Planning and Running a Community Event

Mark Huber
Mark Huber
Mark Huber is Head of Brand & Product Marketing at Metadata, where he ran the company’s virtual conference with 4,500 registrants, almost 2,000 attendees, and 20 speakers. In this guide, he lays out how to plan and run a virtual community event for customers and prospects in a way that optimizes the day-of experience and creates reusable content.

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Questions Covered in this Guide

Why might you host a community event?

To drive sales (but be aware of “lead gen” fatigue) – there’s some fatigue with highly sales “lead gen” events. People are tired of going to events where they know that they’ll be handed off to a sales team when they never asked to be followed up with. 

To build community – community-driven events with an education focus can be more valuable long-term. These are more about educating and interacting with your audience. Community-centered events can still drive sales, if less directly.

How far in advance do you need to start planning?

Plan further in advance than you think – whatever you’re thinking in your head, plan 20% further than that.

  • 3-6 months for a virtual event – for a small virtual event, plan 3 months out, but once you get started on larger events, you should plan at least 6 months out.
  • 9 months for an in-person or hybrid event – the second you have an in-person component, all of the logistics that go into getting people and vendors together at a location get a lot more complicated.

Who should be involved in planning the event? Who should be involved in running it on the day?

Pre-event, the roles you need are:

  • Event coordinator – this role is behind the scenes and logistically focused. If you find the right person, they’re kind of like a wedding planner. They create a back schedule and put together a project plan. They may manage your event software, or you might have a separate virtual event software admin. You can hire a consultant or agency to fill this role, at a cost of ~$15k up to $100k per event. Make sure this person has event experience and that they can own the task.
  • In-house leader – this is someone who knows your audience and why they’re attending this event at the end of the day. They’re your head of community; this person truly has the pulse on what your audience is interested in. This role could be filled by marketing leader or founder.
  • Promoter – you need a promoter who knows what to write and how to promote the event.
  • Designer – you need a designer for all things branding and design for your event.
  • Developer – you need a developer to build you your landing pages, email templates, etc.
  • For smaller teams – you can work with a creative agency to help with your design/development.

On the day of, the roles who’ll be involved are:

  • Event coordinator – this person is behind the scenes in the green room. They’re making sure that the people who are supposed to be there are there in the waiting room and going through the tech checks. Leading up to the event, they’re in charge of meeting with every single person that is speaking at the event and giving them a 15-minute training to show them the platform (nobody should interact with the platform on the day of the event)
  • In-house leader – this person acts as an on-stage host, introducing speakers and jumping on stage when they are done for some Q&As.
  • On-call tech monitor – appoint someone from your team to keep track of any audience tech issues in the event chat, as well as anything sent to your support email address (set up a support email address). They should be able to escalate to the virtual event platform if needed.
  • Day-of volunteers (in shifts) – you need more support than you think. try to get 10-15 people to act as chat moderators during the different talks. With that many people, you can set up shifts with each volunteer signing up for an hour or two, which is less disruptive of an employee’s regular job

How might your budget break down?

ItemCostCost Depends Upon
Event Coordinator$15K-100K+A good individual contractor starts at ~$15K, and an agency team can cost $100K+
Event Platform (Software)$10K+The cost depends on the number of registrants and attendees, plan on ~$25K for a few thousand attendees.
Speaker Fees$0-25K+It’s a big advantage if you can use relationships to get speakers for free. Big names can easily cost $10-15K each.
Speaker Gifts$0-10K+If you have free speakers, sending thoughtful gifts can help reinforce your relationship with them.
Paid promotional Media$0-25K+Whether it makes sense to do paid advertising depends upon the size of your existing community, and the objectives of your event.
Post-production~$15KTurning all of the recorded sessions into video and written content is a great investment for your ongoing content strategy.
Entertainment$0-10K+Breaking up your content with an entertainer (e.g. a humorous influencer) is popular with audiences.
Total~$40K-50K+You need at least $40-50K to run a strong virtual event (and you can easily spend much more)

This budget breakdown is for a virtual event; an in-person or hybrid event requires additional budget for venue, food & drink, etc.

