At one point in time, attending an event meant physically walking into a convention center, shaking hands with colleagues, and sitting in an auditorium. Today, that’s not always the case.

Why? Because events are increasingly taking place over the internet. As a matter of fact, less than a third of event organizers plan to host the majority of their events fully in-person in 2022, meaning that at least two-thirds plan to incorporate virtual or hybrid formats into their overall event mix. When you consider the vast networking opportunities and interactive features that a virtual event platform provides, it’s no wonder virtual events are gaining popularity.

And now that audiences, attendees, and employees are more distributed than ever before, it’s mission-critical to lean on the capabilities of cutting-edge event technology. With the right event tech by your side, you can offer virtual attendees the same—or even better—experience that they’d have if they attended the event in person. 

In this guide, we’ll explore the ins and outs of the virtual experience, including how to plan a virtual event and what you need to maximize attendee engagement.

What is a virtual event?

Smiling African American Woman Wearing Glasses and Wireless Earphones Makes a Video Call on her Laptop Computer at her Home Office.

Simply put, a virtual event is any type of online event or digital-first conference that attendees can tune into through a computer or mobile device. Rather than attending the event in person, the audience accesses the event content using event technology (i.e. virtual event software). 

Although virtual events often attempt to replicate the structure of the in-person event, they also amplify the virtual experience using a combination of interactive sessions, engagement tools, and networking activities. Because virtual events are hosted online, they’re not bound by physical location or event space. This means organizers can reach a global audience without worrying about physical capacity.

What’s the difference between a virtual event and a webinar?

It’s likely you’ve come across the word “webinar” at some point in your digital travels. Although often lumped together and used interchangeably, it’s important to note that there is a key difference between a webinar and a virtual event.

Generally, a webinar is an online seminar where speakers present to an audience. They might host an educational session, interview a subject, or demo a product. In any case, a webinar’s emphasis is on teaching the guests about a topic.

In contrast, virtual events are a more all-encompassing and interactive virtual experience. They integrate as much of the in-person engagement as possible into a virtual space. Typically, they span a much longer time frame than a webinar—often up to several days—and may cover many multi-dimensional topics rather than one single item.

Types of virtual events

Virtual events come in all shapes and sizes. In truth, just about any type of in-person event can be made virtual using event technology. 

But generally speaking, you can group virtual events into two distinct categories: internal and external.

Internal virtual events

With the rise of hybrid and remote work models, many businesses—both big and small—are leveraging virtual event tech to host internal corporate events. Quite simply, these are any type of inward, employee-facing event that is hosted on a virtual event platform.

Let’s take a glimpse at some of the many internal events that can be hosted virtually:

  • Employee training: Upskilling is a big piece of retaining employees and remaining competitive. With a virtual training event, businesses can host an online session where attendees can learn the ropes of a new skill in the remote workplace.
  • Town hall: In the distributed environment, staying on page isn’t easy. A virtual town hall allows business leaders to stay connected with employees and ensure everyone’s working toward the same goal.
  • Virtual fitness event: A great way to engage employees and foster a community within your organization is to host a virtual fitness event, such as a yoga class or workout session. Plus, it’s an effective countermeasure against dreaded employee burnout.
  • Virtual benefits fair: An immersive virtual fair allows you to help employees connect with benefit providers and answer any questions your workforce might have about their plans.
  • Sales kickoff: In a remote environment, staying on the same page is hard. Holding a virtual sales kickoff allows organizations to communicate commercial strategy, energize the sales team and ensure everyone is working toward the same goal—regardless of location.

External virtual events

Most organizers, however, host external virtual events—those that are targeted toward outside guests, customers, and other attendees. Whether for event marketing or networking purposes, there are many types of external virtual events you can host through a virtual event platform:

  • Virtual conference: A virtual conference is built around a series of keynote speakers, breakout sessions, panelists, and more. It’s a great way for like-minded guests to learn, engage, and connect with each other—all without leaving the comfort of their home.
  • Virtual trade show: An online trade show allows organizers to demonstrate new products, exhibit up-and-coming launches, and give consumers a taste of what’s to come. Trade shows are a great way to create engagement, drive sales, and build brand awareness.
  • Virtual networking: Business leaders and professionals are always looking for networking opportunities. Hosting a virtual networking event is a great way to expand horizons, make long-lasting connections, and collaborate on new ideas.
  • Virtual career fair: Hosting a career fair is a great way to virtually attract talent, accelerate the recruitment process, and demonstrate your commitment to inclusivity through virtual technology.
  • Virtual product launch: Gearing up to debut a new product or service to the market? A virtual product launch is the perfect way to showcase your newest offerings and build revenue-driving hype around their release.

