I’ve never been one to look at media companies or the top 1% of innovators for examples on how to transform or change. Because let’s face it, most of us don’t have the budgets, brand recognition, or resources.
But with the first-ever virtual NFL draft, an exception should be made as not only can we learn from how the NFL, ESPN, and The Walt Disney Co embraced this pivot but we can replicate what they did on very reasonable budgets. This virtual event experience was world-class in ways most didn’t even notice.
Now before you throw your hands in the air, I will admit yes, the NFL virtual event included over 600 camera feeds managed by 250 employees live streaming in the homes of 85 draft prospects, 32 head coaches, and general managers and was broadcasted across multiple tv and social media channels. And yes, they leveraged professional on-camera personalities who provided a sports experience to a sports starved social distancing audience.
Yet, if we abstract the broadcast and scale components from experience it’s very similar to every other pivot of an offline event to virtual.
It was hosted by Trey Wingo in a studio with 12 event producers connecting thought leaders and experts from their homes with limited tech, that couldn’t travel, and that was only as good as their wifi signal. That is the same scenario 1000’s of brands, events, and associations are facing today as they pivot their live conferences into virtual events.
Now, in all honesty, the NFL Draft is like a holiday for me as a Steelers fan. I was going to love the draft no matter what but when I sat down to watch it, I wrote down on my paper “3 things the NFL did good and 3 virtual experiences the NFL didn’t do good.”
To my surprise, I ended up with over 15 unique examples of what the NFL did great and 3 or maybe 4 experiences I would love to see integrated with future virtual sports events.
“The success of this year’s draft is a testament to the unprecedented collaboration across the NFL, ESPN, and The Walt Disney Co. in the midst of such a challenging time.”— Jimmy Pitaro ESPN President
Here are the 15 lessons with screenshots that I believe every virtual event can replicate and that I’ll be including for the virtual events I host, speak, or build a strategy for.
Watch the video above for additional context around each example and the exclusive debut of the “shoe cam” from my home studio in Virginia.
1. Change is polarizing and difficult for most but you must own that.
The change required everyone involved in the event to adapt from the production teams to the commissioner Roger Goodell to the players getting drafted not from NYC but from their parent’s living rooms!
It’s also extremely important to integrate traditional and familiar elements of the offline event into your virtual event as the Roger Goodell did encourage the live fans on the tv to BOOOO louder as they would in years past.
2. Test and tweak pre-event and document it for marketing
No doubt everyone involved with the virtual NFL Draft had to be surprised that there wasn’t a massive technical issue as I believe there is only one guarantee when it comes to live-streaming and that is that something will go wrong.
About 5 days before the draft pictures started being shared on social media of the coaches and general managers “home war rooms” and players started teasing out how they planned on replicating the New York experience at home.
For events, the pre-event marketing can be very forced and all about sales but if you document the setup, the process and give the audience access to behind the scenes this becomes great content. This content not only can this serve as your marketing but it makes the audience feel as though they are part of the process and in many cases, they’ll do the marketing for you.
3. Go all-in with one host from start to finish
Trey Wingo took on the role of in-studio host and the job he did over the 3 full days was nothing short of remarkable. His great job as host was noticeable by most but if you broke down the little aspects the role he played in the virtual NFL draft success was first class.
Trey Wingo A++ Job hosting Virtual NFL Draft
- Reminding the audience regularly about the fact this is all new and we are doing the best we can while not making that a center point of the virtual event.
- Rolling with the 2–3-second delay when interviewing guests and adjusting the formats of questions so that guests could jump in without him having to interject each time, therefore, the delay was much less noticeable.
- Having high energy and passion throughout the entire marathon while keeping it light and fun as the event went on.
The lesson here for everyone producing or planning a virtual event is INVEST time, money, and resources in a great host not multiple hosts or allowing an executive to host because they thought it would be fun.
Invest in one confident and dynamic host to be the face of the event before, during and after that understands how to roll with the punches, manage expectations and is focused on making others look good and be their best during the event while celebrating the production team that helped make it all happen.
4. Create virtual experiences where ever your audience is and it’s ok to multi-stream
Yes, the TV broadcast was the main product but let’s face it social and live video has been a vital role of all offline sporting events for the last 5+ years. But they could have easily broadcasted the same content across all channels instead not only did they change up the content across channels but they empowered the different teams to create unique experiences for their fans as well.
