Should you build your own virtual event platform?
Only 30% of events have successfully transitioned, and by successfully, I mean profitably, to either entirely virtual or hybrid events*. While there are endless posts about making your virtual event a success, I want to talk instead about the platform you are using and if it’s easier to develop your own rather than using one off the shelf.
To preface this article, I have been a web development agency owner and product manager for over a decade and have brought almost a dozen products to market. Some successfully, some awful failures, and most have been projects that I have developed and funded myself.
One of my current projects, Bettercast, is, oddly enough, a hybrid event platform built for my wife’s event because nothing fitted her needs within her budget.
And now, I will outline a few options that event managers have when thinking about running their event, and then we can weigh the options that will hopefully answer the question. When it comes to virtual and hybrid events, is it better to build a platform or get something off the rack?
First, we need to ask the question, are you trying to replicate your offline event into the digital world with all the trappings, or are you just trying to get some core information out to your audience either for free or a nominal sum?
Because each of these events has very different requirements, a single 90 min presentation is vastly different from a 2-day event. If you’re looking at development, then again, there will be a broad difference in what you need to consider.
For the sake of some brevity, we’re going to assume that your looking to run two events, one is a single presentation over 90 min and the second event you’re running is a replication of your weekend-long event with sponsored talks and exhibitor booths.
The single event
The 90 min, the one-off event is the easiest and the cheapest to recreate, and if it’s not something you are going to be using over and over, then getting a few tools off the shelf will do you fine. The additional benefit to this is that you can do this event for almost nothing.
If you want to do something like a big zoom call, where you can share your screen, create a password to access, and have some control over the event, then you can use a free service called “Jitsi.” It works just like embedding a youtube video into your site.
- Just make a call on the Jitisi site
- Make a page on your website
- Click embed call from Jitsi and paste in the code
That would take a total of 5 min to create, and if your event is free and less than 70 people, it’s a great option to do a short presentation. You could use Zoom for the same, but why pay if you can do it for free.
This is a straightforward option for events that are produced from your desktop and require minimal technical skills. However, you’re stuck with the video call format, which is acceptable in some circumstances but not great. If you still want to run the event from your desktop, but you want a little more production value, the next step would be to combine two services.
Slido and Restream.
Restream is a video streaming production service that is very cost-effective, gives you a lot of functionality, like graphic overlays, layout options, and allowing people to “call-in” to be in your presentation. You can only do that with a unique link you provide.
Slido is a tool that will enable you to create polls and take questions in real-time. All you do is create an account on Slido, follow the prompt to embed the Restream widget into Slido, and that’s it. You have a Slido page with the video, all the interaction you need, with minimal technical skills, and you can still just use laptops to create the entire event.
Both of these options are low-cost and require little to no development but still allow you to host a pretty good-looking event without needing to spend a lot of time learning platforms and development. The drawback is that these options are not long-term options and don’t solve any ticketing or special access requirements you may have.
Additionally, both of these options rely on you being the producer of the event, so you will need some confidence to manage the event on the day, and if you’re also presenting, then it could be a little more workload than you are willing to take on.
With both options, you can enlist a live-streaming professional’s services to manage your event’s production, which reduces the stress and problems with production but, of course, starts to add to the cost. In my opinion, though, someone to ensure quality means you get a better output either way. As they say in the industry s##t in s%%t out.
For the last of the basic options, a service like Bettercast Onepage (this is my service) provides a single page for your video content and q&a engagement options. It solves the brand customization, paid ticketing options, and analytics that the other more straightforward options will not.
At this level, we’re going to assume you still have a live stream professional working with you, so the costs are starting to increase, but at this point, you can charge for access to the event and can expect some positive ROI for a more minor event. Additionally, you have no development needed.
To replicate the functions that you would find in a service like Bettercast Onepage, you can again use a selection of tools. Still, at this point, you will need to hire a developer to deliver your service. This isn’t a tremendous job and can be completed in a week or so without much fuss.
In this case, you would again use Restream and Slido, but you would also need to have a small WordPress website built and set up an account with Stripe to manage your payment processing. WordPress is a highly functional website Content Management System. As it’s been around for a long time now, you can find lots of relatively cost-effective WordPress developers. One of the great functions of WordPress is that there are literally thousands of plug-in integrations that you can get to expand your site’s features in only a few clicks.
This option will allow you to have a registration or paywall system that takes credit card payments and gives users access to your page where you have embedded Slido and its restream video player.
So up until now, you have options that are relatively low cost and effort to build in-house, without a lot of heavy development. While it may seem easy, it will still give your guests a pleasing experience, but it’s not a great option to do a more live event replication.
Now let’s talk about when you need to step the event up a bit, and you’re needing something with exhibitor pages, networking rooms, and a schedule that spans multiple days and tooms.
The Conference experience
If you’re starting to think about building a platform that will replicate your in-person event experience, there are a few decisions you will need to make. Firstly, is the cost you’re about to incur really worth it? Do you do large-scale conferences so often that creating a platform will return enough on your investment, and lastly, have you got experience in developing and maintain software beyond an essential website?