Hybrid events

Although the global virtual event industry continues to blossom into a multi-billion dollar market, in-person events aren’t going anywhere. 

In-person events will continue to flourish in the coming years. The only difference? A growing number of them will evolve into hybrid experiences. In fact, many of the events above can all be transformed into a hybrid event.

A hybrid event is both virtual and in-person. Thanks to virtual event software, all employees—regardless of their location—can access the event and participate just the same.

Why host a virtual event?

Virtual events are an innovative way to support a wide range of business initiatives. When an event is executed effectively, organizations often experience success across five critical objectives:

  • Increasing brand awareness
  • Developing customer relationships
  • Boosting customer acquisition and retention
  • Improving demand and lead generation
  • Maximizing event revenue

Advantages of hosting a virtual event

More importantly, virtual events offer a wide range of benefits that a traditional in-person event simply can’t provide. By leveraging the robust functionality of a leading-edge virtual event platform, organizers can optimize event management and unlock the full potential of the virtual experience.

Let’s explore the most substantial advantages of hosting a virtual event.

Increased accessibility:

Between travel costs, finances, and venue restrictions, there are plenty of factors that might limit the number of guests who can physically attend an in-person event. But it’s especially important to remember that in-person events aren’t always accessible to people with physical disabilities.

Virtual events are a much more inclusive alternative. Because attendees can tune into the live broadcast wherever they choose, anybody can participate in the virtual experience regardless of their financial, travel, or physical limitations.

Greater revenue potential:

In-person events are limited by the venue’s capacity, whereas an online event can be scaled up to include however many people you see fit. That means virtual attendees, speakers, panelists, and other guests can participate in the activities from the comfort of their homes. Better yet, hosting a virtual event means you can reach a global audience, thus increasing the number of tickets you can sell. The more tickets available, the more revenue possible—it’s that simple.

Reduced event costs:

The reality about organizing an in-person event is that the costs quickly add up. Think about it: From the price of the venue and catering to the cost of travel and stage production, it’s easy to blow through your budget in a hurry.

In contrast, virtual events are far more cost-efficient. Why? Because you don’t need to pay for food and drinks, production equipment, or other massive expenses. By hosting a virtual event, you can save in these areas and reinvest your budget in other places that could improve attendee engagement and help you achieve your event objectives.

Event flexibility:

Sometimes events go off without a hitch, other times they might not happen at all. If for some reason your event is under threat of cancellation—such as due to extreme weather or a public health crisis—it’s extremely helpful to have virtual event software at your disposal. 

The ability to pivot to a virtual event is key for safeguarding your investments when things go wrong. With the option to lean on event technology in an emergency, you can recoup your losses and ensure that the show goes on.

Diverse revenue streams:

There’s more than one way to make money when you host a virtual event. On top of ticket sales and merchandise, you can also include monetized ad space—banner ads, push notifications, etc.—to diversify your revenue streams.

The best virtual event platforms even allow you to add sponsor logos, commercials, and more to your live broadcast for an additional earning opportunity.

Saves time and effort:

Event organizers know that planning an in-person event takes time. In some cases, it can take over a year to organize a successful large-scale event. Between securing venues, panelists, logistics, and more, an in-person event requires plenty of time and resources.

Although virtual events still take plenty of time and effort to coordinate, they’re often faster and simpler to execute. They’re especially easier to kick-start when you have the support of an end-to-end event management solution that takes the guesswork out of event planning. With an experienced partner, you can streamline logistics and ensure your events run smoothly from start to finish.

On-demand event content:

The thing about in-person events is that it’s not always easy to engage with the content after the fact.

But with a virtual event, you can repurpose event content over the course of the year. This means every attendee can still consume the information on their own time. Some platforms enable you to segment your audience and target them with relevant content—an effective way to continue lead generation long after the event has ended.

