While COVID could have drawn us all further apart, instead it has opened up new opportunities to build relationships and connect in an online world. And events are one of the best ways to tap into those opportunities—that’s why we created this virtual events guide to help you make the most of them.

And jumping into virtual event planning and hosting is a trend you’ll want to try—an overwhelming 93% of event organizers are investing in virtual events post-COVID-19. The result? People are engaging with each other from all over the world, opening up global business opportunities, reaching new customers, and tapping into new markets.

So, you might be wondering, How do I host my own virtual event? If you want to drive your business goals while not depleting your resources, our Virtual Events Guide for Small Business Owners is the guide for you! It breaks down exactly how to create and run a successful online event no matter what you’re trying to achieve. 

You’ll walk away knowing all of the virtual event best practices including:

  • What a virtual event is
  • Why it’s valuable
  • How to host a virtual event
  • What platforms to use
  • The types of virtual events you should try
  • Examples of successful events

Now let’s get started!

What is a Virtual Event?

colorful illustration of virtual events concept on laptop with speech bubbles | Virtual Events Guide: Ultimate Playbook for Small Biz Owners

A virtual event is exactly what it sounds like. They are “similar to what networking or business events used to be,” says Dave Kohl from First in Promotions. The only difference is they are held entirely (or mostly) online by utilizing a technology platform—which we’ll talk about in a bit.

Virtual events can be conferences, symposiums, meetings, celebrations, seminars, trade shows, exhibitions, retreats, workshops, training programs, product launches, etc. As long as the event involves people interacting in a virtual environment on the web—rather than physically in-person—it’s a virtual event.

With these types of events, people can attend from the comfort of their work desk, living room, local coffee shop, or storefront. Distance doesn’t matter. All you need is an internet connection and an invitation to attend.

Virtual Events Are a Game-Changer for Small Business Owners

So why host a virtual event in the first place? Because virtual events have proven—over and over again—that you can form meaningful connections that foster belonging within any community, even if you meet solely online. They truly level the playing field.

It’s been “a great way to stay connected with others” and a “great networking opportunity,” says Alignable member Kristin Settelmayer from Revlocal. Not only do virtual events help you meet new people in your own community and beyond, but you can “establish some great relationships,” she says.

There are a staggering number of benefits to hosting and attending virtual events.

Connecting with others virtually is not just about seeing them but about the connection you can make personally with them.

In short, virtual events are just as valuable as in-person events as long as you know what you’re doing. That means understanding what your event is about, who it’s for, and why you’re doing it.

How to Host a Virtual Event as a Small Business Owner

two business owners high fiving each other in front of laptop | Virtual Events Guide: Ultimate Playbook for Small Biz Owners

So how do you host a successful virtual event as a small business owner? If you’ve ever hosted an in-person event—even a kid’s birthday party—you can host a virtual event.

The key is to break it down into three steps: before, during, and after the event

Before: How to Set Up Your Virtual Event 

For any event, planning takes the most work. The good news is that it’s far less prep work for the virtual world than for an in-person event. You’ll save valuable time and effort during the strategizing and planning stages while still reaping all the benefits. Done correctly, you’ll reach a huge audience and achieve your stated goals.

Make sure there is a purpose, and you are offering something useful to your audience

Here’s how to get started:

  • Choose a Topic: “Make sure there is a purpose, and you are offering something useful to your audience,” says Scott Sanchez from Firebrand Media. An emotionally compelling topic is critical.
  • Provide Value: What are your guests going to get out of your virtual event? Determine what value you’ll provide your audience, whether that’s learning new skills, generating leads, building their network, joining a community, etc. And make sure to explicitly declare the value of your event to attendees in every piece of marketing material.
  • Set Your Fee: Choose if and how you’re going to charge your audience for attendance. Will the event cost a small fee upfront, or is it free and you’ll upsell later?
  • Learn Your Technology: Choose a technology platform and then get to know it well, so things run as smoothly as possible. You should also learn your microphone since audio is essential.
  • Define Your Audience: Gather data about your audience so you know what they’re interested in and you can craft an event that they’ll want to attend.
  • Send Personalized Invitations: Create compelling, fun, and timely invitations that are personalized to each potential guest. The email should greet the attendee by name and include all necessary information, including key speakers, takeaways, and how to sign up. This personal touch is a great way to stand out and show attendees you care.
  • Reach Out Regularly: Use Alignable, LinkedIn, Meetup, Twitter, and local newsletters to find potential attendees, and then reach out regularly to gain interest.

