to this particular career path?
I studied Economics at Boston College, and was interested in the financial sector but didn’t see myself working in banking or investment management. When I was a sophomore at BC, my neighbor led sales at a SaaS FinTech company and mentioned they were looking for marketing interns. I loved marketing because I was able to use all that I learned about FinServ and everything I loved about math (hello, data-driven marketing), but could flex my creative muscles as well. I’ve worked in SaaS marketing across a number of industries ever since.
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? I’m sure I made many mistakes — it’s a natural part of life. There were some that I could laugh at in the moments, and some that I still cringe thinking about. A big lesson I learned early on was the importance of verbal dialogue. So much could be misconstrued in email or text based communications. Even amid our digital-enabled world today. old fashion, in-person communication is always the best way to go!
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?
One of my favorite books that I love to share with friends and colleagues alike is Feminist Fight Club. It’s a perfect, fun manual for working women. There are tons of valuable lessons applicable to work and life. But, one of my favorite lessons is to “stop saying sorry.”
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
I have two here — one for work and one for life. My mom always says “rejection is God’s protection.” It has lots of applications, but she always emphasized that if something didn’t work out, it was for a reason.
I’m also a huge fan of Sallie Krawcheck; I saw her speak at an event for the launch of her book (Own It) where she said “the most important conversations about your career are happening when you’re not in the room.” That stuck with me for years, and underscored the importance of building strong relationships with your managers and leadership team. I also always like to keep that top of mind as my responsibility to my team as I try to advocate for them and share their wins whenever possible.
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’ve spent over a decade in B2B marketing roles at large and small companies, and have always been responsible for events. In the past six years at Movable Ink, I built our events program from the ground up, starting with our first-ever conference, The Think Summit, in 2016. The event has grown from 150 in 2016 to over 750 attendees at our last in-person in 2019.
After we saw the power of our conference in telling the Movable Ink story and connecting to our clients, we launched a number of roadshow series for Marketing Leaders (the “X Series”) and Digital Marketing Practitioners (the “Experience Transformation Tour”). And, in the past four years, our roadshow events have hosted thousands of marketers in 10 different countries.
Can you tell us a bit about your experience organizing live virtual events? Can you share any interesting stories about them?
Like many companies, we had an aggressive events calendar for 2020. We actually had to cancel our last in-person event the day of on March 12 when it was clear how dire the COVID-19 situation was. Our events team immediately pivoted to virtual, moving our originally planned event series online, and even launching new events. We hosted 28 small events for more than 700 attendees. While our events had different purposes and formats, we always tried to include a combination of networking, content, and an experience for our attendees to enjoy.
We also pivoted our annual conference, Think Summit, into a virtual event called (Re)Think where we welcomed more than a thousand guests and featured excellent speakers, networking, and some fun activities.
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 my favorite virtual experiences of 2020 has been community driven — the CMO Coffee Talk hosted by Latane Conant of 6Sense and Matt Heinz of Heinz Marketing. We meet every Friday morning, and there’s usually a guest speaker and lots of open conversation time. This group has shown me how much I have in common with marketing leaders from all different types of companies, and has connected me with people I wouldn’t have met otherwise. The success of this event is driven by the community that Latane and Matt have created, and that’s something we’re trying to keep in mind for our own events as well.
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?
I think one of the mistakes I saw most commonly earlier in 2020 was not troubleshooting the event experience in advance, and running into technical issues, etc. When running an event, it’s rare that everything will go as planned, but we always try to predict and plan for as much as we can.
The other mistake I’ve seen is running events like webinars — with content projected, no connection to other attendees, or no experience. The question I’d ask yourself as an event planner is: “is this experience exactly the same if you join live or watch it later?” If so, your event is really a webinar — which is an incredibly valuable marketing tactic. It’s so important to give your attendees a reason to be there live for the experience.
Which virtual platform have you found to be most effective to be able to bring everyone together virtually?
We recently onboarded Bizzabo to host our virtual conference, and will be using a combination of Bizzabo and Zoom in 2021. I’m always excited to learn about new tools, especially those that have cracked the code on not only streaming content, but networking as well.
Are there any essential tools or software that you think an event organizer needs to know about?
A tool that our team has really enjoyed this year is Icebreaker (https://icebreaker.video/). It’s a great platform to connect people face to face. Our attendees have told us that they had a lot of fun going through the Icebreakers before joining larger group discussions and it helped warm up the crowd.
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.)
1. Focus on the event’s purpose — When we plan an event, we always ask ourselves three questions from the attendee perspective. Who do they want to meet? What do they want to learn? How do they want to feel? This is just as important for a virtual event as it is for an in-person. While we have some best practices for our events, no program is rinse and repeat. One of our events, the X Series, is focused on connecting marketing leaders at large brands. These time-strapped execs weren’t joining events to hear a vendor speak at them — they wanted knowledge sharing with their peers — so we didn’t have any presentations. We also hosted very premium experiences so they knew how much we valued their time.
