There’s no question that the current world health crisis has immersed us quickly in the habit of online meetings. But just as Zoom is the new norm, in-person events will have to shift as we consider their unique nature and opportunities online. With the cancellation of many of the world’s great conventions, conferences and tradeshows – from SXSW, to X4, to Coachella and the Olympics – 2020 has made us all rethink the fate of large gatherings.

According to Prophet’s “Leading in Time of Crisis” survey in April 2020, which we conduct among top management teams from diverse types of organizations – 68 percent of them felt ill-prepared for transforming physical events to digital ones. Unlike the transition of small, daily meetings to a virtual environment, big events cannot be designed by default through Zoom. And although the future success of annual corporate sales conferences, employee recognition and engagement programs and B2B events will naturally rely on new technology and tactics, the good news is, the biggest hurdle we face is ourselves. By shifting our mindset around what virtual events can be, we open a new world of opportunities.

Here are five considerations to supercharge the potential and practice of virtual events so you and your company can learn to love them for what they are – and forgive them for what they’re not.

1. Over-communicate the Basics

Virtual events require that we prepare audiences and communicate beyond, “click the link below.” We have to re-set expectations and orient audiences – early and often — through clear communication from sign-up to send-off.

  • Be clear on how audiences will engage with content and speakers, from engaging with technology from registration through engaging with other participants and beyond. Take advantage of software tutorials to get people comfortable before the event so they show up ready to understand and enjoy.
  • Take the time to demystify the process of how to register, how to plan their personal experiences how often they can expect breaks and even how often they will be silent viewers behind the screen versus active participants. Each communication will remove ambiguity and allow attendees to relax and focus on the experience, not the logistics.

2. Reset the Clock to the Rules of Virtual Time

Time moves at a different speed in virtual environments – not only are attention spans shorter, but content operates under new rules of duration and speed.

  • Don’t expect a 2-day in-person event to translate to the same length for a virtual event. Make the most of the content and connections living in the timebound event and think about strategically distributing content in other ways (i.e.pre-reads, on-demand videos and optional deep dives on topics). Increasing the variety of content and channels and decreasing session length ensures virtual attendees will stay with you longer.
  • Content can go further in virtual environments, so consider serializing your agenda into smaller virtual sessions that can build anticipation without taxing attention spans in a single sitting.

3. Mix and Match Tools for Fit and Effectiveness

Just because it’s virtual, doesn’t mean content must be delivered through video or live streaming. By combining new and familiar tools together in fresh ways, you can create dynamic experience for participants and make the event uniquely your own.

  • Utilize the tools available within some of your favorite existing platforms to promote a two-way dialogue. You can try live polling with tools like Zoom or Mentiand mix in live features on platforms like Instagram, YouTube and Mural to provide inspiration for new and interesting experiences.
  • You can also leverage new platforms created just for virtual events (like vFairs) that integrate video, chat and other functions if you don’t want to build your own or host it on a local intranet site.
  • If you have a little more to invest, creating interactive online games or even leveraging VR technologies can bring trade show demos and learning segments to the next level.

4. Set the Stage for Authentic Interaction

While virtual audiences have more distractions than ever from other technology – family, noise and the creature comforts of home – recognizing the realities of where and how attendees are experiencing virtual events can minimize disruptions and create a stronger connection during the event.

  • Don’t fight it, feature it. Allow the personal locations of attendees and speakers to be a window and an opportunity for them to learn about each other and feel a common bond of experience.
  • Lean into features to create inclusivity and interaction. Technology gives an audience more ways to connect with other participants, comment on content and have a voice in the experience. Create meaningful conversation via chat rooms and use live polls and Q&A to make content personal and responsive to the needs of the audience.
  • Don’t shy away from the “wow” moments that you would have done at a live event – guest speakers and performers can still add powerful moments, and many are investing in virtual experiences as they figure out their new offers.
  • Dedicate time to connect attendees with each other in virtual coffee breaks. Technology creates easy and controlled ways to hear stories and discover connections. Try capitalizing on the optics of seeing each audience member to help them create the moments of surprise and delight through virtual concerts or games that make their participation not only fun, but also essential to the experience.

5. Optimize for Better Engagement

While getting live input on a speaker or adding time to the agenda for the most popular breakout may not have been a possibility with in-person events, it is now. Virtual events open a new world of possibilities, especially when using measurement and optimization. Take advantage of opportunities to test, learn and tailor your event on the fly.

  • Tailor your measurement plan to fit the new format and even build in the option of optimization – from adding more virtual breakouts for smaller group discussions to adding net new content around trending topics as you go.
  • Gathering data around engagement in a virtual experience isn’t reliant on post-event surveys, so build a robust plan to get the insights that will help make your event experience even better in years to come.

Final Thoughts

The new world of virtual events and experiences is evolving every day. We all know that our world is going to look different moving forward, and that doesn’t mean it will be more limiting.  Change is a great driver of innovation. If we allow ourselves to release the familiarity of old habits, we will discover the potential that can be found in the new.

Refer to our recent post on running an effective virtual meeting for more on that topic. Want to chat about your plans for your next virtual event? Reach out today.