Virtual tastings are no longer news, but they remain an exciting way to drive engagement, deepen relationships with your audience and grow your brand. Many of us have been at it with virtual events for over a year now — even here at Distiller we’ve covered topics like “5 Reasons To Make Virtual Experiences A Permanent Tool In Your Marketing Toolbox” and “6 Virtual Event Ideas To Fill Your Tasting Room Gap” (Winter issue, 2020/2021). One thing that is often overlooked, however, is the actual how of putting on a great virtual event. One that not only is professional but also fun and, most importantly, drives real value for your brand.
In the past 18 months, my team and I have hosted virtual tastings for over 45 craft maker brands and have hosted more than 200 corporate virtual tasting and mixology events featuring craft alcohol brands. Not only do we feel great about our virtual events and the support they are providing to the craft alcohol community, but the brands and corporate clients we work with agree. We’re helping corporate clients generate leads, land new clients and engage employees while supporting small craft alcohol brands who are represented in our tasting and mixology kits. And we’re helping small craft makers reach wider and new audiences and drive bottle sales while increasing brand awareness and loyalty.
Now, I’m going to tell you how we did it, so you can rip and reapply to drive real value from every virtual event you host. Virtual events are a powerful tool in your marketing toolbox and one that is here to stay. So, whether you’ve yet to host your very first virtual event or have been hosting them for a while, let’s dive into our top tips and tricks. If you’re a more visual learner, make sure to check out our accompanying video (https://bit.ly/VThowtovideo) where we show you around our setup as well.
Promote Your Virtual Event
Promote, promote, promote! I cannot say this enough. You’re not hosting these virtual tastings or happy hours out of the goodness of your heart. Of course you want to connect with your consumers, but you need this to be valuable to your business as well. Leverage all of your assets to get the word out about your event: homepage call to action, newsletter, brand and personal social media channels, event-curation websites and publications, and so on. Promote early and often. This is especially important for pre-orders so people can participate fully. Give them enough time to save the date, think it over, find friends to join and still have time to order and get your product on time.
When promoting, don’t forget to entice purchase with discounts and incentives. Keep in mind how important product trial is and how impactful trial can be when you’re there to guide them through the tasting! Do whatever you can to encourage pre-sales, and then offer another promotion to encourage post-event sales to anyone who attended.
Decide if your event will require registration or not. I know, I know: You don’t want to require registration because it seems like an extra step and may prevent people from attending. Honestly, this is a fallacy. Here are a few reasons why it’s a good idea to require registration:
You’ll know the attendee count in advance so you can adjust promotions or reschedule as needed.
Registration provides you with the emails of all attendees. I don’t know about you, but growing my email list is constantly something that I’m focused on. If this feels uncomfortable, put a mailing list opt-out footnote on the registration page.
If you have their email addresses, you can send event details and reminders to increase the odds of registered guests showing up and encourage product sales.
Posting a public event link for anyone to join can be risky. Registration minimizes the likelihood of trolls or competitors joining and it allows you to remove anyone with a suspicious-looking email address from your event in advance.
I strongly suggest creating an outline of the event and thinking about how much time each section is going to take so that you are respectful of everyone’s time and expectations. Be realistic and make time for audience engagement and participation.
As a part of your outline or event flow document, consider the following in advance:
Prepare any visuals. Visuals can bring portions of the event to life in a more holistic way and help guests get a deeper experience. We always have pictures/videos of our featured makers’ orchards, vineyards, distilleries, teams, production process and more so we can share them throughout the event.
Compile any links that you’ll want to share in the chat during the event. Think about links to join your mailing list, buy products, schedule a visit or tour, articles on the topic you’re talking about, social handles, your event calendar, etc. This is especially critical to prepare in advance if you want to use tracking links so you can use event clicks as one of your key performance indicators (KPIs).
Type out any recipes you may be sharing or preparing so they’re ready to copy/paste into the chat. Include conversions for anyone who may not have a jigger.
Choose the calls to action you want to make sure to hit during the event. Highlight them in your event flow so you don’t forget.
If you’re new to virtual events or feeling nervous, it’s a great idea to do a trial run. Get on the technology, gather a few friends together and practice it intentionally. Introduce yourself, talk about the evening ahead, practice screen sharing and paying attention to the chat while talking, handle interruptions without losing track of what’s next, keep an eye on time, etc. While you won’t need to do this often, doing it once can make a big difference in not only how well your event turns out but also in how comfortable and prepared you feel at the start of your event so you can have fun too!
