How We Launched Our First Virtual Event

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There are definitely pros and cons to the fact that all events in 2020 are virtual. The WP Buffs team knew that in order for us to host a virtual event, it had to be special. It had to be unique, valuable, and targeted. So we decided to focus it on something we knew a lot about: managed recurring revenue.

Launching our first ever virtual event taught us an incredible amount. Overall, the event was a success. But just in case you wanted to break into the virtual event world (which we highly recommend) here are some of the things we learned from our experience.

Did you miss the event? Curious about what one of our sessions looked and sounded like? Check out Dean’s session on Accepting and Reducing Churn in MRR above or watch the entire event here.

📆 We started pre-planning the virtual event in June of 2020.

We created a #WPMRRVS Slack channel, purely dedicated to the Virtual Summit, on June 11th. That channel consisted of only the people that would be working on the event directly. That way, conversation about the event didn’t distract from our main services and the workday of our WordPress Engineers.

By June 25th, we had nailed down the following information: the date and time, how many speakers we wanted, what the general format should be, what we wanted our main giveaway to be, and what tools we would need. We found these to be the most critical pieces of information around which we could build the rest of the event.

At this point, we had general ideas about things like the announcement schedule, how we wanted to process registrations, that we wanted captioning. We also had some ideas floating around about marketing and speaker candidates/prerequisites.

One of the biggest decisions was to make the event completely free. We wanted to focus on making it great and providing a ton of value. We knew that if we did well, the real ROI would be the partnerships we would make through the event itself.

A screenshot of a Slack message where Joe proposes the idea of having attendees pay what they want, or makign the event free. There are 7 replies between Joe and Brian that are not visible.

Overall, we had nailed down the key points of the event within the first few weeks, but also had decided on some key factors that would make the event special:

  • It would be purely dedicated to content on MRR
  • We would invite speakers, rather than have open applications
  • We would not push an application for sponsors
  • That the entire event would be live-captioned (this is still not completely the norm, although a lot of events are moving in this direction)
Our takeaway: Spend time nailing down the most important things first (like what makes your event stand out) and build upon that. Stick with that foundation throughout. You want to always be moving forward, not backwards.

 📝 More robust planning went underway in July, August, and September.

It is safe to say that we spent a solid 12 weeks planning this 2-day event. Looking back, it seemed like the perfect amount of time for an event of this size and complexity. We were lucky enough to be working with Brian Richards from WPSessions, who helped us clear many hurdles that might have taken us longer on our own.

The event website

The website was completed around July 13th, about 4 weeks into the planning phase. Prevalent on the site were:

  • A countdown to the date and time of the event
  • Some copy explaining exactly who this event was for and what content to expect
  • Headshots/names/companies of the speakers
  • A schedule (with times) of their sessions
  • Details about our partner charity

We chose to use our existing domain – wpmrr.com – which used to be for our course. Because the content was very similar (MRR), we swapped out the content instead of creating a separate/new domain name. Overall, the event served as a replacement for the course. It just made more sense to put it here, rather than creating a new page on wpbuffs.com.

The speakers

We decided to invite speakers rather than open up an application. We did this to keep things simple for our first year; we could accomplish our goals without adding more administrative complexity. It’s much easier and faster to hand-pick and bring the speakers in we knew would do a great job. This allowed us to focus more on other details. This did mean that our speaker selection was limited to our individual networks. Next year, we are thinking of opening up the application more widely to get a more diverse range.

We aimed to reach out to the most diverse pool of speakers possible; an even mix of male/female and as many POC individuals as we could find. Out of the 14 speakers who ended up signing on, half were female. Unfortunately only 4 were people of color.

Each speaker’s session, as well as their introduction, was pre-recorded. In the end, Brian stitched all the sessions and all my intros as the host together. The event played as one huge video, with breaks after each session for live Q&A.

We used a simple yet robust spreadsheet to keep track of:

  • Full name
  • Main contact e-mail
  • Confirmation status
  • Delivery (live or pre-recorded)
  • Talk title
  • Talk description
  • Position & company
  • Twitter handle
  • Personal URL
  • Short Bio
  • Any pertinent scheduling Notes
  • Speaker slide link
  • Provided recording (Y/N)
  • Tech rehearsal (Y/N)

As someone who loves a good spreadsheet and detailed, organized information, working in this spreadsheet was one of my favorite parts of the event personally. While Brian was the primary speaker contact, I needed to write my session intros and Meghan, who manages our social media, needed to develop social media content around the event.

