When the COVID-19 pandemic shuttered planned events around the world within a matter of weeks, many groups scrambled to devise novel virtual event ideas that would engage attendees and generate ROI similar to a live event — despite never planning an online function. A poll from EventMB in April found more than 60 percent of event planners had zero experience hosting or organizing virtual events

It’s a new frontier if you’re suddenly deemed a virtual event planner for your company’s next convention, and we know it’s vital for your virtual conference or virtual trade show to stand out from the online crowd of endless Zoom meetings and static online chats. 

To help you brainstorm, we compiled six virtual events to show you how these digital trailblazers pulled off some really fun virtual event ideas.

1. Virtual Gamification

No one wants to host a virtual networking event only to drum up minimal attendee engagement. Trying to come up with a virtual event platform that really engages your audience? Enter the popular concept of gamification for the win. 

Socio platform gamification

Rejuv, a medical spa specializing in Botox, CoolSculpting, and other aesthetic procedures, plugged into the power of gamification for their first-ever virtual Radiant event in May and crossed the finish line with 100% attendee participation — surpassing attendance goals and increasing revenue by 10% over last year’s in-person event. 

To incentivize all attendees to download the event app before the virtual bash, the clinic hosted a “10 Days of Giveaways” contest to get people to register and interact with digital content they created on the virtual event platform, including a social wall where they could leave a comment to enter the giveaway and meet other attendees.

The Rejuv team devised a game around the products and services they wanted people to purchase during the virtual conference, awarding points for dollars spent and giving more weight to new memberships to drive those highly valuable enrollments. 

Playing into people’s inherent competitiveness, Rejuv utilized a live leaderboard on the app to show which attendees racked up the most points at different stages of the virtual event. The approach proved successful, and Rejuv decided to triple the maximum number of points allowed because so many attendees spent well past the 1,000-point limit. They also attracted 122 new patient leads through the virtual event.

“We exceeded last year’s revenue, and I do attribute that to the gamification and the level of engagement we pulled in,” says Kimberly Busch of Rejuv. “All things considered, it was a six-figure virtual event for us.” 

2. Virtual Product Launch

While a virtual product launch may not seem as exciting as trying out the latest gadgets and products in person, tech companies capitalized on this unique COVID-induced reality of virtual events. 

For the past 30 years, Apple traditionally revealed significant software updates and new tech products in person at its highly popular, Worldwide Developers Conference. With pandemic restrictions in full effect for the June event, Apple decided to deliver WWDC 2020 as a virtual product launch, featuring a pre-recorded keynote with several Apple executives and offering online learning sessions.

The free virtual event (compared to thousands of tickets sold at $1,600 each for the live conferences) allowed endless accessibility for Apple’s entire global developer community, which includes more than 23 million registered developers around the world along with the next generation of app developers, to attend the prestigious event. 

Attendees noted the virtual event felt more inclusive than the in-person version and democratized the event by giving everyone front-row seats, predicting it could bring in more sales than previous in-person product launches. 

“This will probably be the most effective WWDC Apple has ever had since it allowed them to bring in more developers than the 5,000 they can squeeze into a physical event,” longtime analyst Tim Bajarin of Creative Strategies told CNET. “In that sense, it was a highly successful format that meets the needs of Apple developers.”

Apple used the bright virtual spotlight to demo some buzzworthy software and debut new products. Attendees got a first look at the software developer’s next major mobile software update, iOS 14, coming to iPhones this year, and a peek into the assortment of Memoji features slated for the next big software update – including the timely addition of face masks and emotions like blushing. 

Apple hosted another online-only virtual product launch on Sept. 15 focused on its wearables like the Apple Watch and potentially a new iPad. Excited consumers and tech reporters must log on to see exactly what will be revealed at its next virtual event. 

3. Virtual Hackathon

As the pandemic spread across the globe, most companies doubted that even the most creative virtual event ideas could deliver as well as in-person conferences, launch parties, and trade shows. Would they bring in enough revenue to replace lucrative, sponsored live events? Would people actually attend and engage with the brand?   

Virtual events pre-pandemic were basically glorified Zoom conference calls. Event management technology mainly served groups organizing live events. Suddenly, everyone involved in the events industry was forced to quickly pivot and figure out how to host successful virtual events. What better way to uncover solutions than to crowd-source 16 top industry players for innovative virtual event ideas and hacks?

On April 15, Socio hosted EventHack 2020 to celebrate the ingenuity and resilient spirit of the event community, inviting industry thought leaders who work for insanely popular and engaging companies like Pinterest, Heinz Marketing, and Zoom, as well as several distinguished digital marketing agencies.

