MacDougall Musings

Hosting a Successful Virtual Event

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According to a recent poll, 93 percent of events will have a virtual component, long after a return to “business as usual.”

The good news for biotech and life science companies? Virtual events are well-received in the industry. In a recent Nature survey in March, 74% of respondents indicated that scientific meetings should continue to be virtual, or have a virtual component, even after the pandemic ends.

Organizing a virtual event may initially seem easier than pulling together an in-person function, but executing exceptional digital events require just as much preparation and collaboration as planning physical ones.


With virtual events, it is mission critical that you invest time and energy during planning to address all  technical considerations and plan for any potential issues that could pop up. It does no good to have a Zoom full of attendees if they can’t hear the content being delivered!

“Be sure to feel out the web hosting platform ahead of time. As much as online events may seem convenient, there are a lot of new details that not everyone is accustomed to, so there is a steep learning curve to become familiar with all the minute aspects,” said Senior Account Executive Carolyn Noyes, who recently organized a virtual symposium on VISTA, an emerging checkpoint target for immuno oncology, autoimmune diseases and beyond. “Practice sessions proved very helpful in learning to use the platform and respond to the various ways that people could call in – as a panelist, audience member or moderator. During the live event, we had more than 250 leaders in industry and academia in attendance – troubleshooting problems before meant smooth sailing when participants logged in.”

Virtual events also require special attention when it comes to planning your agenda.

“With virtual events you want the content to be exceptionally good, but you also need to make sure you can fit all the key content into a set period of time,” said Amanda Houlihan, Account Manager. “People have a limited attention span for virtual events, and they often multitask or get distracted, so you want to ensure that your content is relevant, engaging and well proportioned. This takes a lot of time and effort to plan out, especially for the longer events that have multiple presentations or panels.”

When planning for a virtual event, carefully schedule the length of each session and consider going beyond straight panel discussions to incorporate dynamic, interactive sessions like roundtables, breakout rooms or audience polls. Also, have a plan for keeping the agenda on track – without a timekeeper in the front row to remind panelists of the session’s end, the event can quickly run over time.

Maximize the benefits of the virtual environment

“Pre-recorded presentations are a great way to run an event smoothly if presenters, such as practicing clinicians, don’t have time to rehearse or attend run throughs,” said MacDougall’s Holly Hancock who recently pulled together a webinar for a client looking to raise awareness about advances in organ transplant cell therapy to induce donor-specific immune tolerance and avoid transplant kidney rejection.

In addition to saving time, recordings can be chopped up into highlight clips and be shared on social media and the company website to magnify exposure.

A live Q&A where audience members can directly ask questions to the panelists from the comfort of their computer screens is a great way to keep attendees engaged. “Having a list of backup questions in case attendance or audience participation is low is good to have on hand. Even if these questions are not needed, they can also be used to prepare the panelists and moderators during rehearsals on discussion points,” said Carolyn.

Attracting attendees

Remember to employ multiple methods when promoting an event to maximize attendance. Don’t rely on a single advertisement or marketing strategy to gain attention. Work with participants and presenters to promote the event through their own channels – leveraging personal networks is extremely effective for attracting attendees. Social media is also a great way to spread the word and having custom event hashtags and shareable graphics can generate greater exposure.

In addition, remember to keep your target audience in mind when publicizing your event.

“When we issued a release announcing the event, we put out a ‘EurekAlert’ on the science news service so we could reach academic researchers, one of our larger audiences. Another approach that led to our success was having a targeted email list to invite different stakeholders within the industry – investors, analysts, researchers – really anyone who we thought might be interested in attending,” added Amanda.

When possible, consider allocating some budget to advertising in select newsletters, suggests MacDougall Senior Vice President Lauren Arnold, “Our target audience was transplant surgeons, so we worked with associations, such as the American Transplant Congress and American Society of Transplant Surgeons, to include an ad with a link to the event registration page in their weekly and bi-weekly newsletters. These ads proved to be quite successful as the display click through rate (CTR) benchmark is anywhere between 0.05% – 0.07% and our campaign averaged a 0.21% CTR.”

Other virtual event formats

With technology as the primary way to stay connected during the pandemic, new online meeting platforms have emerged, such as Clubhouse, a new type of social network where people can come together to talk, listen and learn from each other in real-​time.

“Clubhouse is completely free to use and is very simple to navigate,” said Matthew Corcoran, Vice President, who recently organized a Clubhouse event for a client looking to support clinical trial recruitment by increasing awareness to relevant audiences. “You can reach audiences that you wouldn’t otherwise reach, as any Clubhouse user can drop in and listen in to the discussion. There is also a type of informality that you don’t quite get in a webinar, allowing for the conversations to be less scripted and more organic.”

However, the ability for users to easily move between rooms can sometimes be a double-edged sword. It may lead to greater exposure, but it also allows users to easily leave the room if the conversation is uninteresting. “Always encourage the hosts to engage with the audience as much as possible to keep users listening,” added Matt. Additionally, be sure to repeat any key messages throughout the session for users that “drop in” and missed introductions.

Challenges of virtual format

Although virtual events have proven to be great in a lot of respects, they’re not perfect.

“After the opening remarks, the first presenter of the symposium had an issue that prevented us from hearing him. It only lasted a minute, but it felt like an eternity. These things can feel earth-shattering when you are striving to run the event smoothly, but at the end of the day it didn’t derail the event at all. Next time, we’ll plan to do a full ‘mic check’ ahead of time,” added Carolyn.

Another drawback of online events is the obvious inability to have face-to-face interactions and in-person networking. There are digital replacements such as Zoom conferences or 1×1 chat rooms, but these can feel lackluster without proper execution. In addition, the “wow” factor is often lost with digital  events; the excitement around a venue and seeing what’s new in-person is a large draw for some audiences. When considering a virtual event, it’s important to think about why the audience is attending and how to keep enthusiasm and interest high.

Virtual events are here to stay

Despite the challenges, digital events have a lot to offer.

“The virtual format was the right approach for the VISTA symposium since we were able to have a lot of people from different time zones join without the need for travel. We were able to reach vast biotech audiences – not just those in the major biotech hubs. It was not just a lot more accessible, but it also saved both cost and travel time,” said Amanda.

As we have seen firsthand, virtual events have demonstrated their value and are here to stay. They are a great way to elevate a company’s profile, science or technology while saving time and money, but remember, just because you are not dealing with hotels and venues, there are still many logistical considerations as well as the need to make sure that the content shines. A great amount of planning and preparation is needed to ensure a successful event, but when executed properly, the results are worth it.

Are you interested in hosting a successful virtual event? Contact our team to see how we can help.