This spreadsheet allowed us all to work together and get access to accurate speaker information.

Our takeaway: Consistent communication with speakers is key. Make sure they understand well ahead of time what the expectations are. Keep detailed and public (to your team) records of who is talking about what, and what information may be missing.

The schedule

One of the biggest challenges that come with a virtual event is the fact that people cannot typically stop their lives to tune in for the whole event! We chose a 2-day format, which hopefully allowed people to pop in when they could. Still, we managed to pack a ton of content into those two days!

A screenshot of a Slack message from Brian that reads "It's happening!" The message also contains a screenshot of his calendar, which shows 2 full days blocked off entirely by WPMRRVS sessions from 9am to 5pm.

We may in future do a longer conference. 2 days was the perfect size for us this year; it was focused and concise and manageable for our team. We are curious to see what more we can do next year, or what the WordPress community would want in 2021!

Our takeaway: No matter what schedule/format you choose, do you best to pinpoint start and end times down as closely as possible. That way, you can tell guests to arrive at a specific time for a specific session and allow them to interact with the event in the way they want to.

Online registration

It was decided very early on that registration would correspond to a charitable donation. We were somewhat inspired by Pressnomics, which donates $10,000 every year. We landed on Lawyers for Good Government, and gave $1 from each registrants to the organization. This went very well, although we did not leverage the organization as much as we could. At the last minute, we asked them for some promotional material to use and it was a bit too late. We would have loved to have given them more attention earlier in the process.

We used WooCommerce to process registrations. However, we realized in retrospect that it was not the best tool for this purpose. WooCommerce was not built to be a free ticketing or registration system; it was built for online stores! While it worked, a much more elegant system is on the horizon for next year. To get it to work the way we wanted, Brain had to do quite a bit of work on the backend to make it all gel.

Brian also custom-built how we handled authentication of viewers on the live broadcast. He wrote a very tiny utility plugin to ask for the viewer’s email address. If it was found as a registered user we granted access to the content, otherwise we invited them to register and return to the live broadcast. We made sure the attendee experience was as frictionless as possible by allowing us to pass their known email straight-through in the link in their reminder email to join the event, meaning these attendees never even saw the form and went straight to the broadcast. We didn’t need true, full authentication so it was nice to be able to something lightweight while still ensuring everyone actually registered for the event.

We ended up with a weird user flow with registration vs registering on the day-of. The system we had ended up being a little too complex for what we needed.  We tried to utilize WooCommerce based on Brian’s past experience with similar events that sold tickets. But considering that the event was free, it makes more sense next year to use a form plugin that is connected to our other systems, like Convertkit.

Our takeaway: It’s a better idea to use a basic form builder plugin, then connect that to user registration, our mailing list subscription, the confirmation page, etc.

A screenshot of a Slack message from Brian where he sends the registration link, and link to the order confirmation page. He also explains how we are using WooCommerce with "a boatload of magic" added to teh product cart in order to customize the cart. He explains all the custom CC he wrote and makes suggestions to improve it. Overall, it's a long and complicated message.

Marketing the event

One of the first things we did to promote the event was reach out to publications, newsletters, and websites in the WordPress space who might help us spread the word about the event. We reached out to WP Weekly, MasterWP, The Repository, and PostStatus among others. All were kind enough to feature us!

A screenshot from a Post Status email that reads: WPMRR Virtual Summit (September 23rd and 24th.) Free, online. The focus will be "100% focused on helping you make monthly recurring revenue work for your WordPress business.” Scroll down the homepage where they publicly list the MRR (monthly recurring revenue) numbers from the speakers who will be participating!

 

One thing that bummed us out was not being featured on WP Tavern. We noticed, before and after our Summit, that many other indie WordPress events were featured on the popular blog. We reached out to them weeks prior and never heard back. Our theories include the fact that we didn’t have sponsors backing us, our event was more conceptual (vs. a product-based event like the amazing Page Builder Summit, which did get a write-up), and we had fewer speakers that were not as well known in the community.

Regardless of this, we were moved by the amount of support and excitement we got from the WordPress community as a whole.

Our takeaway: Utilize your community when launching a virtual event – you are offering value, so there is no shame in respectfully asking people to share that value with people who might want it.

