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Since the beginning of time, we’ve been meeting in person. But the rise of tech and the rise of COVID changed the landscape, creating ripple effects for how we engage and learn. COVID forced many events and conferences to become virtual, giving organizers an opportunity to promote in new ways. A large majority of them realized that they could effectively reach an audience at a fraction of the cost and at a fraction of the logistics to pull off an event.
The problem with virtual events is the thinking that “If I build this great event, people will come.” What I’ve seen in the data suggests that’s not always true. If you want to put that time, energy, and money into making something great, the first thing to figure out is how to get what you’re promoting to the right people.
This is a classic concept in marketing: getting the right message to the right client at the right time. And while we were assuming we could do this through traditional digital marketing means ––and I still recommend that you do––the power of AI being built into the fabric of programmatic advertising is so good that it can’t be ignored.
Programmatic advertising spend is on the rise. 75% of marketing executives report that 50% or more of their campaign spend is already allocated toward programmatic advertising, and 70% expect programmatic advertising spend to increase a lot or a little over the next 12 to 48 months.
So what could you do with this piece of technology when harnessed correctly?
4 Critical Points About Successful Advertising to Promote Virtual Events
As a digital marketer with over 21 years of experience running an award-winning agency, I’ve seen incredible paradigm shifts in how technology can amplify messaging. But it’s critical to attack this in the right way or else you risk becoming a needle in a stack of needles.
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So here are my top four pieces of advice for how to maximize the use of AI-based programmatic advertising to promote virtual events.
- Setting your goals with enough runway to succeed. In the ideal sense, if you can do SEO effectively, you should do so. But you should also know that there have been several studies by people with large budgets that talk about how long it takes to rank for coveted keywords. A few caveats:
- I do think it’s possible to get your event brand to rank on SEO. This is assuming you didn’t call your event “Marketing” or another inflexible name AND that you have the runway time.
- Low-competition and long tail keywords can take 90-120 days to rank. More highly competitive keywords can take nearly a year to rank. So if you have that kind of lead time, SEO could be your thing. If not, you’ll have to figure out ways to speed up that process.
- One obvious answer would be social media and particularly paid social media, but most would go to traditional digital advertising routes––Google, Bing, etc. And then there is probably the most ignored (either because it’s new or because people don’t know how to wield it yet): programmatic advertising.
Some of the benefits of programmatic advertising include:
- Targeting is second-to-none
- Real-time AI auto-bidding
- Ability to write native content in text form
- Pivoting & speed
Phased Advertising Approach to Promote Virtual Events
The first thing you have to know is when you need to get the seats for your event sold. What I’ve learned about ads is that those who do them well figure out what sticks in terms of messaging and then adjust. Whether you’re doing that manually or with programmatic advertising, you need enough time. If you don’t give yourself enough time, you’ll get way fewer results. The key is figuring out when you need all of your seats sold and working backward from there.
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You could break this down into 3 main phases:
Discovery & Awareness Phase
What I would suggest is to put a lot of money in at the beginning. This investment gives you the speed to learn your audience: how are they gravitating toward your content? What do the impressions look like? What’s the CTR? If you know these things, you still have time to double down on what’s working and discard what isn’t. The goal here is to learn.
Please note that when you’re still in the awareness stage, you won’t entirely know whether this works because the digital indicators can be misleading, i.e. some are just subscribing for interest or more information such as speakers, event slots, etc. but may not be buying a ticket at that stage. The event is still too far off and potential attendees may be trepidatious about scheduling far in advance.
Sustained Digital Advertising Phase
This is mostly an active phase between the initial event push and the event date itself. This is where you’ll be adjusting and implementing a wait-and-see approach to how your ads are performing. You won’t be spending as much money here except to sustain the current ads approach you’ve chosen.
Finish Line Phase
And the third thing is you should be putting a lot of money in at the end, too. The reason why you do this at the end is that you’ve probably learned a ton, but people often put off buying tickets closer to an event. This is because people are afraid to book something so far in advance due to scheduling. Think of this as a last push to call them to action.
Future Retention and Post-Event Phase
After the event comes a kind of fourth phase where you’ll want to advertise to the people who didn’t or couldn’t show up to the virtual event. They’ll want to watch videos and recordings of keynote speakers and other engagements, or download resources, which is great because it gives your event a little boost by staying at the forefront of peoples’ minds for next year and provides alternate revenue streams.
Post-event opportunities for monetization. After the event, you should embrace other opportunities for monetizing your event and instilling brand loyalty including free previews for recordings of speakers and engagements that can be unlocked in full for a price. You should charge these similarly to the live event price to make sure that people aren’t incentivized to skip the event if they know they can just watch it for free later.
One of the best examples of this is how the Content Marketing Institute puts on their annual event. They strategically release 15-minute segments of their keynote speakers after the event which hook viewers who can unlock the full 40-minute speech for a price. Keep in mind, the Content Marketing Institute is not a virtual event, but the same idea applies.
