How we organized a Virtual Summit for 2200+ people on a budget of less than $199 [step-by-step playbook]

Thinking of organising your first virtual summit to build brand awareness in your niche and collect leads? Here’s how we organised a Virtual Summit for a whopping 2200 (!) participants – how we did it step by step, which tools we used to host it, how we promoted it, and finally – what has worked and what not. 

A word of encouragement – if we could do it, then you can do it too. I will explain to you why from my very personal point of view – so you know all the ups and downs that I experienced as a first-timer.

Product drive summit

–          We won’t make it.

–          Hold my beer.

Now, I wish I had actually said that – but I didn’t say that at that time. To be completely honest – Product Drive – a Virtual Summit for product managers – was the first conference I’ve ever organised. So I didn’t actually know what to expect, and if the 1,500 attendees we were hoping for was an achievable target or not. 

Turned out Product Drive, which ended on 2 June, was a resounding success. With over 2200+ participants and 24 amazing speakers (think product lead at Google and PayPal) – it turned out to be more than we had hoped for. It also debunked my deeply-rooted prejudice that I – as an introvert who hyperventilates at the mere thought of organizing a party for more than one person – can’t organise large events.

Which probably explains why I procrastinated working on Product Drive for good three months. 

Now – if you’re considering organising a Virtual Summit – here’s how we did it step by step.

👉 Since I know the world doesn’t need another loooong post, you can download the list of steps + assets you need to create below

DISCLAIMER – this step-by-step instruction doesn’t guarantee success  – and you probably won’t unless you sprinkle your ‘asset zero’ there – some genuine interest, your personality and determination on top.

Warning: This is not a short piece. Instead of breaking this up across several posts, I wanted to give this detailed guide to you.

1.       Starting with the Why 

So first and foremost – our motivation. Userpilot is a Product Growth Platfrom that helps product teams boost user engagement and retention through product experiments and in-app experiences experiences code-free. 

Let’s face it: if you’re organising an online event that’s gonna consume weeks of your time and attention (we estimated it took 120 hours of my time + 40 hours of Aazar’s, our head of growth’s time), it better be useful. You need to make sure it’s really aligned with your goals, and will serve both your business your target persona. 

You see – even if you ‘bootstrap’ your event and don’t spend a lot on ads – it will still be very expensive. Your time costs, and the alternative costs of other things you couldn’t have done in that time add up as well. 

So – for us at Userpilot – it was all about building community and brand awareness as thought leaders in the Product Growth domain. We wanted to throw something pretty big and impressive to show we are serious players in the game. 

Also, the summits where we want to get ahead of our audience cost $12,000/conference, and we were not ready for that yet.

In sum, we wanted to organise a quality event for our target customer perona, Product Growth Managers, for several reasons: 

  • To deliver great value to the target audience as a form of high-end content marketing
  • To build brand awareness and position ourselves as thought leaders in the fairly new area of Product Growth Management*
  • To grow a community of Product Growth Managers (in our hatchlink Product Growth & Retention Group)

This meant, we needed to make sure all the talks are super-high quality, delivered by industry experts from renown companies, based on real experienced, and are strictly related to product growth. 

This also meant the event was intended to be very niche, which made it a bit more tricky to organise and promote than a more mainstream, e.g. general marketing conference. 

Not a mean feat for a first-time conference organiser. 

2.     Picking the time and date – too late

As I mentioned earlier – I put off starting work on Product Drive for a few months. Being a new team member (I joined Userpilot in January – and part-time, for starters), I had so much to learn about the product and wrap my head around that thinking about the big, fat project far down the road wasn’t my biggest priority. Then COVID happened, I got stranded in my home country for far longer than I had thought, and had to move several times. Certainly not the best time for creativity. 

But then somewhere in early April, after a productive call with our CEO, Yazan Sehwail and Aazar – we set a vision and date for the summit – 1 and 2 of June. 

Which, with hindsight – was already too late. Leaving yourself with less than 2 months to organise an event of that proportion is definitely not something I’d recommend now. 