The participants competed in groups of four, each assigned a hypothetical virtual conference to plan for a specific brand or industry. They presented their best hacks and virtual event ideas to a panel of expert judges, focusing on ways to engage attendees and provide unique sponsorship opportunities. The groundbreaking hackathon event brought together a brain trust of talented professionals, and resulted in a long list of inventive virtual event examples.

4. Virtual Fitness Event

To mix things up during your virtual events, get participants out of the office chair and inspire them to move around in their personal space by incorporating a virtual fitness event into the conference schedule, such as yoga breaks, meditation sessions, or a quick dance-off. 

It’s a fun way to keep attendees engaged during a long day of speakers or online training sessions. Consider hosting a standalone virtual fitness event — or even an ongoing series of events to give employees, customers, or both an online outlet for group exercise.   

There’s certainly a market for online exercise classes and virtual fitness events, with gyms around the country closed indefinitely or strictly limited because of COVID, and many people still weary of sharing sweaty workout equipment or crowding into a small yoga studio. 

Reporting on the online fitness boom forced by the pandemic, Forbes recently profiled several fitness instructors and exercise equipment providers who nimbly adapted to the nearly $100 billion industry shifting to a world of wholly virtual workouts. The physically fit gurus discovered people are no longer as limited by their schedule as they were prior to the pandemic, and actually prefer the more affordable and varied options at-home virtual fitness events provide.  

5. Virtual Networking Event

With so many people still working from home or spending limited days interacting with others at the office, people crave human connection now more than ever, and seek fun ways to virtually network while still social distancing.

Years ahead of the current virtual events trend, Business Rules for Women, a networking community of female entrepreneurs and business leaders, began hosting virtual meetups and happy-hour events long before the global pandemic. Unfortunately, COVID restrictions came down just as BRFW prepared to launch its first live event. With only a month until the scheduled date in early April (before virtual events really gained steam), they had to suddenly pivot to a virtual conference.

One of the virtual networking event ideas that worked particularly well was a kick-off party to get attendees to download and become familiar with the app platform the night before the virtual conference. The virtual happy hour invite asked attendees to join a live stream wearing their finest cocktail apparel and pair it with a glass of fine wine, then post selfies on the app’s social feed. The BRFW leaders used the pre-event networking opportunity to explain how the virtual conference would work inside the app and help attendees get comfortable with the event tech. 

“If you wanted access to the event, you had to download the app because there was no other place where you were going to get the link,” says Gabrielle Deculus, Business Rules for Women CEO. “With this, the app was actually the event. The app was the virtual event space.”

6. Virtual Trade Show

Trade shows typically involve thousands of attendees walking from booth to booth to learn about new industry-specific products. When COVID first hit, many event organizers worried how well the traditional trade show experience would translate into an online virtual trade show format.  

The High Point Market, the largest furnishings industry trade show in the world, typically stretches for miles with approximately 2,000 exhibitors. The event’s host, International Market Centers (IMC) operates the world’s largest collection of premier showroom space for home furnishings and similar industries — boasting nearly 20 million square feet of exhibition space across three U.S. cities. 

Hosting a solely virtual trade show wasn’t exactly in IMC’s wheelhouse, but the organization quickly adapted in response to pandemic crowd restrictions. Despite a primary focus on providing premier physical showroom space, IMC hosted the first-ever High Point Virtual Market Experience during the second half of May. 

High Point’s Virtual Experience delivered record-breaking engagement on the trade show website and social media platforms, luring thousands of attendees with educational content and innovative product-discovery tools. The virtual trade show offered a wide selection of online sessions that mirrored attending the live experience, including an exhibitor product showcase, trade publication previews, and an Instagram Takeover with industry influencers. 

Participating exhibitors reported to IMC strong lead generation and a rise in orders as a result of the three-week virtual event. The IMC High Point website experienced a year-over-year increase of 634% in users, 1,745% for page views and 765% in online sessions. The dedicated Facebook page experienced a 560% jump in impressions over the course of a month and a 432% increase in engagement, while Instagram engagement for the event went up 123%.

Inventive ideas for virtual events and advancements in event technology to support those creative concepts progressed at an exponential pace this year as we were all forced to adapt, largely due to the isolating and disruptive COVID-19 pandemic that swept across our globe. 

With proper planning, a few fun and engaging ideas, and a suitable virtual event platform, your group can organize an engaging virtual event that solves your event goals.

Mike LaFollette
Mike LaFollette

Writer @ Red Pen Content. Master Gardener. Dad to an enormous Alaskan Malamute!