We worked hard to develop a social media schedule of announcements that was flexible enough for a live event. We carefully segmented what posts we wanted to schedule, and what we wanted to do live.

Our social media manager, Meghan, was live both days, interacting with people on social media. We developed a set of contests we wanted to host in order to encourage interaction and give away prizes. We prioritized the timing of the event – counting down on social media as well as indicating when each speaker would be on.

Looking back, we could have done more with e-mail. We did e-mail attendees with pertinent reminders and information, but we were not as consistent or involved with our email list as we could have been. We also dropped the ball a bit on paid advertising. Brian highly recommenced Facebook ads, but we didn’t do it. Joe had ethical and moral qualms about advertising on Facebook. Next year, however, we may give it a shot.

The tools that we used

Overall, we were very happy with the technology that we chose to make the event happen:

  • Vimeo: Brian used Vimeo to live-broadcast out the content. The video was embedded on our live page. Their live player experience is phenomenal and the chat widget is very well built. Both are accessible to screen readers and keyboard navigation.
  • Zoom: For live Q&A portions, a live Zoom feed was broadcast out over Vimeo so attendees could see and hear.
  • Typeform: We used Typeform to create robust and beautiful feedback forms for speakers, and for the event as a whole.
  • Production stuff from Brian
  • WordPress!: The registration, landing page, and live page were all built on top of our existing WordPress website. This gave us a ton of control over the layout, design, and usability of the site.
Our takeaway: Working with someone like Brian meant that all the technical aspects are taken care of. We thoroughly tested our systems with each speaker, to make sure that on the day-of, there are no technical issues.

 🚫 Not everything goes right with any event, no matter how much you plan.

You can spend a whole year preparing. There are always factors outside of your control. A few times over the course of planning (and hosting!) the event we were forced to pivot. While everything turned out okay in the end, here is how we dealt with those circumstances.

WCEU Went Virtual

We had initially planned on giving away a free trip to WordCamp Europe. This was when that event was still slated to take place in Portugal, prior to the global pandemic. The day before we announced our event, WCEU decided to go virtual (with very good reason). But there went our nice big prize!

We got quite a few messages, kindly informing us that our prize was technically impossible. We removed the section on the landing page that talked about the trip. And we were quite focused on other planning pieces that we did not figure out plans for a new grand prize until much, much later. It probably hurt our marketing just a little bit that we didn’t have a gorgeous big-ticket item to promote as a prize.

Our takeaway: Have a few ideas for prizes and gifts, even if you only give away one. If something doesn’t work out, you have others to use as backup!

A speaker dropped out

Unfortunately, one of our speakers needed to back out at the last moment. This happens for all kinds of events all the time. But this meant we had a full time slot that was now empty. We improvised and Brian chatted for that time about MRR and virtual events. But there was a bit of a scramble to figure out what to do and what we would do or talk about. That talk ended up being a hit (we got a behind-the-scenes look at Brian’s workstation!) But it would have been smoother to have a backup speaker session to play instead.

Our takeaway: Always have backup speakers for events. This is common for many WordCamps and WordPress-focused events! It just makes sense.

Signup issues

Right when we opened up registration, people started telling us that their session would prematurely expire! It was incredibly frustrating, as our sign up process seemed fairly simple to us. Luckily, we were able to troubleshoot together in Slack and even team up with our host, Kinsta, to determine what we needed to do in order to resolve the issue. We should have done some more robust testing ahead of time to make sure that the registration process would work smoothly for everyone.

A screenshot of a Slack message from Brian where he explains what is happening with the "session expired" issue. He explains what the problem is, that he is going to do some research, and then 7 minutes later, explains that it's a caching issue, and says "my tentative idea of triggering empty_cart could still solve this for us."

Our takeaway: Test, test, test! We tested the signup internally, but it would have also been a good idea to ask a few trusted partners to register before the page was live, just to make sure.

Day-of technical difficulties

On the first day of the event, a few sessions in, suddenly the stream was interrupted! No one could see or hear the session. It only lasted about a minute, since Brian was able to address it pretty quickly.

Basically, a button got pushed that should not have. A small, simple error brought down the whole livestream. But given that Brian was 100% focused on the stream (not needing to multi-task by hosting simultaneously) he was able to jump into a solution.

A screenshot of a Slack message from Brian at 12:29pm that reads: "Stream interruption. Fixing it." At 12:30pm he says "Should be fully recovered now" followed immediately by a screenshot of a graph, titled Stream metrics, showing a huge dip in bitrate (from 6,000 to zero) and drop in frame rate (25 to zero) over the span of about a minute.