2.       Choosing categories 

On that very same call – we discussed the roles and goals of different ‘types’ of product managers, on the basis of which I picked 4 categories of talks we wanted to have on our summit: 

  • Product Analytics 
  • Product Operations 
  • Product Growth 
  • Product Leadership & Management

In hindsight – again – I think we could have done better in terms of aligning our efforts with our goals. 

I.e. – knowing that the ideal customer persona is a Product Growth Manager rather than a traditional Product Manager – we could have niched down even more. 

Userpilot doesn’t offer product roadmapping or other tools required for traditional PMs – we are intentionally a product growth platform designed to create product growth experiments on the fly. Like – you know – without any coding, any developers needed, with a simple visual editor. So simple even I can add onboarding flows or native tooltips based on user feedback in – literally – minutes. It’s the kind of ADD dream of any Product Growth Person, but not necessarily every product manager. We should have narrowed our scope down a bit to make sure we target the right people.

3.       Looking for relevant speakers

 

Emilia on LI

That was the hard part. Scraping the websites of past Product Management conferences for speakers, finding them on LinkedIn, and then reaching out to each of them manually one by one (using the ‘send connection request’ – not the in-mail – if we wanted to use in-mail, we would need to get the custom business LinkedIn account, which would skyrocket our costs for this project.

After finding the big names on LinkedIn and listing the URLs of their profiles, I sent a personalized connection request note to each of them. In hindsight – I highly recommend outsourcing the tedious part of collecting LinkedIn Profile links to a Virtual Assistant.

Also – there are automation tools like InTouch that can help you automate sending personalized connection requests. You have a 100 connection requests limit in the *highest* plan ($49/month). I didn’t do it, simply because it didn’t seem to make sense to me to automate this part at such a small scale. With a two-day event, we were aiming for around 15-20 speakers, so I reckoned at a response rate of 10%, I need to message around 150-200 speakers. I ended up messaging 121, and Aazar secured some speakers via his network of friends. We ended up with 24 speakers in total. 

The LinkedIn Message: 

Note that I didn’t ask them to speak at our event straight away. I didn’t want to sound pushy or ask for a favour in the very first message, so I asked about their interest. 

Now, that’s different. 

I had about a 20% response rate and most of the people who replied said yes. 

4.       Following up with the speakers on Linkedin

After the speaker expressed interest in talking at our summit, I sent them the details + topic submission form, which elaborated on the different talk categories and what kind of topics we were looking for: 

Emilia message to the speakers

👉Now, this is exactly the form text I shared with them: Click Here to Download the Form Text

Some speakers submitted the form straight away, some needed more clarification: 

Emilia message on LI

After the speaker agreed to take part in the summit, we discussed the topic and she submitted the form – I moved the communication to email. 

5.       Organising your communication in Airtable (CRM style – Kanban – I wish I had done it in Asana)

Airtable

To keep track of what stage in the pipeline every speaker was, I created a table in Airtable. Come to think about it – a Kanban view would have been better (and just moving the speakers to the consecutive stages). Problem at that time was – since it was my very first summit – I didn’t know exactly what the next stage would look like – so I was improvising a bit as I went. 

Still, at the end of the day, the communication with speakers from receiving the presentation topic via Google Form looked like this: 

First email – presentation template + talk video recording guidelines: 

Probably the most important email in the sequence. I knew that in order to make the super-busy Product Managers carve out the time to prepare the presentation on time, I need to create as many resources as possible for them. 

Also – I had to make the presentation and recording instructions really clear. 

So, the first email included: 

1) The Presentation Template  – I prepared a branded PowerPoint template for each participant to use, with a limited number of slides, and put it in a Google Drive folder. I then linked the presentation deck to the email. The speakers were free to use their own template, as long as the final length of the recording did not exceed 25 minutes. 

2) Video Recording Guidelines – this included how to record the talk with Loom step by step instructions how  to sign up and install the Chrome extension; then, exactly what to do to record the presentation – open the presentation deck with Google slides, start the slideshow, click on the Loom chrome extension, select ‘record screen + camera’, and when the countdown ends: start giving your presentation as in real life. 

