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The Ignite Platform Primer

PHOTO: CONNECT EVENT HUB

Selecting a virtual event platform can be overwhelming. Planners who’ve been there share their journeys and advice.

By Laura Bickle

In 2019, Select Group Marketing (SGM), which represents a number of international destination marketing companies (DMCs) in the Canadian travel and incentive market, held SGM Links, a marketplace where buyers met face-to-face with DMCs, at The Boulevard Club in Toronto. “Each DMC had a table and buyers could book appointments and come and go as they liked during the day,” says SGM president Jan Zandboer. By all accounts, it was a successful setup.

For obvious reasons, the event was forced to take a hiatus in 2020, but in 2021, Zandboer felt the time was right for his clients to catch up with Canadian buyers, even though pandemic protocols meant there would be no fancy tables at The Boulevard Club. So that’s when he jumped headfirst into the world of virtual event platforms. “It felt like there were thousands of platforms,” says Zandboer.

He’s not far off. The market has exploded with new platforms and established brands are constantly upgrading and adding new features. It’s a lot to stay on top of. But take a breath. The same rules of event planning still apply, says Melissa Deslauriers, director of marketing at bbBlanc in Toronto. “Think of your digital platform as a venue. No two are alike, each has their own pros and cons.”

And just like finding a venue, research and due diligence is required. “I truly believe if you do your homework in choosing the right platform for your delegates and your target audience, you will be able to deliver on your objectives and your goals. If you build it, they will come,” says Karen Norris, CMP, manager of the Canadian Surgery Forum, who is in the midst of planning the first virtual version of the forum, running in September.

With that in mind, we’ve gathered insights and tips from industry pros to help you choose the platform that will work for your event, and most importantly, your attendees.

Make a List

A virtual event platform is simply a vehicle to achieve the objective of the event and your client. Is it education? Networking? Brand awareness? Membership retention? Once you’ve nailed that down, you can determine the platform features that will achieve those goals. “Always begin with the end in mind. Know your limitations and communicate this frankly with your entire team, supplier partners included,” says Deslauriers.

Last year, when Kimberly Beaune, CMP, CSEP, event storyteller with Creative Twist, was shopping for platforms for a networking event that was forced to go virtual, she was armed with a wishlist. “We broke it down into the must-haves to make the event successful and then the nice-to-haves, which we could work around. No platform is going to check every box so you need to understand what your priorities are. What experiences do you want to create? How are you going to create that experience with the platform?”

Leverage your Colleagues' Experiences

One of the first things Norris did was reach out to her planner network. “There are some people who have planned more virtual conferences, especially independent planners who have a bunch of clients on the go. There are so many lessons learned. They helped with questions to ask platform companies and the ones to avoid and ones to meet with.”

It’s also useful to ask prospective platforms for references, as well as asking your network for their experiences with the provider.

Immerse Yourself in the Experience

Attending virtual conferences on multiple platforms will help you narrow down your options and refi ne your wishlist. Most platforms offer webinars and how-to videos to give you further insights. It’s also important to understand your audience: Do they attend a lot of virtual conferences? Are they likely to be frustrated by glitches? Are they intimidated by technology? “I have found that if it gets to be a little too complicated, people just sign off,” says Zandboer. “It has to be user-friendly for the user and the organizer.”

Beaune agrees: “You have to reimagine the attendee journey. Are they going to be able to navigate it? Is it intuitive? Are they going to be able to find where they need to go next? What is the support like? Is there a chat bot or a help desk?”

Norris also canvassed some of her attendees and her program committee for feedback on the virtual medical conferences they’ve attended. “I’m a very right-brained creative individual but I need to know what my target audience wants. What do my surgeons like? What do they hate?”

Talk to Suppliers

In Beaune’s experience in the early days of the pandemic, it was very difficult to actually connect with platforms to get answers to her questions. “It’s hard to find somebody to be responsive to your questions and really understand your goals and objectives as an event producer. Platform people are tech people, they’re not event people.” But that’s shifting, she adds. “Platforms are starting to realize, ‘oh, this new audience of event planners is more demanding. They need us to be more knowledgeable on their needs.’” In fact, that was one of the reasons that Creative Twist purchased a license for Remo, the platform they used for their networking event and have launched a virtual event venue called Connect Event Hub.

Zandboer says he chose Ineventors, a Canadian company, partially because he immediately received a call from the owner upon a request for a demo. “They started thinking along with us. We could bounce ideas off of them. It wasn’t just a matter of throwing a platform at me and letting me figure it out.” You might also leverage your existing relationships with AV companies you used for on-site events, since many have transitioned to virtual events. “Working with partners who will assist you every step of the way, sharing their learnings, good and bad, and investing in the right technology will ensure success,” says Deslauriers.

At Zandboer’s event, the platform allowed a table set-up similar to the in-person event, where up to eight people could meet with each DMC and watch presentations. He credits a video that familiarized attendees with the platform prior to the event for increasing engagement and limiting tech frustration. “In general, the DMCs felt it was successful. We got quality attendees, not just quantity, which was the aim. We would use the same platform again.”

Get it in Writing

So, you’ve found a platform that ticks all the boxes. But Deslauriers advises requesting a timeline in writing before you sign the contract. “What assets are due when? If you are branding the experience, what is needed both in time and resources, both on their side and yours? For example, finding out the backend team needs two weeks to brand your platform won’t work if your event is only days away,” says Deslauriers, adding, “And yes, this really happened to a planner I know.”

The Takeaway

Ultimately, dedicating time and energy to the platform search not only benefits clients and attendees, it’s also an investment in your skill set, says Norris. “We’re all interconnected in this journey to develop better virtual learning which will ultimately lead to this hybrid world that we’re all careening towards.”

Cheat Sheet

Here’s a list of common platform features to help you make your wishlist:

  • Breakout rooms
  • Broadcasting
  • Chatbot
  • Chat feature
  • Custom branding
  • Custom virtual exhibitor booths
  • Fundraising
  • Gamification
  • Help desk
  • In-house production team
  • Interactivity
  • Lead retrieval
  • Livestreaming with record
  • and playback
  • Messaging
  • Monetization
  • Multi-streaming
  • Multiple event tracks
  • Networking
  • One-on-one video chats
  • Polls
  • Pre-event website
  • Q&As
  • Real-time analytics
  • Registration
  • Virtual Reality/Augmented
  • Reality

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