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Virtual Events in 2021: 5 of the Best Hosting Platforms

Event Team | Gleanin
16 August 2021

CONTENTS

   1. What is a virtual event platform?

   2. How has COVID-19 changed the event landscape?

   3. What does this mean for event marketers, today?

   4. Virtual event hosting platforms

       a. Hopin

       b. Zoom

       c. Hubilo

       d. Balloon

       e. ON24

What is a virtual event platform?

2019 seems like a simpler time. Back before social distancing was a thing and remote working was still seen as a perk, virtual event platforms bridged the gap between video conferencing and in-person events (back then, known simply as “events”).

They offered an all-in-one alternative allowing attendee acquisition, expanded reach, high-profile speakers (minus the travel costs), and more. They were often the realm of larger corporations, intimidating for everyone other than the most seasoned event marketers, and very much a nice to have.

Then, everything started burning and the world flipped upside down. Yay, 2020.

How has COVID-19 changed the event landscape?

Now, the expectation is firmly on a virtual-first approach as standard. With the number of businesses considering a virtual event in 2020 doubling from the previous year, the takeaway is clear: if you’re not embracing a virtual or hybrid event model – good luck filling those seats.

Not only did COVID-19 force the entire events industry to improvise and adapt, it simultaneously raised the bar for success. Suddenly, every meeting was online and event organisers found themselves fighting the dreaded ‘Zoom fatigue’ as their biggest challenge for engaging event attendees (probably the first time ever that technology barriers weren’t the biggest concern - though they came in a close second).

It’s not all doom and gloom, though. Aside from giving introverts of the world something to cheer about, this shift has brought about pivotal industry change, and the opportunities for companies and attendees are better than ever. Going beyond attending professional events in PJs, that is.

What does this mean for event marketers, today?

Event marketers are now expected to add a whole new branch of tech to their repertoire, with the considerable reach, cost savings, and other benefits of virtual events proving more valuable than ever. It’s expanded the opportunity for event marketers both from an acquisition and speciality perspective, allowing for more crossover with traditional digital and social media marketing - local is no longer a prerequisite for hiring, for one thing.

Success benchmarks have shifted, too, with 49% of event marketers noting audience engagement as the biggest contributing factor to a successful event (source: Markletic).

For event marketers in 2021, the pressure is on to find the best tool to facilitate seamless and engaging virtual events, without sacrificing the benefits of in-person events. In this post, we’ll take a look at 5 of the best virtual event platforms for 2021.

Hopin

Hopin boasts “immersive virtual, hybrid, and in-person event experiences for your audience, no matter where they are.” They aim to help overcome the engagement barrier in virtual and hybrid events,with more interactivity options than you can poke a well-sharpened pencil at. Expect everything from expo booths and breakout rooms, to 1on1 networking and more.


"The Hopin networking feature is like an addictive, safe, fun chat roulette." — Women Who Code


They’re also going hard on strategic acquisitions, in an attempt to become the do-everything platform of event marketers’ dreams. Fair warning: if you’re selling a lot of tickets, this one’s better if you’ve got a little (or a lot) of budget to spend.


Price range: basic free plan, paid plans from $99 monthly. Custom pricing for events with over 1200 registrations per year.


Features we love:

   • Offers 5 different ‘rooms’ for every event, all with their own interactivity options - great for replicating the feel of an in-person event online

   • Easily customise branding of an event (theme, font, colours)

   • Sponsor-friendly - allows branded feeds and sessions (overlays, logos, and tickers)

   • Allows analytics tracking at all levels, to monitor what attendees are talking about, what they’re spending time on, registration numbers and more


Challenges:

   • Navigation and login can be difficult for non-technical users (particularly when issuing links to backstage areas for presenters, as they have to login like attendees)

   • No pre-recorded uploads, customers must provide their own hosted video (eg vimeo)

   • You can’t be in two places at the same time on Hopin’s system, so some people have reported difficulties with finding their way back after clicking out of a session, and presenters have had difficulty knowing when it’s their time to present

   • No lead qualification within the platform as yet (should change soon, since their acquisition of Attendify)

   • Attendee registrations are limited to the capacity licence - no going over, so if you sell out, you’re really sold out

Zoom

Unsurprisingly, one of the biggest drawcards for Zoom is that after 18 months of remote meetings, pretty much everyone a) has an account, and b) knows how to use it. Zoom Events goes one step further by building upon already killer conferencing and webinar functionality, to allow hosting for single and multi-session events, and attendee networking.