Emilia's messages - how to run a virtual summit

I also included screenshots illustrating each step, and even recorded the whole instructions with Loom myself and attached the video link. 

Then, I instructed the speakers to send me the Loom video link along with the presentation deck. 

👇 Here’s the exact template of the 1st email I used. 

Email 2: Speaker’s Promo Folder (sent on May 7th – after we launched the Landing Page) 

how to run a virtual summit - promo brief

The next email I sent was one with a reminder of the talk submission deadline (15 May)  the link to speaker’s individual Google Drive folder, with all the assets to allow the speaker to promote their talk to their network effortlessly: 

  • Templates of social media posts with publishing date + links to the speaker’s talks UTMs  
  • Social media post template – general, about Product Drive
  • Social media post template – specifically for the given speaker’s talk, with their title and photo 

how to run a virtual summit


That way, we encouraged the speaker to promote their talk to their audience – and gave them clear timeframes as to when we would like them to post.

Email 3: Invite to send a 1-minute video

how to run a virtual summit - messaging

Somewhere a week into promoting the landing page, we decided to release a promotional video for Product Drive. 

This meant messaging our speakers again, and asking them for another favour – recording a 1-minute promo video featuring them talking about…what they are going to talk about at Product Drive, and why one should attend it. 

To get a higher response rate and motivate our speakers more, I recorded a personal message for each of them – showing them how many attendees have already signed up for their talk. Since we made it clear the leads will be for the speakers to take (upon request), this provided additional motivation for them to promote the summit. 

And hence – 5 out of 24 speakers submitted the 1-minute promo video, out of which 4 made the final cut. 

👇 Here’s the exact template of the 3 rd email I used. 

Email 4: Networking Party Invitation 

What I personally miss most from in person conferences is the connections you can make with other participants during networking. 

That’s how I met Aazar, which half a year later led to me starting to work for Userpilot:

Aazar + Emilia

So, we wanted to recreate (at least to the highest possible extent) the networking aspect of a conference – building meaningful connections with potential joint venture partners, marketing partners, co-founders, employers and employees…

…but without spending thousands of dollars on a special software enabling online networking (e.g. Hopin). 

At that point, I sadly didn’t know about Meetaway – a free tool for speed dating-like networking events – video calls and all. If I were to do Product Drive all over again – I’d use Meetaway for the networking. 

But I didn’t have it at that time. So I had to make do with a live Q&A in our Facebook group – Product Growth & Retention.

The whole point of the Q&A was to bring the speakers to it, so the attendees could ask questions,get feedback/ answers in real time and make a more personal connection. 

So – I had to make sure they actually get to the session. 

Hence – another email inviting them to it (for both the speakers, and attendees). 

👇Here’s the exact template of the 4th email I used. 

Email 5: The reminder 

Now, not all the speakers had to get this email of course. It was sent only to those that were late with their presentation, which was still…around 50% of all the speakers. 

In one particular case we had to even bargain with the speaker not to pull out of the summit, and eventually managed to convince them 2 days before the kick-off date – which was a proper ‘moment of truth’. 

We also had one speaker withdraw for – let’s put it this way – political reasons…

Fortunately, other than that – the communication with the speakers and the entire event went pretty smoothly. 

Email 6: The ‘Thank You’ Email 

Last but not least, there was the thank you email. We sent it to all the speakers after the event. 

To make it more personal, we  decided to ask our speakers for their address and send them all a hand-written thank you note.  

6.       Creating a landing page in HeySummit 

how to run a virtual summit - heysummit

HeySummit was our platform of choice for hosting the event for several reasons: 

  • It’s a all-in-one platform for online events, which handles everything you need to host a virtual event (apart from networking) – from the landing page, through registration process, email to the participants, speaker profiles, and hosting the presentations themselves; it also handled the signups and provided analytics: 
  • It was a much better value for money than a lot of other summit platforms out there ($99 / mo for the basic plan compared to $ 97 for virtualsummits.com
  • We knew the founders personally; 

My experience with HeySummit was mixed. 

On the one hand – I really liked the fact that it was an all in one solution, and that the platform was easy to navigate (I’m the kind of person who doesn’t use a tool if using it means one needs to watch several tutorials/ read instructions – the navigation in HeySummit was intuitive and smooth). 

On the other hand – the tool is still quite new (been around for about 1.5 years) and there were some ‘glitches’ that frustrated me, mainly with the landing page and the messages. 

Landing page – the landing page was modular, which meant you had to first add all the speakers, then add all the talks to the speakers, and only then you could pick a few pre-defined components: 

The editability of the components then was very limited – you could pick the colours, but that was about it. So unless you do custom HTML – your landing page is going to look very similar to the other landing pages created in Heysummit. 

Also – moving the content blocks around was a bit buggy. 

Finally – the email templates were also pre-defined to a large extent. This was good on the one hand as it meant you had less manual work to do, but on the other hand – you couldn’t go wild with your email copy. And that often meant sounding a bit ‘meh’. 

All in all though – you get what you’re paying for , and HeySummit was defo a good value for what you pay for it.  And, I do wish to use in future as well.

Sign up for HeySummit if you’re planning to run a summit.

We launched the landing page on 8 May and started promoting it immediately. 

7.       Promoting the summit – doing things that don’t scale

planning

Long before we launched the Product Drive landing page, we prepared a marketing plan with dates, so we knew exactly what we were supposed to do. 

We listed the following activities:

  1. Send out promotion plan with visual assets to all speakers 
  2. Reach out to all Product Led Growth / Product Management influencers who may be willing to promote the summit in their groups + in newsletters 
  3. Send a newsletter promoting our summit to our audience
  4. Promote the summit on our social media – organic posts + having all team members like + share
  5. Write a post on my personal Linkedin + promote on Lempod (comments)  
  6. Update cover photos in our group on Facebook(Product Growth and Retention) + on our personal Facebook + LinkedIn profiles (voluntary)
  7. Update cover photos on Userpilot’s Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn
  8. Promote Product Drive in our group on FB 
  9. Promote Product Drive in relevant groups on LinkedIn + FB 
  10. Promote Product Drive in slack groups 
  11. Write to all the PMs I have contacted in the process of asking to participate  – ask them to share on their SM + invite friends 
  12. Set up a Facebook lead gen ad 
  13. Set up a Facebook traffic ad 
  14. Write a blog post about the trends in Product Management + promote the summit 
  15. Create a popup (slideout) with poptin promoting the summit and putting it on our blog pages 
  16. Write a repurposed medium post on PM trends promoting the summit 
  17. Further SM posts 
  18. Reminder SM posts 
  19. Last chance to join newsletter 
  20. Writing to speakers to provide video for promo (their name + role; why they think the summit will be great, what they will talk about )
  21. Creating promo video with snippets of the talks
  22. FB ad with promo video – traffic 
  23. Promoting the video on LinkedIn

We managed to follow the plan almost to the letter, albeit – with mixed results. I am going to discuss the results and what has worked for us and what not below. 

Promotion efforts – What worked, and what didn’t  

Of course – based on the number of registrations from each source (tracked via UTMs), we saw what has brought us most results. 

The clear winners were the things that didn’t scale. 

Not the Facebook ads. 

Leveraging our speaker’s networks via newsletters and social media posts, as well as our own posts: 

GA content
GA content

Some of our speakers like Carlos González de Villaumbrosia, founder and CEO of Product School, had large networks in exactly the same target audience. Others had smaller but very engaged communities. 

How did we motivate our speakers to share information about our conference? 

For one – we made it really easy for them to share it. We created bespoke social media post templates for each of our speakers, complete with bespoke graphics and posting calendar. 

Secondly – while we didn’t advertise it per se – we said we would share the attendee list for the respective talks with the speakers who have requested it. 

