Online events: are they virtually the same thing?

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Whether it’s for customer engagement or training, here’s how to make your virtual event even better than one in real life.

Scott Elmslie

It’s the year of the cancelled event. And as events were postponed then cancelled throughout the tumultuous year, marketers were left with glaring black holes in their calendar.

So how do we rethink events to engage customers or members from home? I spoke with some of our clients to discuss the impact online events have had on their business and how they have turned adversity into opportunity. 

Why are events so important?

For many businesses, events and customer experiences are an integral part of their relationship-building strategy. 

Events come in all shapes and sizes. Some examples include:
  • carefully curated small group experiences such as a ‘meet the maker’ events 
  • networking opportunities where like-minded people gather to hear experts share knowledge
  • education and development training 
  • awards ceremonies celebrating achievements
They all have something in common: a chance to build a relationship with your audience, to create something memorable and to boost trust and credibility in your business. 

As I wrote about in my article on video being integral to your marketing plans, this is just another opportunity for this medium to shine. Viewers spend up to 8.1 times longer with live video than they do with video-on-demand and 82%  prefer live video from a brand to social posts

For many, the shift to online events has been quick and essential. In a recent survey by Redback Connect, one in three Australians attend more than 10 virtual events a month. This is up from 2% just 12 months ago. 

Working with a diverse range of clients as we do, I wanted to find out how important events are for them, how they’ve adapted and what they think the future might look like.

Forget exclusivity, embrace access 

Marketing departments now have to be more creative than ever with how they can replicate an experience online.

The annual Halliday Awards are a highlight of the year for wine producers and for wine drinkers, too. The awards are held on the eve of the launch of the annual Halliday Wine Companion. The book is the culmination of many months spent tasting, reviewing, compiling and editing.

Last year’s event was black tie, presented over a gourmet degustation dinner and a glorious selection of the year’s best wines. It’s not possible to recreate this luxurious event when we’re all at home, so the team focused on creating a new experience that still felt premium for partners and sponsors while attracting more than 3,000 live viewers on the night. The video event, produced by SHERPA, was streamed on the Wine Companion website and then uploaded later for wine buffs to salivate over.

“For our major event, the Halliday Awards, we were able to revise our original awards format, moving to produce an online broadcast of our awards ceremony,” says Erin Ivanka, Halliday marketing manager. 

“We made the call during the earlier stages of COVID in March-April, as we didn’t feel that we would be in a position to host an event for 300 people just a few months later.”

The challenge is to still be able to give the consumer what they want, keep it engaging and replicate or give them a fresh experience. From the Redback report, 86% of those that completed the survey had left the event early. 

Halliday overcame this with by creating  “a comprehensive plan to produce video content that aligned with what would traditionally be shared on the event night,” says Erin. 

“We engaged an MC for our awards broadcast and were able to film with James Halliday in the Yarra Valley – luckily this was prior to any further restrictions being placed on domestic/regional travel.”

Rethink professional development

Our client ANZIIF (The Australia and New Zealand Institute of Insurance and Finance) has a very active base of more than 17,000 members. One of the institute’s key objectives is providing excellent training and professional development, so stopping these events was not an option.

“ANZIIF members rely on professional development events as they are an important platform for professional networking, career progression and lifelong learning,” says Damian Falkingham, ANZIIF general manager industry engagement.

“Due to the unforeseeable impact of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, ANZIIF made the decision to cancel or postpone in-person events in 2020. Given our events program holds significant importance for the industry, we wasted no time in introducing an interactive, premium webinar program”. 

A promotional image for ANZIIF live training events. It shows a female florist and text: "ANZIIF Webinars. How insurers can be smart and nimble in servicing SMEs"

ANZIIF now has a robust calendar of live training events.

The institute found that the new online events for professional development offered greater flexibility access than in-real-life events.

“Like never before, it allows attendees from all over the world to engage and connect with industry experts from the comfort and safety of their own home,” says Damian.

“The overall satisfaction rate of 98.5% attests to the success of our webinar program, which is now a seamless component of our offering.”

Engage your online community 

It’s not just the corporate sector. Not being able to run events has impacted many industries including retail, says Sarah Tencer, marketing manager, brand and discovery at Dan Murphy’s. 

“We have been unable to host instore events nationwide for the entirety of the COVID period. Tasting services are very important to the instore experience.”

As we’ve not yet cracked how we can get computers to pour customers a nice glass of wine, tasting events are hard to replace. But while Dan Murphy’s may not have been able to get people together in a room, they have been able to engage their online community thought their owned channels. 

“We have really upped our focus on digital engagement, outside of just selling drinks,” says Sarah. “So, thinking of digital experiences and content consumption opportunities that don't just drive our retailer needs, but fulfil other needs of the customer, while staying true to our brand and why we exist.”

What’s next for events?

Given that COVID is still very much affecting our way of life, and will for the foreseeable future, online events should remain the focus for now.

This is backed up by the Redback research which says 51% of us are expecting to attend more virtual events next year. So, what will the future look like for these businesses? 

“There is no doubt that online events will continue to comprise an important part of the ANZIIF offering,” says ANZIIF’s Damian Falkingham.

He says it’s important to keep developing online events as they go, responding to members’ feedback and requirements.

“Like the industry overall, which has transformed its processes rapidly to service customers under the new conditions of COVID-19, we too will continue to develop and adapt our resources and processes to meet the learning and development needs of our members and students.”

Halliday are also looking to learn and grow from their experience including using video conferencing technology to facilitate virtual events and wine tastings, hosted by the Halliday tasting panel and their team.

A still from the Halliday Awards live stream. It shows an MC speaking to James Halliday. They are both seated and have a glass of wine next to them.

The 2021 Halliday Awards included interviews with Australia's foremost wine critic, James Halliday.

Online events essentials

To wrap up, here are five tips for creating a great online event. 
  1. Keep it short: We may all be able to binge watch an entire season of the latest Netflix drama in our down time but do consider your audience may be time poor and it’s all too easy to drop out.
  2. Engage an experienced speaker: While the host won’t be able to physically read the room or make eye contact, having the right talent will allow you to create something that’s memorable and keep the audience engaged.
  3. Make the content available and shareable: Making the event available as a video after the event is a perfect way to give those who couldn’t attend a chance to see it and, most importantly, to share it far and wide to grow your audience.
  4. Consider the timing: Do your research and know your audience. When are you going to get the highest level of participation? Also give them plenty time to plan around it. 
  5. If appropriate, make it participatory: This could be asking the attendees to supply questions which can be integrated into the event or leave some time at the end for a Q&A session. 
  6. Check your technology and platform: This surely goes without saying: you need to make sure your internet speed is up to hosting an event. I’ve already been part of a few online events this year that have fallen at the first hurdle. Also consider the platform you are using making sure it is as user friendly as possible.
I’d love to hear how you’ve adapted your events this year. Share your experiences with me at

Scott Elmslie, account director