Countless events have made the switch this year from an in-person format to a virtual experience – a trend that will continue into the busy fall conference season. One key lesson for event organizers stands out: Throw out the playbook.
“Planners need to let go of the idea that they can execute their virtual event with the same agenda and format as they did in-person,” says Ben Chodor, president of Intrado Digital Media, the company that owns INXPO, a virtual event platform.
In fact, conference attendees and speakers, in addition to organizers, will need to let go of their preconceived notions of what events should be and keep an open mind, says Tiffany Jachja, technical evangelist at Harness.
“Before, most conferences had a well-defined way to create an interactive and engaging experience for attendees. You could roam the exhibition booths, attend networking events, or chat in the hallway. The physical space and other people facilitated many of these micro and organic interactions,” she says. “Today we have to ask ourselves what happens when you’re not physically present to share a message.”
[ Want to improve your video calls? Read also: Zoom tips: 6 ways to make meetings better. ]
Planning virtual events: Lessons learned and best practices
The lessons learned now will shape the future of virtual events, even when in-person conferences return. Read on for key learnings from Chodor, Jachja, and other event organizers – and seven best practices for engaging attendees before, during, and after virtual events.
1. Create a human experience in a virtual world
When the MIT Sloan CIO Symposium pivoted to the virtual MIT Sloan CIO Digital Learning Series for 2020, Allan Tate, executive chair of the event, was not sure if the audience would pivot with them, he said. Rather than a one-day in-person event in Cambridge, MA, the virtual series is comprised of five episodes over the span of several months, with the final episode on October 14. Keeping the human experience at the core has been key to keeping the audience engaged, says Tate.
“For a virtual format, I’ve come to prefer smaller panels to give each speaker more time to engage with each other and go into more depth with their answers,” he says. “Let the audience observe a good conversation, especially one that is human-centered, no matter what the subject matter is. The human experience is at the core of it all. This enables the speaker to increase attendee focus while being sensitive to the current global environment around us.”
2. Technology can make or break your virtual conference
“Our biggest lesson learned from running virtual events is that the tech can make or break an event. No matter how great your content is, how well-prepped your speakers are, if your platform goes down your event goes down. If we look at the events that have not been a success, attendees usually cite some technical component; not the content or speakers,” said Jess Bahr, senior director of growth, and Cait Law, senior manager, field and event marketing, at NS1.
Don’t just look at one technology solution, platform, or partner, they advise. Leverage multiple pieces of technology to create the best experience possible for attendees.
“When we initially started sourcing vendors to host our virtual events, we looked for one platform that would handle everything – from signup and ticket sales to hosting the videos to replays and everything in between. What we found is that there are a lot of great platforms out there that handle specific components and integrate with others. Just like there is no single vendor that handles every component of an in-person conference, there is no perfect one-stop-shop tech for running a virtual event,” they said.
3. Do not skimp on production quality
Time is a valuable resource these days – don’t expect people to trade theirs for a mediocre virtual experience. Engaging conversations with audience participation can be successfully delivered – but you must pay sufficient attention to production quality, says Tate.
“Everyone is trying to go virtual so there is an abundance of content. People remain busy during the pandemic, so make the most of everyone’s time,” he says. “Well-thought-out topics combined with top-notch speakers remain the key to standing out in the crowd. Organizers need to engage with and listen to the audience. Run plenty of polls and surveys. Speakers and attendees should take the time to provide feedback. We’re all learning together, and we all want to create the best experience possible.”
[ Can you ask for a raise during a pandemic? Yes, read: How to ask for a raise during COVID-19. ]
4. Re-think how you connect attendees with each other
Many virtual event attendees say there’s nothing that replaces the human interaction of traditional conferences – that doesn’t mean organizers shouldn’t try, says Ben Chodor.
“Most audiences genuinely miss the networking aspect of a conference. They miss meeting new people, shaking hands, and being among their peers. Every virtual event should have a way to connect attendees and drive interaction and engagement,” Chodor says. “This can be done in break-out rooms, 1:1 meetings, interactive speaker sessions, and through creative happy hours or fun-focused activities. Right now, event organizers have an opportunity to drive connections for people who have been working from home and craving inspiration, motivation, and the chance to talk to industry peers.”
5. Don't get hung up old metrics
You’ll need to shift your definition of success – but that’s not a bad thing, says Tiffany Jachja.
“Sometimes we define success by the number of attendees or registrants. Those can vary greatly for every conference. A new virtual industry event may not have the same reach as a conference with three or four years of hosting physical events. Focusing on the specific outcomes of the event is more rewarding than forcing the numbers. Outcomes to consider include increased brand awareness, new business meetings booked, and expansion of your community,” she says.
“Virtual events are meant to gather communities and industries to celebrate hard work and accomplishments, share lessons learned, and promote the next generation of technology. We should remember that to get the most of the experience,” says Jachja.
6. Find ways to engage attendees before, during, and after the event
The team at Greenvelope.com, an invitation and RSVP tracking company, has helped hundreds of clients pivot from in-person to virtual events in the last six months. Successful virtual events have these best practices in common, says Alex Kelsey, Greenvelope’s director of marketing:
- Reach out early, and maintain open communication. Build excitement by having people submit questions, answer surveys, and provide feedback ahead of time.
- Make it easy for attendees to join – the day of the event, resend the link so people don’t have to go searching through their inboxes.
- Provide an agenda of what attendees can expect, and be sure to frame it in terms of benefits for the attendees.
- Give opportunities for interaction, connection, and community-building, but keep them low-risk and low-pressure. Whether you encourage people to engage via social media (for example, ask questions on Twitter using specific hashtags) or via messages through your virtual event platform, be sure to respond and engage in real-time to keep people invested and excited.
- If possible, partner with local businesses to allow people to pick up a pre-set meal, dessert, cocktail kit, etc. that accompanies the event to make it feel even more communal.
- Take advantage of the benefits that virtual events offer compared to in-person. For example, for in-person events, it is harder to know at what moments attendees start to lose interest. Utilize whatever tracking capabilities you have (depending on your virtual event platform of choice) to track engagement. When do messages or Tweets slow down? What sections of the event have the highest viewership? What landing pages or pieces of content get the most clicks from event attendees? This can help inform content, speakers, and more for future events.
- Follow up post-event with attendees to keep their enthusiasm high. Whether you decide to send a simple “thank you” to attendees or take it to the next level by providing recordings, additional readings, content, networking opportunities, etc., you want to leave attendees feeling positive about their experience.
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