Virtual conferences and trade shows are nothing new. However, online events are likely to grow even more popular as companies and major show producers test them out in 2020 due to social distancing measures. Many eyecare companies are producing virtual events for the first time, while others are building on their experience running smaller webinars or online gatherings to take large, in-person events online.
While no technology can truly replicate the experience of an in-person event (at least not yet!), virtual conferences offer some unique benefits—namely, cost savings. Due to the removal of logistical and cost barriers, online events can also help you reach a larger audience of eyecare professionals, or perhaps help you break into an international market.
This article will cover tips and best practices for hosting a successful virtual conference in the eyecare community—gleaned from our experience producing and promoting multiple virtual events!
Invest in superior software for your digital venue
Just like with an in-person event, the success of a virtual trade show is all about the experience. But for a virtual event, that means rather than worrying about venues or meal options, you’ve got to invest in superior software.
Think of this like building a new website from scratch. For a successful virtual event, you’re going to need compelling design, powerful integrations, and strong coding skills. If you’re outsourcing the creation of your virtual event, make sure to look at examples of previous events the team you’re working with has built. Is the website visually appealing? Are the exhibitors easily accessible? Are attendees able to interact with each other, speakers, and exhibitors?
When considering software, you want to ensure that the software will be able to provide both an incredible experience for the attendees, and a simple interface for your team to administer the solution with little to no friction in the process. The software should be able to tackle events that would range from:
- Digital conferences on ophthalmic lens technology and education
- Digital trade shows for ophthalmic surgical equipment (like ZEISS' Ophthalmic Virtual Experience—see below video)
- Digital trade shows for ocular pharmaceuticals
- Digital conferences on contact lens technology and education
The experience should be able to allow attendees to visualize your products, learn about your new technology and the benefit for their patients, and engage with your team to discuss specifics.
Each of these items is a crucial aspect for a successful event. To see this experience in action, watch the below highlight reel from ZEISS' Ophthalmic Virtual Experience, held in May 2020.
Use video conferencing and live chat to enhance the experience
Video conferencing allows attendees to interact directly with exhibitors and other optometrists, ophthalmologists, or eyecare professionals attending the event. This is especially useful for real-time Q&A sessions or presentations. By using Zoom or similar video conferencing tools, viewers can engage with presenters in real-time, popping questions in a chat box, responding to polls, or even asking questions via video.
While live sessions are typically best for driving engagement, don’t discount the power of a pre-recorded conference session! We’ve seen great success with pre-recorded video panels, as used in ZEISS’s Ophthalmic Digital Summits. These panels feature subject matter experts who can engage in real-time with attendees watching the videos—answering questions and providing examples in a text chat with other doctors.
For conferences hosted by a single company, consider adding live chat to engage with attendees in real-time as they explore the event. Olark is a great tool for that, and it’s not the only one.
However, if you’re hosting a virtual trade show with multiple exhibitors, you might want to give exhibitors their own ability to chat with attendees, which means building something custom or paying for individual licenses.
Remember: user experience deserves a large percentage of your time and resources. It can make or break your event, so don’t skimp here!
Experience is critical—we’re mentioning it again and again throughout this article, and this is why. Think about your experience using software like Facebook. It’s important that you follow some specific rules when designing an experience and a few of them are as follows:
- Navigating through your virtual experience should be intuitive: attendees should be able to understand where to find the information that they’re looking for very easily
- Keep it simple. Design should complement function. Don’t add features just to add them. Make sure that every feature you add is utility that will be needed by your attendees. Anything extra just causes more challenges rather than value for your guests.
- Think about the attendee first. When you’re designing your experience you should always be thinking about the experience for your attendees first, and then try and solve your business needs. A great attendee experience will lead to great business results.
- Think mobile. Having a great desktop is important, but having a great mobile experience is critical.
When building a conference schedule, be clear about the value you offer
Just like for an in-person conference, a broad “comprehensive eyecare education” value proposition is unlikely to motivate ODs and MDs to attend your sessions. Whether you’re an international lens manufacturer or a local optometry association, creating an education schedule is all about offering specific, relevant value to your attendees. Dedicated tracks on topics like practice finance, new developments in glaucoma treatment, or when to consider corneal collagen crosslinking, are specific and appealing.
Leverage your eyecare network when building a speaker list
In addition, a smart speaker list can be a draw in and of itself. Which doctors in your network have large followings and will help get the word out about your event? It might even be worth your time to go outside of optometry or ophthalmology to get a big-name keynote speaker for your event—this can create buzz and draw attendance. (Not to mention that a virtual conference is easier for anyone to attend, since they won’t need to travel!) If you have some budget to spend, you may even want to consider this list of celebrities with chronic eye conditions (who knew that Mila Kunis suffered from chronic iritis?!).
