How We Hosted a Virtual Event That Drew in Over 10,000 Attendees

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Along with many other companies, nonprofits, newlyweds, and graduates around the world, Classy had big plans for an in-person event in 2020. For the last six years, we’ve hosted the Collaborative, a conference for nonprofit professionals. The Collaborative is a four-day experience that offers nonprofit professionals the opportunity to learn, connect with industry experts and like-minded peers, attend eventful happy hours, and get re-inspired for their missions. But in the first week of March 2020, as COVID-19 quickly evolved from a brief mention in the news to an all-caps headline, our events team knew we couldn’t guarantee an in-person event.

“The process of moving to a virtual event wasn’t taken lightly,” says Senior Events Manager Taryn Crowder. “When we first started monitoring the COVID-19 situation, we created several different crisis plans depending on what happened next with the virus. Those initial crisis plans didn’t last long—we had to pivot to new crisis plans almost daily for several weeks as things changed rapidly with the pandemic. These crisis plans consisted of communication and operational tactics.”

To help your team reimagine your in-person events, we asked five of our key team members to share their advice and lessons learned on transitioning an in-person event to a virtual experience that attracted over 10,000 attendees in just two and a half months. Read on to hear from Taryn Crowder, senior events manager; Brooke Hearn, senior event planner; Anne Guillen, senior events content marketer; Irene Webber, senior visual designer; and JP Angers, senior video producer.

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Lesson 1: Assess risk, perform research, and move quickly.

Q: Explain the initial process of how you decided to transition from an in-person to a virtual event.

Taryn: We first needed to start the process of assessing our risk with the in-person event. This included going over signed contracts and bills due for services rendered. We started with outreach to each of our vendors, hotels, and venue.

I needed to fight the legal battles with force majeure, and to do so I needed to know: What agreements we could and could not get out of, and what services had been rendered so that I could know how much money we had already sunk into the in-person event.

Brooke: While we were figuring out how to cancel or postpone our agreements for the in-person event, we were also spending hours in meetings crafting exactly what the virtual event would look like, what we would offer, and when.

On top of reimagining the event, we were also navigating new challenges that come with a fully virtual event. We are very lucky to have several technology experts we could rely on, such as our video producer and IT team.

Q: What were some of your thoughts or concerns during this process?

Taryn: None of us had ever planned a virtual event before, so we needed to research technologies; IT needs such as WiFi; speaker prep for good lighting, sound, and WiFi in their individual homes; sponsorship opportunities for a virtual setting, networking opportunities for a virtual setting, etc.

Q: How did the transition to a virtual event affect the planned content?

Anne: It was difficult from a content perspective because I knew that we were going to have to move very quickly, but I couldn’t start pulling together content until we figured out what the virtual event would look like, logistically and technologically.

Once those decisions were made, we quickly realized that we couldn’t use the sessions we had already solidified for the in-person event. They didn’t fit the current climate, nor did they create an ideal flow for the conference. We restarted the process of deciding on a conference theme and focus, curated topic areas, and then identified new speakers who fit those topics.

Taryn: Content planning was a part of the timeline from day one. One of the first questions we asked ourselves was how many sessions should we offer? We didn’t think people would be interested in sitting in front of their computers all day, and we thought they’d want to curate their own schedule. This also played a critical role in the technology we ended up selecting.

We had to start all over on content because we were living in a new world, where people needed different content than they did before. So, we needed to have conversations with industry experts and nonprofits to understand exactly what they were going through to know exactly what they needed us to provide.

A few of the questions we discussed:

  • Will people want to sign up for this virtual event? How do we pique their interest?
  • Is the market over-saturated with COVID-19-response content, meaning no one will need ours? Will the content we picked out in April still be relevant in June?
  • What are other virtual events like? What can we learn from others right now?
  • We have attendees tuning in from all over the world, so what timeframe should we use for the sessions?
  • What would the name of the event be?
  • Would we have a theme?

At first, we decided not to have a theme since we had such a small window to pull it all off. But, in talking to speakers, we realized an organic theme had arisen: Adapting. So, we chose to tie it to one of Classy’s core values: Adapt and Overcome.

There were so many unknowns that we had to just make our best educated guess on many of these questions. We committed to providing robust networking opportunities and spent a ton of time researching how to do it. We also signed up for many virtual events as attendees to get some first-hand exposure.

Since we were creating a brand new event, we had to create a new logo. First, we needed to know what the new name would be, so we held the internal brainstorm session to figure it out. We then looped in our design team and asked them for a few logo options.

Step-by-Step Takeaways for Nonprofits:

  • Assess risks in changing your plans by reviewing vendor agreements and contracts.
  • Perform research to find out what a virtual event entails in terms of necessary technology and functionality—both required items and nice-to-haves.
  • Review your planned content or schedule of events to begin brainstorming ways to adjust for a virtual audience.
  • Attend other virtual events for inspiration.
  • Create a running list of questions as they come up to remind your team of all the new elements you’ll need to respond to or prepare for.
  • Loop in your designer or the people responsible for creating branded assets, designing your event page, updating the website, etc.

person at desk hosting virtual event

Lesson 2: Create a new budget and contingency plans.

Taryn: Another critical step when it came to creating a new budget was deciding whether or not to refund people who’d already bought tickets for the in-person event, and whether or not the virtual event would be free. We wanted to notify everyone right away on both items, and we made the decision that everyone would receive a full refund and the new event would be free.

We also had conversations with our director of business development, Charlie Anderson, on how much revenue he could bring in through sponsorships for an unproven event. This was also a critical component for the budget creation process.

All of these things needed to be done before I finalized the budgets. After calculating what we could get back, what we couldn’t get back, and potential sponsorship revenue, I started a new budget.

Then I created three different event contingency plans based on:

1) A world where social distancing was still enforced in June.

2) A world where social distancing wasn’t enforced, but people are still afraid to travel.

3) A world where everything is back to normal.

Each contingency plan had its own budget.

Step-by-Step Takeaways for Nonprofits:

  • Calculate what you can and cannot recoup from your original event contracts.
  • Determine if your event will be free or have a price for admission or a fundraising minimum.
  • Speak to leadership or board members who may be able to bring in sponsorships or corporate partners.
  • Try to forecast as much as possible and create back-up plans so that you are as prepared as possible for any new challenges that come with your virtual event.

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Lesson 3: Be honest and enthusiastic in your initial communications.

Taryn: In the first week of March, I reached out to our senior manager of communications and brand, Krista Lamp, to get her thoughts on messaging our attendees to let them know we were monitoring the situation. We needed to align on both internal and external messaging, but first, we needed to know what our plan was going to be.

We didn’t have a specific event crisis plan, so we had to create that documentation. We also needed to put together a press release, update our website, and send out internal FAQs about how to respond to customers or prospects when they asked about our plan.

Our initial messaging to everyone internally and externally was that we were monitoring the situation. However, we (executive leadership and key stakeholders) knew we had to cancel the event and were looking into our options.

We kept this close to the chest while we decided if we were going to embark on creating a virtual event. Once we knew this was going to happen, I did loop in a few additional people on the marketing, design, and web development teams to let them know we were canceling the event. They were told before anyone else because we were in the process of working on releasing phase 2 of the in-person event website, and I didn’t want them to waste time working on something we were going to scratch soon.

Pro Tip from Anne: Create an internal talking points document. We created one for the in-person event that we had just rolled out in February, and we had to go back and create a new one for the virtual event. We basically took what we wrote as FAQs on our website and rolled that into an internal talking points doc with additional details for Classy team members to be able to speak about the event.

Q: How did other Classy team members react to hearing that your event would be virtual?

