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So far in 2020, we have seen the rise of Tiger King, the introduction of “murder hornets” in the U.S., and official videos of UFOs from the Pentagon, but overwhelmingly, the focus has been on COVID-19 and its toll on our everyday lives.

Since the CDC recommends limiting social gatherings and the President has recommended keeping gatherings to fewer than 10 people, it is understandable that large events are on hold. Apart from concerts, movies, theater productions, and the like, most major professional events are being canceled or postponed, with huge conferences hosted by Microsoft and Adobe joining SXSW, among others, in putting in-person plans on the shelf.

Although during this time of uncertainty, it can seem easier to postpone or cancel events, it is important to consider the possibility of moving summits and events online. Companies like Google and Apple are moving conferences online to keep public safety a priority and act as a role model for other smaller corporations.

The process of launching an online-only event is daunting to say the least, but there are many resources out there to help you get started. Although I’m not an expert in event planning, I have seen some of my clients start moving events online and have helped build digital marketing strategies to support the pivot.

Let’s walk through a virtual initiative from a company near and dear to my heart.

As they do every year, 3Q Digital’s marketing team entered Q1 with a ton of plans and dates for our annual partner series – and then COVID-19 took over. In response, 3Q launched Navigate the New Normal, an online episode featuring CEO David Rodnitzky and Google’s Head of Measurement and Insights, Sriram Narayanan.

I could spend hours talking about how great this event was for our clients (**shameless plug**), but I’ll focus on how we got the word out.

Reach out directly to clients and prospects to invite them to participate.

Since this virtual event had an attendance cap (because of the platform we used), clients and late-stage prospects got first shot at access. It is important to make emailed invitations feel customized and outline the Summit as one of the rewards of being a 3Q client (or a potential client).

Ensure you have webpages devoted to the virtual event to help with SEO.

Promote content organically on social media and enlist employees to help spread the word.

Use paid efforts to support direct engagement.

To diverge from our current case study, let’s say you are promoting a virtual Open House for a University that has recently had to close down its campus. To ensure maximum attendance, you need to make sure all your paid channels are optimized effectively. Some quick ideas can be found below.

Paid Search on Google

  • Keyword Coverage: Use previous keywords to help mine additional options catered around tokens such as “virtual” and “online”. Use keyword planner to monitor the volume of such keywords (keep an eye on this regularly, since the environment fluctuates). Scrub search terms and keyword performance regularly to see if there are any opportunities to expand or exclude irrelevant keywords.
  • Ad Copy: Update previous ad copy to appeal to the shift to a virtual Open House and find sensitive and empathetic ways to communicate that XYZ University is “here” for students during this uncertain time with online classes being offered in XYZ departments. Update ad extensions and landing pages to ensure a cohesive user experience and messaging.
  • Locations: Use location bid adjustments to bid up in the area surrounding your campus location. Monitor locations regularly and bid up where performance indicates strong RSVP rates.

Paid Social on Facebook and Instagram

  • Audience Targeting: If your previous target audiences are well developed – In this example, you are targeting LALs of past students/newsletter signups, interest-based audiences targeting subject interests, retargeting lists of interested users who haven’t yet RSVP’ed – then you should be able to run as normal. Some potential expansion opportunities include LAL audiences based on people who have signed up for the online Open House and some interest targeting on Facebook surrounding “online learning”, etc.
  • Ad Copy & Imagery: Similar to Paid Search, update previous ad copy to appeal to the shift to a virtual Open House and find sensitive and empathetic ways to communicate that XYZ University is “here” for students during this uncertain time. Scrub all ad imagery to ensure assets do not show large group gatherings or travel.
  • Locations: Test segmented campaigns to target locations around campus, but do NOT ignore the surrounding areas or even the full United States. Since virtual Open Houses and online classes are accessible to all, there might be a portion of interested students you miss if you stick to a small radius surrounding the physical location of the University.
  • Campaign Type: For the online event, there is also the opportunity to advertise the event itself on Facebook and boost that event using paid media spend. The same audience recommendations apply for this option.

Paid Social on LinkedIn

  • Audience targeting on LinkedIn can help boost organic engagement and keep reach up. Students aren’t necessarily on LinkedIn, but if you’re looking to find prospective (high school) students, it’s a great tool for finding and engaging school counselors who can help get the message out.

Thanks to the combination of organic and paid media, SEO, personal invitations, and employee support, we had our highest-ever turnout for a partner event with with our virtual partner summit series debut, Navigate the New Normal.

Whether you’re a small music venue, a struggling university, or a major corporation, it is important to stay engaged with your target audience. One way to do this is to pivot to virtual events, and one way to help make those virtual events successful is through digital media.