We’ve used almost every virtual event platform out there when required by our clients, and we keep coming back to Zoom as our preferred tool. The free plan caps meetings at 40 minutes, but their paid plans are very affordable and worth it for the added features and unlimited run time. Some of the features that we particularly love are waiting rooms, the ability to rename people or kick people out, gallery and speaker view recording, and polling.
On that last feature, if you struggle with assessing return on investment (ROI) for virtual tastings, using polls at the start and end of each event will give you hard data on your event and guests (in addition to other hard data you should be collecting for each event).
Whatever technology platform you use, make sure you carefully go through all of the settings in detail. Run a few trial meetings to see what each feature does and make the best decision for your events. This can elevate an event from just okay to professional and fun.
Next, let’s dive into logistics around your setting and space for the virtual event.
First, we strongly recommend having two co-hosts whenever you can. We stumbled upon this since my business partner Evan and I started doing virtual events together, but once we did we realized what a differentiator it is and how much more comfortable and engaged it can help people become. One advantage is it makes us better equipped to divide and conquer, so while one of us is talking the other one can be responding to a chat question or queuing up the visuals. Also, we can kick each other under the table when one of us is spending too much time on a topic!
The other reason two co-hosts are nice is that you can engage with each other, talk, laugh at each other’s jokes, build on each other’s stories and generally create a higher-energy event. We find that having two co-hosts leads to our audience being more comfortable engaging with us as well, perhaps because we seem more like a human and less like a presenter.
When it comes to other logistics and our recommended tools, here’s a quick hit list, but if you want to see our setup live, check out our video on this same topic:
It’s tempting sometimes to have your camera really far away to capture that beautiful tasting room or view, but it’s pretty disengaging, so make sure to be close enough to be clearly visible but not so close that your guests are counting your pores! We’ve found that the best way to do this is to have a separate screen (with a webcam on top or embedded in it) about four feet away from you. This is also the screen where you will have your event guests up on gallery view so that when you’re looking at them you’re also looking at your camera. Then, have either a wireless keyboard and mouse or a laptop (that can be connected to that second screen as well so it’s powering both screens) closer to you for typing in the chat (you can pop this out so your chat screen is on your laptop screen and your guests are on your main screen), queuing up visuals, keeping eye on your event flow, etc.
If your phone is your best camera, set it up further away from you using a tripod and then also join from your laptop or computer and make yourself a co-host there so you can do everything you need to do with chat or pictures on a device other than your phone.
It’s important to have a clean, simple background so it’s not distracting. Clear things out a bit or invest in a high-quality background you can quickly put up. While we don’t recommend using a virtual background as a host, if you do want to, it’s important to get a green screen so you minimize the disappearing-hands-bottles-and-glasses effect.
Lighting is always tricky but incredibly important, especially as the host. It helps your event look professional, ensures your guests can see you clearly and gives you a more energetic atmosphere. While we have a whole studio set up of lights now, the one piece of equipment we would strongly recommend is a ring light that fits right around your camera and can be adjusted in terms of brightness and warm/cool tones depending on the natural lighting you have available. You want to be front-lit, not back-, top- or side-lit, so stay away from windows or cover them up and ensure any lights keeping your background bright don’t have bulbs visible in your frame since that can create hot spots.
Keep in mind, good lighting reflects off of shiny skin just like it reflects off of glass. A mattifying compact is your best friend to looking great on camera in good light — yes, even if you’re a man!
This may seem obvious, but make sure you have a highly visible clock or countdown timer nearby during your event; just make sure it doesn’t make a noise when it ends! There’s nothing worse than realizing that you only have 15 minutes left and you haven’t even made it halfway through your agenda. While it’s totally fine to let the fun continue on after the stated end time, it’s important to cover the content you promised in your promotions during the time stated.
First, at least an hour before the event, restart your computer. I can’t overemphasize the importance of this! When your computer turns back on, open only the things that you need for that event. Otherwise, it just clutters the system, slows your computer down, and puts you at risk of mistakenly sharing something you didn’t mean to share.
Once you turn off the waiting room, give people a little time to join. The waiting room is also nice since you can see how many people are waiting and make a call if it’s more important to start exactly on time or wait a couple of minutes for a few more people to join and be let in all at once.
As your guests are filtering in, have some questions ready to spur conversation. Ask them what they’re drinking or start a poll. Just don’t let this go on for too long; you don’t ever want to punish those who were on time by waiting too long for those who are late!
