Pivoting from a sales engagement conference to a successful virtual summit in 8 weeks

Posted June 2, 2020

By Harmony Anderson

Senior Director of Demand Generation & Events at Outreach

The past few months were a whirlwind as we planned, prepared for, and executed the Unleash Virtual Summit, the largest virtual sales conference in the country. That sounds obvious — event planning is hard, especially when you’re showcasing 40+ speaker sessions and panels.

But Unleash wasn’t supposed to be a virtual event. Until 2020, it was always a premier sales engagement conference that attracted thousands of sales leaders to meet in person, mingle, and learn together. But when COVID-19 made it clear we shouldn’t gather in groups, Outreach made the decision to pivot our strategy.

We discovered a lot, and it’s in our DNA to share that knowledge to help your team rethink your own processes in an increasingly virtual environment.

This is our story...

Canceling Unleash

Picture this: On Friday, February 28, several Outreachers, including our whole leadership team, were in London for the opening of our first international headquarters. As we celebrated a successful launch, someone suggested we may want to prepare for canceling Unleash 2020 in case an epidemic was declared because of the developing COVID-19 situation. We all brushed it off — there was no way we would cancel our largest conference of the year six weeks out!

Only two days later, we held an emergency meeting to discuss our company’s response to COVID-19, which had rapidly worsened in the United States. We made the heartbreaking decision to cancel Unleash, our 3,000-person sales engagement conference in San Diego.

There were a lot of tears, sadness, frustration, and confusion. We all froze for two full days.

Then we mobilized.

We knew we had to replace the in-person event with a highly sophisticated virtual conference. After all, Unleash helps us drive millions of dollars of pipeline, brand awareness, and community engagement, so canceling without an alternate plan wasn’t an option.

But no one on the team had ever managed or executed a multiday virtual event. We had so many questions: What tech do we need, how much sessions should we have, and how will we be able to pull this off in only eight weeks? We run hundreds of webinars a year, so we leaned into that experience to help us build the new plan from the ground up.

Determining Our (New) Goals and Objectives

For the Unleash Virtual Summit, all the barriers to entry of a physical event were removed. Attendees didn’t have to travel anywhere or pay for exclusive content, so anyone could sign up to watch the virtual sessions live or on-demand at their convenience.

With that in mind, we needed to create new event goals that reflected the shift. We set our new goals using the same general assumptions about registration and attendance that we normally consider before an on-demand webinar. Below is how our in-person and virtual goals compared:

Things to keep in mind when determining your goals:

  • Conduct market research to see if any other virtual partner, competitor, or industry events and programs are happening at the same time, and factor that into your registration and attendance metrics
  • Remember that attendees have a ton of distractions in the virtual environment, so you will not get as much engagement or attendance as you would in-person
  • Figure out how to maintain the integrity of your in-person event by curating a compelling experience that showcases the best of your brand
  • Expect a high amount of registrations from people in roles and companies that are time- or price-sensitive, such as SMBs and individual contributors
  • Be open to adjusting your goals, especially if this is the first time you have hosted a virtual event

Maintaining the Integrity of Unleash


The best part about physical events is networking with industry experts, chatting with the person sitting next to you, meeting your sales partners, and so many other in-person interactions we knew would be tough to recreate.

To bring this sense of community and attendee engagement online, we started reimagining how to build virtual versions of all the activities that make our event special. Some examples:

  • Our 90s dance party is one of the most fun moments of Unleash. We threw a virtual version over LinkedIn a few days before the start of the Unleash Virtual Summit to get people excited, and entice undecided attendees with a final reminder to register.
  • We typically host a variety of workout classes every morning of Unleash, but we knew it’d be trickier to organize that same cadence of activity. We designed one fun fitness experience that attendees could do on their own time: #Runleash! Participants chose their own 5K course, received a registration pack and race bib, and posted their results.
  • Since we knew many attendees would be juggling office and school closures, we wanted to give kids something to do while their parents watched Unleash sessions. We designed a free Outreach coloring book with pages to color, writing prompts, and a card to send essential workers.
  • We created a virtual booth that gave one-click access to talk live with an Outreacher, download relevant content, watch a demo, and join numerous giveaways.
  • We launched an active Unleash Slack community where speakers answered questions, industry experts participated in live Q&A roundtable discussions, and attendees could chat and network with one another.

Our biggest recommendation for keeping people engaged is to rely on feedback from previous conferences to understand what your attendees valued the most. Reach out to your customers, and ask what they want to achieve when they attend your events. Use this information as your guiding principles for building the strategic plan, creating your content, and implementing the technology needed for virtual engagement.

