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4 Best Virtual Event Platforms to Consider in 2021

[fa icon="calendar"] Thu, Dec 17, 2020 / by Joey O'Shaughnessy

4 Best Virtual Event Platforms to Consider in 2021

Last year, our team rolled out our first ever in-person training opportunity — the LivePlan Bootcamp for Strategic Advising. It’s been a goal of ours for a while and gave us an opportunity to deliver our training live to a small group of engaged users. After hosting the event we were left with a ton of positive feedback, and we were excited to host an even bigger and better Bootcamp this year.

Then 2020 hit. Within a few months, the conversation shifted from ‘how can we provide an even better experience?’ to ‘can we even host an event at all this year?’ We quickly had to scramble and find ways to virtualize an event originally designed to be delivered in-person.

If this sounds familiar to you, then you’re likely facing the same challenge we did — how to successfully deliver a unique and engaging experience virtually. The first major step is ensuring that you choose the best platform to allow you to deliver your content in a meaningful way.

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What to consider when choosing an event platform

Before you can jump in and start testing out platforms, you need to make sure you know what you’re looking for and that your needs are well defined.

Set a budget

First, outline your budget. All of the platforms our team considered bill on a subscription basis. Consider how long you’ll need access to the platform to build out your event, as this will determine your total cost. Many platforms bill based on the number of admin users on the account as well, so consider who on your staff will need access to help do the set-up work.

Number of attendees & sign-up process

Consider your audience size and ticketing next. Do you have a billing system in place that allows you to charge for tickets? If not, many platforms offer their own ticketing system. How many attendees are you aiming for? If it’s a small event, an enterprise-level conferencing platform is going to be overkill. But for a large, 500+ person event, a platform like Zoom will be underwhelming.

Must-have features

Make a list of important features. What draws your attendees to your event? If building connections with other attendees is important, consider a platform with strong networking features. If a tech or vendor showcase is a key factor to your audience, then you’ll need a platform that allows for virtual booths and has strong sponsor support.

Time until event

Lastly, consider some logistics. How much time do you have to prepare and ramp-up? Some platforms offer high levels of customization, but that will take longer to build-out and require more testing. Others offer a more ready-made experience, with less set-up necessary. What type of reports or data are you hoping to get out of this event? Will you need your sessions to be recorded? Make sure the platforms you consider support these needs.

The top virtual event platforms we considered for LivePlan Bootcamp

To help you decide which platform might be best for your event, we’ve highlighted 4 tools that we assessed. We’ve also used our takeaways to share some best practices to help ensure that your event runs smoothly.

1. Zoom

Just reading ‘Zoom’ will likely elicit one of the following:

“I know Zoom. I love Zoom!”

Or

“Please, not another zoom meeting!”

Zoom’s ubiquity is both its biggest strength and weakness. Your attendees, organizers, and speakers are likely already very familiar with it. That means less time learning the tool, setting up the event, and training your participants.

However, Zoom fatigue is a real thing. Many companies are using Zoom to host all of their meetings. The last thing your attendee might want right now is to use a platform they are already using on a daily basis. Consider the experience from your attendees’ point of view: they’ve potentially spent the last 6+ months having daily zoom meetings, and now they’re about to jump into yet another Zoom event. Does that sound exciting? Maybe not. Remember that you’re trying to create as special and unique of an experience as possible.

From a feature perspective, Zoom does have its advantages. Zoom easily allows you to breakout your participants into predetermined groups. This can be great for hosting group learning sessions without having to worry about setting up session rooms ahead of time. Zoom offers high-quality video and audio streaming, with up to 49 concurrent video feeds at once.

If you’re looking to closely replicate a conference environment, Zoom may not be the best option. While there are some engagement features, such as polls and chat, It ultimately will fall short in creating a conference atmosphere. If you’re looking for customized branding options, attendee networking features, and sponsor/booth capabilities, you may want to consider other platforms.

Don’t forget — Zoom integrates well with other platforms as well. You can still run your conference through a larger platform but have the video sessions be hosted through Zoom if you prefer it’s reliability.