For 99% of the readers, the answer would be no to most if not all of the questions. However, for the 1% of you that are keen to build something you can use over and over, let’s talk about what you need. Some of this may be technical but getting to know this will be a great way to move a project ahead much faster!
I’m not going to get into the service’s coding, as that is much more detail than we need. I will talk about some providers that offer off-the-shelf services you can use to put all the functions together. You will certainly need a small team of developers to manage this, but it’s still going to be cost-effective and provide your guests with a pretty good event experience.
A way to:
- Manage users
- Take payments
- Manage the video ingest and distribution
- A way to manage content
- Conduct analytisis.
Managing your users.
This is more than just letting people log in. You need to be able to edit and change passwords, edit details, and more, so you need a service that can handle user account creation functions but give you a way to edit that information. There is a low-cost “backend as a service” called Backendless. This functions as your event database, where you can administer all your user account super fast, also super cheap.
You can think of this as an excel spreadsheet that contains all your user’s data in it. The good thing about this service is that it’s really fast to deploy and comes with its own built-in APIs. So when you want to get two separate services talking to each other, APIs are the connections they use. So having all the user data easily accessible and editable is a huge step forward.
Getting your ROI is quite possibly the most critical part of your event, so you need to take a credit card and process the payments. The most straightforward service to use is probably Stripe. They have lots of integrations into analytics and accounting platforms, so it’s easy to track sales, and again, their APIs are straightforward to connect to your service, and their costs are very low.
Stripe will provide all the security and checkout widgets you need to take payments, so you don’t need to build all the security features payment processing requires. They also make it easy to create a product so you can have multiple levels of access, or subscription, or whatever you need.
Managing the video ingest and distribution.
This is a little more complex as it depends on the type of event you are hosting. By that, I mean are you doing a desktop-produced zoom call that many people can watch, or are you working with a camera team in the venue?
If you are doing the desktop production option, I would recommend using the services from Agora. They can provide the system to make calls, have viewers, and do the whole production from your desktop. Additionally, Agora has a suite of services you can use to enhance the event, like group chat, one-on-one chat, and more.
However, if you are working with a camera team in a venue, Amazon web services have their Elemental media services. The best thing about AWS is that you only pay as you use the services, and depending on what setup you choose to go with, you can have a TV broadcast level production, streaming to millions of people with next to no issue at all.
Managing your event content.
Every event requires content such as the schedule, the presenter information, your exhibitor pages, and every other piece of text that your guests want and need to see. In this case, you need to have a Content Management System that will give you a way to input this information into each event, and then all your developers need to do is style it on the front end of your site.
Strapi is a highly flexible content management system that allows you to build pages that you can just add information into, and those pages produce a thing called JSON. Basically, JSON is a structured list of information that you can send through an API and have the website’s front end read that JSON and show it in any style you want.
Using a service like this, you can change how you show information to your guests super fast, and if you want to make a change to the way it looks, you don’t have to do vast amounts of development. You just get the website to ignore bits you don’t want or show it in another way.
Possibly more important to your ROI is the analytics of the event, not just from ticket sales, but being able to report to your sponsors and show them that their investment in your event was worthwhile.
I will talk about a few products you need to use at this point, as they all lead to each other.
The first is Segment.com, this is a real-time event tracking tool that you can set up on your event site, and then it will track every login, click, refresh, or any other action your guests take on the site. It will then send that data as a constant stream to a database to run an analysis on that information to do your reporting.
The next is Gosquared.com. This is a brilliant real-time analytics tool you can use to track everything that happens in real-time. It constantly updates, so you can see what your guests are doing in real-time, as well as how engaged they are in your content. The good thing about GoSquared is that you can send your segment data into it, and you have hyper-enhanced analytics in real-time.
The last part of your analytics is the reporting after the event. How do you get all that information into a single place to query. First, you need to get the developers to make sure you have an SQL (like an excel database but in a server) database, and that segment, Backendless, and Stripe are all posting their data to your database.
Then you can use a tool like Trevor.io or Metabase.com to create reports that will query the SQL directly and allow you to treat that database just like creating a report in excel.
Was it worth it?
While this second section is a little drier and maybe not as helpful a guide, I wanted to illustrate the work that an event platform takes to build and all the different elements that need to be considered when launching into a build.
Something to keep in mind, not only are the initial costs and time involved high but do you have the team to continue development and maintain it all. If you’re not in the software development industry, then this can become a whole company or money sink all on its own.
This is why there are services like Bettercast, Hopin, and others that have done this development for you. They have taken the costs and problems away. They can provide you a fully-featured virtual event platform, and all you need to do is fill in the information and start streaming.
In conclusion, I would say that if you are doing a more minor one-off event, it’s totally feasible to put together a platform of your own for very little money, and that will service almost anything you can need. Sure it’s not going to have all the bells and whistles of something developed specifically but do your guests really care?
At the end of the day, what your guests want is a way to consume your content, engage with other guests and get the information that they want in a way that suits them. So the focus, I believe, needs to be on the best solution for your guests, at the lowest cost and highest value for you.