7 Tips to Make the Most of Virtual Events in 2021 (and Beyond)

Last April, I wrote a LinkedIn article called 100 Marketing To-Dos to Tackle During the Pandemic. I was holed up at home with my 10-month-old and three-year-old at the time and wanted to do something—anything!—to occupy my brain and give business owners something purposeful to work on during a stressful time.

I revisited the article recently, and the final tip on the list was this:

Embrace change because it’s coming whether we like it or not.”

Change is hard. Unexpected change? Even more difficult to cope with. COVID-19 has transformed entire industries and parts of our lives, possibly permanently.

The events industry took a catastrophic hit. Pre-pandemic, trade shows and conferences were a core component of many scientific companies’ marketing strategies, and companies invested massive amounts of money into them. And for good reason – interacting with your community face-to-face helps build relationships, generate leads, and form collaborations like referral networks.

Think about the last time you walked across the bustling trade show floor or took your biggest client out for dinner. Feelings of camaraderie, warmth, togetherness, and a shared understanding of each other’s points of view might come to mind.

How Your Company Can Benefit From Virtual Events

We have clearly entered the era of virtual events. Though this pivot was challenging for some businesses initially, many were surprised by the benefits of virtual conferences and trade shows. These include:

  • Time saved from not having to travel
  • Cost savings on airfare, accommodations (a win for marketing budgets everywhere)
  • More opportunities to participate in events across the globe – no longer limited by travel feasibility, time zone switching, scheduling
  • Greater access for those typically not able or allowed to attend due to cost, such as recent grads, entry-level employees, and employees outside of business development and marketing
  • Better flexibility for those with family responsibilities who can’t be away from home for long periods of time (but still have wisdom and talent to share!)
  • New ways of forming connections with others that might not have been possible at a larger event
  • Increased demand for speakers to share their wisdom at virtual events

Experts anticipate that virtual events will stick around permanently, even when in-person shows and conferences return. The most likely scenario will be a hybrid approach blending the two.

The problem is, businesses have had varying degrees of success with going virtual. Having managed dozens upon dozens of trade shows over the past 10 years, I quickly realized virtual events that aimed to replicate the original were the least impactful.

Are you unsure how to make the most of virtual events for your business in 2021 and beyond? Here are some tips:

Tips for Attending Virtual Conferences and Trade Shows

1. Be willing to change your approach for a virtual format

Traditional full-day or multiple day conferences can’t reasonably take place for that long online with good turnout and attention (my head is pounding just thinking about it!). Instead, event organizers have been experimenting with shorter durations spread across multiple days rather than one long sitting.

Making the most of it means accepting that a virtual event is not the same thing as face-to-face, so you will need to adjust what you normally do. This can be uncomfortable for some, especially when it requires learning new technologies and strategies, but failing to adapt will be nothing but a lost opportunity.

If you typically meet for drinks with a group after the event, suggest a virtual coffee chat or cocktail hour with select people. It doesn’t have to be inside the event, either – platforms like Zoom, Microsoft Teams, or FaceTime can work, too.

If walking from booth to booth at a trade show was your thing, use the search function and filters to sort by industry, company type, location, and more to discover virtual company booths. Usually these are managed by an employee who is ready and willing to chat with you!

2. Understand the technology ahead of the event

Don’t be the guy or gal who logs on to the conference platform 5 minutes before it kicks off, only to find that your profile isn’t filled out and you have no idea how to navigate the system.

Events typically send out training videos or trials to registrants in advance. Find these emails and actually do the training. They are usually only a few minutes long and will save you from scrambling around when you could be networking.

3. Complete your online profile

How willing would you be to strike up a conversation with a faceless grey icon with no information as to who they are and what they do?

Having a professional, robust profile inside the conference platform is key to making better connections. First, make sure to upload a professional headshot photo (ideally consistent with your LinkedIn photo so people recognize you when connecting later).

Then, complete as many fields as possible, including but not limited to job title, company name, location, sectors you specialize in, product or service offerings, website, contact information, social links, and so on.

4. Research attendees at least one week before

One major advantage of digital events is that you can see who exactly will be participating in advance. Since networking is the primary goal, why not maximize your chances of building relationships by starting early?

Get a head start by researching who will be there and make a prospecting list. If the platform allows it, send introductory messages to strategic people before the event. Avoid being sales-y or too forward here. It’s about building authentic connections, not spamming someone’s inbox with generic messages!

To take it a step further, search for and request connections with key people on LinkedIn. Your request message can include a line like, “Saw you will also be attending ACME event. Looking forward to seeing you there and learning more about your company!”

5. On event day, devote your full attention

On a typical workday, your devices are likely buzzing endlessly with email pop-ups, instant messages, texts, social media notifications, and more.

Turn it off! Google your computer and phone settings to find out how.

Then, treat the event like a live conference by devoting your full attention. This means finding a quiet place free of distractions (if possible!), turning your photo to silent mode, and resisting the urge to check email or do other forms of multi-tasking.

6. Leverage the interactive features

To build connections, you’ll want to stand out and make yourself known. The equivalent of walking into a room and talking to a stranger means using interactive features like private chats, reactions including “likes,” emojis, and asking questions or commenting during a presentation when this is enabled.

It might feel cheesy at first, but this is a new era of communication and knowing how to do it effectively and authentically will help you build relationships online.

7. Follow up after the event

Do you miss sorting through and organizing stacks of business cards? Me neither!

Once the event is over, most virtual events make it easy to stay in touch with individuals who attended. Follow key people on LinkedIn and send them a direct message. Or, if they gave you their email address with permission to contact them, go ahead and send a follow-up email.

Following up in a timely manner—say, within a week—will keep you top of mind with your network and increase the likelihood of getting a response.

I hope these tips were helpful as you embrace the virtual event era now and in the future.

Happy networking!

Picture of Jennifer Andrews

Jennifer Andrews

Founder & Chief Marketing Strategist