Session and Speaker Content

Transitioning content from an in-person presentation to a virtual session is much more difficult than it seems. Similar to introverts and extroverts, some people are better public speakers and feed off the energy of a crowd, while others are terrified of presenting in front of large groups.

For the people who do excel in public speaking, delivering a compelling presentation in a virtual setting is difficult. Your audience is likely half paying attention to your speech; you can’t take up a stage with confident body language, and visuals can fall flat. How do you ensure they absorb the most important message?

Here are some of the things we did to make sure our speakers stood out as exceptional:

  • Web Presence: Do they have a following on LinkedIn and other social networks? Are they regular speakers and panelists on webinars or podcasts? Will they help you drive engagement before and during the event?
  • Experience and Seniority: You want speakers who have been there, done that, and seen a lot. The more experience they have, the more educational and authentic their content will be.
  • Diversity: Amplifying people with different genders, ethnicities, races, backgrounds, and perspectives will ensure you have a wide depth of session content.
  • Customers and Prospects: Let your customers tell your story. You don’t want to sound too salesy or general with your content, so include both product and broader industry content.
  • Thought Leaders, Influencers and Practitioners: Most people attend events to get actionable insights from the speakers. Tactical “silver bullet” content mixed with examples of success and failures will generate the best engagement.

We didn’t want this event to feel like a webinar, so we also spent a significant amount of time and resources on video editing and production:

  • Content Governance and Speaker Handlers: Make sure subject matter experts review all content before production. If you don’t have a massive budget and a huge team to manage this, just block and tackle! We had six “speaker handlers” from our own demand gen and product marketing teams who could act as content experts.
  • Producing and Editing Sessions: A video production agency ensured all Unleash sessions had a cohesive look and feel. With our keynote speakers spread across the country, we had a mixture of in-home recordings with cameras, Zoom recordings, and studio recordings, which the production team combined into one high-quality keynote video. The agency also created branded skins for all the pre-recorded sessions. This made them feel on brand with Unleash and provided a much better experience for the viewers.

Choosing the Right Technology Partners

When you’re running a virtual conference, technology is key. Critical “must-have” integrations quickly become “nice-to-haves,” and ease of use became the highest priority.

When we announced the cancelation of the in-person conference, our whole team was inundated with emails and LinkedIn messages from virtual event vendors. Because we set an ambitious timeline of less than two weeks to select a new technology and build a registration site, we knew we had to spend our time wisely. Narrowing down thousands of potential platforms to a list of five to evaluate was not easy.

Here was our list of key selection criteria (in this order):

  • References and referrals. Which solutions had great reviews? Even better, which ones did our colleagues directly recommend as viable options with the right capabilities?
  • Implementation timeline. Could the solution dedicate and commit to our two-week launch goal? What resources could their team provide to support us on the build and execution of the event?
  • Custom integrations and branding capabilities. What standard integrations did the solution offer and what flexibility did they have to create custom APIs? How easy would it be to create and carry over the Unleash brand?
  • Investment cost and contracts. Does it fit our budget? What are the available contract term lengths? What are the SLAs? How does this company support data privacy compliance?

Sharing a list of specific questions before the scheduled demos helped us make the most of our time and expedite the evaluation. We shared a list of the “nice to haves” and the “must haves” capabilities so each vendor was prepared and ready to answer during our very first call.

*Expert Tip: The response times and quality of answers is a key indicator of the technology partner’s communication and project management style throughout the entire process. Watch out for slow or vague responses as these will likely carry over to the week of your event.

After the evaluation, we built the Unleash Virtual Summit using HeySummit (custom coded via CSS) to capture registrations, promote session schedule building, and host our custom Virtual Booth using Drift Chat and Zoom Meetings. Along with HeySummit, we used four different integrations to webinar and video platforms to enable the delivery of the content during the event. BigMarker delivered the streaming of the keynote sessions, Zoom Webinar enabled the live Q&A roundtables, with Slido for the questions and Wistia for the on-demand afternoon sessions. As noted above, we also enabled an Unleash Slack community to promote engagement and host speaker Q&A.

How to Promote Your Event and Encourage Registration

Our team viewed the virtual event as a new adventure to truly think outside the box. We knew we wanted each and every person at Outreach to believe in the event’s potential and feel they had a voice in the promotional plan.

We started with a brainstorming session to generate dozens of ways to engage our target audience while remaining true to our established Unleash brand and using only online promotions. We knew we had to crystalize our key messaging in a way that was compassionate and empathetic in the COVID-19 environment. We also had to determine the right mix of air cover programs along with targeted outreach to our key markets and personas.

We achieved all of this through a combination of marketing programs, sales and customer success enablement, traditional demand generation activities, targeted promotional offers, and a whole lot of heart from each person at Outreach. From executive communications to cross-functional team meetings, we were ready to start promotion just two weeks after the initial cancelation.