When it’s time to start the event, mute everyone and kick off the event. These few minutes setting the stage are some of the most important to get right, so here are our top 5 things to make sure you cover:
Introduce yourself and your brand — even if you feel like you know everyone there. You never know who’s lurking on the second or third page or who joined late that you didn’t see. If you have co-hosts or other brands present, ask them to wave to the camera and acknowledge them all by name here, but save their intros for later to stay focused on kicking off the event.
Give a quick overview of the agenda and time that you’ll be spending together. Sharing a high-level understanding of what they can look forward to will keep them more engaged.
Speaking of engagement, let people know how and when you would like for them to engage. We always encourage people to unmute themselves or throw a question or comment in the chat whenever it strikes to encourage engagement early and often. But if you’re more comfortable with having a dedicated Q&A time, that’s totally fine, as long as you let them know.
Finally, share your calendar of upcoming events or other clear calls to action with links pasted into the chat. You’ll do this again at the end of the event as well to catch the early and late attendees.
Give one last reminder to take your opening poll if you shared one at the start. Then you’re off to the races.
For the rest of the time, until you close out the event, your number one job is to deliver great content and provide an engaging experience. And truly, that’s all I want you to focus on except for two logistics details that will really help you achieve that goal.
The first is to keep an eye on the time vs. your planned agenda. It’s okay to stray from your plan, but make sure it’s intentional, the audience won’t mind and bad management of time isn’t forcing you to do it (and if it is, learn from that so it doesn’t happen again).
The second logistics responsibility to focus on throughout the event is audience engagement.
If there isn’t any engagement, create it. Ask a question, call on a friend, compliment someone’s glass and ask them to unmute and show it off, post a question in the chat (“Where’s everyone joining from?”) or simply ask if anyone has any questions.
If there is engagement, your job is to make space for it while still delivering on your event promise for content. If someone is trying to chime in, make space for them or let them know you’ll make space for them momentarily. If you see a question in the chat, ask the person who posted it to give a wave or unmute themselves to ask it aloud. Getting people to move a little is another good way to push people out of “watching mode” and get them into “socializing mode.” Ask them to swirl their drink and hold it up to the camera, do a virtual cheers, have a little contest where everyone races to pull out their favorite cocktail ingredient and bring it back to show everyone.
Just get people moving and engaging. The best marketing is rooted in human connection, so make this time with your audience matter.
Closing Out The Event
As your time is drawing to a close, get your closing poll up there, if you have one, and give it a shoutout. This also signals that your evening is winding down. Then, once you thank your audience and any guest hosts for joining, make sure to reiterate a few things from your event kickoff. First, tell them about any upcoming events and reshare the link to your calendar or to register. Then, share any other calls to action, special offers or final closing notes before saying good night.
If you’re open to continuing on later — an after-party, if you will — let them know you’ll be sticking around to casually chitchat if anyone wants to join.This is often a nice touch and can really deepen relationships between your brand and the guests that stick around. If you need to end right away though, we find it’s best to let a few people leave first and then simply hit the “End Meeting” button before anyone starts talking and tries to force an after-party of their own!
Then, give yourself a pat on the back and enjoy the rest of your evening. But we’re not quite done yet! Within the next 24 hours, you have three final important steps to complete in order to maximize your value from this event:
First, post a picture from the event and a thank-you to social media, tagging anyone you know was there. It makes those who attended feel valued and those who didn’t wonder if they’re missing out and therefore a bit more likely to consider attending a future event.
Next, send an email out to everyone who attended and registered but didn’t attend with any relevant links you shared, where to buy, a link to the video recording and of course, details on your upcoming events.
Lastly, compile your data. All good marketing has KPIs, so make sure you’re tracking the data that matters to you for every virtual event you do. Registrant counts, attendee counts, link clicks, bottles sold for the event in pre- and post-sales, poll results, etc.
Taking the time to build your virtual event muscle is both fun and valuable. One of my favorite entrepreneurial sayings is, “Go slow to go fast.” So many of us jumped on the virtual events bandwagon quickly early on and never looked back, but if you’re struggling to see the real value in virtual events, taking the time to implement these tips will make a difference. Virtual events are one of the best new marketing tools to drive your brand’s growth, and now you have a clear road map on how to do exactly that. Tag @thecraftycask and we’ll make sure to share your virtual events with our audience. We’re all in this together, and our mission is to celebrate and support craft makers just like you.