Think about the post-event experience
Finally, make it standard practice to record your virtual sessions. Even though it’s a virtual event and the cost and logistics barriers are lower, people might still be unable to attend real-time events. It’s easy to set up virtual sessions and panels to be recorded (platforms like Zoom do this automatically), and offer these recordings to attendees to watch after the sessions are over! Consider how this might integrate into your broader content or social media strategy and be strategic with how and where you release these high-value assets.
Bring the experience of exhibit halls online
Just because an event is virtual doesn’t mean that you won’t need to consider booth logistics and decor. While elements like signage and espresso bars are no longer possible, there are perhaps even more opportunities for exhibitors to create a custom look and feel for their booth when going digital. Think about how much you want to let your exhibitors customize their booths, and ensure you are clearly explaining the options.
For example, CovalentCareers built this custom booth for Walmart Health & Wellness as part of our 2020 Virtual Career Fair. The booth offers not just a live chat with an exhibitor representative, but a few giveaways and games. On the exhibitor side, Walmart was able to customize their booth colors to align with their branding and got a custom-illustrated version of their booth attendant.
Help your exhibitors help themselves
In many cases, exhibiting companies can serve as a powerful resource for gaining attendees. Exhibitors may target the same audience as your show (e.g., private practice owners or retinal surgeons) and are often eager for resources and tools that can help them draw attendees to their booth. Don’t be shy about equipping your exhibitors with templated emails, social posts, banners, and other material that they can use to promote the event to their network. They will be happy for the support!
At the same time, consider ways of encouraging attendees to visit exhibitor booths. Show-only specials are an effective, tried-and-true way to do that. When developing the show website, you’ll want to consider how to promote raffles and other “swag” to attendees to encourage user flow through the site. The rules for an in-person trade show still hold true: encourage your exhibitors to offer special show-only opportunities, like raffles or giveaways. You can also consider innovative ideas like hiding special codes throughout the show that unlock special discounts or offerings from exhibitors (another sponsorship opportunity!).
Develop a compelling marketing strategy
Marketing your event is essential to reaching attendance goals and ensuring ROI for your team’s investment in this event. Taking the time to develop and implement a well-considered strategy is essential.
As you start to consider how you’ll get the word out there, beware of this common trap: promoting the fact that the event is virtual as the main draw. The fact that you’re hosting a virtual conference—or any event for that matter—is absolutely meaningless in and of itself. Your message to prospective attendees should never be: “We’re hosting an event—online!—and you should come.” Instead, identify and clearly communicate the core value this virtual event is offering:
- How will this event benefit a practice’s bottom line?
- Will attendees take away clinical pearls that improve their skills?
- Are cutting-edge surgical techniques being discussed?
- Will exclusive equipment discounts be offered?
- Who else—leading retinal surgeons, employers looking for Associate ODs, cold start consultants—is attending?
Just because they’re all ODs or MDs doesn’t mean they want the same things
Having a detailed understanding of your target audience is critical to getting HCPs to register for and attend your event. If your marketing creative and messaging is bland and one-size-fits-all, you will inevitably struggle to reach attendance goals.
Take the time to consider your target audience and how your event offerings align with their concerns and desires. Are you trying to reach optometrists focused on dry eye or ophthalmologists looking to learn about the latest in minimally invasive glaucoma surgery? Or are you focused on new grad ODs or retail practice owners looking for the next best thing in lens technology? The more specific you can get, the more effective your marketing and event elements will be at attracting those HCPs to your event.
Of course, if you’re hosting a broader event, you may be trying to reach a variety of eyecare practitioners. In this case, take the time to segment your audience into two or more groups. For instance, you may choose to segment messaging and tactics for optical techs and opticians, or perhaps you build unique tracks for ODs employed at private or corporate practices. The more granular you are able to get, the better!
From there, identify clear personas and value propositions for each group and communicate those to all members of your event team—from your social media manager to your conference coordinator and web developer. Ensuring all stakeholders are clear will ensure maximal message alignment and the best event experience possible for your attendees.
Ads, social media, and word of mouth are still strong marketing channels
Everything you’ve already learned about event marketing holds true—PR, social media, and email marketing are still the typical channels and marketing tactics you should employ. In addition, consider how your existing web assets can be transformed to drive attendance. Native banners, pop-ups, and day-of ad takeovers can be extremely effective—even more so if you’re pairing your event with a big product launch or a timely blog post that you expect to garner significant pageviews.
In a tight-knit community like eyecare, word of mouth is another powerful tool in your marketing arsenal. Instagram and YouTube are rife with eyecare influencers. Consider working with them to reach your target demographic. For example, we reached out to fourth-year optometry students with active Instagram accounts to promote our 2020 Virtual Career Fair.
You may also want to consider advertising on or partnering with the many blogs and websites serving the eyecare industry (like CovalentCareers, of course)!
Virtual conferences are only going to get more popular in 2020 and beyond. They’re a great channel to experiment with, and they offer an unparalleled opportunity to connect eyecare practitioners from around the country or the world. By lowering the barriers to attendance and taking advantage of the technology available, you could even see your event attendance grow!