Taryn: Pivoting to virtual meant creating a brand new event. We had done a ton of work on the initial event, so there was a bit of sadness around not being able to see that through.

But everyone was supportive and willing to step in to help on our team. We needed everyone on our team and stakeholders across the company to pitch in, and everyone stepped up in incredible ways.

There was some initial skepticism on whether or not we could do this, whether or not it would be a positive experience, and whether or not people would actually register. To help alleviate some of those doubts and keep our internal team motivated, we worked through how to best communicate what we were working on, so others understood how serious we were taking this.

Brooke: Because of that initial skepticism, it was important for us to work with Krista to continually communicate with our entire team and show them that we were going to pull this off, and that it was going to be awesome!

Step-by-Step Takeaways for Nonprofits:

  • Meet with your key decision-makers early and often.
  • Create documentation for how you’re handling this so that you can refer to the “event crisis plan” in the future.
  • Write your messaging (even if it’s “we’re monitoring the situation”) so that your audience knows you are aware. Then use that verbiage in the following places:
    • Press release
    • Website updates
    • Event page
  • Create internal documentation like FAQs so your team is updated and knows how to field incoming questions.
  • Keep the details quiet as you finalize so that information isn’t released before you’re ready to roll out.
  • Once you make a decision, inform your entire team and share your excitement about trying a new event so that your team feels excited instead of nervous, and they can share that energy with your supporters.

production shot behind the scenes of virtual event

Lesson 4: Be transparent with speakers, sponsors, and attendees.

Q: How and when did you talk to speakers and sponsors about moving the event online? Did you receive any pushback?

Taryn: We notified our sponsors and speakers about our decision before we released any other external communications. We reached out to them to both announce we were going virtual and ask if they still wanted to be involved with the event.

Brooke: The initial feedback from sponsors was great, but it was challenging to create new value for them virtually. This drove us to be even more strategic about the sponsorships to ensure it would be beneficial for them.

Anne: I set up calls with every speaker that we had secured for the in-person event. It was a great way to keep good relationships with speakers, explain the unknowns of our strategy, and pick their brains on new possible topics or how their topic could be spun to fit the new focus.

These conversations with speakers helped us come up with our theme, “Adapt and Overcome,” and sparked some of our technology strategies. We ended up keeping some of the initial speakers and weren’t able to keep others, but I think they were all very happy to have had a discussion around it and to help me brainstorm on how to keep this conference valuable for attendees.

Q: How did you talk to attendees about the event moving online? Did you receive any pushback?

Taryn: It was important to us to provide some clear direction to our potential registrants and current in-person event registrants about Classy’s stance on keeping everyone safe, how and when they’d receive a refund, what we were going to do in place of the in-person event, our decision on whether or not we would charge, and more.

We needed to make sure we put the word out on all channels. We added a promo bar to the website with a new landing page with our messaging, we put messages out on social, and we sent emails.

Once we sent out the email informing attendees about cancelling the in-person event, I only received positive remarks from attendees. Everyone was supportive through the emails and thanked us for taking a proactive stance in mitigating the spread of the disease.

Since we announced that we’d automatically refund anyone from the outset, that cut down on what would have otherwise been a lot of emails. We also announced in our email (and on our website) that we were looking into a virtual event, so I received positive feedback from attendees looking forward to hearing more details.

Brooke: I also received a lot of great feedback from sponsors who were in tough situations with other events that were either waiting until the last minute to cancel, or not refunding them for their sponsorship payment. And then down the road, many attendees were really excited that the virtual event was free!

Step-by-Step Takeaways for Nonprofits:

  • Inform your external stakeholders (such as speakers, sponsors, and corporate partners) of your decision as soon as you can, ideally before going public so that they know you appreciate their support and want to work with them.
  • Be creative with how you can continue to provide value for sponsors through a virtual event. For example, we gave our sponsors shoutouts at the start of sessions, before and after the opening and closing keynotes, in our emails, on social media, and in the footer of our event website.
  • If possible, pull event speakers, special guests, or sponsors into conversations and brainstorms to share ideas or insights into how you can create the best event possible.
  • Make your messaging highly visible (homepage, emails, social media) so that anyone interested in your event knows it will be virtual and how to learn more.
  • Designate one or a few members of your team to monitor social media and respond to questions to keep your supporters informed.

