You need to create an environment where conversation and engagement can happen. If the speaker presents without opportunities for audience feedback, you might as well just upload the speaker’s presentation on YouTube and call it an event. An event fundamentally requires human interaction, and that’s why people go.
As a part of our series about “5 Things You Need To Know To Successfully Run a Live Virtual Event”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Ryan Costello.
Ryan Costello is the co-founder of Event Farm and Chief Strategy Officer of MemberSuite. Event Farm is an event engagement platform offering a suite of event technology designed specifically to promote brands and engage targeted audiences at in-person virtual and hybrid events. Ryan founded Event Farm in 2011 as a solution to the challenges he faced as an event producer in Washington, D.C. starting back in the early 2000s. He was looking for ways to ensure the right people attended his events and that every attendee’s digital interaction was fully branded, engaging and high quality. Recognizing nothing on the market existed at that time, Ryan was inspired to create a solution to help with his own events. Later, Event Farm became a company and a product he sold to others. MemberSuite, the premier software provider of association management and event technology solutions for nonprofits, acquired Event Farm in 2019.
Ryan has been an event producer and experiential marketer for 15+ years. He’s worked with some of the largest brands and agencies in the world including Nike, Google, Yahoo, Microsoft, Adobe, JP Morgan Chase, and dozens more to help execute thousands of event experiences around the world. He has an insatiable passion for experience design and leveraging new technologies to wow attendees. Ryan is a graduate of Georgetown University and is based in Los Angeles, CA.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to learn a bit more about you. Can you tell us a bit about your “childhood backstory”?
I credit my entrepreneurial spirit and business acumen to my childhood job as a paperboy. At the age of 10, I was essentially a small business owner, earning a good amount of money. I would pick up newspapers at the street corner from the publisher and deliver them throughout the week, collecting two dollars and twenty cents from everyone. I also paid the paper guy and kept a financial log. I go back to my experience on the paper route, which really sparked my hunger and excitement for creating business.
Can you tell us the story of what led you to this particular career path?
In terms of my events career, I realized that events in DC were largely valued based on having the right people in the room. That was the insight I uncovered as an event producer and led me to create a solution to effectively do that. All of the events technologies available at the time were focused on filling seats without considering who was filling them- I took this as an opportunity to create a technology that focused on quality event production that didn’t yet exist in the event space.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
I was producing a highly anticipated music festival in D.C. where attendees would come early and wait in line for hours to get into the event. One year we had 1,500 people in line at the door, waiting around the block. Because of our traditional check-in system, we couldn’t start checking attendees in until doors opened and attendees who arrived an hour early ended up getting in an hour late. I thought this was ridiculous, so I built a mobile application that allows you to check attendees into events from any location. The following year, I was able to go down the block and check people in before the doors opened. This quick fix exemplifies how technology can optimize attendee experiences and revolutionize event production.
Is there a particular book, podcast, or film that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?
Simon Sinek’s Start with Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action. I strongly believe that all successful people have a core purpose that propels them to success. I love this book because it simplifies the process of isolating and cultivating that purpose that drives you and your company. In simply asking “why,” you’re able to focus on your intentions and unearth the reasons that people should believe in you and your mission. You can’t just do something because you want the money- you have to have a purpose that drives you. This book does a great job of allowing you to articulate this purpose and inject it into everything you do.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
My favorite quote is also from Simon Sinek– “people don’t buy what you do; they buy why you do it.” This idea of purpose-driven products informs my work as an entrepreneur and colleague, and I aim to surround myself with people who are united in this belief in what we’re doing. Your motivation to succeed can’t be limited to your desire to make money- you have to have a grounding purpose that inspires you to keep going when you’re lacking in resources and don’t have everything figured out. If you don’t have that “why,” people won’t believe in what you’re doing.
Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. For the benefit of our readers, can you tell us a bit about your experience organizing events in general?
Prior to starting Event Farm, I was an event producer- this means that I put my own financial stake in the game and owned events and created event properties. I found that the secret to success events lied in who was in the room. In working in the events space in D.C., I found that events were valued based on who was in the room, and not how many people were filling seats. This ultimately led me to create Event Farm, which is an event engagement platform providing event technology designed to promote brands and engage targeted audiences at in-person virtual and hybrid events.
Can you tell us a bit about your experience organizing live virtual events? Can you share any interesting stories about them?
In 2020, technology became the ultimate event venue practically overnight. In shifting to online events, we’ve seen a decent amount of burnout. My experience with Event Farm has been largely centered around creating purpose-driven virtual event experiences that meet the expectations established with in-person events. This ultimately means creating experiences that are centered around dynamic conversations and unique interactions. One particularly unique interaction I had occurred last year, when I ran into my mom at a virtual music festival hosted by Event Farm. I was standing at the front of the stage, and all of the sudden my mom came up to me and started a conversation out of the blue. She’s not the most tech-savvy person, so I was completely shocked to see her. It really felt like I had run into someone in person, which was very cool.
In your opinion, what is an example of a company that has done a fantastic job creating live virtual events? What specifically impresses you? What can one do to replicate that?
I don’t have a company top of mind. In fact, Event Farm has developed its own virtual event solution due to the lack of engaging virtual events on the market. We, as humans, are mobile in every aspect of our everyday lives, and the same principle applies to designing virtual event experiences. Attendees at virtual events must feel free to move around and make decisions as they would in the physical world. Our partnership with Virbela created such experiences. We combined their virtual venue with our engagement technology to address core human behaviors vital to creating engaging event experiences.
What are the common mistakes you have seen people make when they try to run a live virtual event? What can be done to avoid those errors?
The most common mistake I’ve seen is that people don’t actually describe the event and where it’s happening. The idea that just because it’s happening virtually doesn’t mean that you have to disclose location is a big miss- you need to share what platform it’s happening on. Another major mistake is that people program events without considering attendee time zones. If you only plan around your own time zone, you’re ostracizing certain groups. You can’t program without considering your attendees’ needs and schedules. Thinking that Zoom is the be-all and end-all for every scenario is a big mistake. There’s no way Zoom is right for every scenario, so you can’t possibly rely on a single tool like that.
Which virtual platform have you found to be most effective to be able to bring everyone together virtually?
If I’m being completely honest there’s no one answer. Different technologies have different strengths and weaknesses. Something that I am always putting forward for Event Farm customers is experience. If you’re trying to get humans to engage with each other and cultivate new relationships, something like The Echo is dramatically better than Zoom. Zoom is better for showing everyone’s face on screen and handling single-speaker events. When someone tries to respond to the speaker, people start talking over each other and everything falls apart.
Are there any essential tools or software that you think an event organizer needs to know about?
Utilize technology in order to get feedback from attendees and improve attendee experience. Whatever platform you choose, feedback and engaging with your audience is essential. This can happen through polls, surveys, getting feedback that keeps the community alive. You can’t just have your event and say, “we did it, we’re done.” You have to go the extra step
Ok. Thank you for all that. Here is the main question of our discussion. An in-person event can have a certain electric energy. How do you create an engaging and memorable event when everyone is separated and in their own homes? What are the “Five Things You Need To Know To Successfully Run a Live Virtual Event” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)
- You need to create an environment where conversation and engagement can happen. If the speaker presents without opportunities for audience feedback, you might as well just upload the speaker’s presentation on YouTube and call it an event. An event fundamentally requires human interaction, and that’s why people go.
- Allow for personalized event experiences. Attendees should be able to choose which parts of the event they want to attend and actively decide how they want to experience the event. If your event is structured in a linear flow, you’re going to lose engagement- it’s like you’re making attendees watch a television show.
- Branding and creative components are essential. You have to ensure that the “wow” component of in-person events translates into the virtual space through dynamic videos, logos, branding, and music. It’s an online event, but you still have to wow me.
- Take advantage of measurement opportunities. In the online space, you can actively track what attendees are clicking on and where they’re going. That’s why Silicon Valley is putting so much money into the virtual events industry- they’re realizing how big the events industry is and that the events channel is an incredibly insightful marketing machine. Not only do you need to collect this data, but you need to effectively apply it in order to improve the event experience.
- Get to know the technology that you’re using and understand its limitations. This allows you to focus on aspects of the event that can actually be executed with the technology you’re using. You can’t produce a one-million-person event with a live performance. There are fundamental limitations to the internet- understanding these limitations and how they influence event experiences is essential to producing a successful virtual event.
Let’s imagine that someone reading this interview has an idea for a live virtual event that they would like to develop. What are the first few steps that you would recommend that they take?
I have three first steps- define a successful outcome, discuss the audience size, and define the experience. Once you define these fundamental components of your event, you can move forward in deciding what kind of technologies you want to use to define the experience.
Super. We are nearly done. Here are our final questions. You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.
I’m a big believer in the idea that when human beings come together, great things can happen. So, Event Farm’s mission is to bring humans together to ignite change. This isn’t limited to monumental change- even just going into a meeting and leaving with a positive outlook is tangible, impactful change. If I can bring human beings together, great things can happen.
We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US, with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them.
Simon Sinek, the author of Start with Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action. He has inspired me and so many other people to build businesses with a soul and purpose. Going back to that thread of bringing people together with the purpose of creating change, I’d love to pick his brain on these topics.
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.