How Virtual Events are Thriving During COVID: A Conversation with SaaStr

The events landscape shifted dramatically in March 2020 as in-person conferences were cancelled and left event companies to figure out how to navigate a contactless society. SaaStr, one of the world’s largest communities of software-as-a-service (SaaS) executives, founders, and entrepreneurs, canceled its annual conference days before the event. It was an unfortunate situation Poya Osgouei and the SaaStr team never imagined they’d experience when years prior they relied on the event to rally their community, and attracted 20,000 attendees and headline speakers from Box, Twilio, Google and more.

The team’s next move focused on mobilizing a digital-first mentality as quickly as possible to honor their commitments to their community. Leaning into their strong network, SaaStr hosted smaller, more focused events to reach attendees in a more targeted way. The SaaStr team held five virtual conferences in 2020 reaching nearly 500,000 people and doubled its distribution and followership by focusing on the SaaStr Podcast, it’s various newsletters as well as  SaaStr University, a project that now helps train 10,000 founders and CEOs. 

Some companies have pulled out of sponsorships and put their speaking programs on hold, but it’s time to rethink what’s possible as we enter another year of mostly virtual events. The brands and executives that are front and center on the virtual stage now will be the ones that stay top of mind later.

We spoke with Poya to get his take on what’s next for the event industry and what speakers and companies can do to make the most of their investment. 

What are SaaStr’s plans for 2021?

This year is still somewhat unknown, but we hope to have both digital and in-person engagements in 2021. The first half of the year will be all digital and we hope to have our annual flagship conference, SaaStr Annual In-person later in the year if it is safe and allowed. You’ve probably heard a lot about events being “hybrid” ongoing and we will live stream big in-person sessions and potentially have the first or last day be 100% digital. It’s a three-day event and we want to give our community optionality and feel like they can attend. If it goes well, we will continue this. 

“I can’t recommend enough for brands to be prepared on the post-event game plan that maps back to the company’s objective.”

How has networking changed in a virtual setting? 

We have been experimenting a lot with how to replicate networking in a virtual environment. The biggest challenge is replicating the booth experience for vendors and attendees alike. Every year at our annual conference, we would have a packed floor of booths and demos and attendees appreciated the opportunity to rub elbows with CEOs or companies that you might not have access to normally. It’s impossible to recreate this opportunity for people in a digital environment. 

What has worked best for us is to connect people in small groups to do their own mini sessions based around a product offering or topic. We have company spokespeople lead a session with five to 10 people who genuinely want to learn about what your company offers. We have also connected thought leaders with similar interests via small roundtables. This has worked really well but it is challenging to scale. The one thing we always try to stay away from is people turning it into a sales pitch because that is not what networking is all about. 

What’s your advice for companies who participate in SaaStr or other virtual events? 

I can’t recommend enough for brands to be prepared on the post-event game plan that maps back to the company’s objective. At SaaStr, we can help brands get on stage, suggest good topics, get leads and create a good experience for speakers. But the majority of the time there isn’t an alignment between marketing and sales, on what happens between the teams after the events. It’s one piece to the puzzle but what other pieces are there. 

There’s also a misconception that because we are remote, and the event doesn’t necessarily lead to revenue right away, it’s not worth the time or cost investment. However, there is no switch for things to go back to “normal”. Companies who are experimenting and making bets now will have a leg up as the space continues to evolve.

“Our team has made it a mission to make sure 50-60% of speakers are from underrepresented groups.”

What is the best way for brands to engage with SaaStr?

One thing that sets us apart from other conferences is the separation between sponsorship and speaking. In the virtual world, the lines are blurring a bit, but our content bar has not changed. 

We look for speakers that are educational and not salespeople. We want people to talk about decisions they have made that are right but also where they made mistakes. We’ve found our attendees really appreciate talks where people talk about failures or have controversial views.

We also are interested when a speaker has access to data or something exclusive that no one else does. Lastly, but definitely not least importantly, our team has made it a mission to make sure 50-60% of speakers are from underrepresented groups. 

Brands resonate at SaaStr since our community attracts the masses. We have C-level executives from established brands like Twilio and Snowflake speaking. We want to hear from the next gen of unicorns. Or sometimes it doesn’t need to be a brand, if there is something unique about the leader that could apply to our attendees.