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Advance Local shares 6 lessons learned about virtual events

By Shelley Seale

INMA

Austin, Texas, USA

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When Advance Local first started its enterprise events strategy, the team conducted an in-depth analysis of what types of events would resonate amongst its local markets and would translate well to live experiences.

One of the verticals with the most potential was NJ Cannabis Insider in New Jersey — focusing on a topic that, while lucrative, is also a tricky topic to navigate in the United States.

“As this business of cannabis began to progress, it was clear that there was an opportunity to add a live layer to this product,” Kristen Ligas, events marketing manager at Advance Local, told INMA members in a Webinar. “We now execute content-based conferences and networking events.”

This is a good example, she continued, of how Advance Local transitioned a content-driven live event into a virtual one after the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. In addition, the company plans to continue incorporating virtual events into its strategy even after COVID and marry the two formats in the future.

Advance Local’s shift to virtual

The last in-person cannabis event was in early March 2020, which drew 300 attendees. It was so successful that Ligas used it as a model for all future events — but little did she know Advance Local was about to halt all in-person events for the foreseeable future.

“Just a few days later the nation shut down, we had to cancel all our events, we shifted to remote work, and had to figure out the virtual event world,” she recalled.

With this sudden shift to virtual, the team had to adapt its model and learned a lot along the way. Ligas walked INMA members through three virtual event models the company uses.

Advance Local shifted to virtual events during COVID-19, focusing on cannabis, top workplaces, and medicare events.
Advance Local shifted to virtual events during COVID-19, focusing on cannabis, top workplaces, and medicare events.

  • Cannabis: B2B business-focused model. The first virtual event was on March 25, 2020. About 10 have been produced so far, each focusing on a specific related topic such as COVID-19, legalisation, cannabis reform, etc.
  • Top workplaces: Award celebration model. This employer recognition event is conducted in more than 50 markets across the United States, and was transformed into a Zoom awards ceremony with an emcee, music, surprise guests, interactive games, and raffle prizes.
  • Medicare: B2C event programme model. This turned Advance Local’s Medicare open enrollment guide into a virtual event

“Each of these events started out as a basic Webinar, Ligas said. But you’ll see that as our comfort level grew, we began to add higher levels of production including videos, virtual networking, and interactive elements to keep people engaged throughout the programmes.” 

One of the benefits of virtual events is the quick turn-around time. They’ve often quickly produced events centred around breaking news — something that’s typically not possible with live events that require a venue, food and beverage, etc.

The typical Advance Local virtual event is a 90 minutes long, featuring one main keynote speaker, a panel, a moderator, discussion, and audience Q&A.

These three models laid the groundwork for Advance Local virtual events and inspired new programmes for 2021 that combined some of the various elements. 

One of these is Talkin Tribe, a virtual sports event centred around the professional baseball season opening. It featured a panel discussion with Advance Local sports reporters, keynote remarks from players, trivia, music, a live auction, and Q&A.

“As our events continued to grow we sought to find a solution for networking,” Ligas said. 

The team settled on a platform called Remo, which allows participants to move around a virtual platform to visit areas and interact as they wish.

Remo enabled Advance Local to offer virtual networking at its online events.
Remo enabled Advance Local to offer virtual networking at its online events.

What Advance Local learned

While sometimes the learnings from this shift to virtual events have been painful, they provided key lessons that allowed the team to hone and refine their strategy.

“It allowed us to reach the calibre of events we are producing today,” Ligas said.

She shared six of these important learnings:

  1. There’s always a learning curve with technology. To mitigate that, the team provides training sessions for the speakers and tutorials to the registered attendees. Because few people actually read those, they also provide videos and open the virtual doors early so attendees can get the feel for the system and ask questions.

  2. Content and programming are vital elements. “If the topic is relevant and something that people want to learn, they will show up.” 

  3. Speakers sell tickets. Having good speakers lined up ahead of time has been an important part of their promotion strategy.

  4. Virtual sponsorships require creativity. Many potential sponsors are hesitant about not having an actual vendor booth, but Advance Local makes up for this by assigning them breakout tables in the Remo platform, including them in promo videos and marketing, and putting their logos on the Web site.

  5. Promotion of virtual events also requires creativity. Traditional efforts such as e-mail blasts and social media are necessary, but the team also went beyond that to provide speakers with social cards they can post to attract more people from their own sphere of influence. The events are also promoted through Advance Local articles, podcasts, and outreach to local businesses.

  6. Charging admission creates buy-in. Ligas highly recommended charging a ticket fee for virtual events, especially those that are business focused. “Even a nominal fee of US$10-US$15 makes a difference in reducing attrition and guarantees you’re getting quality attendees who are actually interested in the topic. The more an attendee feels they’ve invested into your event, the more likely they are to show up.” This helps media companies look good to the sponsors and help grow future events.

The future of events

“This is the biggest question I think all of us are asking: What happens now? Where do we go now that things are starting to open back up?” Ligas posed.

With a little over a year of virtual events and the associated learnings behind them, she said her team looks forward to returning to in-person events, but virtual events will remain a key part of the company’s strategy.

“In the near future, we’re hoping to transition to hybrid events, which means daytime virtual conferences with evening in-person networking events,” she shared.

Advance Local will continue to offer virtual events in a hybrid model that combines online with in-person offerings.
Advance Local will continue to offer virtual events in a hybrid model that combines online with in-person offerings.

This gives people options,and the ability to attend the event even if they aren’t comfortable with or available for in-person.

“We feel that with less overhead, more accessibility for our speakers and attendees, advanced technology like the Remo platform, as well as an increased comfort level, we know that these virtual events can continue to inspire, inform, and connect the communities we serve — which is always at the heart of the events we’re planning,” Ligas concluded.

About Shelley Seale

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