During: How to Host Your Virtual Event on the Big Day

Hosting an online event might sound like a lot to handle, but it’s not as intimidating as you think. You’ve got this! In fact, with some practice, everything will run like clockwork. You just have to switch your mindset over from running around to check on catering and decorations to dealing with the intricacies of technology and coordinating people online. 

Here are some tips to host a virtual event that converts on the day of.

  • Embrace the Brady Bunch: Most technology platforms allow you to put everyone’s face in their own square so you can see all of the audience at once. Embrace this chaotic view; it’s far more personable.
  • Use Groups: Split your attendees into manageable, smaller groups and breakout rooms. The idea is to provide the opportunity to build more intimate connections.
  • Go Off Script: While you can prepare all you want, allow the event to go with the flow of conversation—even if it’s a little off-topic. As long as it fits your who, what, why, when, where, and how, allow it.
  • Focus on Fairness: Give everyone an equal chance to speak as possible. “Follow a 50/50 rule, and talk about 50% of the time and the other 50%, have others do the talking,” suggests Zulmara Maria from Roots and Wings.
  • Use Chat: Take advantage of your platform’s ability to host a written chatbox alongside the video. This is a valuable space for attendees to share links, business cards, and other pertinent information.
  • Moderate & Manage: Just as in-person events can go off the rails quickly, so too can virtual events. Make sure you have enough moderators to keep the event on track, answer questions, and mitigate arguments.

After: Follow Up with Your Attendees After the Event

After your big day, the stress might be over, but the real work begins. This is when you truly start converting your attendees into customers, partners, referrals, and friends. It’s all about the quality of your follow-up and how you work the feedback loop.

If your ultimate goal is to “build strong relationships,” says Alina Fridman from Ladies Take the Lead Media, that can’t be a one-and-done thing. Instead, after every virtual event, you should:

  • Share a survey to gain feedback and recommendations for the future.
  • Send out emails with pertinent information such as the chat transcript, a recording of the event, links to resources, and more.
  • Write a follow-up blog/article about how it went, what attendees learned, and tips for people who may have missed out.
  • Post on social media to keep the excitement going with images, short videos, and quotes to enhance the conversation. 
  • Track the success of your event by reviewing attendee data on your KPIs, including # of registrations, email open rates, # of leads, event ratings, website traffic, etc.

The key thing to remember is that virtual events can work for any business, no matter the size. It all depends on how well you know your topic, your goals, and how good you are at creating value for your audience. And that value starts with mastering technology.

What Virtual Event Platform Should You Use? 

small business owner in glasses running virtual event | Virtual Events Guide: Ultimate Playbook for Small Biz Owners
Photo by bruce mars on Unsplash

Technology is critical to hosting a quality virtual event. As Alignable member Scott Korbin from Korbin Realty says, “I can’t imagine doing business without Zoom or another such platform.”

I can’t imagine doing business without Zoom or another such platform.

The good news is that there are many user-friendly virtual event platforms to choose between. Each technology has its own benefits. It just depends on what you need, how tech-savvy you are (or your audience is), and your budget.

Here are a few of the most popular platforms used by small business owners. Most have a free version or at least a free trial you can use to test it out.

You can also host a quick, easy, and reliable virtual event right here on Alignable. It’s so simple! First, join a group or create your own local business owners’ group. Second, sign up to be a group admin or moderator. Then, host your event about local happenings, community-specific problems, or general brainstorming.

This comprehensive guide explains exactly how to host a virtual event on Alignable. It’s as easy as 1-2-3.

  1. At the top of your group page, choose the option “Add an Event” > “Virtual Event.”
  2. Fill in your virtual event information, including a header photo, event title, event date, and event description.
  3. Post the event in your Group page and get the word out!

And don’t forget to join our newly launched #OneMainStreet for more ideas about how to invigorate your local business community to support one another every day.

