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How to host a winning virtual holiday event in 2020

Steve Strongman plays Search Warrant's live virtual holiday event at The Westdale

In November the Search Warrant digital marketing team stepped outside its Search and PPC advertising comfort zone to throw a virtual holiday party for clients. To our surprise, it went better than even our stretch goals anticipated. We’re not event professionals but check out these stats: 97% attendance rate, 95% completion rate, 100% positive feedback. To get a 1-minute taste of the event yourself, see the short highlight video.

“Blew my expectations of what a holiday zoom party could be clean outta the water. Such a blast, thanks so much for the invite!”

So many businesses are grappling with how to host a virtual holiday event right now that I want to share what we learned, what went right, and what we can do better in case it helps you plan your own virtual event in the middle of a pandemic.

Virtual-event fatigue

If you’re going to host a holiday event this year it has to be virtual and that’s more difficult because everyone else is doing it too. If they get 9 different invitations, why would people come to yours? If you succeed in getting them to join your virtual event, how do you convince them to stay? Those are two different battles a marketer needs to win.

To combat virtual-event fatigue, Search Warrant’s event had to be early in the holiday calendar. You could give away free money at your event and if it’s the 7th different invitation your audience receives nobody will want to come. Go early!

Positive-inertia machine

Our clients spend their work days in virtual meetings so asking them to do more of the same in their personal time is a big ask. To generate excitement, the event had to feel like something not-to-be-missed. As it turned out, pandemic psychology helped because people are hungry for things to look forward to right now.

How to host a winning virtual holiday event in 2020

Digital marketers know the value of hype. Build up. Momentum. Get it working in your favour and the good kind of inertia — which tends to stay in motion — overcomes the bad — which tends to keep your audience, well, inert.

The first output of our positive inertia machine was a vague and intriguing save-the-date calendar invite. It’s the first step in building anticipation and it lets your audience members lock your date and time on their calendars with a single click. That’s critical when you’re competing with full personal lives and other virtual events too.

We wanted a Thursday evening as the best balance between a day on which you’ll let yourself have fun while not intruding on your weekend. In Canada it’s not appropriate to hold a holiday event before Remembrance Day which is November 11th. As luck would have it, this year November 12 was a Thursday. Perfect!

What is the draw for your event?

We wanted everyone to feel like part of a crowd but you do not want 100 virtual people looking at one another silently or talking over top of one another in a cacophony reminiscent of a Presidential debate.

Instead you have to give everyone the same compelling content to consume so they have a shared audience experience. The Search Warrant team debated a few options for what the main attraction would be for the event and we landed on a concert. It helped that we knew a Juno-award winning blues musician, Steve Strongman.

Juno-award winning blues musician, Steve Strongman.

For interactivity, we knew we could rely on social media and the event chat room. The hash tag #SearchWarrantBlues was born and guests used it.

Get pros who understand audience

Not everyone loves live music but many do. And not all live music is worth loving. If you’re going to the trouble of hosting an event, do not ask second-cousin Mitch who used to lead a karaoke night to be the main attraction.

You want a professional with some star power who knows how to run a show and curate an audience. That’s 10x more important when your entertainer can’t hear or see the audience. You’re relying on his or her experience with crowds to understand the best narrative arc for a show.

Always leave them wanting more

As soon we met with Steve, our experience as marketers and his experience with live crowds combined to arrive at the same conclusion: always leave them wanting more. If you manage to deliver a great event that’s well attended, take the win and get out. Resist the temptation for a long show or speech.

Time moves faster online: a 10-minute conversation in person feels like 30 minutes online. Make your virtual event as brief as possible while still delivering a good time. Between Steve and Search Warrant, our stretch goal was to have attendees feel surprised when the event ended and even a little sad that it was over. Few things ruin a good time better than continuing after the interest, excitement and novelty have left the building.

The medium is the message: make yours pro

Time moves faster online because our mental model shifts when we see a screen. Your content is subconsciously compared to TV and movies with multiple camera angles, dynamic audio, and crisp dialogue scripted to keep viewers engaged. We may be an award-winning digital marketing agency but we know our limitations: we are not a Netflix film studio.

We needed professional help and Steve introduced us to a great venue: The Westdale – a classic community movie theatre with a stage and a professional sound, video, and projector crew. Even with the theatre empty for a virtual event it was the ideal venue.

The movie projector and big screen allowed for themed backgrounds, client logos, and the odd Easter egg behind the band in a slow-loop movie throughout the show. As for sound and video, you neither want cousin Mitch leading karaoke nor do you don’t want him at the sound board when you need a top-quality-internet feed optimized for your meeting platform.

Juno-award winning blues musician, Steve Strongman.

