Inside Demandbase

Virtual Events During the Pandemic: Lessons Learned

Demandbase image

December 12, 2021

7 mins read

Virtual Events During the Pandemic: Lessons Learned

Virtual Events During the Pandemic: Lessons Learned

As you probably know all too well, in-person events quickly vanished at the start of COVID-19. For many organizations, that translated into an immediate and serious hit to their lead generation and revenue engine. Marketers, always resilient and resourceful, quickly made the best of an unprecedented situation. For example, at Demandbase, we moved our annual, in-person ABM Innovation Summit to a completely virtual platform in only three weeks.


Now, with the Delta variant and another spike in COVID-19 cases, the long wait for a return to normalcy—which, of course includes a return to in-person events–continues. And Tom Petty put it best, “the waiting is the hardest part.”


As we continue to hunker down, let’s look at what we’ve learned from conducting virtual events during the pandemic, along with their pros and cons compared to in-person events.

A year and a half of ebbs and flows

Event and field marketers were scrambling with the abrupt shift to digital in March 2020. However, in the early days of the pandemic, some silver linings with virtual events were quickly uncovered. As Beth Tiltges, Demandbase’s Director of Customer Marketing put it, “With Field Marketing, we were doing regional events that were limited to customers and target accounts in a particular city. Then, all of a sudden, the walls were broken down and we could host an event anyone could attend, regardless of time zone, location or title.”


Many online events were free or cheaper than their previous physical versions. Registration was easy and attendance was strong for digital events at the beginning of the pandemic. But this was just the start of an almost two year run of ups and downs.


Tiltges explained, “Right out of the gate, attendance for our first virtual event was high. After that, there were ebbs and flows. At one point, we saw a positive spike, as people realized they’d have to get used to virtual events and they became more comfortable with the format. Then, everybody started talking about Zoom fatigue and, from a sheer ROI perspective, performance dropped. At that point, we had to figure out new ways to keep our accounts and customers engaged. It was definitely up and down.”


Our Director of Enterprise Marketing and ABM at Demandbase, Tenessa Lochner, also weighed in: “We definitely get better engagement from our targeted accounts in person. We can set up a dinner in a specific city we know has our target accounts. You can’t have the same level of networking and interaction in a virtual format. It’s just never going to be the same. So, when it comes to engagement of our target accounts and sales acceleration plays, virtual isn’t always the best. But for broader demand generation initiatives, virtual events have performed well because we have a lot more registrations and attendance. It just depends on the goals we’re looking for. There are pros and cons to each.”

Networking is harder in the virtual world

As Lochner mentioned, networking is more difficult at virtual events. Striking up and engaging in a meaningful conversation is easier in person at an exhibition hall, a happy hour, or an associated event like a concert. Instead of networking, learning and skill enhancement are the main takeaways for a majority of virtual event attendees. That said, online systems to promote networking and collaboration have improved over the course of the pandemic and attendees became more interactive as they became more comfortable with virtual networking. Virtual events also tried to counter this by allowing attendees to arrange one-on-one virtual meetings through their platforms.

Creativity and direct mail: The antidote for Zoom fatigue

As the pandemic wore on and organizations became more proficient at planning and putting on digital events, every prospective attendee’s inbox was bombarded with invitations. I’m sure you felt this pain. We all did. Most of those same prospects also have to sit through their own company’s online meetings all day, every day. So, it’s no surprise that fatigue set in and people were less than thrilled to spend yet more time staring at screens. That’s when event and field marketers had to get even more creative to break through the inbox noise and attract prospects to their online events and webinars.


As Beth recalled, “We had to pivot to bring people together in this virtual world. We did online wine tastings, cooking classes, whatever we could. Everyone had to get really creative.”

Tenessa added, “After digital keynotes, we started enabling deep dive conversations and demos where our customers could ask questions and interact. We also have done ABM tasting rooms. We sent wine kits to prospects from target accounts. We had a sommelier on one of these calls and attendees could network with each other. We’ve had really great success with these smaller events where we’ve had a different approach and a direct mail component. We’ve also explored new, exciting platforms to enhance the experience.

The success of many of these tactics was spurred-on by good, old-fashioned direct mail campaigns. Surprise-filled packages delivered directly to a prospect can get them excited and more committed to attending an event and engaging with the event host. And if you’re really creative, your prospects might just show off what they receive online, giving your brand and event an extra boost.

Virtual Events during COVID-19: Pros, Cons, Best Practices

Virtual events: The pros

  • High registrations and attendance, especially at the beginning of the pandemic
  • Broader geographic reach
  • Usually less expensive, both to put on and attend
  • Able to track more detailed engagement data
  • Great way for attendees to level up their skills or to learn more about products of interest
  • Content lives longer for the attendee to view sessions on-demand
  • Recorded sessions can be reused and repurposed for greater reach beyond the event
  • Getting creative and adding a direct mail element can help separate your event from the competition

Virtual events: The cons

  • Not easy to keep attendees engaged
  • Lower ROI than in-person events
  • Networking is more difficult
  • Not as good for progressing and closing deals
  • Signups slowed down
  • Attendees are less committed. A lot of no-shows, especially as virtual-meeting fatigue set in.
  • Harder to incorporate a fun factor, like happy hours and entertainment

Virtual events: Best practices

  • Pre-recorded sessions are recommended
  • Shorter sessions (30 mins) with quality content
  • Have speakers available during the sessions for live Q+A chat to engage with attendees
  • Attendees still love swag, so don’t miss your branding opportunity, and to send pre or post event swag

So, which is better: in-person or digital? Tenessa says it depends on what your goals are. Digital events are less expensive to put together for organizations and much cheaper–often free–for attendees. All that, combined with easy registration leads to high sign-up numbers. For those reasons, digital events are great for brand awareness, demand generation, and filling the top of your Sales funnel. On the other hand, networking, progressing, and closing deals is not as effective online. In-person events still have the upper hand there. Wouldn’t it be great to have events with elements of both? When in-person events fully return, we expect them to incorporate a virtual option and for these hybrid events to become the norm.

Get the most out of virtual and in-person events with ABX

Hopefully, some of our lessons learned provided you with ideas for your event strategy, current virtual events, or future in-person and hybrid events. For any type of event, account-based experience (ABX) can help. ABX data and insights combined with first-hand feedback from your Sales team—for each account—will help enable targeted outreach efforts that often boost attendance and engagement.


For everything you need to know about the future of ABX and B2B go-to-market, including a section on in-person and virtual events (starting on page 138), be sure to download The Clear and Complete Guide to Account-Based Experience (ABX).

Where to catch us next, virtually

CONNECT CMO Leadership Summit : Nov. 15 – 19

Digital Marketing Conference for FinServ: Nov. 16 – 17

RevGrowth: Dec. 2

Growth Accelerate Conference: Dec. 7-9

Demandbase image


B2B Go-To-Market Suite, Demandbase

This article was published in:

Related articles