Updated: The Art of Virtualizing Live Events

April 15, 2020

From Cannes to the Tony’s, SXSW to Coachella, thousands of live events have been canceled or postponed amidst COVID-19. Some of these will simply have to wait until the world goes back to normal. There’s no way to hold the Tokyo Olympics via Zoom, for example. But many conferences, trade shows, and festivals are virtualizing their live events. Thinking outside the box, they’re reworking programming to bring people together when the connection is needed most.

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Taking an in-person event and adapting it virtually presents unique challenges to event promoters, but it can be done. If you’re in the experiential, conference, or trade show industry and considering virtualizing live events, see who’s doing it well, with tips for pulling it off yourself.

Live events going virtual and how they’re adapting.

Tomorrowland Digital Festival 2020Tomorrowland

The Belgian music festival was held virtually in July and offered pop and electronic music fans never-before-seen musical experiences. In addition to performances from artists Katy Perry, Steve Aoki, David Guetta, and Martin Garrix, Tomorrowland offered “activities, webinars, workshops, games and other interactive entertainment” for attendees. The festival featured artists performing on virtual stages in front of thousands of virtual fans on a 3D island.

NBA 2019-2020 season2019-2020 NBA season

The season picked up on July 30 after shutting down for more than four months and didn’t allow fans to enter the league’s “bubble” in Orlando to attend the games. Instead, through new technology, fans watched games projected on in-arena video boards for players, coaches, and everyone else. This virtual fan experience used Microsoft Teams’ Together mode, which “uses AI segmentation technology to bring people together into a shared background like a conference room, coffee shop, or arena.”

Adobe Summit 2020Adobe Summit

Adobe swapped a live stream in favor of a pre-recorded event. While this removes the opportunity for real-time engagement, the content is more polished after edits, enhancements, additional clarification, and the removal of errors. Adobe Summit speakers appeared more confident and relaxed in their delivery as well. Virtualizing live events with pre-recorded content also eliminates usual challenges, such as problematic time-zone scheduling and connectivity errors.

Salesforce World Tour Sydney

Salesforce Worldtour Sydney Conference

In February, Salesforce turned its conference into a virtual event in just ten days. “The initial live event was meant to include an expo hall so our team built a digital experience inspired by the act of browsing booths,” Leandro Perez, VP Asia Pacific, writes in a company post detailing the process of digitizing the conference. “Attendees from around the world could explore 18 virtual rooms based on Salesforce Customer 360. A company expert hosted each room, sharing demos with visitors, and answering questions in real-time.”dfdfdfd

Mirren Live 2020 logoMirren Live

The annual conference that typically brings together a who’s who of agency new business professionals in New York is reframing its content focus, too. Instead of hosting the physical conference in midtown Manhattan, Mirren Live split the programming into several days of virtual programming. And there’s a silver lining. Previously, companies who sent one or two executives to keep travel expenses low will now be in a position to purchase digital passes for whole teams.

Key considerations

Pick your streaming resources.

If you’re going to virtualize live events, you’ll have to choose a streaming option first. Of course, there are free options like Instagram Live, Facebook Live (which also provides the ability to accept donations), and LinkedIn Live, but for most purposes, you’ll have to investigate a paid platform. Streaming options include:

For a fairly exhaustive list (plus some other amazing resources), check out writer Cherie Hu’s Virtual Music Events Directory. While it’s designed primarily for music events, the resources detailed include many that apply across the board.

Re-imagine sponsorships.

While your sponsors will understand that you’re adapting under tremendously difficult circumstances (we’re all in this together, after all) they will still expect to see a return on their investment, whether that be the exposure or leads they expected from the event.

Some creative examples of how virtual events are delivering on sponsor goals:

  • Live product demos incorporated into programming
  • Virtual trade show floor
  • Sponsoring of streaming services
  • Targeted email outreach to attendees 
  • Sponsoring a social stream 

As previously noted, there may be a silver lining to your event, which might have a higher turn-out now that attendees don’t have to factor in travel expenses. If you anticipate a benefit like that, be sure to communicate it clearly to your sponsors so that they understand the pluses they’re getting from the digital version.

Investigate tools to save time.

Festforums has a great Slack workspace where venues, festivals, and other event promoters have been discussing how to evolve in a world of social distancing. If you run any kind of festival or live event, I cannot stress enough checking this out – you can get answers from those who’ve been there.

When it comes to generating leads with potential sponsors, I’d be remiss if I didn’t recommend Winmo. There’s no easier way to pull a list of brands known to sponsor events, planning in the current quarter, and get directly to contact details for the CMOs, Marketing Directors, or Experiential Marketing Managers responsible for those budgets. If you still have sponsorship slots to fill, you don’t want to spend time on bad data or dead ends. 


The last word: now is the time to experiment. We are all navigating this new reality together, and audiences are less apt to expect perfection. They may be more receptive to new and innovative ideas, so anything you can do to bolster interactivity and disrupt “screen fatigue” while bringing people together virtually is likely worth the risk.

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If you liked this blog post, check out:

  1. What Will Nonprofit Sponsorships Look Like in 2021?
  2. 12 Sales Statistics to End Q3 on a High Note
  3. Why Are There So Many CMO Shifts Right Now?

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