By Taylor Gallagher, Senior Account Manager
Although many US cities have started to lessen COVID-19 restrictions, large scale get-togethers remain on hold for the foreseeable future. This has required PR and marketing professionals—especially those who work with consumer or entertainment-focused brands—to entirely shift strategy. We’ve had to rethink how to maintain branded events to stay relevant and continue raising awareness during a volatile, yet vital, time. Enter virtual consumer events.
While platforms like Zoom quickly emerged as the go-to tools for daily communications, the pandemic also drove us to find new ways to implement events and create engaging content to share (or stream!) across owned social channels as a means to educate, connect and entertain target consumer bases.
With free access to platforms like Instagram Live, Facebook Live and more, there is no reason we shouldn’t be testing the virtual event waters more during these changing times.
With this in mind, SHIFT’s consumer team proposed and planned Foxwoods Resort Casino’s first ever virtual event, the Live Out Loud Virtual Drag Happy Hour. We collectively thought it was the best way to both connect with onsite guests (as Foxwoods is currently open at a reduced capacity) as well as existing and new audiences who’d prefer to tune in from the comfort of their homes.
Given the uncertain nature of the pandemic, many events will likely continue to be virtual. At minimum, they’ll look very different, even as we slowly emerge from current social distancing restrictions. That said, here are some of our best practices for hosting a successful, consumer-facing virtual event:
- Determine programming that fits your target audience (and make it interactive!): Attention spans, especially for those tuning in via phone screens, tend to be short. It’s important to capture attention from the get-go and ensure viewers remain engaged throughout the event. For our Virtual Drag Happy Hour, our target audience were those in (and supporters of) the LGBTQ+ community in New England. We tapped several personal contacts within the community to align on content that would best resonate. We ended up moving forward with a lineup of eye-catching drag performances, a mixology class and interactive pride-themed charades. We also incorporated a variety of giveaways throughout to ensure continued viewing and participation.
- Find an appropriate venue: The proper spot from which to host virtual consumer events can vary greatly, depending on its type and size as well the event activity. If the event is more of a tutorial, such as a cooking class, it could be streamed from a home kitchen. For a performance that will be filmed in front of a small (socially distanced!) crowd, you need to find a venue with a stage that’s outfitted with audio and visual equipment. No matter the venue selected, make sure the background is clear, visual and well-lit—and don’t forget to ensure that any in-person participants are appropriately socially distanced!
- Choose the best online platform: Since most livestreaming services have the same basic features, the best way to determine the right streaming platform for your event is to think about where your target consumer congregates and feels most comfortable. For us, that meant Instagram Live – however, other platforms we considered included Facebook Live, YouTube Live, Google Hangouts and Zoom, to name a few.
- Determine timing and potential conflicts: First, determine the day/time that will resonate best with your target consumer base. With that in mind, research to ensure there are no existing conflicts, including religious holidays, competitive events, or other major consumer activations. Given the happy hour theme of our event, we originally chose a Friday from 6-7pm. However, during the planning process, the event was ultimately pushed to Saturday due to the announcement of the NAACP’s 2020 Virtual March on Washington.
- Find the right host: For consumer-facing events, it is of the utmost importance to have a fun, lively and engaging event host who is both eloquent and able to quickly think on their feet should any unforeseen issues arise. To ensure they’re comfortable, the host should be equipped with an event run-of-show, suggested talking points and key event/brand messaging to review in advance. However, be clear that they should stay true to their own personal brand and personality—and not read off a script—as this will affect the event’s overall tone. Our host for the Virtual Drag Happy Hour was NYC-based drag queen extraordinaire Coco Taylor. We also tapped local drag queen Coleslaw to DJ. Coco was the perfect choice given her showmanship. Having Coleslaw join gave Coco another person to engage with on camera, which made the event feel more natural.
- Loop in other teams and partners: When planning a large-scale consumer event, it’s always a good best practice to tap other teams. For instance, to help bring the Virtual Drag Happy Hour together, we worked hand-in-hand with Foxwoods’ social and advertising teams for paid support. Foxwoods’ entertainment team helped with logistics and event setup, and we collaborated with outside brand partners for props and prizing.
- Create a run-of-show and hold a run-through: Like fully in-person events, it’s important to hold a run-through to walk all involved parties through the run-of-show and to uncover potential issues. This includes ensuring the physical venue is appropriately outfitted with the technology needed and furniture is socially distanced. It includes testing that outside participants can successfully access the live stream. This is also a great time for the host and other participants to practice transitions between different programming elements so that it goes smoothly day-of.
- Be prepared for tech issues—and have a backup plan: Even if you prepare and practice, there is always the possibility of technical issues with virtual events. Whenever possible, try to foresee what types of problems could keep you from successful event execution. Whenever possible, use a hardwired connection instead of Wi-Fi to avoid a poor or unreliable connection. It’s also vital to have a backup plan. For instance, when our hired videographer had difficulties with his audio output as the event was kicking off, Foxwoods’ social media manager stepped in and streamed the event live from her iPhone. In the end, this ended up being the better option as she was able to get closer to the action and the event felt more authentic vs. the original, more professionally branded feed.
- Get the word out: Once all the main details have been determined, it’s time to do what we do best: spread the word! It’s important to promote the event in as many ways as possible, including traditional media outreach (in which you can ask media to both pre-promote and attend/cover the event), targeted influencer campaigns, earned and paid social media promotion, leveraging paid spend with applicable media partners, e-blasts and more. For the Virtual Drag Happy Hour, given our target audience, we also reached out to regional LGBTQ+ organizations to invite their members to attend virtually, given the drastic dip in pride-themed events this year.
- Record the event—and repurpose the footage: Once the camera turns off, the event’s shelf life doesn’t need to end. Make sure that the event is recorded and shared across social channels, so that those unable to attend can still engage. Since our Virtual Drag Happy Hour took place on Instagram Live, it still lives on Foxwoods’ Instagram page—and the video has had an additional 4,000 views post-event (their most-viewed IGTV to-date)! The footage can also be used to promote similar upcoming events and serve as a reminder of the types of fun events guests can expect in the future.
We believe virtual consumer events will be valuable components to any PR strategy moving forward, even after social distancing restrictions lift and people feel safe. Keep these tips in mind to ensure your virtual events go off with a bang.