While the platform itself is well-used and robust, the events product is new (previously they only had Zoom Webinars) - so you may see some initial teething problems, as with any newer product. Also, the lack of sponsor networking or booths may be a dealbreaker for some events where dedicated sponsor involvement is a must.

Price range: starting from $99 per month for 500 attendees, up to $3240 for 5000 attendees. Custom pricing for larger events and more licenses.

Features we love:

   • Multiple roles allow for custom event controls

   • Reliable, even at scale

   • Customisable registration and ticketing

   • Networking happens via chat in a dedicated lobby area

Challenges:

   • No sponsor networking or booths

   • Integrations (streaming live to Facebook, etc) can be temperamental - practice and test first

   • Event attendees are limited to the capacity licence purchased

   • Not as many options for interactivity in larger events

Hubilo

Built for hybrid and virtual events, Hubilo pride themselves on delivering ‘white glove’ service to their customer base, for smooth, hassle-free operation of large scale events. Mid-event panic? Your support rep is on-hand to help.

With some big-name brands like Coca-Cola, WordPress, and AWS in their customer list, they’re no stranger to enterprise level event management, and event attendees love the ease of use and mobile access options.

Price range: from $99 per month for up to 50 registrants, custom pricing for Pro and Enterprise plans.

Features we love:

   • Fantastic options for sponsors, including self-managed virtual booths, and direct communication with attendees

   • Engagement via the lounges, contests, leaderboards and matchmaking functions

   • Excellent white label branding options, including vanity URLs, branded mobile app, themes, and sponsored ads

   • 24/7 dedicated support, very responsive and helpful

   • Easily report on event ROI with detailed, robust reporting capabilities

Challenges:

   • Polls and quizzes can be ignored by attendees - many companies would like the option of making these mandatory

   • You need a hands-on host to moderate and monitor online activity

   • Reports of some issues with firewalls and email filters, and streaming lags

   • They’re shipping quickly and making constant improvements to the platform - so occasionally the updates can interfere with operations (both a pro and a con, really)

Balloon

Born during the pandemic, Balloon is a self-serve event management platform allowing organisers to create expo booths, tiered sponsorship and exhibitor packages, and multiple ticket types (including hidden tickets). Easy to use with a simple interface, they’ve been dubbed the “Shopify for events”, because they allow as much or as little customisation as you’d like. We love their agility and responsiveness to customer requests.

Best for small-medium sized events and lower budgets due to their low commitment plans, flexible tiers, and easy to manage ‘per attendee’ overage fees. To access event recordings, you’ll need to be on a paid plan.

Price range: free plans available for up to 25 attendees, paid plans from $100-1000 monthly

Features we love:

   • Tiered ‘base + attendee’ pricing structure - first event of the month is free under a certain attendee level

   • Get events set up in minutes

   • Event engagement is easy to manage and access

   • Analytics are available for all membership tiers

Challenges:

   • White label branding and external ticket sales only available on Enterprise plan

   • Being quite new, the integration possibilities aren’t as developed as other platforms and there are a few teething issues (as expected)

   • Attendee registration and login can be quite confusing if your demographic isn’t tech-savvy

ON24

ON24 are the OGs of the events world, having been around since 1998. Their user base is largely enterprise, and customers love their webinar functionality and flexibility.

The best part about using a platform that’s been around longer than most of Gen Z? They’re free from a lot of the teething problems that accompany early stage startups. This makes them a great choice for larger events where there’s a lot at stake - you don’t want a small technical issue throwing your entire event off. On the flip side, they don’t ship big updates to the platform as often as a newer, more agile company. So don’t hold your breath if you’re waiting for a certain feature - it may take some time.

Price range: this is built for enterprise use, so expect to spend upwards of $10,000.

Features we love:

   • Their webinar types are popular with their customers: on-demand (like Netflix), simulive (pre-recorded but streamed as though live), and live

   • Excellent post-event analytics

   • Highly customisable features and offers many products and integrations

Challenges:

   • Less branding customisation than other platforms (menu format, colours, no font upload)

   • Support is tiered and can be confusing - expect to pay more for hands-on support options

   • Because there are so many features, the onboarding/configuration process and learning curve for event organisers can be more steep than other platforms

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