Verdict: Zoom is well suited for smaller, more personal events. Zoom is popular, and your audience is likely already familiar with how to use it, but may also be burnt out from it as well.

Zoom is best for

Small events (less than 50 participants); easy breakout sessions; reliable, easy to use

Pros:

  • Ease of use and quick set-up time
  • Reliable and high-quality video and audio streaming
  • Familiarity — Your audience is likely already using Zoom and will likely run into less technical issues.

Cons:

  • Lack of conferencing features
  • Not very exciting — Zoom burnout is real.
  • Little in the way of customization

Price: $

Zoom video conferencing

2. GoToTraining

If your event centers more around professional training or certification, then GoToTraining may be a good option to consider.

GoToTraining gives you all of the standard features of a video conferencing tool: multiple video stream support, screen sharing, chat, etc. It also comes with features designed specifically for learning engagement.

Tests and polls allow you to evaluate your attendees’ knowledge throughout the live session. You can create activities, allowing your learners to access and work in the same documents at once. You can even design certificates in GoToTraining, and send those certificates to participants upon completion of the training event.

However, one of GoToTrainings biggest drawbacks is its user interface. The UI isn’t very intuitive and may be confusing to your audience. It may not be immediately clear to them how to choose or change their video and audio settings, share their screen, or even participate in the chat.

If your participants run into these types of technical issues, it’s now up to you to help solve them. That can tie up resources for your team and ultimately waste time. Similar to Zoom, it also won’t have features designed to replicate a conference environment.

Verdict: With a variety of learning engagement features, GoToTraining is a great option to consider for a professional training event.

GoToTraining is best for

Small events centered around training or professional development/certification. 

Pros:

  • Reliable platform for video streaming and screen sharing
  • Variety of learning engagement features including learning evaluations and activities
  • Customizable certifications for your participants

Cons:

  • User Interface isn’t very clear and may confuse your audience
  • Lack of customization and branding features
  • Attendee limits may restrict this to hosting smaller training events

Price: $$

3. Hopin

Hopin is a relatively new virtual event platform, having started development just a few years ago. In those few years, they’ve seen some very large growth, and have already been used by organizations such as TechCrunch, Slack, and the UN (yes, that UN). And full disclosure — this is the product we chose for LivePlan Bootcamp.

The features in Hopin are designed to replicate the structure of an in-person conference. Participants register by purchasing a “ticket”. You can kick-off your event through the Stage, allowing you to present to your entire audience at once. From there, Sessions allow you to host group training rooms. You can even restrict your session participants by ticket type. If you’re working with sponsors for your event, you can create virtual booths for your participants to engage with via the Expo.

All of this can be scheduled in advance, giving your participants an easy to follow itinerary so they know where to be at what time. Hopin does come with some customizable branding options as well to help you create a unique experience.

While Hopin comes with many of the features you would expect from a video conferencing tool: video streams, chat, and screen sharing, those features aren’t quite as robust as you would get in a video conferencing tool like Zoom. For example, Hopin only supports up to 20 consecutive video feeds (and just 9 for a recorded session).

The networking feature set is also a little lackluster. The default Networking area connects one willing participant in a one-on-one video chat with another willing participant, chosen at random. That might feel a bit awkward for some, though participants can also use the chat tool to start up a private video with one another. In addition, the booths are a bit simple and won’t give your sponsors many ways to customize their presence.

Verdict: If you’re hosting a medium-sized event, and really want to create a conference-like environment, then Hopin may be a great option to consider.

Hopin is best for

Medium-sized, conference-style events.

Pros:

  • Does a great job of emulating a conference feel
  • Quick and easy to set-up
  • Ticket types and restrictable rooms allow you to create a separate experience for regular vs. VIP attendees

Cons:

  • Not a very robust networking feature set
  • Limited number of consecutive video feeds
  • No dedicated mobile app

Price: $$-$$$$

Hopin group sessions

4. Swapcard

Hosting a larger event? Consider an option like Swapcard to help you deliver a more robust experience.