Lesson 5: Maintain consistent communication with attendees throughout the process (send lots of emails).

Taryn: Consistent communication throughout the entire process was key. We created a team-wide email marketing calendar.

Here is an overview of the emails we sent:

    • An email to notify everyone we were monitoring the situation
    • An email to notify everyone the event was cancelled, they’d receive refunds, and we were looking into a virtual event
    • An email announcing the virtual event, the new event website, and that registrations were open
    • Consistent marketing emails to promote new speakers to continue the hype before we opened session selection
    • Emails then announcing that session selection was open
    • Weekly countdown emails in the last three weeks leading up to the event
    • Emails announcing keynote speakers instructions to leverage our networking platforms for the event
    • Week-of reminders to create accounts for our networking platforms, to download Zoom, and to get excited
    • Immediately following the event we sent an attendee survey, announced the 2021 event, provided other follow-up content, and included information about our Extended Sessions library where we would be posting recordings of the live sessions as well as 15 bonus sessions.

Step-by-Step Takeaways for Nonprofits:

  • Establish a point person for writing and scheduling emails.
  • Create branded assets that can be used in email and social media to maintain a consistent and cohesive brand for your event.
  • Designate team members who are responsible for responding to a potential influx of questions via email or social media.
  • Continue to send updates and use your emails to drum up excitement ahead of your event.
  • Follow up with all attendees during and after the event to ask about their experience so you can learn more about what worked, what didn’t, and what you can try next time.

behind the scenes of virtual collaborative event

Lesson 6: Don’t just roll over your in-person messaging and event strategy.

Q: How did you adjust messaging after announcing that it would be a virtual event?Taryn: What some may not realize is that we created a brand new event. We had to create new selling points, new topics and talk tracks, a new event description, new FAQs, a new registration process, new networking language, new email copy, and more.

Brooke: One of the most challenging parts about creating the virtual event was creating all new copy and messaging. We have several years’ worth of copy and learnings to pull from for the in-person Collaborative. For the virtual event, we had to create everything. We wrote new website copy, new instruction guides for networking platforms like Slack and Braindate, and new copy for marketing emails.

Anne: Depending on the speaker, the session, and the audience, the tone and messaging had to change with almost every topic. The focus of almost every new session was about addressing and responding to moments of crisis—initially COVID-19 and then also racial and societal tensions.

It was very important to think about who we were talking to with these sessions. For example, our “Connect Your Cause” session was geared toward non-healthcare nonprofits who were having difficulty connecting their cause to COVID-19. Our storytelling session, on the other hand, covered tips for nonprofits who are in healthcare and those whose causes had nothing to do with COVID-19 relief.

Step-by-Step Takeaways for Nonprofits:

  • Remember that this is a new event. While some aspects may remain the same, if you are transitioning from an existing or annual in-person event to a virtual one, think of it as a new event.
  • This will include new messaging and might include new branding and design.
  • Depending on your event, you may need to update your scheduled speakers or content, or the way that you will engage your attendees. For example, if you are holding a virtual gala, you will have to ensure that you have a robust schedule of entertainment, since there will be fewer opportunities for attendees to talk amongst themselves.

Lesson 7: Update your branding and design elements.

Q: How did you begin to update branding and design elements for an event that was still being finalized?

Irene (Senior Visual Designer): We knew we’d need to update branding and design elements for the website, ads, promotions, emails, and signage. We met with the events team to go over logistics and timelines and then got started mocking up logo ideas.

