July 23, 2021
We’ve all attended virtual conferences where you just click through the classes and feel isolated from the other attendees. Session after session, you stare at a screen with no in-person connection. It’s not engaging, and often not incredibly valuable. But what if it was possible to create a virtual event that mimicked the in-person experience we all love?
Like any good event, Netchex is all about people. Yes, we serve HR professionals, powering the people and payroll processes that make companies run. But beyond that, we also pride ourselves on the human element of our business.
At Netchex, we inject a lot of personality into what we do. We don’t pick up the phone just to close a ticket. Our service reps have tight relationships with the client on the other end of the line. They know when a client is getting married or who is on maternity leave. Being in New Orleans, it might be cliché to talk about the kindness of southerners, but we want that warm, personal touch to permeate everything we do.
I joined Netchex in 2012 as Marketing Director. When I started, there wasn’t anyone specifically dedicated to client-specific communication or spearheading advocacy initiatives to help sales and retention. My team grew that side of the company, exploring every area of client loyalty and advocacy and infusing more of the personal touch into the client experience.
Adding a Personal Touch from Afar
For the past five years, Netchex has held an in-person conference called Netconnect at the New Orleans Convention Center. It’s one and a half days of classes, with a big party and a live band at the end. That fits into the Netchex culture: we’re not in your face, but we consider our clients our friends and we like to hang out and engage with them at least once a year.
Following our April 2019 event, we wondered whether we should reconsider the Netconnect experience. Covering the flight and hotel costs for our out-of-town clients was expensive, we had to charge an entry fee for the convention center, and the event involved a lot of internal work from Netchex staff. Keep in mind this is not a small event; we host 400 people, many of whom represent our biggest clients.
We’d already begun thinking about including a virtual aspect to our event when the pandemic made the decision for us. If we were going to hold Netconnect in 2020, it would have to be done virtually.
Virtual events often fall short on connection. But what if it’s possible to replicate the in-person experience online?
There were some concerns around virtual events, though, the largest one being: How do we add that personal touch? The appeal of Netconnect was as a relationship-builder with our clients. Keeping people engaged and having constant discussions going was paramount for us. Could we recreate that sense of community in a virtual event?
A Natural Fit for Both Us and Our Clients
Back when we were growing our client loyalty initiatives and looking for a way to get more referrals, case studies, and references, we came across Influitive. Immediately, we recognized that we could use the platform to build a client community, which we named Netchex University.
In addition to generating content and creating activities to reward loyalty and advocacy within Netchex University, we also used Influitive to facilitate things like beta testing and user testing experiences for our customers. The platform pushes a lot of our direct communication—whether it’s product-related or even new tax laws that might impact our customers’ businesses. We witnessed a lot of growth from Netchex University and we saw this as a perfect way to drive a better client experience.
As we were in the midst of our internal discussions around hosting a virtual event, our Influitive CSM, Meaghan Shepherd, mentioned some of the new capabilities Influitive had put together with Virtual EventHub. EventHub made so much sense for us because we had already seen so much success with Influitive. We’d never run a virtual event before, but felt confident enough in the Influitive team that, if we had to change something the day of the event, we knew we would all pull together and get it done.
Our clients who use Netchex University were also already familiar with Influitive. They could log in and know exactly where to go. Not all of our clients use our hub, but our biggest advocates are there, and the fact that EventHub would create a streamlined, engaging experience for them was a big part of our decision to go this route.
A New Kind of Sponsor Experience
Not only did we feel confident about running this virtual event, but we knew we could get sponsors to cover the cost of the EventHub. One challenge we hadn’t anticipated is how sponsors would view a virtual event. Sponsors know the benefits of being at an in-person conference: people walk around the convention floor, you will get some face time with them, they’ll take your swag and they might leave some contact information to enter a raffle or win a prize. That engagement turns into business down the line.