7 Types of Virtual Events for Small Biz Owners

Now that you know how to host a virtual event and what platforms can help you succeed, let’s talk about the different types of events you can host. There’s no single best way.

The possibilities are endless. Susie Whipple from Tasteful Adventures hosts “virtual wine tastings,” while Felicity Muench from One Voice 4 Change hosts “musical fundraisers” over Zoom. You are only limited by your imagination.

So, what virtual event ideas should you explore for your small business? That depends on your goal. There are events to help you raise awareness, generate leads, gain referrals, build relationships, brainstorm ideas, educate, retain customers, and more. 

Let’s take a look at some of these virtual event examples, broken down by goal.

Event Goal: Raise Awareness

Getting the word out about who you are, what you offer, and why it matters is always the first step to success as a small biz owner. After all, “the more awareness you create of your services, the easier it is to grow the business,” says Don Belt, a professional at a venture capital firm.

The more awareness you create of your services, the easier it is to grow the business.

Virtual events focused on raising awareness are typically broader in topic to appeal to more people. They also should offer something unique or special that attendees would have a difficult time turning down. The key is to be as compelling as possible.

Awareness Event Idea

An online silent auction with donated items or services from current customers or other local businesses is a great way to build excitement about your business and get more people interested in who you are and what you offer.

online auction virtual event examples | Virtual Events Guide: Ultimate Playbook for Small Biz Owners
Silent auction example: Aroma Sharing on Bidding Owl

Event Goal: Lead Generation

Events have always focused on lead generation, and that hasn’t changed in the online world. 87% of marketers consider the opportunities generated by virtual events as a success factor. And the dynamic nature of virtual events opens up quite a few options for generating leads.

The key is to put your attendees first if you want to generate leads from your event. “It’s best to give first for the sake of business,” says Dr. Marcia Ann Mims Coppertino from Coppertino and Associates Consulting Group

Lead Generation Event Idea

A small speed networking event for people in your industry—just like speed dating—is a great way to develop relationships, which can then generate leads. Just create private virtual rooms for up to 10 people to have a conversation and then rotate out attendees so everyone can make as many connections as possible.

All you have to do is set a time for attendees to join, create some fun “get to know you” activities, and offer the hosting platform. The rest is up to your guests. It’s a fun lead-nurturing environment where everyone is engaged.

speed networking virtual event examples | Virtual Events Guide: Ultimate Playbook for Small Biz Owners
Virtual speed networking example: Washington DC Business Connections]

Event Goal: Gain Referrals

Encouraging more referrals and stimulating your business through word-of-mouth is one of the most common event goals. And as long as you bring people together who have similar goals and can develop symbiotic relationships with one another, it will happen naturally. 

After all, greater visibility leads to credibility, which leads to new relationships and profitability.

Just make sure to “ask for the referral—i.e. their name, email, and permission to send them info,” explains Glenn Salter from Compliance and Safety First. The worst thing that can happen when you ask is that they say no, but that’s unlikely.

Referral Generating Event Idea:

Host a trade show, virtual conference, fair, or convention to gain referrals. These types of large events are full of vendors selling their products or services—all linked by a specific theme. There are few better ways to meet like-minded individuals, share ideas, and expand your referral network.

virtual conference | Virtual Events Guide: Ultimate Playbook for Small Biz Owners
Expo example: Virtual Small Business Expo

Event Goal: Relationship Building

Whether you want to build deeper relationships with your customers, community, or peers, virtual events are all about relationship building. “I have gotten to know my customers better and have been able to meet them through whichever line of communication they are most comfortable with,” explains Lyn Lubic from Essential Home Healers.

Keep in mind that building trust is more important than direct selling. If you focus on sharing knowledge, teaching, and problem solving for your audience, that will lead to deeper relationships and the most value for your business. And these events can be fun, too! Think scavenger hunts, games, wine nights, and more.

Relationship Building Event Idea

Sitting down around a virtual Bingo board for game night is a great way to take your relationships to the next level. The key is to create a relaxed atmosphere where conversations can flow naturally and people can have fun. That’s how relationships are formed.

online bingo game | Virtual Events Guide: Ultimate Playbook for Small Biz Owners
Game night example: World’s Largest Virtual Bingo

Event Goal: Brainstorming & Problem-Solving

Not every virtual event has to focus on gaining leads or increasing your customer base. A brainstorming session can be just as productive and helpful to your small business. In fact, the results are always worthwhile. “I found a lot of great information to help me move my business forward,” says Audrey Bell-Kearney from Good Morning Gwinnett.

