Welcome to Not Another Marketing Podcast where I’m talking to veteran event planner Erica Maurer who’s a partner at New York based EMRG Media. We’re talking virtual events and how to make them engaging.

Episode 99

We’ve been to a lot of virtual events over the pandemic months and some of them have been soul destroying haven’t they? And they’re probably not going away so how do we make them more engaging?

I’m chatting to Erica Maurer who’s a partner with EMRG Media in New York which is a full service event planning and digital marketing company. It’s a fascinating chat full of tips and advice on how to stage better virtual events and make them less like giant zoom calls.

You can find EMRG online here and download a free Event Strategies guide at bookevents.com.

Don’t forget to connect up with Erica on LinkedIn.

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Transcript (edited for clarity)

I believe that they are here to stay in some kind of incarnation of it, right? So it could be a true virtual event for corporations, what we’ve been seeing here in New York, we’ve been seeing that a lot of the corporations are still staying in the virtual arena and ironically, the social events are kind of going back into the market space as to do in person, but we are doing what we call a hybrid and will allow those people who are not yet comfortable to incorporate into the event through a virtual component.

So what I do envision in the future is like an alternative option? So, as we kind of evolve into whatever that new normal is, I believe, and I’m 99% sure, there will be some piece that will still remain virtual because it just gives you exposure and it gives you connection with people that are not local.

So it’s a really huge advantage if you can figure out a way of incorporating the social component in whatever adaptation that you want.

Do you think virtual events have changed a lot over the last 12 months? Because I remember some going back pre-pandemic times and they were kind of like a bit boring to be quite honest with you. Do you think people have upped their game a little?

You either had to adjust, adapt and create or you were kind of left behind because as the market space was changing with the pandemic and there were no options you had to create what I always call like producing a film or going to a theatre. So it had to be more theatrical. It had to be more curated and it had to be way more developed because like you said, people weren’t into what we consider the virtual world prior to the pandemic. But now, corporations and clients from a social perspective, everybody was really forced, if you want to get together, what are your alternatives? Right? You have to go virtual And then what does that look like?

You don’t just want to be sitting on a virtual connector and just chatting, you want to feel entertained. So how do we get your imagination flowing? How do we create something that’s special and impactful where someone will leave after that event and say, wow, I really enjoyed it.

And so it forced all of us to almost reimagine what this new norm would look like and then put it to pencil and paper and really build it out and then execute it.

I suppose a successful virtual event nowadays is a lot, a lot more than just a giant zoom call. I really hope it is because I’ve been on some giant zoom calls and you just want to just walk away as fast as possible, don’t you? Paint us a picture of what a great virtual event would look like.

My perspective is that when you come on, you first log in and you might see a fancy design on the screen and you see some, you know, here’s some music and you have a countdown clock, so you’re getting an anticipation similar like how you go to a movie theatre, right, where there’s this big welcome screen and then it kind of gears into a live event host where someone’s welcoming you and they’re excited and they’re painting the picture of what this event experience is going to look like, and educating and getting people engaged and making sure people are turning on their cameras and not sitting behind it and incorporating the audience so that there is that engaging element.

Now, obviously that engagement is going to look very different than what it looks like in person, right? But there is that component. So it really, requires a very, very high level, high energy host. And it’s interesting because as we started to create in person, taking in person events to virtual, we realised really quickly that a lot of our vendor partners were not the right fit for virtual, because you need someone who’s over the top, you need someone who understands timing in a different kind of way and who is going to be watching these big monitors, right? And saying, oh, you know, Jon isn’t paying attention, how do I get him re engaged? So it requires a different kind of engagement and also has to be thought out, it has to be thought out in a different way right now.

You can’t go over to a customer, client or prospect and interact with them. You have to have a fully produced experience. And so what we did was, and what we do is we say, okay, who’s the audience? What do they want to achieve? Are they dealing with sales teams? Are they dealing with internal staff? Are they trying to connect people? Do these people have families and we need to do something that’s family friendly and then really create a package and experience that encapsulates that.

So at the end of the day when people are walking away, they’re like, wow, and that is really the piece that’s important and has to be very thought out because if you put something together and you’re targeting the wrong audience and you don’t really understand what the goal of it is, you’re going to miss the boat and people are going to be disappointed.