Our takeaway: Don’t sweat the technical difficulties. They will happen, and all you can do is react. In order to minimize the number of tech issues that pop up, don’t multitask; hire a professional!

✅ The event took place at the end of September.

Overall, the event went off without a hitch! It was by no means perfect. There were things – like the design/layout of the live page – that waited until the last minute. And it showed a little bit. It definitely helped to have more than half of the event be pre-recorded. Lots  and lots of planning and communication ahead of time meant that we just sat back and let everything go!

Brian was essentially the event DJ, making sure that the proper videos got played at the proper times. As the host, all I had to do was hop in and out for the live Q&As with the speakers. Alec, our Head of Growth, manned the chat and made sure that questions got answered and people were engaging. Our social media manager, Meghan, was on Twitter, posting about the sessions, retweeting people, and giving out prizes. We were a pretty well-oiled machine and everyone had a role to play. Occasionally, there would be miscommunications about who would do what or when. Next year, we’ll make sure to be even more specific about which roles – no matter how small – fall on which shoulders.

Our takeaway: We did try to do too much the week before the event, like building out the entire live page. This made the day-of stressful in some ways because we had to focus on the event, and not making tweaks or updates. Plan ahead, so the day-of can be pure fun!

💡In October, we are reviewing and revising

We have every intention to host this event again next year. We were slightly below our goal number of registrants (1,000) but we do believe be put on a good show. For a first-time event, we are quite proud of our numbers and excited to grow them next year.

Our event statistics

Day 1:

  • Total viewers: 386
  • Peak viewers: 107
  • Average watch time: 01:01:05
  • Total minutes watched: 23.6k

Day 2:

  • Total viewers: 187
  • Peak viewers: 61
  • Average watch time: 01:18:57
  • Total minutes watched: 12.8k

Our takeaway: As you can see, viewership definitely dropped off in the second day. This means that next year, we will pay extra special attention to providing unique content on Day 2 that will keep people coming back for more.

We had a little while to celebrate our achievement and pat each other on the back. But the work was not yet done. We had a whole host of tasks to do to really close out the event, and make sure things were settled.

A screenshot of a Slack message from Joe. He provides a task list of 6 "house cleaning" items for Allie to work on, like adjusting links and dates, now that the event is over.

Follow up email

The way we followed up in the days after the event will have a large impact on getting a head start there.

We sent an email out to our attendees, thanking them for attending. We felt it was incredibly important to follow up with people afterwards and express our gratitude, as well as provide them with the recordings and any other pertinent information.

A screenshot of our follow up email with a huge thank you GIF, information on how to find the recordings on YouTube, and a link to the feedback survey.

We also included a feedback survey within the follow-up email. The survey did not get a lot of responses. At least not nearly as many as we had hoped. Next year we hope to streamline it and make it more simple to fill out. We also sent out an email when the recordings were available on our YouTube channel. After the event, Brian connected up all the sessions and Q&A sessions to make individual videos that we could share. This ability to provide asynchronous content was extremely important to us.

Our takeaway: The relationship isn’t over after closing remarks – keep engaged with attendees and continue to provide value!

Internal review

A week after the event was over, we met up for an internal review. Joe, Brian, Alec and I all shared what we thought could have been better. We made a long list, and among that list was the following:

  • Things we mentioned in Slack early either didn’t get done, or got done very late
  • We had a master doc, but didn’t reference it much
  • We failed to prioritize accessibility on our landing page and live stream page

We got a lot of feedback that the live Q&As were incredibly valuable. Next year, we may decide to launch a pop-up Facebook group or Slack channel so that attendees and speakers can interact even more. We may want to incorporate more sponsors so that we can do more. We want to up the technological features, like providing an RSVP feature for specific sessions on the schedule. We also talked a lot about sponsorships. We ended up reaching out to SiteGround, one of our partners, at the last minute. And they contributed some prizes toward the event. But it was clear to us that we should have tackled this sooner, at the very least.

 🧐 Overall…

A gif of people cheering with the caption We Did It! in glittery letters

We are so proud of this event, and are excited for it to evolve. We want to challenge ourselves again and build off what we learned. Our core values will remain the same – high value, great MRR content, diverse range of speakers. Onward and upwards!

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