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These E-commerce Lessons Can Help Make Any Virtual Event a Success

When the COVID-19 pandemic triggered lockdowns nearly two years ago, few industries experienced a bigger boom than eCommerce. As consumers socially distanced and avoided entering brick-and-mortar stores, they flocked to online retailers – and even after the pandemic ends, many shoppers plan to stick with the one-click convenience and efficiency that eCommerce provides.

According to research by eMarketer, global eCommerce sales surged 25.7% to reach $4.213 trillion in 2020. For 2021 the projections are a continued growth rate of 16.8%, amounting to $4.921 trillion in sales.

But while digital commerce has firmly cemented its place in the world’s new normal, many sectors have struggled to achieve as smooth a transition from pre-pandemic to post-pandemic operations. Case in point: the difficulties that organizers across industries have experienced in moving from in-person to virtual events and conferences. 

Of course, it’s not that organizers lack tools for hosting digital events. Indeed, the past two years have seen exponential growth in webinars, virtual conferences, and online trade shows. But keeping attendees interested and engaged has proven a tall order. Fortunately, organizers can draw plenty of inspiration from the eCommerce industry’s success in their quest to make virtual events more compelling. Here are four key takeaways.

Personalization is Key

A critical factor driving eCommerce adoption amid the pandemic is that online retailers have met customers where they are. But simply having an online presence isn’t enough. If you build it, shoppers won’t necessarily come – unless you’re convincing them that you have something unique and relevant to offer.

That’s where personalization comes in. eCommerce companies have invested massive sums in data analytics to better understand customer behavior and intent and to provide tailored offers and promotions that inspire shoppers to convert. McKinsey estimates that companies that successfully implement personalization enjoy up to a 15% increase in revenue. That’s in no small part because in the age of tailored social media feeds and customized recommendations from the likes of Amazon and Netflix, most consumers – 80% – expect personalization as a basic standard of service. 

This expectation carries over into the events space. Getting someone to attend an event – and most importantly, keeping them engaged – requires organizers to understand precisely what their target audience wants. Each attendee should feel as if a virtual event has been designed as much for them as for the hundreds or thousands of other participants.

How can organizers make this possible? It’s essential to invest in target audience research and data analytics to develop content that reflects what will resonate with attendees. And personalization shouldn’t stop at that stage. For instance, once attendees have registered for a multi-session event, it’s a great idea to develop customized suggested itineraries individualized to each participant’s primary interests. Organizations can glean this information from survey data or customer analytics platforms. The more organizers make attendees feel like living, breathing individuals – not just statistics in an organization’s marketing system – the more people will want to sign up and stick around.

Audience Attention Is Fleeting – Prepare Accordingly

Signing up, of course, is one thing. Sticking around is another. Just like eCommerce shoppers who will abandon a site if faced with slow page load times or a subpar, difficult-to-navigate interface, virtual event attendees won’t hesitate to bug out if the event doesn’t hook them from the start and offer up a steady stream of scintillating content. Event organizers face plenty of competition for attendees’ attention – mobile phones, push notifications, other pages participants may have open on their desktops, and a plethora of other distractions. 

One way of grabbing and sustaining attention is through an intuitive, appealing user experience that empowers each audience member to easily navigate an event. Once again, this is where data proves its worth: It can help organizers pinpoint when attendees are logging off, at which points in an event they may have become exhausted or frustrated, and determine which content proved most resonant. Armed with these insights, organizers can optimize planning for their next event and design a program that participants won’t want to miss.

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Experiment with Cutting-Edge Technology and New Forms of Interaction

For event organizers hoping to learn from eCommerce, it’s crucial to remember that “eCommerce” isn’t a static technology. It encompasses a wide range of tools and tactics that evolve in response to technological innovations, changes in market conditions and shopper demands, and new research into behavioral psychology and user behavior. 

For example, many retailers have leveraged gamification to drive higher engagement and inspire conversions. From launching contests to win discounts to offering promotions in exchange for customers completing a set number of reviews, online businesses have found a wide range of ways to tap into the fun and excitement of competition. 

Virtual event organizers can do the same. Exclusive, closed-door sessions available only to those who have completed a given number of interactions or rewarding the most engaged attendees with one-on-one sessions with industry experts are but a few of the possibilities. Other ideas include event “wish lists” similar to those offered by eCommerce sites, with attendees able to select their preferred sessions ahead of the big event. (Of course, it’s vital to follow up with them to ensure they actually attend these sessions.) 

Infusing an event with advanced technologies shouldn’t be about trotting out technology for technology’s sake. Whatever features organizers decide to include, they should be integrated to create sleek, novel, and engaging experiences that help attendees get the most they possibly can out of a virtual event.

Replicate In-Person Experiences When Relevant

While virtual events have played an indispensable role in helping organizations sustain community and connection over the past two years, for many, these events are still a downgrade from live events. This presents organizers with a formidable challenge: How can they design experiences that transcend the four corners of a screen?

eCommerce retailers are providing customers with a human touch in the form of features like chatbots and virtual shopping assistants that can answer shopper questions throughout their online journeys – similar to how brick-and-mortar sales associates help guide shoppers through a store. 

For their part, virtual event organizers can turn to tactics like customized event guides and “fan club” sessions where headline speakers can share insights and answer questions among audience members who share the speakers’ primary interests or expertise. Fortunately, it’s easier – and far less costly – to arrange such sessions at virtual events than at in-person ones.

Finally, it’s critical to encourage engagement and dialogue so that participants feel as if they’re participating in a live event, in addition to consuming content online. Audience prompts, for example, can facilitate robust discussions and make it easier for attendees to network. Breaking up the event with lighter content – say, a comedian – offers an excellent way of creating an atmosphere of warmth, fun, and camaraderie, and it’s sure to provide fodder for plenty of conversation among participants.

Once an event ends, that shouldn’t be the end of the attendee’s experience. Following up is crucial, as in eCommerce. While most retailers ask about their customers’ experience, the potential here goes well beyond rating satisfaction levels. Engaging attendees with a post-event thank you and a way to provide feedback to improve the next session keeps them invested and engaged – and can help organizers elevate their next event.

In classic retail style, organizers should consider offering participants discounts to future events. This breeds brand loyalty, customer retention, high registration, and ultimately, event success.

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