GPJ’s Martyn Clarkson, SVP, Strategy and Planning spoke with PR Week about virtual events. Below is a re-print of the article

August 05, 2020 by Natasha Bach

There’s enough to stress out about when making a real-world event a virtual event.

From concerts on Instagram and YouTube to webinars on Zoom, the show must go on, even if it’s virtual. Since the coronavirus pandemic hit the U.S., practically every significant event that was planned for the physical space has been canceled or replaced by a digital show, where things look a bit different, from style to length.

“You have to completely rethink it,” says Jared Carneson, SVP and senior partner at FleishmanHillard. “Four-day paid conferences aren’t effective through a screen.”

What does that mean for content? Attendees’ — make that viewers’ — attention spans are different when they engage with an event virtually, and therefore the material and approach must change, too. For this reason, Fleishman recommends shorter sessions in concert with a wider “content ecosystem” that allows participants and attendees to engage with the event over a longer timeframe, Carneson says,

Martyn Clarkson, SVP of strategy and planning at GPJ, agrees that engagement is the crux and the challenge.

“In-person events have an audience tied into the experience through their immersion in a time and space,” he says. “The screen really poses a fourth wall challenge, and we have to be strategic about how we engage our audiences. How do we create opportunities for people to immerse themselves in what is in front of them? The answer lies in smart technology choices alongside great content and creative experience design.”

Another big format difference: There is no downtime.

“In a virtual event, there is no cocktail hour or reception, rather you are ‘on’ in front of your audience at all times and must be providing information or entertainment,” notes Dara Busch, president of 5W Public Relations.

Digital events offer broad opportunities, as well, the most obvious being an ability to reach more people. PR pros and event managers are using this possibility to try a wider range of platforms to reach their audiences.

Davitha Ghiassi, EVP of social and integration at Red Havas, says that her firm largely uses “tried-and-tested” tools such as Zoom for internal events. The agency is also noticing “a real uptick in utilization of external platforms like Livestream, LiveReacting, BigMarker and ON24 for what we like to call ‘phyrtual’ external events — experiences that blend both real-time and pre-recorded components.”

The format of these events also allows attendees “the opportunity to ask questions in real time from the safety and ease of their computer, meaning increased participation,” Busch adds. From the organizer’s standpoint, many activities that they could do in a physical space are still possible, such as collecting attendee information during the registration process and running polls.

Here’s a silver lining to transitioning from a real-world event to a virtual one: measuring success is not necessarily more challenging. At Red Havas, staffers rely on standard quantitative metrics, like how many people attended vs. how many were anticipated or how many RSVP’d.

“Retention and engagement metrics such as average view time, bounce rate and the number of questions, reactions or responses fielded offer insight into the quality of the experience offered,” Ghiassi adds. “We also make sure to always look at social metrics, such as the number of mentions, hashtag usage related to user-generated content and sentiment in the lead up to, during and after the event.”

Other agencies are looking for the same insights. “We take note of how many people register, how many people attend and then how many pieces of media coverage, or social mentions, the event generates,” Busch says.

The tools experts use to measure physical-gone-virtual events are easy to find, since they’re often built into the technology. Using this readily available information, Clarkson notes that they “look to see what we can learn about interaction, average times spent on various points of content and, of course, how people engage in different ways.”

Beyond these quantitative figures, Clarkson also looks at the marketing and business impact.

“How did the event shift our audiences’ perceptions? And how did we move people to action? This more holistic view gives us a clearer view of ROI and allows us to refine events over time and drive really great experiences for brands and their audiences. We use a number of ways to capture this information and use our clients preferred CRM or data systems to make that data work across our clients’ organizations,” he explains.

Carneson also points to the importance of using a combination of metrics, like registration, viewership and questions asked, with impact metrics.

“There is a broader set of impact metrics we look at beyond the event, such as message traction, target audience penetration, etc.,” he says. “In a lot of ways, moving events virtual has made them infinitely more measurable.”

Some things haven’t changed. Many of the expectations and tools are the same, whether for an event held in-person or virtually. The same is true of what happens after the event. This means sending follow-up surveys to attendees to get feedback on the strengths and weaknesses of the program as well as thanking them for attending and checking whether they have additional questions.

Busch notes that her firm has done “a bit of everything, from marketing on social media and in newsletters for public events to inviting attendees to register for more intimate meetings.”

Red Havas relies on a “pre-during-post” strategy to make sure that every channel and tactic works in concert with one another. This allows them to engage even with those who were invited but couldn’t attend, widening the reach.

“Additionally, the insights you obtain in real time are very useful in helping tailor your messaging and content strategy after,” Ghiassi says. “For example, you can tailor the highlights summary based on the areas attendees showed most interest in, and create recap content that focuses on moments more likely to drive post-event participation.”

It’s equally important to integrate events and their learnings into the wider marketing ecosystem, Clarkson says.

“Registration helps us to create personalized experiences and to know more about what individuals enjoyed,” he says. “Digital gives us so much data that we can really help craft specific paths coming out of events that are based on what people loved, engaged with and asked for more of.”

In some ways, the biggest challenge of transitioning to virtual events is less the event itself and more the mental exercise of making the switch. The way an event is delivered may differ, but organizations can still reach as many, or as few, people as they want online and can gather relevant information, such as metrics and impressions, just as easily. The most important thing is to make sure that the event is tailored for a client and audience — the same challenge PR pros face in the physical realm.