Event and attendee data:

A common challenge of in-person events is that feedback is difficult to acquire. It’s even harder to incentivize attendees to complete surveys or use tools that track relevant metrics.

Virtual event platforms inherently collect attendee data as they use interactive features and engagement tools over the course of the event. This empowers you to capture real-time feedback, monitor success, and make adjustments as needed. By leveraging a virtual platform, you can also use event data to follow up with guests and produce targeted communications that increase revenue potential.

What is a virtual event platform?

Man in well lit office on left of screen standing in front of a computer displaying attendees of a virtual event on a virtual event platform

Virtual events need technology. It’s what enables attendees and speakers to participate in an online event regardless of their actual location. And there’s no event tech more crucial than the virtual event platform.

It’s easiest to understand a virtual events platform as the venue in which a virtual conference, concert, or any other event takes place. But under the surface, a virtual platform is also where everything about the event is managed, including networking, event marketing, engagement, ticketing, and more.

Must-have features in a virtual event platform

There are several virtual event platforms on the market, but no two are created equal. As the most fundamental piece of the puzzle, your choice of platform can make or break your virtual event. That’s why it’s important to know the critical features you need to look for in a virtual event software provider.

Customized registration:

The right platform should allow you to customize the look and feel of your registration experience from top to bottom. That means custom checkout forms, ticket types, and more. But attendee information should also seamlessly flow into real-time analytics so that you can monitor revenue and simplify outreach.

Full-scale branding:

When an attendee experiences a virtual event, they’re doing so through the virtual platform. It’s important to use a solution that can be tailored to your brand as closely as possible to deliver a consistent message throughout the entire virtual experience.

Seamless video streaming:

Obviously, you need a platform whose live broadcast is fast, high-quality, and reliable so that your event-day experience is never interrupted. The best event tech solutions offer native streaming, as well as third-party integrations and Real-Time Messaging Protocol (RTMP) so you have the most flexibility in running your virtual event. 

Event app building:

A branded mobile event app is a useful tool that not only improves the attendee experience, but also houses all of your event activities in one place. Guests can watch a live broadcast of the virtual conference from within the event app, chat with fellow attendees, and engage with sponsors. Organizers can also access robust event data all from within the app to simplify real-time management.

Group and 1:1 networking opportunities:

From direct and group messaging to breakout sessions and more, networking tools allow attendees to seamlessly make new connections—all within the virtual platform or mobile event app. With attendee profiles acting as virtual business cards, networking with guests, speakers, and sponsors is fast and simple.

Engagement capabilities:

Interactive features such as live Q&A, polling, and gamification compel attendees to participate in your event and engage with sponsors.

Sponsorship tools:

Leverage banner ads, push notifications, and splash pages to showcase your sponsorships and take exhibitor ROI to the next level. 

How do you plan a virtual event?

Pulling off a successful virtual event is easier said than done. Luckily, it’s a little easier when you follow a few best practices:

  • Set goals and objectives: Knowing what you want to get out of a virtual event is key to making sure you’re set up for success from the beginning.
  • Create a budget: Compile an overview of every major item that needs to be accounted for, including the cost of event marketing, the virtual platform, salaries, and more.
  • Choose your platform: Be sure your virtual event platform is chosen wisely and contains all the necessary features for executing your event.
  • Promotion/registration: Get the word out about your event through social media, email, and other marketing channels to maximize revenue potential.
  • Set roles and responsibilities: Make sure your event team understands what their specific duties will be on the day of the event.
  • Post-event feedback: Reach out to attendees and ask them to complete a survey. This will help inform your next event and drive continuous improvement going forward.

For more information, check out our virtual event planning guide.

What are virtual event sponsorships?

An event sponsor is a third party that contributes funds to your event in return for brand exposure and other benefits. Securing the right sponsorships can help you increase event revenue, maximize visibility, boost attendance, and secure other long-term relationships.

It’s a common misconception that event sponsorships are exclusive to in-person events. In actuality, virtual events are just as much of a powerful value driver as any in-person opportunity.

How to acquire event sponsors

The best way to secure high-profile sponsors is to differentiate your event from others. This is where leveraging a seamless, engaging, and intuitive event management platform has its advantages.