Leveraging speakers, hosts, sponsors, and employees of the brands and associations around the event to create content and unique experiences. Not only is this great for marketing the event but it also provides a “choose your own adventure” aspect for the audience allowing them to consume content how they want, where they want and in the format they want.
5. Create swimlanes & freedom allowing awesome to happen
Virtual is a drastic change for everyone and with drastic change, we naturally have a tendency to create rules and strict guidelines in an attempt to mitigate this risk. But in most cases that leads to very structured and boring copy cat content that no only is boring but limits the creativity of the talented people involved in the event.
But I firmly believe LIMITATIONS INSPIRE CREATIVITY and to enable creativity you can’t limit or control the talent involved with the event. But having no rules or giving them a whiteboard of possibilities won’t work either.
If you create a list of “swimlanes” that includes what you can’t do and what to avoid while also giving ideas and the freedom to try different things the possibilities are endless and in the case of the virtual draft the creativity led to dogs making draft picks and the families of the coaches being a massive part of the experience.
6. The right mix video of live streaming with pre-recorded and production
On a majority of the virtual event strategy calls I’m on with clients the question is always asked “Should we do this event live-streamed or not?”
I believe that isn’t the right question to ask rather every virtual event should include a 3-way mix of video content depending on the goal of each segment.
- Production Quality Video
- Pre-recorded Video
- Live Streaming Video
The virtual NFL draft did this amazingly and the best example was prior to the Cleveland Browns draft pick they announced that Fletcher on behalf of St.Junes would be making the pick. Now they could have easily sent Fletchers family an iPhone as they did players and done this with live streaming but why take on that risk?
Instead, they had a pre-recorded video of him sharing how excited he was and setting up the pick before kicking it back to the studio where the official “live draft pick” was announced.
Having a mix of video content is essential for maintaining attention but also adding dynamic elements to virtual events but most importantly is understanding when and which type of video content is best for each aspect of a virtual event. I share more on this in a video I created last week.
7. Include a variety of access and vantage points but only if they have a specific purpose.
As reported on ESPN, the players that were being drafted were given two iPhones one to provide a tight shot and one for one on one interviews after they were drafted.
You might not have also noticed but they had the “live look-in” of the coaches, GM’s and owners letting us see their reactions but no audio was included which I’m guessing was for privacy. But what this allowed was the ability to have others in the room without worrying about them disrupting the broadcast. The end result was a family affair of dogs, friends and kids coming in and out of the draft room.
You’ll also notice no interviews were given via that wide shot as the emotion you want to convey with interviews and thought leadership level content needs to be intimate and much tighter.
The combination of multiple shots was beautifully done but be warned this can be overdone as many speakers will buy multiple cameras, I have a 3 camera shot for my virtual events, which is great but only if each camera has a specific purpose and emotion associated with it.
8. A strategic change of content formats including broadcasting, interview types, music
The area of entertaining or fun content is an area that almost all virtual events overlook as they include networking breaks and in many cases happy hours but seldom include musicians, comedians or influencers.
The NFL took this up a level with multiple pre-recorded videos from multiple different brands. Although there was some backlash on twitter when one of the artist’s video was played rather while draft picks were happening. The lesson here includes entertainment and fun but make sure it’s not disrupting what the audience is there for rather it should be complimenting and amplifying it.
9. Manage expectations while rolling with the punches
Virtual events are not only new for brands and associations putting them but also new for the audience and it’s essential that expectations are managed and we educate the audience on what’s expected from them, the variety of content available, and the different engagement aspects that will be included.
Remember many attendees when they think virtual they picture a boring webinar that they usually move to another tab and ignore and it doesn’t matter how engaging and exciting your vide is if the audience has already put you on tab 1,310 in their browser.
Must educate the audience before and during the event while managing expectations around technology and any changes to what was scheduled.
With the freedom and swimlanes as discussed above, you also have to be prepared for some of the odd and risk that will be taken which was on display with Titans head coach Mike Vrabel although it was done all in good fun.
10. Provide access you can’t get anywhere else
In my personal opinion, the reason Live Streaming Video is a gamechanger is when it’s used as participatory content not just one-way broadcasting. This means including comments and shootouts from those watching live and even better bringing on audience members and special guests to be a part of the experience and participate in the direction of the content.
