Trading in the Tradeshow Booth for an Online Event: What Works and What to Avoid

How to survive the tradeshow drought in 2020

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Image for post booth I organized at Mobile World Congress

I consider myself an expert in organizing IRL events. I’ve planned world tours for B2C and B2B in internet safety, consumer products, and tech. You may have seen my work at CES, Mobile World Congress, Comic-Con, NY Toy Fair, Wired, Harrods of London, and my Guinness World Record, to name a few.

But organizing an online event is a totally different world. Facing this new way of doing business and living in 2020, this is the necessary evolution of the traditional tradeshow booth.

With the majority of big events being canceled, it’s time to look to what’s next. This year I checked out VIVE Developer Conference, which is the first wholly VR developer conference, and I’m attending the GamesBeat virtual conference this week.

Here’s what you need to know about hosting an online event; what works, what doesn’t, and what might catch you off guard.

Make Time for Tech Issues and Tutorials

Technical hurdles are bound to happen. It seems to most frequently happen at the very start of events as attendees scurry to join. It’s just the nature of software, especially with everyone running a slightly different system and setup. The best way to avoid an awkward late start, which I’ve seen quite a few of, seems to be to bake prep time into the schedule.

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Think about a friend who is perceptually late. To stay on time, you tell them it starts at 7:30pm, but it really begins at 8:00pm.

I’ve seen companies bake prep time into their event as an instructional period, mingling session, and sometimes they start the event 20 minutes early as a buffer. Either way, having a 15–20 minute buffer is the new norm to work out tech kinks for participants.

Some of the best advice from IRL tradeshows still translates online, which is to do as many full dry runs as possible. Just as importantly, test to see how many people you can engage at a time. If your event trends and your attendee list explodes, are you ready?

Set A Dress Code

A party has a dress code so that everyone arrives looking like they’re supposed to be at the same party — black tie, cocktail, etc. In the case of Zoom video meetings, it’s all over the place. This may make sense for internal company meetings, but not really for business meetings and events. It looks strange when there’s no consistency, and some people are too casual versus overdressed, and it ends up coming across as unprofessional.

For the sanity of speakers and VIPs, it would be great to know what kind of background should be used and what outfit makes sense, so they don’t have to overthink it. Other good questions:

~ What camera are you using?
~ What microphone are you using?
~ What backgrounds do you have available?
~ What is your current lighting setup?

Based on some of the quality of tech I’ve seen used among the wacky backgrounds, it’s obvious the event host didn’t ask. They may have assumed, and you know what they say about assuming.

Brand The Stream

When you go to a physical event, you see the event name EVERYWHERE. It’s on signs around the city, in the event hallways, entry, on hand-outs, and sometimes even in the bathrooms.

I noticed that for a lot of online events, there's a lack of cohesive branding. The logo is used and then not, and then there’s a myriad of fonts and colors used. When things don’t match, it doesn’t come across as a cohesive story.

When you think about a brand like Lego or Nanodots and TV shows like Stranger Things and Schitt’s Creek, they each have a distinct look and feel. A font, colors, and style that are synonymous with them.

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The point of this mention isn’t to control the content your guest speakers show, but it’s about making sure when they use the branding or even sponsor logos, it’s done correctly.

An IRL suggestion is to provide some guidelines like a style guide. It gives instructions for what slide sizes to use, screen resolutions to consider, font sizes, and why, what logo file type. Think of this as a way to help people not have to reinvent the wheel. They can stick to what they do best while making the event and their own brand look as professional as possible.

Lighting Matters

Hollywood is dead, at least for now. And by Hollywood, I mean the magic that happens behind the scenes by hundreds of people making something look ‘normal,’ glamorous, old fashioned, whimsical, scary, and out of this world. Here’s an excellent overview of that btw. Otherwise, things end up looking dull, dim, poorly lit, shadowy, yellow-tinged, and lackluster.

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via Zoom Support

We’ve all had a meeting with someone who is sitting in front of a bright window. You can’t see their face, and to be honest, it looks creepy. Unfortunately, laptop cameras aren't doing us any favors either, with that tech worse-off than our cell phones three cameras. Even if you’re rocking a sweet webcam, your lighting matters.

Thankfully there are plenty of guides, tips, and products (like this amazing ring light on Amazon) that can be leveraged to help us all look more professional and camera ready. The best advice I have is, ask your speakers to record themselves and send you the footage or do a live stream with you, so you can help them adjust things to be perfect. That’s a win-win for the event and their future meetings.

Use Visual Imagery

I’ve seen a few online events that make use of static images for in-between talks and videos, like during short breaks or going into speaker intros. These often take longer than eight Mississippi's, which is my and the average adult attention span.

Plus, how often do TV shows have dead air and show static images?

Get creative with it! Watch popular YouTube videos, Mixed and Twitch streams to learn new ways to avoid boring static images. Animations, clips and transitions can be used to keep an audience captivated during the live feed and when re-watching it after.

Have A Good Host / MC

Like at a circus, the master of ceremonies is an incredibly important job. The same with a DJ at a dance party. Their energy is what amps up the crowd, keeps the crowd amped, and they’re capable of wrangling the attention to a specific act and song.

For online events, this needs to be someone very personable, extremely comfortable on camera, while staying on brand. If something goes wrong technically, they are more than capable of jumping back on a live cam and engaging the audience until things are back up again.

Even if your CEO or CMO want to be the center of attention, they may not be a good fit if they fail this test. Live-streaming is not easy!


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Andrea Rene @andrearene

Andrea Rene is a mod of the GamesBeat Conference. She is well versed in gaming; hired host and cofounder of @WhatsGood_Games. She asks clear questions and can see when something is falling flat and responds with poise and humility. She is the master of wrangling convos.

Be Selective About Experts & Speakers

In the same vein as your MC, who you select as a speaker is super important. Some people are born to talk and others are born to share. There’s a big difference between the two; one provides value while the other fill up the silence.

A flaw in many speaker and moderator situations is that it’s more friendly than professional. This often leads to the speaker going on long rants and sharing personal stories that are irrelevant to the topic at hand. That’s not why people are watching!

A big-name celebrity or guest is great for branding, but do some due diligence on their previous event work and online talks to see how they communicate. If all they do is tangent with small tidbits of value baked in, you should consider another guest that better fits your audience and content.

Find Some Inspiration

Media publications like Venture Beat and Recode Media, along with popular developer events like Microsoft Build and VIVE Developer conference, are leading the way of live online events. Not to mention game developers like Fortnite and YouTube influencers like Mr. Beast.

via Fortnite’s live streaming event with artist Travis Scott

Why do they have the upper hand? They have the social channels to reach audiences and the connections to experts that they can leverage as guests.

There are also tons of new resources popping up everyday, like this online event guide by HootSuite.

Wrap Up

Sound big and scary? Don’t worry! This live streaming and online event world is new to everyone. Even the world’s biggest brands are trying to figure it out as they go. There is no one way or formula, at least at this point. So don’t overthink it and just go for it. The only thing worse than having an event with speed-bumps, is doing nothing. Leverage this new medium to connect with fans, partners, and potential customers!

If you're hosting an online event let me know. I’m all about seeing where this goes and supporting the format. Hit me up with a message, invite, and I’ll do my best to drop in or even promote it.

Strategic alliances (haptics & magnetics) at Founding team @Nanodots. Writes about VR, tech, startups, and autocross.

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