Remember the early days of COVID? When we were all stuck in whatever location we occupied at the moment the music stopped? When every event, from small meeting to huge conference, got cancelled with no idea when it might return? The word “pivot” was probably used more in those first weeks than ever in history.
Soon enough, our inboxes were flooded with invites to join the virtual version of all the events we’d missed. And in many instances, the opportunities were free — whether from benevolence or a desire to keep businesses in front of consumers.
As the United States slowly emerges from the pandemic and countries around the world are still battling COVID-19, many future events will continue to be all or partially virtual.
So how do you make your virtual event stand out — and be worth the cost — when your target audience has enjoyed content for free over the last 18 months?
Replicate the physical
Unfortunately, Zoom burnout is a real thing. Make your online event more fulfilling by bringing the serendipity and spontaneity that happen with in-person experiences.
If there’s a location people associate with your event, start with a nod to that. If not, orient them to your business with a quick video tour or show the faces of your staff with a note about their interests or skills.
Allocate time for an ice breaker every time you shift between experiences; many people need to warm up to the idea of talking or reacting. Use word cloud or survey tools to ask why attendees are at the event, what they hope to get out of a session, what motivates them in their field or role, what they miss most about in-person events, or any question to highlight that other people feel the same way.
If your group is smaller, encourage people to share something personal, like a favorite place to travel or best local restaurant. Allow time for very brief rounds of introductions in breakout rooms too, so that the whole event follows the same rhythm.
Accept that people will lose focus or walk away from most online events. Give explicit permission to turn off cameras and microphones but remind them if there are specific times when the devices need to be on for group conversations.
Provide scheduled breaks, and during those breaks send out quick surveys about favorite snacks or other lighthearted information. Use those breaks to ask for immediate feedback, since it should be easy to adjust on the fly.
An online event offers the chance to reduce barriers among speakers and attendees. Encourage tweets or direct messages and make sure speakers understand their responsibility to reply and bring ideas and questions back to the larger group.
Finally, don’t forget to add branding elements to meeting rooms and the background of speakers’ screens, so the tone and style are consistent no matter where attendees are in the experience. If people need to log off, provide a branded, friendly, “Thanks for joining us. We hope you are coming back later today for (event speaker or topic),” or a branded email summary of each day’s highlights.
What are they getting, what are you giving?
There’s no need to apologize for going virtual, but you do need to clear about what your customers and prospects will gain by attending.
These are likely the same selling points you’d use for an in-person event, but make sure that none of your learning objectives will be reduced by going online. Otherwise, it’s time to think up new objectives and ways to teach them virtually.
Note that industries vary widely in terms of what they charge for in-person versus virtual events. Be ruthless when developing your budget. An in-person event might actually cost more to produce. Make sure you know the real costs. If registration fees do not cover the start-up costs of creating a virtual event, is that a loss you’re willing to bear?
Thoroughly outline the agenda. Just like in-person events, people will look for times when they can step away to network or do their job. But a virtual event offers a great opportunity: people can very easily jump in and out of sessions. Encourage people take advantage of this, but gently remind them what they’ll miss if they don’t stick around for an entire presentation.
Use your confirmation email to remind participants what technology or apps are needed for the best experience. No one wants to frantically download as an event is starting.
Personalize and accommodate
This is another area where virtual experiences can beat in-person ones. During registration or using surveys at the event, ask questions that allow you to accommodate people or bring like-minded individuals together.
Provide different experiences for different kinds of attendees. You could separate people by areas of interest, job title, years in the field, interest in mentoring, or even a need for quiet contemplation during full-day events.
This is also a great opportunity to do accommodate as many needs as possible. Closed captioning should be standard. Consider live translation into your region’s secondary languages. Explore best practices to exceed ADA compliance.
Use all the knowledge you’ve gathered in your follow-up, so your thank you or pitch is relevant to participants’ needs, interests, or timeline.
Don’t forget your sponsors
While in-person events offer opportunities for banners and reception rooms, virtual events offer massive potential for repetition and high visibility.
Start by asking your sponsors what they want from a virtual event. What about a video tour or other experience that wouldn’t be possible if people were at a convention center? Or a special sponsor time when participants can watch a live video feed to see a product or service in real-world use?
Wrap up with the gift of knowledge
Have you heard the term “gated material fatigue”? This is when people are frustrated by having to pay for access to information or must jump through complicated hoops to get it.
Your attendees are your best future prospects, so treat them with respect and consideration.
In fact, the biggest gift you can give your participants is free and simple access to everything they saw, experienced, or want to read from your event. Even though their experience at your event was virtual, their takeaways should be tangible.
This is the second in a multi-part blog series on event planning in the months and years after the coronavirus pandemic in the United States. Check out the other blogs in the series: