How We Broke Virtual Events

Picture this: You’re 15 months into quarantine. You’ve been spending about 4.6 hours staring into a web cam every day. You’ve been invited to countless webinars and days-long virtual events. Desperate to secure some of your attention, vendors have even been bribing you with free wine and charcuterie, shipped right to your house, just to make sure you show up. But towards the end of 2020 you racked up your one-thousandth hour on Zoom and you just can’t bring yourself to trudge wearily through another virtual event.

The above is exactly what all of us marketers are up against at this point in 2021. It’s a little too soon to resume massive, in-person events but too late to get away with another run-of-the-mill virtual event. Knowing this and considering the timing, the Terminus marketing team and I figured there was just enough gas in the collective tanks of B2B marketers to do just one more virtual event. So we decided to mark the end of lockdown with the most outrageous, altruistic, and palatable event we could muster.

It Worked

2,545 people signed up to take part in this event and 1,003 of them showed up to participate live. And at the time of posting this blog post, another 1,042 people have watched the recordings of the event. Below is an outline of exactly how we pulled this event off. But first, the event’s host, Jay Baer, gives the most succinct TL;DR.

“Break Shit was exceedingly popular because it took all the elements of typical webinars and virtual events and…broke them. Five key variables were incorporated. First, 100% outstanding speakers. Second, by giving speakers only 14 minutes each it kept the ideas flowing fast and the pace exciting. Third, explicitly giving the speakers no direction other than asking them to answer ONE question. This gave them the opportunity to take risks with their material, and their production. Fourth, the voting mechanism, which made the audience an integral and important part of the event. And finally, smooth jazz performances by a dude in the woods wearing a Bigfoot costume provides a very noteworthy intermission.” – Jay Baer (Founder of Convince & Convert and host of Break Sh!t)

Now let’s take a look at our thought process when figuring out how to put on a virtual event that people actually cared about 14 months into lockdown.

The Theme

Broke: Webinars following the format “[Number] ways to [business verb] your [B2B marketing term]”.

Tactical ideas and tips are valuable – this is a fact we 100% agree with. And the more specific they are, the narrower your audience becomes. That is a great thing. We do those all the time and you can check them out here. But for a large-scale event, it’s difficult to bring those things together in a way that’s broadly appealing to a huge audience.

Woke: Smart people answering one question.

We asked our speakers to all answer the same question: What can we break in our marketing now so that we can grow in the future? With a unified theme, all we needed to do was find smart people with diverse points of view to answer that question. We also gave the event a questionable name that, we admit, worried us greatly when we launched it, but it turned out totally fine without any concern.

The Format

Broke: Speakers talking to slides.

Be honest with yourself when planning your next virtual event and consider that you will be competing for your audience’s attention against Instagram, urgent emails, frequent Slacks, their kids, loud petc, etc. That’s an uphill battle. And sure, there’s a time and place for slides (of course we still use them all the time), but will a constant stream of slide after slide keep their attention for a full or multi-day event? That’s tough to do.

Woke: Keep it short and surprising.

We gave every speaker exactly 14 minutes to talk– and one of those minutes was to promote a charity of their choice (more on that shortly). Were there some slides? Yes. Were there smash-cuts to Andrew Davis throwing a glass vase at a wall? A hyper-animated Oli Gardner drinking too much Red Bull and shouting at the audience? A yeti playing jazz in the woods? Also yes.

The Speakers

Broke: We can’t think of anything really broken here.

People need to put their ideas out there one way or another and if that’s you, you’re doing a great job.

Woke: Getting nine certified marketing badasses emceed by yet another marketing badass.

Putting together a lineup this stacked might have seemed daunting, but with the right motivation we were able to secure absolutely stellar speakers. The motivation? $10,000 donated to a charity of their choice based on real-time audience participation. Not only was it a great way to get them to join us, but since they were competing with each other, they all brought their A game.

Note: Oli Gardner won, but we ended up donating $1,000 to everyone’s charity because they were all so incredible.

The Experience

Broke: Talking at your audience and not making them part of the event.

Something we at Terminus do for all our webinars, not just our virtual events, is try to create audience participation. We do it by allowing the audience to ask questions mid-presentation and take us off track, adding in random pub trivia questions to break up the content, and rewarding the smartest one with a prize afterwards.

Woke: Full-blown audience participation.

We took it to the next level with Break Sh!t. We embedded a chat window in the event page so that the audience could cheer the speakers on, restate the hot takes they were hearing, ask questions of each other, and generally just have a good time. At the end of the 3-hours we had 2,345 chat interactions (just over 13 messages per minute).

Making It Meta

Boiled down, the goal of Break Sh!t was to get marketers to stop doing the same old boring and beige B2B marketing. Our friend Sangram nailed it with the title of his talk: “B2B: Boring to Badass,” because we want to see more risk-taking, bold ideas, and surprise and delight in our peers’ marketing.

We drank our own champagne when rounding out the details of the event: We made our speaker lineup very diverse. We had a lot of fun with ourselves for the event promotion, including gathering our team together to record ourselves smashing things.

We chose a very stark aesthetic, keeping everything except the speakers themselves black and white. We hired a saxophone-playing sasquatch to play throughout the event and we insisted he played George Michael’s Careless Whisper (to our astounding delight, he actually wrote and recorded an original cover of it that was incredible).

Put simply: we wanted to create the kind of event that our own team would actually sit down and learn from in hopes that other people would too. We took bold risks, got a little weird, and made ‘fun’ a key objective for our audience.

Now go check out this blog post’s best friend where we recapped the key learnings from the event.