Essentially, you’ll want a high initial investment to drive awareness and a high closing investment to drive a buying decision and explore opportunities to monetize your virtual event after it’s happened. The tactics should change depending on where people are in their buyer’s journey.
- Developing a scalable message. One of the biggest distortions in marketing is that we believe we can hit a home run at will when it comes to messaging. The reality is you start with best practices and hope you have a medium that when the world responds to it initially, you can adjust through A/B testing and other means. You want to see how the data presents itself, double down on what works, and adjust and possibly dismiss what doesn’t. One of the pitfalls is that you can get emotionally attached to one message or one approach, it ends up not working, but you keep trying to shove it down peoples’ throats. It’s braver to be honest and trash things that need trashing. But once you’ve nailed that critical message, start to really hone in on it and double down as opposed to creating a new bundle of messages.
This is what Larry Kim means when he says: “When you find a unicorn, go make baby unicorns.”
The point is that when you have a unicorn message, you shouldn’t be going out to make another and another. Unicorns are rare for a reason––they are not easily crafted. So you’ll want to keep the core message that resounds with your audience, and create spokes or supporting content that loops back to that core message on your social media pages, your website, your ads, your promo videos, and your marketing automation so that you’re known for one thing and your audience sees it at least seven times. It’s like what Tony Robbins says: “Repetition is the mother of skill.”
A beautiful, engaging core message can get lost by chasing the next and the next and the next hit. Build upon and double down on the message that connects.
Pay attention to what’s working for your own campaigns as well as the rest of your team and communicate. Messaging that’s resonating with email and social media campaigns could be just as effective to promote virtual events.
- Targeting. While there are many ways to target, we have found that programmatic ads are most effective. Data suggests that when we think of ads, we think of traditional networks (Google display, social media advertising, etc.) but that’s only 30% of the WWW.
The other 70% is called open internet. Essentially what you’re able to do there is find very specific, niche-level websites that allow you to use programmatic advertising. But here’s where programmatic ads show off their true power: in the targeting.
Here’s an example. The reason why we love LinkedIn advertising is because LinkedIn is the internet’s largest Rolodex. And through the power of Linkedin you’re able to market to people based upon their business title, what company they work for, what region, etc.
The problem with LinkedIn is that we don’t live there, we sort of just dabble there. And because you’re only there for a limited time, your audience only gets limited exposure to you, so you have to make every second count. That’s why, among other reasons, LinkedIn ads are expensive.
Now imagine the targeting power of LinkedIn, but allowing your ads and native ads to display in the open internet. You could target your potential clients as they surf on the WWW, but it doesn’t stop there––you could also target your audience on podcast ads, connected TV, and even through advanced geotargeting approaches.
- Pivoting & Speed. There are a lot of great entrepreneurs that say: “Try to fail as quickly as possible.” Essentially, you don’t want to find out you dumped a lot of time, energy, and money into something that eventually doesn’t work. When you think about traditional digital advertising, your knee-jerk reaction is you think it’s fast because you’re comparing it to SEO, which is very slow.
A good traditional digital marketing ad campaign can take up to a year to really hone. And you’re only as good as your digital ad specialist. But they’ve got a lot on their plate: not only crafting the messaging, but determining where the message will be displayed, and how to create a budget for your message that is patient enough to be effective but nimble enough to pivot.
And most event organizers only have a month or two to promote virtual events.
With programmatic advertising, those challenges are still there, but because of the advent of AI-powered ads, many parts of the approach are handled through machine learning. The AI uses device user behavior (called Page Context AI) to serve your audience ads and position them where they’re most likely to respond. They can also do real-time AI-based auto-bidding and use responsive ads to create multiple variations of your ad to find the best fit to reach your target audience.
If set up correctly, your ads should get more effective every month and should result in a cheaper ad placement price. Keep in mind this could require asset rotation and manual optimization. But this ultimately means you could save money or gain more reach for your budget. When you compare this to the traditional method, the speed comparison isn’t even close. AI can do in minutes what would take a person days, weeks, or months to do manually.
The only caveat is this: while programmatic ads might seem like a silver bullet, the ad specialist who runs them has to be extremely smart about the idiosyncrasies of what makes them work best. This isn’t just dumping ads according to a budget and letting the AI run–it needs human finesse on the platform to make sure it’s running effectively and that content is provided in a scalable way.
It’s a way stronger tool, but you need someone trained enough, with certifications, to wield it.
I would recommend before you try to take this on yourself as a company, to speak to a specialist.
Advertising at a New Level For Virtual Events
To wrap up: I’m a huge fan of virtual conferences, but I really feel like there are so many great conferences out there that’ll never be seen or heard, not because they aren’t great but because they weren’t able to get the right message to the right audience at the right time. That’s a shame. It’s my hope that if you can step outside the traditional digital ads approach, you can understand how AI could take a bite out of this problem, and help you promote virtual events.
I’ve seen companies that have very clear goals and timelines develop a scalable message, target the most powerful stakeholders and influencers quickly and effectively, and use the power to pivot within AI technology to stay within budget. I’ve helped other companies reach the goals you want. You can reach them too, and I think this will help.
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