Yeah, it’s really interesting you say that it’s almost like having like a proper presenter for your host, because back in the day when you went into like a real event, most people kind of just got on with it, there wasn’t really much of a host, a speaker would just wander up on stage or something and say, hi, I’m Jon, I’m here to talk to you about something and get on with it. What you’re talking about is almost like a some sort of television program, you’re producing some show.

Exactly. It’s really reimagining what it is that needs to be done because it’s a whole different presentation.

If you take the in person of Inexperience right, you have a door person, they greet you, hey thanks for coming, blah blah blah, You walk in, there’s music, there’s dancers, there’s entertainment, there’s live performance, there’s food passing, there’s drinks, you know they’re socialising, they’re sitting there, there’s there’s so many different pieces, you have all these different niches.

But when you talk about a virtual event it is truly a production, It’s like going to a theatre, right?

It’s like the curtain call and you have act one, then you have act two and what are those pieces look like and like to your point, you know, an event host is really like an MC right? And that MC has to keep the flow going because you don’t have those in person experiences in the same capacity now, so therefore the needs have shifted and so understanding the needs and then saying how do I accomplish this? That is really, really critical for a successful virtual event experience and engaging.

Do you think it’s a good idea to maybe hire a proper host instead of like getting Dave from accounts to do it or something?

I mean, it is critical to have an event host or an MC or moderator be really on point because that is the difference between something lagging in an event and staying exciting and staying on track. It is a very important piece. It’s not a piece that is important in an actual in person events. It’s completely different.

Are virtual events cheaper to stage?

It really depends. So I know you said you hope it’s better than just a zoom call and so forth. So the reason I’m gonna digress back to that and to answer the question is that when we first started right in March, pandemic hit New York and it was fully closed, literally in a few days we lost our entire business overnight.

Literally call after call after call, event cancelled, event cancelled, space closes all these kinds of things and we were an event in person experience, right? We were not virtual experts and that’s when we realized, wow, like we need to adapt and shift or our businesses isn’t going to recover as we were doing that.

We researched all these different tech platforms, right? These immersive, 3D avatar, crazy different experiences, right? And they were all super expensive and besides being expensive, no one understood them.

So huge amounts of money and then there’s a huge learning curve where people aren’t understanding and they’re also getting bad feedback because people are like older or they’re not tech savvy, they’re not going to learn it quick even if you’re younger and you’re tech savvy, some of these require a huge learning curve, so it was interesting because it cost a lot and then we said maybe we’re approaching this wrong, maybe what we need to do is we need to understand what platforms the companies are using, what do they understand and then create around it and so what we did was, and I’m gonna go back to zoom, we created custom dashboards and we built it onto a zoom platform, so the simplicity of how to navigate was there and then we spruced it up, we kind of did all this production and development and décor and we navigated it differently. So that allowed us to create a better experience for the user and it actually allowed us to save money on the tech side and then be able to take some of that money that we would have just been paying for a tech platform and invest into a better experience and also invest in entertainment and components that we could offer within the event.

So that’s something that actually we’ve been doing. And yes, they’re expensive. Yes. It depends on how many people you’re having and how many people you’re streaming in. And do you have breakout rooms? And do you have multiple assets going on at one time? But ultimately the event experience definitely can be more expensive and it also can be streamlined to be affordable.

Yeah, I like the idea of being familiar to what people use at work, I remember going back a long, long time ago must be early to mid 2000s. There was a company, I can’t remember the name of it, but there were a type of event type type of company and they would have booths in the UK, so you could go to Birmingham or London, Manchester or something, you could stand in a booth and it would scan all of you and then turn you into an avatar, which you could then use your mouse and your keyboard to walk yourself around a virtual conference centre room. It was so complicated, Erica.

Yeah. What is more important is the sophistication and the comfort level. But ultimately we get a lot of people saying like initially how you said, oh, I hope it’s more than zoom because they think of zoom as like we’re on a meeting and you know, we’re talking about numbers and business and so forth. They don’t think of it as like a fun platform, but when you can get them to kind of shift and recognize like, wow, there’s a lot that we can offer here, Um that becomes the direction of choice because it’s understandable.

So when you say you have this like avatar or you know, an image and so forth, if you don’t really conceptually understand what’s going on, you get turned off to it, that’s how you disengage the audience.

Do you think virtual events gives a chance to attract a more global audience? Not every company has got a budget to fly staff around the world to expos and conferences, It’s a much, much easier entry point if it’s virtual, isn’t it?

I think it’s opened up a huge, huge opportunity for companies, for trade shows, for launching products for companies that want to have global engagement. It’s tremendous. I mean over the holiday season, it was the first time that we did multiple events for this company, so we always did their New York event for like eight years and I really didn’t understand that they had offices in London and Dubai and China, Mexico, all over.

And for that one time in December they said, you know, we need to do something for everyone and we can’t do something in each of the countries, we can’t do something in each of the states, were all locked down and it was at that moment when we went live on the event and I saw people drinking their coffee and having breakfast and the sun was up and I saw other people eating dinner and it was dark and I said, well, how amazing is it that we can unify people globally in a global pandemic and get them to be connected where people could see each other’s faces and do something as a unified group.

And that is really, really impactful and to me that is something that’s going to remain.

We produce what’s called The Event Planner, expo, it’s a leading events in hospitality marketing, trade show. We’ve been doing it for nine years and last year we had to take it virtual, it was three days, it was 4000 people, it was 100 speakers, it was 75 vendor booths and we had people tuning in from California, Arizona, London, Dubai, all over.

We never would have been able to do that because a lot of those people, in my belief, wouldn’t have shown up in New York because they would have had to fly in, get a couple of days of a hotel, feed themselves, and you know, uproot themselves, really allocate multiple days to kind of coming in and doing this experience.

So virtual to me opens up a gateway. It doesn’t mean that it replaces, you know, in person, they’re always going to be different, but it does open up a gateway and allows the producer or the client or the planner another element.

So if let’s say you John, I want to send you kind of a custom box, like a wow box because you’re going to come in virtually to the event I could technically create a different experience and call it the hybrid experience the hybrid box, Right? And you come in virtually, you still are able to participate, it’s a little bit different, but now you’re not left out and so it’s an interesting thing as we emerge into whatever that new normal is to see how, as event planners and producers, we can create what will consider to be the new norm.

I was just thinking, do you think this will help a little bit with social mobility and learning as well? I’m thinking if there’s a big marketing event with lots of keynote speakers, all teaching their things to people, there’s a lot of folk around the world, who just don’t have the money to fly to New York and put themselves up in a hotel which will hike the price because of the event and then feed themselves for two or three nights. They just don’t have the money to do that. So this idea of folks who have not got as much, they’ll be able to still attend these events?

I think that’s a good thing. I mean it’s an amazing opportunity, the global pandemic created access and ironic because it really did, you know, when we do, we’ve been doing a ton of virtual events and the level of speakers that we’ve been able to get to our virtual stage is something that, you know, in all reality probably would have done if it was in person, I wouldn’t have had access to them, they wouldn’t have been home, they would have been traveling, they would’ve been too busy, it would have just never occurred.

So in some odd ways the pandemic has created an access point and an entry point and a community that never really existed before and hopefully in some capacity will remain as we re emerge but now you can book speakers virtually, before people were like, I don’t want to take a virtual gig right now.

They’re now like, wow, I could do three events in one day because I’m doing it virtually, I never would have been able to if I had to travel. So there are a lot of opportunities that are going to come out of this.

So do you think we could mix up live and virtual? Do you see many people doing this where you you know, you bring some dancers on stage to do a bit of a dance, we’ve got a band or you’ve got something like that happening. Would you still produce that on say a stage in a hall but broadcast it virtually?

So it’s interesting that you say that It’s something that we are talking with a bunch of different clients actually, even in the hospitality industry venues as they’re going back to market and they have huge performers booked, they can’t right now bring in the total attendance that they’re used to.

So doing a hybrid really allows for access. Now, that might look different, right? So if you’re going to an in person event, you might pay, I’m just making this up $200, right? But now maybe you do entry for virtual, it’s $50. Now that access point is different.

The experience will be different and then maybe you want to do add a box like a wow box where you get some elements that are more like in person that you could feel like it’s more engaging. Maybe that’s $100. So it’s going to create tiers and market space that didn’t exist before and I believe that it’s going to be a new normal.

The poor marketing executive is usually the person who was given the job of arranging events, especially in smaller organizations and companies. Should we hire an event planner? Because some of this sounds a little bit complicated.

You definitely need someone who has the knowledge of the space. Even before the pandemic companies had what they called in house planners and they always found the better deals, to get the everything to be produced at a higher level.

I do strongly believe that that is a critical piece because if you don’t understand the market space, you can imagine the options that could exist and then you’re not offering your audience as good of an experience as you could.

