Every year, the WriterGirl team looks forward to our busy schedule of conferences and events. It’s an opportunity to catch up with colleagues, connect with clients and meet new faces in the healthcare world.

But this year, COVID-19 changed all that. Now, all of our networking, connecting and happy hours were suddenly made virtual. And while WriterGirl has plenty of experience with remote collaboration, a virtual conference was totally new to us.

We learned a lot from our first event.

But why keep those learnings a secret? We wanted to share a bit of our experience as an exhibitor and participant and some of the virtual conference best practices we’ll be keeping in mind for the future.

Our first virtual conference: HMPS 2020

First, we’ll give a little background about the virtual event.

The annual Healthcare Marketing & Physician Strategies Summit (HMPS) is typically held in the spring. But amidst COVID-19, organizers delayed the conference date to August 18-20 and shifted to a virtual platform.

As an exhibitor, we had a virtual booth we could customize with our branding and content, such as videos and pdfs. Our VPs of client partnerships, Kirsten Lecky and Reba Thompson, would manage the booth during conference hours and be available to chat with attendees or answer questions.

WirterGirl's virtual conference booth at HMPS 2020

Our virtual booth at HMPS 2020

Conference attendees could visit booths in the virtual exhibit hall at any time during the day, although there were specific exhibiting hours set aside for browsing vendor booths. Whenever a visitor would enter our booth, Kirsten and Reba would hear the “ding-dong” of a doorbell (the doorbell was a fun surprise and a nice touch). Then, they could engage the visitor with a chat message or leave them to browse our content.

Lesson 1: Do your homework

The HMPS conference organizers did a great job creating training materials and webinars to show exhibitors how to use the platform and what the experience would be like for attendees. They also gave vendors early access to the platform to learn the various features.

“When you’re thinking about how to structure your virtual booth, keep in mind what the overall conference experience will be for attendees,” Kirsten says.

If you’re planning to exhibit at a virtual conference, be sure you take advantage of any training materials, Q&As or pre-event meetings. It’s essential to know how to use the technology so you can effectively engage with clients and potential customers.

Understanding what the user will experience can help you create better goals and expectations for the event. You’ll also be able to prepare the right type of content to feature at your booth, which leads us to our next lesson.

Lesson 2: Keep your content simple

“A virtual conference is, by nature, an event where you’re constantly consuming content from your computer,” Kirsten says. “When it comes to the content at your booth, keep it simple.”

In this sense, virtual conferences are similar to in-person conferences. Most people who walk by a booth don’t want to pick up five or six different flyers with details about your business. They may want a business card, a piece of swag or a short conversation about your services.

When you’re prepping your virtual booth, remember that attendees have probably been sitting in front of a screen all day, watching keynotes and breakout sessions. They may not want to download a folder of .pdfs. Instead, use the virtual platform as an opportunity to highlight something you wouldn’t necessarily be able to showcase at an in-person event — a video, for example.

“Virtual conferences allow vendors to showcase different projects or content that may be difficult to share at a traditional event,” Reba says. “We saw a lot of people click on the video in the WriterGirl booth, something that wouldn’t have been easy to achieve at an in-person conference.”

Lesson 3: Shift your expectations and KPIs

This is a big one.

Virtual conference hosts are doing everything they can to mimic the feeling of an in-person event. But it’s still a vastly different experience. As a vendor, this should adjust your expectations and key performance indicators (KPIs).

“These events are still new to many of us — attendees and exhibitors — so you need to set realistic goals,” Reba says.

From a vendor standpoint, in-person conferences are typically focused on generating leads and making contacts that could turn in to potential sales. But will virtual conference attendees want to listen to a sales pitch? Do they want to be inundated with chat messages from vendors while browsing virtual booths?

“When you’re at an in-person conference, an attendee may feel more obligated to talk to the exhibitor when they stop in front of a booth,” Kirsten says. “It’s different in a virtual platform — attendees may just want to browse without having to chat.”

Virtual conferences — at least for now — may need to be considered more top-of-the-funnel marketing. Think newsletter sign-ups, video views or clicks on your digital content. Whatever your KPIs or benchmarks are, know that they’ll likely be different from your in-person events.

Lesson 4: Promote the event in advance

Sure, your current clients and contacts may not be able to stop by your booth in person, but why not encourage them to chat you with a “hello”? Virtual or otherwise, checking in with a client can help strengthen your professional relationship.

A few days before the virtual conference, reach out to your contacts via email to let them know you’ll be attending. You could consider offering a small gift card to any of your current customers who stop by the virtual booth.

And don’t forget about social media — find the hashtag for your event (like #HMPS20) and let your followers know that you’ll be at the conference and ready to connect.

Lesson 5: Find unique ways to engage with attendees

Although vendors have the opportunity to customize their virtual booths, the attendee’s experience will look similar from booth to booth. Thinking outside the box can help make your brand stand out.

One idea: Consider hosting a live happy hour with a random celebrity guest (it’s a thing). Or, host a virtual trivia or bingo game. You could offer prizes or raffle entries for people who attend.

It’s also important to think about how people can engage with you outside of the virtual platform. Creating a conference-specific landing page on your website could help you spread the word on social media and engage people who may not be attending the event. You can add a sign-up for your newsletter, a link to your blog or a download for a white paper. Don’t forget to use the conference hashtag!

Final thoughts for virtual conference hosts

Our first virtual conference was a great learning experience and we’re excited to take these lessons to our next event. Overall, the HMPS event coordinators did a nice job and we were impressed with what they were able to offer virtual attendees and vendors. And we loved that doorbell.

“From a user standpoint, I was pleasantly surprised with the HMPS experience,” Kirsten says. “It didn’t feel cumbersome and I felt comfortable using it.”

Moving forward, it will be critical for virtual conference hosts to make sure both the attendees and the vendors have a good experience. As financial supporters for these events, vendors need to feel like their time and effort is worthwhile. We encourage virtual conference hosts to think about ways to lift up their vendors and make it easier for them to engage with attendees.

And although we learned a lot from HMPS 2020, we still have a lot of questions about virtual conference best practices when it comes to approaching attendees.

“Attendees are bombarded by vendor messages, so what’s the best practice for approaching them?” Reba asks. “Should you be aggressive or should you keep it laid back? We’re still learning and finding the right balance.”

We’ll learn more as time goes on, but we’ll also look to conference hosts for their guidance on how vendors should behave during an event. Any advice will be welcome as we navigate these new (virtual) waters together.

What has your virtual conference experience been like? Share with us on Facebook, LinkedIn or Twitter — we’d love to hear from you! And if you’re looking for a content partner for your next event, WriterGirl is ready to jump in and help. Give us a shout any time.