The NFL did this in a variety of ways, although I feel like the Facebook Live, Instagram and TikTok content could have done this more it was fun to see the #DraftAThon with Roger Goodell & Friends engaging the live audience.
11. Keep it fun and relaxed and lean into what works
As I mentioned before I believe Trey Wingo did a world-class job at hosting the NFL Draft but it was his report with NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell that stole the show in the fun and relaxed category. Early on the teasing and joking about Roger’s man cave was fun and witty sparking meme’s on social media. As the draft wore on into the 3rd day Trey doubled down on this making comments about Roger’s Sunday entire and Roger even going as far as making draft picks from his lazy boy recliner.
This kind of banter and fun might sound easy and natural but it’s only made possible when the host and guests are provided the freedom to be themselves and then a good production team and host see’s it’s working and leans into it.
Hey Jerry, can’t believe I’m doing this but you asked… welcome to the league! ##goingpro ##nfldraft ##duet with @jeudyjerry♬ Toosie Slide – Drake
Ps. The fact that the NFL social media accounts also got into the fun posting their own competitions made this even more of a success.
12. Up-cycle virtual content to amplify event & drive conversations
For offline events, the promotion and sales of tickets and attendance are 99% frontloaded to a pre-event activity as you need time for travel and manage attendance driven aspects of an event like seats, food and fire code.
With multi-day virtual events, the ability to amplify the event in real-time and up-cycle content across different channels can not only drive additional sales for the event but it can also create social conversations putting the event in the feed of those that maybe knew about the event and forgot or didn’t know about it at all.
With virtual there are also lots of questions about integrating sponsors and one of the ways that this can be done is by including virtual badges, hashtags and swag within the virtual experience. The NFL did this by simply providing virtual backgrounds for all 32 teams which can be used on Zoom, your social media cover photo or the background of your desktop.
13. Include sponsored content that connects with an event in real-time
When it comes to virtual events I believe the possibilities and value for sponsors can be massively greater than traditional offline conference but it requires a collaboration mindset that goes beyond just the day of the event to include speakers, hosts and even other sponsors. This can be done in a variety of ways from videos to swag to contests and more.
The NFL has always done a great job of this and that was included in the social media content and #OneTeam charity focus throughout the broadcast.
14. Be social & connect your content across virtual experiences
Leveraging social media in collaboration with a virtual event is a no-brainer but to do it well it requires a unique strategy for each social network as well as multiple creators creating a variety of content. You can leverage everything from event hashtags to user-generated content to exclusive giveaways.
The NFL did a great job of this by sharing out unique content aspects from the main broadcast for teams to leverage on their feeds. They also went out of their way to create custom content directly on the platform including TikTok and Instagram stories.
The key to making this all happen is having a production plan beyond the live content and easy ways to share this amongst the different teams involved with the event which can be a shared drive or tools like slack. It’s also about empowering the right people that have the right level of access. I really enjoyed the different fans and players taking over the brand accounts or doing live videos throughout the draft.
During the draft, I was amazed at how quickly the broadcast level content was turned into 2 minute twitter videos and dynamic virtual videos being shared on Instagram. This doesn’t require a big budget rather a very strategic approach to sharing content across social media channels in real-time.
15. Keep an open mind to the new possibilities
Virtual events WILL NEVER replace offline events but if you create them from a virtual experience mindset the ability to create new experiences and amplify offline events is almost a guarantee. Yes, it takes a team to put on a virtual event and I the fact the NFL draft went virtual in less than a month with only 250 people supporting it made the success of this event that more impressive to me.
This video after the Virtual NFL Draft with Roger Goodell should be shared with every executive and leader that questions the value of virtual experiences both in the short term and what they can empower in the long term!
The question is what virtual experiences will you learn from as you create a virtual event and maybe even more exciting is what will ESPN, NFL and The Walt Disney company do for the next virtual sporting event that is no question coming as they’ve set the bar pretty high to start!
For more virtual event resources check out this page on my website that is updated weekly with virtual event resources, videos, and best practices.
Also check out this twitter thread from Dave Feldman VP of Social Marketing for the NFL… Really love the transparency and behind the scenes access he provides in these tweets!
[THREAD]— dave feldman (@dbfeld) April 29, 2020
This year’s #NFLDraft will be remembered for a long time for a lot of reasons.
Thought it might be interesting to give a peek under the hood of how *part* of a social media plan for a big event unfolded in a very short amount of time in unimaginable circumstances.