Also – I came up with a cool promo hack using Linkedin. 

Since Facebook ads failed us completely (I’m not 100% sure why – beer on me if you wanna review our campaign 😉 ) – the Linkedin hack was a godsend. 

On May 12, Linkedin introduced polls. 

So – I turned to them and asked questions related to the conference talks, that segmented the respondents by very specific interests:

Linkedin poll - challenges

I also asked them which talks the respondents would like to attend most.

Then, I shared the polls on my profile and in relevant groups:

The response was quite overwhelming:

linkedin polls response

All these people were targeted, qualified leads – that told me exactly what they wanted.

Now – all I had to do was just follow up with them.

Following up on the poll respondents

So I did – I sent them targeted invitations to exactly the talk that corresponded to their problem, opinion or request.

I sent them a connection request with a short message + the talk link rather than a message (to save the Linkedin messaging credits)

And the response was overwhelming: nearly 20% ended signing up for the summit. This gave us at least 300 new leads alone. 

During the summit: Regular Commentary 

As I mentioned earlier, we hosted a pre-launch party in our Product Growth and Retention group to boost engagement and build a more personal relationship with our attendees.

But we didn’t stop there. Throughout the summit, I kept a pretty much live commentary of the talks, posting screenshots with best insights and asking thought-provoking questions:

promo

We had a pretty high engagement rate and in geral, the summit had a really positive reception in the group:

content on LI

The participants requested access to the recordings, we made the summit ‘evergreen’ (meaning it’s still driving leads on autopilot even now, even though we stopped promoting it nearly two months ago! 

promo video LI

Thanks to the summit, and the community building – our group grew from 150 to over 600 members in less than 2 months – 100% organically, without any group promo.

We also decided to publish an ebook – the Product Drive Ebook (yes, you can still download it!) – which is another way we are still increasing brand awareness, collecting leads, and driving traffic to Userpilot. 

ebook - how to run a virtual summit

To promote the ebook, we quickly whipped up a langing page in Landingi, which we connected to our sub domain. 

The page is converting really well, and has so far driven us 214 leads with a little organic promotion within 2 weeks: 

how to run a virtual summit - leads

And we are still planning to repurpose the talk content into blog posts, YouTube videos…

So – altogether – we have collected around 3000 leads through the summit (and still counting).

Conclusions

Overall, for our first summit – the effort was hugely successful. We collected 3000+ leads (and still counting), increased our brand recognition and started building and engaged community. Despite the (clickbaity, I must admit ;))  title though – it’s not like the summit cost us nothing, even if it was bootstrapped. 

It cost us time. A lot of time. So if you’re a small business with a small team, you need to consider if that will be the best investment of your resources, and what the alternative costs will be. 

We have invested around 120 of my + 40 h of Aazar’s work, which means – on average $8000 investment in alternative costs. 

And yet – I think Product Drive was worth the effort and will eventually pay off. And now that we have the blueprint how to run such an event, every next one will be easier and even more successful. 

If you’re considering running your own Virtual Summit, here are some key takeaways: 

  • Start early: even if you think 2 months is plenty of time, give yourself at least a 50% margin of error for every deadline in your process. Over a half of our speakers were late with their presentations. Some were *very late*. We experienced technical difficulties with the domain linking, and the landing page. You need to take such things into account. 
  • Record everything: every step in the communication process (with the speakers, participants, communication sponsors, partners) should be recorded. You can use a Kanban board, or a Google sheet – you can use our template if you like. Leave at least 2 months for promotion – and again, record all your steps and effort. 

Good luck! 

Are you planning to organise your own Virtual Summit any time soon? Do you need some advice or simply wanna talk about it? 

P.S. If you like this blogpost, it would make my day if you share it (just click here).

Guest Author

Emilia Korczynska

I’m a marketing manager obsessed with product growth. Wanna talk? Simply respond to this email or connect with me in Product Growth & Retention – our Facebook group!

You can find me on emiila@userpilot.co or my LinkedIn profile. 

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