Swapcard provides a high level of customization. The backend Studio tool allows you to create custom content and branding for all of the event pages, and even allows you to control your visible content based on ticket type.

One area that Swapcard excels in is sponsor support. The event booths are fully customizable, and you can invite members from the sponsor’s organization, allowing them to set-up and customize their booth on their own.

There are multiple ways to attract attendees to the booths as well. For example, sponsors can set-up special prizes and offerings in their booths, and you can create an event page just for these special offerings. Your home page can also feature an ad for a specific sponsor, directing participants to their booth. If sponsor revenue is a key part of your event, then Swapcard provides a good set of features to attract sponsors with.

Similar to Hopin, you can create session rooms supporting live video streams, chats, and polls. In addition, Swapcard provides a nice networking experience, where participants can view a list of other attendees and even narrow that list down based on various filters.

Of course, the added level of customization means a higher level of complexity and longer set-up times (and a higher price tag to boot). Depending on how you set up the event, the user interface can easily get a bit cluttered as well, and your participants may not always know where to go.

Verdict: Swapcard offers a variety of ways to customize your event and create a unique experience. It will be better suited for medium to large size events, especially those with an emphasis on vendor showcases.

Swapcard is best for

Larger, conference-style events that emphasize networking and vendor booths.

Pros:

  • Studio tool allows for a variety of ways to customize the look and feel of your event
  • Excellent sponsor and booth features
  • Picture-in-picture support allows you to watch a presentation while exploring other areas of the event

Cons:

  • Potential for a cluttered or confusing experience for attendees
  • Limited interface language support if you are hosting an international event
  • May require more set-up time than other solutions

Price: $$$$

Best practices for hosting a successful virtual event

Regardless of which platform you decide upon, there are some best practices to ensure you host a successful event.

Get to know the hosting tool

For one, make sure to give you and your team enough time to learn the tool, assess it, test it, and set it up. Our team went through a few rounds of testing, which helped us expose various concerns and gave us ample enough time to address them.

We also hosted video calls with all of our speakers to ensure they know how to interact with the platform. The entire process of choosing a platform, testing it, training our team, and setting it up for our event, took us about 3 months.

Run your attendees through a platform tutorial

Consider devoting half an hour at the start of your event to walk your attendees through your platform as well. This will ensure they know how to use your chosen system and will provide an opportunity for attendees to ask questions before you begin delivering any content.

You’ll also want to make sure you have a plan to address any technical issues your audience may experience. That can be as simple as having a designated point of contact that your participants can chat with or email during the event.

Encourage audience interaction

Give your audience multiple ways to interact with one another. Networking is a big draw for many conference attendees. We created a session room that opened up before and after each day’s scheduled content. This gave our attendees an extra way to mingle and chat with one another, without having to rely on private chats.

Set goals for the event

Finally, make sure you understand what type of data you’d like to get out of this event. For example, if you have sponsors who will be setting up virtual booths, then it’s likely they’ll want a list of all attendees who visited and interacted with their booth.

In our case, our event offered professional education credits, which required us to report on user activity and engagement with poll questions. The level of reporting will vary between platforms, so make sure your chosen platform supports your reporting and data needs.

The best virtual event platform depends on your needs

Just like a well-run in-person event, a successful virtual event takes time to come together. Choosing the right platform will help you create and deliver an engaging virtual event, but not every platform is best for everyone.

Your event needs will dictate the best available option for you and it’s best to consider specific features and use cases very carefully. Give yourself time to vet these options, walk through how they work, and be sure to consider the needs of your attendees’. That way, when you go live, you’ll be just as confident in the platform as you are with the material you're teaching.

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Joey O'Shaughnessy

Joey O'Shaughnessy

Joey is the Channel Manager for Strategic Advisors. In his role he focuses on helping accountants and bookkeepers start, run, and grow their advising practice through LivePlan. He has been with Palo Alto Software for over 3 years and is a graduate of the University of Oregon.

Topics: Growth & Productivity

Content, tips and best practice for accountants, CPAs and bookkeepers who offer Strategic Advising Services to small business clients.

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