Professional video included a four-camera rig that let Mark, our video expert, change shots: close-ups for solos, wide-angle shots of the band and client logos, and everything in between. The Westdale had a nice big internet pipe too. Don’t forget to ask about that!

Good new-fashioned digital marketing

With the format decided, it was up to the digital marketers at Search Warrant to get our audience excited about attending.

After the save the date invite, we designed, printed, and mailed old-school, paper invitations and programs on the best card stock. For digital marketers, direct mail is so old it’s new again! The invitations suggested a swanky event and that invitees should dress up for a “big night in” as well as gourmet treats. Motivating people to dress up was key. Once you put on the nice blouse or shirt, you’re probably joining the party.

With paper invites in the mail, Search Warrant launched an email drip campaign of teaser videos. Authenticity and speed trumped studio quality here so we shot amateur video on smartphones.

The first spot to drop was Steve encouraging guests to attend along with a demonstration that the music would be world class.

live performance over Zoom

The second video was of yours truly outside the Westdale Theatre, under the marquee lit up to promote the show, inviting guests to join in the fun of the upcoming event.

Finally, Steve helped us offer invitees a free download of his new album, Tired of Talkin’. Between email feedback and the views the videos received, we began to suspect the event would be well attended.

Show time!

The pièce de resistance to ensure invitees would join and stay was charcuterie and wine at their doors. Search Warrant worked with local vendors across the US and Canada to deliver locally-sourced charcuterie and wine.

There were veggie and alcohol-free options too. Remember those paper programs we printed? They arrived inside the charcuterie boxes which were emblazoned with Search Warrant logos and event branding. If you’re wearing a power suit at home when the charcuterie arrives, joining the event feels like the next natural step. Our attendance rate among confirmed RSVPs was 97%.

holiday team gift package

Add tops and tails

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With the big pieces in place, the event needed tops and tails: an introduction to make you feel like you were actually outside the Westdale Theatre, filing toward your seat, surrounded by the hubbub of pre-show excitement. A slow start gave guests time to fiddle with their audio and video at home – an inescapable part of online events.

You also need a few words from a host or M.C. during the show, followed by an ‘outro’ experience at the end for a complete package.

What was the result?

The results exceeded our stretch goals. There were two external factors that played in our favour but first look at these statistics: 97% attendance rate, 95% completion rate, 100% positive feedback. To get a 1-minute taste of the event yourself, see the short highlight video. Here is one of my favourite bits of unsolicited feedback from an attendee.

“Wow, big kudos to you and the team. That was the best virtual event I’ve ever experienced! Really awesome work. Thank you for including me.”

Invitees joined, stayed, and even asked for an encore! Twenty minutes after it was over, 7 guests were still chatting. By way of comparison, the Westdale team shared that they often see 25% of an audience leave in the first 5 minutes of a live-stream show followed by a slow decline in attendance throughout.

Unanticipated pros and cons

A lot had to go right for this event to work and not all of it was in our control. What if the meeting platform crashed? What if pandemic requirements closed the theatre? We had a Plan B, just in case.

In retrospect, the best thing we had going for us was the positivity and willingness of our guests to have a good time. They joined early and shared positive chatter throughout the show. Surely some people experienced pixelated screens or gaps in the audio but they didn’t let it hinder their good time.

To illustrate this, when I asked Sean on the Search Warrant team why our own employees didn’t engage in the chat room discussion more often, he responded,

“Have you ever tried to moderate 100 people in a chat room who are all a bottle of wine deep?”

The same pandemic conditions that forced us to host a virtual holiday event in the first place also primed guests to embrace having something to enjoy and a reason to be positive.

Lessons learned

You learn a lot when you step outside your comfort zone. We know digital marketing but not virtual event production. The pros we worked with know how to produce a great audio-visual experience but not how to find, groom, and deliver an audience. Bringing the two skill sets together resulted in something extraordinary though there are always ways to improve.

Namely, the transitions from Search Warrant content – like the intro and outro slides or playlists – and the entertainer’s content should be identified, rehearsed, and seamless. We also underestimated how much work would go into the event – even though we knew it would be a lot.

One real-time lesson we learned was the value of having a “voice”: a narrator with a great speaking voice who explains transitions to your audience while buying time for your on-stage speakers and band to adjust. It was intended as an entertaining twist but in practice it helped to make those transitions smooth.

Finally, plan for a wild success in case you make one happen: a single encore would have been a perfect ending to the show while still leaving the audience wanting more.

Good luck with your virtual event and please comment on your own experiences with what works and what bombs for these challenging projects. I’m sure we still have a lot to learn and odds are you can help us improve.

30 Burke, Guelph, ON, N1L 1J2, Canada

info@searchwarrant.ca