We hosted another event, called the Inkredible Marketer Meetups, which were focused on introducing marketers in cities across the US and Europe. This was opened to digital marketers — whether or not they were currently employed — to help them meet local peers and talk about their careers. The tone was much lighter, and we sent them all beer and snacks from a local business in their city.
2. Ensure content is front and center: While we like to think that our event content is always stellar, there are lots of bells and whistles that go into an in-person event that event planners can use to razzle dazzle — a cool venue, delicious drinks and food, and instagrammable experiences. With virtual events, those aspects don’t really come into play, so the story that you’re telling before and at the event are key. We placed more emphasis than ever on developing great content and sourcing speakers for all of our events this year, and had higher content ratings in our post-event surveys than we’ve ever had before.
3. Be sensitive about Zoom fatigue: Since we’ve been spending hours of our lives on Zoom for almost a year at this point, the last thing anyone wants is to join another boring video call. With our virtual events, we realize how incredibly important it is to both optimize for time and be thoughtful about the format. We’ve found the sweet spot for virtual events to be 90–120 minutes — all-in and at absolute max. There were times that our vendors really wanted to do a 45 minute chocolate tasting that we had to condense into 20 — and it still worked!
For our conference, rather than condensing our content into one or two very long days, we hosted (Re)Think over the course of four days in several hour slots, while being considerate of the different time zones we were trying to work around (we have clients in Europe and across the U.S., for example). While all the content was available on demand, to incentivize live attendance, we hosted raffles and fun networking activities like workout classes, poker tournaments, and a silent disco.
4. People are craving connection: Even though it can be tricky to figure out how to execute, the reason that most people are joining virtual events is to meet other people. In a period where we’re more isolated than we’ve ever been, event managers add value for their guests by helping them get connected with other attendees. At Movable Ink, we’ve used breakout rooms or 1:1 networking for larger groups when it’s too large of a group to be able to speak. And, despite it being a professional event, our attendees loved sharing about their lives in quarantine — pets, family milestones, favorite purchases, etc. We were happy to create that space for them.
Though it sometimes took a little bit of time for people to warm up, in every single post-event survey, attendees said they wished they had even more time to talk. We also frequently got emails after events asking for an intro to another attendee — sometimes to share tactical tips, sometimes to exchange Peloton usernames!
5. Always Be Iterating: One of my marketing mantras is that nothing is sacred. Just because something worked well once, doesn’t mean that it will work again. My team always uses a blend of internal and external surveys, post-mortems, and catch ups with our colleagues to understand what’s working and what we can improve for next time. One tip I give my team on surveys: try to only ask questions if you’re going to do something with the answer. We always collect experience scores to benchmark, but we’ll ask about venue, content, timing, etc. to make sure every event we host is better than the last. Each event has a different goal that we’ll use to establish our KPIs, but we always want to be thoughtful about our attendees’ experience first and foremost.
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?
Be clear about your audience and event purpose: ask yourself the three key questions as the north star for your event (Who do they want to meet? What do they want to learn? How do they want to feel?).
1. Map out your details: What software are you going to use to host? How are you going to drive your target audience to register, and more importantly, attend? What’s your budget? If you’ll be shipping anything to your guests, what are your deadlines?
2. Develop your content: Figure out how you’re going to tell your audience your story — whether that’s through your company’s content, or featuring client or partner stories. Ensure that you’re telling this story as concisely as possible.
3. Prep and Test Drive: Our events team creates playbooks for all events which include details for our internal attendees on who will be there, content scripts, timing, and more. This helps every single person “entering the room” feel well prepared. They also run constant test drives in our tools and test new functionality as it becomes available (think polling, breakout rooms, etc).
4. Surprise and delight: Whenever you have the opportunity to, introducing an element of surprise will be memorable.
5. Follow up: Both attendees and employees always leave great events with good vibes — how will you keep that going? What do you want from your relationship with your guests post event, and how can you keep them engaged once the event wraps?
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.
Not sure how this can inspire a movement, but I want to underscore the importance of empathy. I recently read Dan Rather’s book “What Unites Us” and loved an anecdote he shared from his childhood, when his parents gave Christmas gifts to a poor family even though they didn’t have much money themselves. When he asked his mother years later if it was because they felt sorry for them, she told him: “we do not feel sorry for them…We understand how they feel.” In the current climate of the world, I’d love to see more people embracing empathy, acting in the best interest of others, and being able to see outside themselves.
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.
Hands down, Taylor Swift.
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.