Sponsorship tools like sponsor profiles, virtual booths, and video breakout rooms are a great way to put your sponsors on a pedestal and drive engagement their way. Highlighting the capabilities of your virtual event platform can prove to potential sponsors that your event is worth their time.

Demonstrating ROI is also significant. After all, sponsors are making an investment in your virtual event. The right virtual platform makes it easy to prove ROI using robust real-time data and analytics that will wow sponsors in a single dashboard. Not only can this help you gauge the success of your events, but it can also help you plan ahead for future initiatives and pitch to sponsors in the process.

How to boost virtual event engagement

Engaging attendees is perhaps the most important driving factor when it comes to the success of a virtual event. If a virtual conference or hybrid event lacks attendee engagement, sponsors won’t be happy, organizers will lose revenue, and it could impact your ability to host events in the future.

Fortunately, virtual event platforms are jam-packed with features that can take your event to the next level.

Interactive features

Event technology allows you to create interactive sessions through a suite of fun, participatory tools. Live chat, for example, keeps attendees locked into the session and raises the energy in real time. Live Q&A can give your audience a voice and allows them to have a say in the event experience. And with live polling, you can enrich live streams by engaging attendees with questions related to the event topic or asked by your event sponsors. 

Some platforms even give attendees access to a social feed where they can post pictures, share thoughts, and engage in discussion threads. In short, it’s your event’s very own social media channel.

Gamification and prizes

Gamification allows you to launch fun, immersive experiences within the mobile event app, where attendees can participate in friendly competitions, view leaderboards, and even earn prizes. These tools not only incentivize engagement, but also celebrate networking and reward participation.

Community building

The right virtual event platform can be leveraged long after an event is over. By providing a platform where your community can continue to hold virtual roundtables, discussion threads, networking events, games, and more, you’re empowered to create a loop of continuous attendee engagement. Reach out to members with exclusive content and send messages to specific segments of your audience.

How to choose the best virtual event partner

Choosing the right event management platform is the most significant decision you can make as a virtual event organizer. But not just any solution will get the job done right—that’s why it’s important to weigh a few key considerations:

Can this platform support an in-person, virtual, and hybrid event?

Event planning shouldn’t be limited by the constraints of the platform. The best solution is one that can be leveraged for any type of event, regardless of its scope or size.

Look for a provider that allows you to host events on your terms, whether it’s in-person, virtual, or hybrid. 

Is this platform customizable to my brand?

Your audience experiences your event through the lens of the virtual platform. You need a solution that can be tailored to your brand so that you can maximize awareness and drive value to your organization. 

The right platform should be customized from top to bottom, including its mobile event app, registration software, and more.

How does this platform impact the attendee experience?

Virtual event platforms have a direct effect on how the audience consumes the event content. For this reason, you need a partner that provides the engagement and networking features required to make that process as seamless as possible.

Identify a provider with a comprehensive portfolio of interactive features—all the tools you need to enrich the attendee experience and drive value to you and your sponsors.

Will this platform partner help organize my event?

If anything is for certain, event planning isn’t a walk in the park. A lot can go wrong, and it takes a village to put on a successful event.

You don’t just need a platform provider—you need an event partner. Look for a vendor whose professional services team works alongside your organizers to tailor the platform to your specific needs. From planning and technical support to guidance and training, you should be able to lean on their expertise when you need it most.

Host engaging virtual experiences with Webex Events

When it comes to organizing a successful virtual event, you shouldn’t have to worry about choosing one feature over another. You require a solution with the robust capabilities to plan, manage, and host a virtual event from start to finish. 

That’s why Webex Events is jam-packed with tools that optimize the virtual experience. From registration and data to networking and engagement, Webex provides everything you need in an event management platform. Plus, our professional services team works with you to ensure your event goes off without a hitch.

Ready to kick-start ROI and host an engaging virtual event? Request a demo of Webex Events to learn more.

Caitlin Barrett
Caitlin Barrett

Caitlin is a Content Marketing manager at Webex Events (formerly Socio). As a copywriter turned graphic designer turned content marketer, she loves combining engaging content and good design to create best-in-class experiences for brands and their customers.