While traditional, in-person events have had to evolve rapidly this year, pivoting to virtual events hasn’t been the easy, engaging experience we all hoped it would be. Turning a physical experience into a virtual one doesn’t happen simply with the addition of cameras and video recordings – especially those that are expected to be successful in creating an engaged audience. There is a ton of design and planning required from a technical perspective and from an immersive, experiential one as well. We’ve got some insights and best practices to help you build an effective virtual event that can be both memorable and engaging.
Let’s start with what it takes to create a successful virtual event. Yes, the elements of event design don’t change. However, we’ve noticed at times they are compromised at the expense of the overall experience. Emphasis on technology and technical execution, while critical, shouldn’t super cede the overall goal. So, while it’s true that you should zero in on tactical and logistical details, don’t lose sight of what you’re trying to do and who your target audience is. Here’s a run-down on what to focus on:
#1 – Know Your Audience and What They Want
Nothing really changes from this perspective. Think about your attendees, their preferences, and how you want them to engage throughout the event. Are they typically social individuals? Have they attended your events in the past? What was their feedback on post-event surveys? Why did they attend – was for it for networking, the sessions, or the opportunities? There is a perception that virtual events are best suited for introverts. So, a lot of emphasis is put into delivery mechanisms that “push” out the content and sessions. Then, little thought is given to how introverts interact with everything you’re sending. Consider how exhausting it is to sit for hours listening and watching without a break to stretch, share a comment, or simply answer a question. Recognize and accept that multi-tasking, or that unanswered email sitting in their inbox, is literally just a tab away.
Knowing your audience helps you decide the “what” and the “how.” The “what” is the format your content, sessions, and overall event structure will take. The “how” is how you’ll be able to create an experience that allows for a high level of engagement and interaction. Is your audience comfortable being on camera? Are they in urban or rural areas with high-speed internet challenges? Next, think about how you want them to interact? If you had to measure success, what would it look like? Would you still rely on post-event survey evaluations, or would you instead lean on metrics such as “likes”, emojis, or comments in chat windows to measure engagement? There is no right answer here – what’s most critical is that you understand your audience and know in advance what would be engaging and how they may react.
#2 – Lean into creative and non-traditional experiences
It’s time to dust off last year’s plan, review the agenda with a critical eye, and see what you could potentially transform into a virtual experience. This is where most event planners decide to leverage some creativity and think out of the box. While previously, you might have focused on interweaving your brand into the physical presence and experience of the event, now is the time to explore different options.
How often have you wanted to break from the mold and try something new or different? Here’s your chance to change up how you’ve traditionally handled mental breaks, such as lunch or happy hour:
- Consider inserting an interactive ice breaker by forcing everyone to turn on their own cameras
- Share background images aligned to your event theme and encourage people to activate their own personal “green screen”
- Hire live streaming entertainment – either a musical guest (think Tiny Desk Concert a la NPR) or a stand-up comedian
- Do an impromptu improv session or consider transforming games like bingo, trivia, a virtual mock casino, or Pictionary
- Conduct desk-based yoga and stretching for morning or afternoon coffee breaks
- Send your attendees a care package swag bag with home office supplies
Your audience will warm up to the idea of being part of something new. You’ll be surprised how many people are willing to turn on cameras, stand up, and volunteer to show off their pets or kids on screen!
#3 – Over Communicate
There is truly no such thing as over communication in the world of virtual events. While in-person events rely on directional signage to guide attendees on where they should go (as well as helpful onsite staff), you need to multiply those efforts around your digital communication strategy. Make sure your attendees know what to expect – be helpful in providing calendar reminders, upcoming alerts, system checks, invitations to break out sessions, exhibitor hours, and networking events. Generally, if there’s an activity happening, have a follow up drafted for it. At a minimum, you should plan to have the following types of communication ready to send:
- Save the date
- Registration confirmation
- Online system check (browser settings, software installation updates, etc)
- Know Before You Go
- Welcome Day X/Y/ Z
- Agenda/session updates
- Sponsorship thank yous
- Post event recaps
- Post event surveys
- On Demand sessions
Bonus tip: make sure your registrants have opted-in to receive your emails, so they recieve all of your communication. Consider exploring SMS if you don’t want to rely on just emails alone to get the word out.
#4 – Evaluate Technology and Find the Right Fit
There are a lot of virtual event software systems out there. Since everyone has pivoted to virtual events, companies are overwhelmed with requests and unable to consult with you on the set up, configuration, or determine if they can meet your needs. You should first list out your “must-have” requirements and what you want the system to do for your event. Some planners focus on interactive features (like chat, attendee directories, private messaging, polling and Q&A moderated panels), others might need to cater to virtual exhibit halls, or simulated networking events. Tap into your networks to ask what types of platforms have been used and are successful. Remember that technology is the enabler to your virtual event but it alone won’t create the ideal event. You still need to plan your event experience and identify the features, functionality, and overall experience you want to deliver.
Make sure the system you select offers real-time support to handle any issues you may run into. While everyone is far more understanding of technical hiccups, it’s a lot easier to simply leave the event and not return because there’s a perceived problem on the day of the event.
#5 – Remain Calm and Be Flexible
Murphy’s Law says that anything that can go wrong will probably go wrong – so don’t fight it. Virtual events are challenging – problems that are easy to solve in person become difficult in a virtual space. Dress rehearsals can help but you don’t really know what’s going to happen until it’s actually happening. The most common challenge many experience is delays in live streaming sessions due to overloaded systems. Most platforms are designed to handle heavy usage but it’s hard to test that scenario until your event is live. The best thing to do in these situations is communicate. Have designated point people sharing updates and tech tips in the general chat area to keep everyone informed. Remember to be flexible in your approach and shift gears to Plan B, if you need to.
The New Normal
Virtual events are here to stay as we look to 2021 and beyond. As audience segments expand to younger generations, the application of technology in new formats will encourage even more innovation and creativity. Event planners are in a unique position right now to try their hand at virtual events, then select the best, most successful elements to create hybrid events that will truly redefine what an experiential event can be. To learn more about how MEET Las Vegas can elevate your virtual, hybrid, or in-person event please send us your information here.