What types of tech tools do you need?

Event hosting platforms – e.g. Hopin, Goldcast, Livestorm are all-in-one options that provide registration, virtual event venues, etc. Look for:

  • A smooth registration process – one of the things that crucial for a successful virtual event is a smooth registration process, from the registration page, to getting your email, to getting the event onto your calendar without any issue (look for a platform that offers calendar-add functionality natively).
  • An appealing day-of attendee experience – features like chat, comments, questions, upvoting and downvoting, and breakout rooms give space for people to find other like-minded people.
  • Flexible look and feel branding – consider how much control you want over branding and virtual venue appearance.
  • Strong analytics capabilities – for example, chat analytics can be enormously valuable because you can later mine them session-by-session to figure out what things people were asking, to later turn into pieces of content.
  • Ability to feature sponsors or co-hosts (maybe) – for some companies, especially smaller companies, it may be valuable to pull together different companies, to build off of each other’s awareness in the market

A tool for event landing pages – likely your regular content management system (e.g. WordPress). The event platforms will give you this capability, but they provide less flexibility around customization.

A tool for email marketing – e.g. HubSpot, to send weekly lead-up emails to registrants. You may not have the event details totally finalized when people start to sign up, and you can use emails announcing different agenda items to get people excited.

Connect it all back to your CRM – e.g. Salesforce, everything should be synced over to track campaign membership. Make sure your event platform can sync your event activity (and engagement if possible) to your CRM.

What are the categories of work that go into planning a good event?

Before you start, align on goals – for example, are you trying to generate leads for sales, or are you building brand awareness?

Make a detailed project plan – an experienced project manager can help you with key details and help keep a detailed tracker (in Google Sheets or in project management software).

This category might include items like:
  • Build out the agenda
  • Draft speaker agreement
  • Recruit speakers
  • Determine plans for intros and outros
  • Send speaker calendar invites
  • Schedule all recordings for pre-recorded content
  • Buy speaker gifts
  • Schedule speaker trainings (consider scheduling 2) 
  • Write speaker “know before you go”
Tip: start with the topics firststart with topics that will resonate with the audience, then find qualified speakers to go with those topics. Many events do it the other way around, and end up with a bland or tired agenda.
This category might include items like:
  • Develop a list of design assets (social images, landing page, branding for your event platform)
  • Create speaker promo cards for speakers to promote the event on social media
This category might include items like:
  • This category might include items like:
    • Determine networking plans (any networking rooms you plan to have, what the topics will be)
    • Engage and entertainment vendor (it doesn’t have to be 100% related to your event; your audience just needs to find it funny)
    • Determine a plan for polls and seed Q&A questions (you can turn your poll and Q&A data into content after your event)
    • Determine a plan for chat (who will be monitoring the chat, how they plan to keep the chat active)
This category might include items like:
  • Build out networking in the platform
  • Load sponsor booths in the platform
  • Upload polls to the platform
  • Upload recordings to the platform
  • Check that everything in the platform and ready to launch
  • Open platform to all registrants
This category might include items like:
  • Send all pre-recorded videos to production for editing
  • Finalize and approve edited pre-recordings
  • Send live videos to production for editing
  • Review post-events reports
  • Finalize and approve edited live video recordings?
Tip: consider a mix of pre-recorded and live sessionsit’s far easier to do pre-recorded sessions, combined with a live Q&A or chat with the speaker. You don’t want the whole event to be pre-recorded though, so you need to find the balance.
This category might include items like:
  • Announce 1 keynote speaker/ big name
  • Announce other keynote speakers/ big names
  • Have employees organically promote the event on LinkedIn
  • Speakers promote event
  • Announce bulk sessions / full agenda 
  • Announce entertainment 
  • Promote 1 keynote speaker/ big name
  • Announce the last chance to register
Tip: have employees and speakers promote event content to drive registrationsthis will more people organically sign up for the event and will allow you to cast a wider net. In my last event, paid advertising drove a smaller portion of registrations than expected (~15% with a significant budget) and speaker promotion performed really well.
Tip: run a conteste.g. we ran a contest on LinkedIn where if people followed us, shared the event, and said which session they were most excited to attend, they’d be entered to win a $500 gift card to Airbnb. We had over 100 people post, so this was a relatively low-cost advertising option for us, given that their networks had good overlap with our target audience.
This category might include items like:
  • Design event platform training
  • Schedule trainings for speakers
  • Schedule trainings for volunteer staff

What are some best practices for recruiting great speakers?

Use relationships to get 2-3 recognizable people, then use them as social proof – they could be a C-level exec at a well-known company or a big influencer who’s well respected in the industry. Once you get them signed up, you can use them as social proof when you’re reaching out to other potential speakers.

If you’re running a community-centered event, showcase that – be clear about is the objective of the event. Tell speakers that the event is for the community, that it’s a brand play, and that you won’t be chasing attendees to sell them something.

40-60% is a good speaker acceptance rate – some will just say no, and some won’t be able to fit it into their schedule.

Often people who come to you aren’t as good – as soon as you announce the event, would-be speakers may come out of the woodwork and ask if you’re doing a request for speakers. Evaluate these inbounds carefully, because typically those speakers aren’t as good.

How should you think about planning the schedule of your event?

Bias toward a single-day event –  this helps you make sure you don’t bite off more than you can chew (especially in the first year). It also makes more sense for a virtual event–a multi-day virtual event is a lot. If you want to go to multiple days, consider an in-person or hybrid event.

If you have a lot of speakers, consider branching tracks so that it doesn’t get too long – for example, as we started adding speakers into the slots, we got to a point where it was going to be a nine to six o’clock event, and that’s when we decided to break it off into two different tracks. Try to not go too late for Eastern time.

What kind of attendance rates can you expect?

Look for an attendee rate >25% (of registrants) – use your email campaigns, social media, and speaker, employee, and attendee promotion to help drive attendance.

Expect the highest attendance at the beginning and try to maintain 50% of that level – assume that people are going to drop off at lunch, and then it will pick back up at the end of the day. If you can hover north of 50% at any given point once you’re past the opening keynote, you’re in good shape.

How can you prepare for potential technical issues?

Have a contingency plan in case your event software goes down – you have to have a contingency plan even though you pray you don’t have to use it at all. Have a plan in the first place in case anything goes wrong.

Be in touch with your dedicated CSM/support team at your software provider – if it’s a big enough event, you should have a dedicated CSM and their support team monitoring your event–stay in touch with them throughout the day.

Have a help email address that goes to a couple of different people – e.g. that pushes to a couple of different people. If you have tech issues, multiple people will be alerted to help.

How should you leverage the content you generate with the event in later marketing efforts?

Cut each recorded session into clips – take each recorded session and cut it up into 5-10 shorter quote clips for social media. 

Turn each recorded session into a blog post – turn each recorded session into a long-form blog post, as a guide to what people learned in the session. Include the top takeaways, and potentially some clips.

Drip out a new session each week – every week after the event, drip out a blog and some clips (a good event can produce months of content).

What are the most important pieces to get right?

Start sooner than you think – if you cut it close, you don’t wiggle room for unexpected delays or issues.

Focus on the content topics – pay attention to the content and the topics because that creates a solid agenda that builds your company’s reputation. If you’re focused on good content, you can also repurpose it into 5+ months of blog and social posts coming out of the event.

What are the common pitfalls?

Have a backup plan in case of technical difficulty – in these platforms, tech sometimes goes wrong. You need to have a backup plan that relies on a different piece of technology (e.g. substituting individual Zooms for each session).

Don’t use the same speakers everyone else does – try to have recognizable speakers, but if you look at the events out there it’s a lot of the same people every time, strike out to get different speakers. 

Be clear about why you’re doing the event – if immediate sales are an important goal for the company, align on that. But if it’s a community event, leadership shouldn’t expect sales immediately afterward.

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