Creating Epic Online Experiences: Best Practices for Virtual Events
Chances are, if you are reading this blog, and have an internet connection you’ve probably heard of virtual events. Maybe you hadn’t six months ago, but as soon as COVID hit, all anyone could talk about was taking to the virtual stage.
Virtual events aren’t a new concept. Although they have become the latest trend and probably most lasting trend in the event planning industry.
With any new trend comes scrutiny and virtual events are no different. We’ve all heard the claims: “Virtual events are outperforming live events!” Well, they are, but not without reason and certainly not without strategy. Switching to an online platform will not automatically make your event more successful.
Similarly, negative press gets thrown around about virtual events as well. “They’re boring!
They’re not engaging!”, or my favorite - “People have Zoom fatigue!” (I assure you, Zoom
fatigue has never been clinically diagnosed).
In order to sift through the noise and make sure your virtual event fulfills only the most positive expectations, here are some best practices for virtual events.
Don’t Just Have a Plan- Have a Strategy
Event strategy is an underutilized service, but for something as varied as the “virtual event”, it’s completely necessary. Understanding what makes an event successful, why audiences engage and how to build an experience is crucial. It’s about more than just what time things are happening or what speakers you've booked. Creating a complete strategy behind your messaging, marketing, agenda and entire experience that aligns with your mission will be the guiding force for your event plan.
Ditch The Brady Bunch
The problem with most zoom presenters is that they are only showing their heads in a zoom box. This is why people say they have Zoom fatigue. No one wants to look at a floating head in a box- AND, it goes even deeper than that.
At a live event, whether it takes place virtually or in-person, we expect to connect. When we just see faces on a screen, we can’t absorb their body language and our brain is constantly working in the background to try to read the on-camera person’s physiology.
As humans, our amygdala is always keeping us safe by reading situations and your neuro
chemicals. This is how it knows if we are in danger or not. The problem with heads in boxes is that we can’t see the persons body language and so our amygdala is always on alert, making sure the person on screen isn’t a danger to us.
This one is easy to fix. Position yourself, and encourage your audience to do the same, so your shoulders are visible and at least the top portion of your chest in the frame. Instruct your speakers to present standing, or to have as much of their body showing as possible.
Bring in the Right People
A huge part of creating a successful and engaging virtual experience is having the right team on your side. There are people who study event strategy, know how to engage your audience, facilitate powerful conversations, and have the connections to find the support you need and the systems in place to ensure everything gets completed on time, and on budget.
So, if you plan one or two events a year, is it the best use of your time to try to learn what
they know on your own? The answer is NO. When you bring in the right people to support you, you end up with a team of people who are as passionate about the success of your event as you are.
Interaction and Engagement
The most important thing you can do during a virtual event, just like in any event, is create opportunities for interaction, connection and engagement among your audience.
Nobody wants to sit at a virtual event and watch speakers talk at them for two days.
You can do this by limiting sessions to 3-45 minutes and following them up with a Q&A with the audience, or a small group networking opportunity. Don’t worry about how often you are networking- this has consistently been the most popular, and highest rated activity in Virtual Events, so you can't overdo it. (As long as they are planned with intention).
Don’t speak at your audience - and don’t allow your speakers to speak at them either. Instead, keep content valuable and concise. We recommend 30 minutes per session with a Q&A or interactive breakout immediately following. Have your speakers prepare a question or exercise for the audience to accompany their session. Make sure that the host, emcee, or facilitator interacts with the audience as well. This is easily accomplished by managing Q&A’s, asking powerful life giving questions, and creating a safe space for sharing.
Connection is two-fold, and it isn’t just about you connecting with your audience.
One of the most neglected aspects of both virtual and in-person events is the power of the audience’s connection with each other. Successful events create connections that are
significant and everlasting. Many organizers will leave this up to the audience, assuming
“People will connect at the cocktail hour” or “They can engage in the chat”. This is a huge
missed opportunity to encourage connections that will build your community and increase retention.
By utilizing the breakout feature in Zoom, you can create small groups that mimic sitting at a table during an in-person event. You don’t just want people sitting at table, though. The goal is to be the engineer of powerful questions that encourages people to get deep, become vulnerable, and do so quickly.
Love on your peeps!
Events are about the audience, so make sure you show them some love. Send swag boxes for attendees, create contests and giveaways leading up to and during the event and constantly recognize people who engage and participate. Use their names! There is no excuse when it is shown right there on the screen! And remember the followup. Just because the event is over, does not mean your work is done. NOW, its your job to keep them active, engaged, and continue to deliver value.
Prepare Your Audience to SHOW-UP and be present
This is all about messaging. If you want an audience that is active and engaged, you need to make that the standard. Sending out a "Know Before You Go" email with the list of expectations, and tips and tricks to make the most of the event is a fantastic way to set your event apart, and make sure that everyone is on the same page come event day! Setting up your expectations from the moment your attendees register will create the right environment for everyone to get the most out of the experience.
Make it Your Own
Six months ago, there was no way we could imagine a personally branded, Zoom-powered event. Now, there are plenty of ways to customize the design. As recent as one month ago, people thought of a hybrid event as a livestream of an existing event and now we are building agendas with clear intentions of a hybrid experience.
There are companies that ship wine to your attendees and then do a virtual wine tasting experience. We’ve hired digital musicians, magicians, comedians, and other forms of entertainment to add a creative element to mimic and in-person experience, while also highlighting our clients personality. My point is this- anything is possible. Give yourself permission to play in the field of possibility!
There are basic strategies to set the foundation, and what you build from there should be uniquely yours. There are no limits to the possibilities! When you get to the heart of events, they are all about connection. An event should energize. engage and transform. A virtual stage is just another tool that we can add to our toolbox to enhance and grow the way we reach people.