“If you’re a nonprofit switching from an in-person event to a virtual event, don’t feel obligated to overhaul your event branding. You can make simple changes to some of the copy and elements while still maintaining the overall look and feel of your event.

Senior Visual Designer

To avoid starting from scratch, you can add copy to your promotional graphics underneath the event name that signifies that it is virtual. However, if you normally use photography from previous in-person events, try not to lean too heavily on that as it will be jarring for an audience to read about a virtual event, but see imagery of an in-person event.

Without a library of owned photos to choose from, you might feel obligated to include stock imagery of people on computers to emphasize the new “virtual” angle, but this won’t bring life to your events. It actually might detract from the energy you’re trying to create! Instead, try bringing life to your event through the colors, patterns, or other design elements from your branding. You’d be surprised at how effectively using color and patterns can evoke a feeling of excitement to get people pumped up for your event.Brooke: Another element we thought about was making sure everything was as clear and informative as possible. On-site we normally have Classy staff members walking around ready to assist with anything an attendee may need. With a virtual event, you don’t have an information booth or staff members that attendees can randomly stop to ask questions. So, we knew we needed to be extra clear in our event collateral and provide a lot of information to minimize questions. We created much of this collateral from scratch.

We also wanted to keep an in-person element for our speakers, so we put together mailer boxes for with a Classy t-shirt, selfie lights, wired headphones, and a handwritten note from our CEO and co-founder Scot. We wanted them to feel supported and to make sure they were set up for success.

Q: Can you describe the process of shifting plans for in-person event collateral to web-based designs?

Irene: Shifting to a web event will be a massive task for multiple groups of people, including whoever is responsible for design, IT, marketing, operations, and logistics. The most important thing to do is to make sure everyone is looped into the conversation and understands how their role plays into the decision-making.

From a design perspective, your designer will be looking at everything through the lens of user experience and pushing for the most streamlined process to get attendees registered and watching your event. Your designer will be able to tell you if the proposed plan is on the right track for your attendees or if there is room for improvement.

Some suggestions for the switch to online:

1) Make your website easy for attendees to use by keeping copy short and to the point, bulleting takeaways to break up walls of text, and making registration forms as short as possible.

2) Switching to a virtual event might create some extra work for your designers and developers. Try to keep extra work as minimal as possible by repurposing existing page layouts.

3) Any collateral you had been making for your in-person event can still be re-worked for a virtual setting. Repurpose your designs by changing the copy to be relevant for the virtual event, and then reformat them as social media assets to build up excitement.

The only thing you need to keep in your design is your branding. As long as everything looks like it’s part of the same event through cohesive colors, shapes, typography, or patterns, no design work will go to waste if you get creative.

Q: How did you handle the shifting timelines when it comes to time-consuming tasks, such as designing a website?

Brooke: At the beginning of the transition, we met as an events team and created a brand new timeline in Asana (our project management software). Of course, many unexpected tasks popped up between then and the event, but it was helpful to have an initial timeline to work with, especially when you’re moving quickly.

Irene: Transitioning to a virtual event can be daunting and frankly, seem like too much work to possibly get done, but it is possible! Try not to overthink it at first and remember you can already work with what you’ve designed, which will make it easier to accommodate shifting timelines.

Some tips for working with timelines:

1) Make sure your branding feels minimalistic. That way, any last-minute graphics you need to make can easily be produced from a basic branded template.

2) Make sure your designers are heavily involved in the conversation around your event. If they know what ideas are popping up for the event, they can quickly provide feedback on whether they would be easy to execute or if that would impact other parts of their workload and push timelines out.

Having all the right people involved in a conversation from the start will avoid hitting a majority of roadblocks.

Step-by-Step Takeaways for Nonprofits:

  • Plan on updating branding and design elements for your website, ads, promotions, emails, and signage.
  • Try not to reuse imagery from past in-person events, as it will be confusing for supporters expecting a virtual format.
  • Make sure
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