Invite a group of people who all have the same goal or problem. Then, create an environment where collaboration is the focus. Just make sure to send out a clear overview of your purpose beforehand, so you stay on topic.

Brainstorming Event Idea

A morning event (such as a breakfast briefing) is a great format for brainstorming. Start your day with an audience who is dedicated to helping you brainstorm ideas or solutions on a specific topic. These can be short weekly or monthly chats before office hours to get the juices flowing.

coffee talk virtual event | Virtual Events Guide: Ultimate Playbook for Small Biz Owners
Community example: Empower Women Coffee Talk

Event Goal: Education/Idea Generation

As a small business owner, learning is a never-ending process that is crucial to success. After all, as you discover the latest trends and strategies in your field, you’ll identify areas for improvement in your business. 

It’s how you “stay current with the changing times and provide what’s needed to keep everyone updated and efficient,” says Sharon Brown from Live Total Wellness with Sharon.

Just remember, it’s not about you. An educational event should not be about demonstrating how smart you are. Instead, it should focus on engagement and facilitating learning for everyone in attendance. It should be an experience, not a speech.

Educational Event Idea

Training sessions, seminars, and coaching events can make a huge impression, encourage learning, and generate new ideas. Invite experts as keynote speakers, set up classrooms and breakout sessions for open discussion, and craft a lesson plan so attendees know what knowledge they should walk away with.

educational training virtual event examples | Virtual Events Guide: Ultimate Playbook for Small Biz Owners
Training example: Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Training

Event Goal: Customer Retention

What’s better than gaining a new customer? Retaining an existing customer. Keeping your customers coming back for more leads to greater ROI and costs 5X less than gaining a new customer.

So, how do you keep your customers engaged and happy? Create valuable events just for them! “While I miss in-person meetings, virtual events have kept the connection going,” says Jennifer Jaciw from Workspace Dynamics.

Ultimately, your customers want to know that they matter to you and that you’re listening to them. Virtual events are a great way to demonstrate this by giving you facetime, creating a feedback loop, and providing positive experiences.

Customer Retention Event Idea

An online award ceremony is a great way to recognize successes and give people a pat on the pack, which keeps them around. You can recognize customers who’ve gone above and beyond to help you out, highlight top purchasers, or promote the best local business owners in your community.

awards ceremony virtual event examples | Virtual Events Guide: Ultimate Playbook for Small Biz Owners
Customer retention example: Relocate and Think Global People Virtual Awards Ceremony

Successful Small Business Virtual Events in Action 

So, what does all of this look like in action? How are virtual events being used right now by small business owners just like you?

  • Jillian Baker from Lattice Marketing offers, “monthly internet marketing group coaching sessions.” She uses these classes not only to meet new potential clients, but to be a resource for her community. As she explains, “Most of the people I help in these classes can’t afford an internet marketing team like mine, so this is my way of helping those people.”
  • Eugene Campbell’s ECCRGroup hosts a “coffee talk” every month as a way to build a community. He invites “speakers and entrepreneurs to share their experience on what and how businesses can survive by increasing their conversion rates while reducing expenses and making a profit.”
  • Velda Brotherton, a historical author, holds a weekly “writer’s critique group” with about ten regular members. She’s experienced “very enthusiastic” responses from all attendees, and it has helped her immensely with her writing.
  • Allen Pitch’s Amazing Entertainment Agency has had to move completely virtual. He hosts “birthdays, company events, anniversaries, and more,” and feels they “have been a great way to successfully gather and raise spirits.” See them in action here.

There’s no doubt that “virtual connection is more important than ever,” says Dan Weber, the CEO of Peak Pathways LLC. So don’t miss out on the opportunity to mobilize your community and expand your business in the virtual event realm!

Are you ready to host your first or tenth virtual networking event this year? Do you have any creative ideas for fun virtual events in 2021? We’d love to hear what’s working for you in. the comments!

For more virtual event tips, check out these other posts:

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