Neither we nor our sponsors had experience with virtual events before, so we were all learning together when it came to driving value. I led the charge on sponsors, and we leaned heavily on Amy Ng at Influitive who had a lot of experience in this space. Working with her, we were able to develop some pretty robust sponsor packages.
For the title sponsor, for example, their logo was on our banner, they had their own spot on our map, they had someone on our expert panel—which was one of our most attended sessions. We did everything to make sure that they got a lot of value for that high dollar spend. For everyone else, we wanted to ensure we used all virtual means possible to promote them. That included creating challenges with links to sponsors’ Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn pages. We provided two social posts per sponsor, showcasing their partnership with us as well as any specific content they wanted to promote. If they wanted to drive people to their sessions, we did that, too.
Sponsors also got access to everyone who completed their sponsor challenges, which were high-value challenges and therefore offered a greater incentive to complete. Those challenges were open for the whole month after Netconnect, which is significantly longer than the day and a half in-person event. It provided a lot of value to our virtual sponsors. We also utilized the scavenger hunt feature from Influitive, which involved hiding extra badges behind certain challenges to make sure attendees hit those virtual booths. And we also discovered a way for sponsors to have more personalized interaction by creating a multi-complete message form so that they always had a challenge at the booth even if they had completed all the other challenges.
We also set the prices for the various sponsorship levels to be lower than what we would charge for our in-person event. Our first time producing a virtual sponsor pack turned out to be a success. We were never ROI positive for our in-person event, but we were for our virtual Netconnect in 2020 with EventHub.
Providing a Robust, Engaging Experience Pays Dividends
We decided to use a combination of pre-recorded and live presentations for the event because, honestly, including some pre-recorded sessions was convenient. If someone is late to a session because they are bopping around classes, they can start the pre-recorded session whenever they’re ready.
Working in HR is a job where you can be pulled away at any time, so having at least a few on-demand sessions that attendees could pause and restart appealed to our client base. Of course, it’s not the same experience as with a live recording, but our speakers were pretty good at hanging around throughout the day to answer any questions viewers had. Combining that with live Zoom events for panel discussions created a more robust experience. The live element captures the back-and-forth of a panel discussion in a more genuine way, and then our panelists could respond to questions in real-time.
Compare that to the experience you’ve had with some webinars. They’re generally static, whereas Influitive is built to drive engagement. We love engaging and exchanging ideas with our clients, and it’s important to us that they felt that.
A mix of pre-recorded and live sessions for your virtual event can provide the perfect balance for attendees.
Our in-person event typically drew around 400 attendees, but we know that not all of those people attended classes. Compare that to our virtual event—not only did we have almost 500 people create accounts to attend, but more than 400 of these attendees actively engaged in the event by completing challenges. When we later cross-checked the data, we noticed the bulk of the attendees were from our highest-revenue clients, meaning we engaged some of our top customers.
We’ve already closed many new deals from Netconnect, including two that we closed within a week after the event.
Next Time Will Be Even Better
I’m proud of what we achieved with Netconnect 2020, especially since it was our first virtual event. Everyone is going virtual these days, so for anyone looking to host their first virtual event, a few tips:
Start the planning as early as possible. We had three months to put it together, and still had a lot to do the day of the event itself.
Think about how tasks will be delegated during the event. I wish I had assigned a dedicated person to consistent engagement throughout the day, adding new topics regularly.
Get wider involvement from within your organization. In our case, the closing party of our in-person event was a celebration for everyone, whereas the virtual event was much more siloed to the marketing team. By bringing in more team members, it will result in a shared win.
What we do with Netchex University is not just a matter of making our clients stickier, but helping keep HR professionals up to date on the latest developments. Especially in the current climate, education is incredibly important. As a company, we feel we have an obligation to provide those educational resources. Netchex University, and now our virtual Netconnect, fall perfectly in line with that.
There’s no replacement for the energy of people being together in a room. But our virtual Netconnect provided the same sense of community that Netchex strives for every day.
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