Yeah, I think think there’s a little bit of a snobbery in event planning where people think all they do is book flowers and book bands and things. But when you actually get into the nitty gritty of it, actually putting on an event, it’s a really complicated project, isn’t it?

I always say to my team, when we show up, we’re babysitting and they were like, what do you mean? You know like when I bring on new staff, what does that mean? If your work isn’t done before you walk in the door, then you’re not doing your job.

So I think what happens is people from an observation point, they see a planner, they’re just standing there. Well, the reason they’re standing there is because they did all the logistics behind the scenes before the event and there’s a lot of different levels, right?

It’s producing it and setting it up. It’s thinking about all the different movements, the food, the beverage, the entertainment. You know, if there’s going to be kind of some kind of speech, is there gonna be any gifting? When does that go out? What does the invitation look like? What does a recap look like? Do you have photographer? Do you have a videographer? Like there’s so many pieces of it. Like who’s on the guest list? Who do you need to serve? What’s the objective? So there’s an immense amount of levels of what it is.

And a lot of people think of event planners like you said are like the fluff, but the reality is it’s almost, it’s really like a very intricate admin component because all these different pieces Are necessary. It’s all logistics and then the fluff is really like 5%.

Yeah. I suppose if people see event planners standing there just smiling then then then everything is going to plan. Everything is working. If you’re doing that. Yes, exactly. It’s when it’s when you’re moving quickly and rushing, the wedding planner dashing to the opposite side of the marque, then you know, something’s happened, don’t you?

Exactly.

How much has your job changed over the last year?

I mean you had to be in a bit of a crisis mode, so our company literally went, like I mentioned overnight from in person experiences to virtual, we had to immerse ourselves and learn and kind of figure out who we should partner with.

It’s been a lot more of strategic partnering, understanding a different market space and then having to go back to the clients that we serve for all these years and say, trust us, take the leap and we’re going to create engaging experiences because think about it, you know, when you’re planning an in person event, it’s very easy to walk into a space, you understand it. You see a vision when you’re doing something virtual. It’s like, okay, I’m logging in through a password on a computer. Hmm, is that going to be fun? It’s completely different.

So what I think as you know, as these changes has happened, it’s allowed us to grow our skills and expand their toolkit and be able to serve our community at a time where people are stuck apart and thankfully, you know, most of them were willing to take the leap and understand that we needed to give back and really create experiences for people during a very hard time.

A lot of the event curating are more family friendly, which has never been the case really when you think about events, it’s more serve the clients, you know, do a cocktail party, let’s go dance. It wasn’t really focused about how did the Children feel? Right, What are the parents dealing with? So I see a shift in what’s important from a service perspective and hopefully that will remain in some capacity, as like I say, we evolve into whatever that new evolution of the events look like.

Have do you have any advice on software and tools and things to use?

Well from a software perspective it really depends on what your team is most comfortable with.I do feel that you know, you definitely need higher level, like a logitech cameras and so forth add on to your computer.

You definitely need ring lights to help with lighting, you definitely need if you can somehow strategically partner or you can rent out, you know, a studio so that you can do some green screening. It really elevates the production level. Those are things that I would say are important, although you know, when you try to explain that to someone who never did that they don’t think it’s important.

I think back about the first event that we did from the virtual side and I remember the client said, we don’t need an event host. I could do it. I said no, no, we need an event but don’t worry, I won’t charge you for them this time but I want to show you why you need them and then the next time she’s like, I get it.

So sometimes from a production perspective and what you need is to be able to paint your picture, show people what it is that you’re envisioning kind of walked into that process and ultimately like sketched out doing dress rehearsals, showing them how to put their stress levels at ease and so forth.

Those are the things that I think you really need to invest in and having someone who’s like really, really able to communicate to the prospect of the client is really important, forgetting about the tech side per se. Those pieces are going to come right, you need all of that.

But really being able to guide someone from a trust perspective and building the level of confidence is like the most important.

I think one thing you mentioned earlier about hiring a host or presenter or somebody, even if you have to hire a professional to do it, I think that’s a a really good plan because it can get a little bit turgid and droll after awhile, can’t it?A

And people don’t really keep this in mind as we took people and you know, as we continue to do this as we’re creating event experiences just because something was relevant for in person events does not mean that they all transfer for virtual and vice versa. So just kind of being able to explain to someone like what the purpose is and why that that need is there.

So if you invest into the future, because if you’re looking to build the relationships, it’s going to come back tenfold. So don’t look short-sighted, look for the long term play.