Tracking registrations remained the same for both our in-person and virtual events. Our channel data helped set the foundation for our promotion plan. We also left room to test new programs since we had never done this before. Below is a sample of channels we used to promote registration and target decision-makers:

  • Company-wide LinkedIn “takeover” posts and profile banners
  • Branded direct mail offers
  • Segmented invites by persona, market segment, sessions, and more
  • Sequences and Snippets for Sales and Customer Success teams
  • Sponsor and speaker promotional programs
  • SEO and retargeting programs
  • Newsletters and nurture emails
  • Targeted paid social advertising

We learned from our colleagues at Sales Hacker that asking your event partners to generate interest for your event is one of the best ways to drive attendance. For instance, we created a leaderboard so speakers could see how many people had registered, which sparked healthy competition and encouraged them to actively promote their sessions to their networks. We also sent our sponsors a promotional package with all the branded assets they needed to share Unleash on social media.

Promotion and programs look different for each company. Knowing where your target audience engages and soliciting the help of your community will set you up for success.

Week of Support

We secured over 13,000 registrants — now we just needed to deliver on a high-production, seamless event. No pressure! As most digital and operational marketers know, online events expose you to a lot of technical issues, many of which are out of your control.

Planning for the unexpected was key, so our team spent 15+ hours testing each tool, session, and event workflow. During testing, we identified potential major issues and pinpointed small details that would make a big difference to the attendee experience.

From there, we created a comprehensive support strategy to enable our teams to handle the unknown. This consisted of several training sessions, as well as written documentation, to quickly reference important information during the event.

  • Internal “Know Before You Go” with Sales and Customer Success: At two weeks and one week before the event, our marketing team joined regularly scheduled meetings with our sales and customer success teams, since customers would likely contact their account reps directly with any questions. We created a quick reference resource with all session details and activities, and an internal Slack channel for any questions.
  • Marketing Team: We prepped the entire marketing team with key event details, including how to support our external speakers and sponsors during their sessions. We designated our regular team Slack channel as the central place to post issues or questions during each session, guaranteeing someone was always available to jump in when needed.
  • Core Support Team: We established a core support team of 12 Outreachers to divide, conquer, and answer all questions within a 60-second timeframe to maintain the attendee experience. Two key technology owners were available to address show-stopping issues and communicate to our tech partners throughout the week. We created a 15-page, extremely detailed “Run of Show” document so each support team member could act quickly and maintain operational excellence.

External tech support was critical, too. Even though our team did comprehensive testing, we contracted for additional “week-of” support from our partners to minimize technical issues with our registration site and webinar platforms. We pre-calculated possible bandwidth restrictions and addressed concerns one week before the event. At least one external support member from each tech partner was available to quickly address issues if our internal tech owners could not fix them. We knew we were prepared, but we wanted a “back-up to the back-up plan.”

All the tests, training, and on-call attention to detail paid off for our four-day event. We experienced minimal access and streaming issues, and we solved all attendee concerns within one minute. Choosing the right internal and external partners was instrumental to our success — we highly recommend that you don’t skim over week-of tech support when planning your virtual event.

Post Event Follow-Up

Sometimes it feels like a majority of the critical work happens before and during the event itself, but so much success comes afterward when you’re following up and converting your leads into opportunities.

*Expert Tip: Don’t wait until after the event is over to create your post-event strategy. By the time you pull all the stakeholders together and write the post-event follow-up Sequences, you will miss the critical engagement period.

Our team uses Outreach to efficiently follow up with all leads and contacts using personalized Sequences and Snippets. Below are the steps we take to qualify the leads and segment the audience:

1. We use our existing lead scoring model set up through our marketing automation solution (Pardot) to determine if they are qualified enough to be sent to Sales. We won’t walk you through the details of our scoring model, but generally, registrants get 25 points and attendees get another 25 points. If they also score high enough on the demographic side (titles, etc.), we send them to sales at 50 points.

2. Once our scoring model determines which leads should continue to be nurtured by Marketing (MCLs) and which ones are qualified (MQLs), we then segment based on account type and status.

3. After you segment the audience and create your custom Sequences and Snippets, it’s incredibly important to create reporting and track the performance of your follow up.

*Expert Tip: Make sure to train all sales leaders, managers, and reps on lead follow up well before the event happens. Then send regular reminder emails and schedule meetings to review performance after the event.

A Blueprint for Your Virtual Event’s Success

As you can see, we learned a lot along the way — and this doesn’t even cover all of it! We hosted a webinar to share all the details with others who are turning their event strategies upside down this year.


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