How to Create an Engaging Online Event Experience

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Key Considerations for Planning and Producing Virtual Events – Part II

This is the second in a three-part series on virtual events. Part I covered the considerations that an organization should make before it moves its in-person event online, while Part III will be a recent case study on how an organization transformed its annual meeting into a virtual event with over 130 sessions and 600 speakers, in just 11 days.

In-person events are a hallmark of the association world. Whether working group meetings to tackle technical standards or professionals gathering for continuing education, these events provide value for the members and often revenue for the organization. In light of the uncertainty that we all face from the outbreak of COVID-19 (Coronavirus), many organizations are grappling with how to transition to online events and programming. Some associations have never held large-scale virtual events, making the move daunting.

At Virtual, we’ve been working with dozens and dozens of our clients, guiding them through this complex process to have the best possible outcome for their members and the long-term health of their organization. We have extensive experience with these types of events, so we gathered (virtually, of course – pun intended) some team members from our Events, Infrastructure, Client Services, and Communications to share their insights with the broader association community.

Now, as many of us now have multiple video conferences a day, there is a risk of having too casual an approach to the experience for attendees, speakers, and sponsors. That can diminish the value and reputation of the event. It is critical to carefully plan for all aspects of the event experience.

 

Virtual Event

Having a well-designed virtual event platform interface helps to create a great experience for all involved.

Speakers

  • Presenting in a crowded conference room for an hour is different than staring at one’s laptop from a home office. Session times can be decreased – which can also improve the attendee experience.
  • Production quality matters. Have all speakers do a dry run on the platform before the event after giving them general guidance on camera angle set up, lighting, audio quality, and appropriate backgrounds.
  • Ensure that internet connections are strong. If a speaker’s presentation is breaking up because their kids are streaming digital classrooms, it does not make for a stellar attendee experience.
  • Always have speakers join 15 minutes prior to their scheduled start time, giving them time to get comfortable and work out any last-minute issues. Have a staff person on each session to provide tech support and oversee logistics. This person should have the slides on their machine and be following along just in case something happens to the speakers’ screen share, another version can be brought up quickly.
  • If a speaker can’t be part of the online event – for any number of reasons – create a new opportunity for them to share their content with the attendees, such as a video recording, blog post or webinar later.

Attendees

  • Plan each day from the perspective of someone calling in from their living room. Expect that their kids are playing nearby because it’s likely a good number of your attendees will be in this exact situation.
  • There is no way to over-communicate in a virtual event. Making it very clear on when and “where” they need to be will be much appreciated. It will also help them get more value from the event.
  • Attendees will not only be juggling work while trying to attend sessions but also issues on the home front. Encourage them to sign off from their work email and instant messaging, just as they would during an in-person event.
  • Keep them engaged. Use the live chat function so that they can interact with each other during presentations. Staff can also post highlights to call them out for folks who may be distracted. Polls are a great way to get a read on the audience if you can’t see their faces. Whiteboards are also a fun way to collaborate. Encourage attendees to share something about themselves as a type of icebreaker at the start of an interactive session.
  • Just as a networking cocktail reception can be a nice way to unwind after a busy day, consider a video happy hour. Make sure to have a charismatic host that can help to guide the discussion. If your gathering is large, consider “birds of a feather” break-out happy hours where folks can opt-in based on a specified topic.
  • Provide a channel for ongoing feedback. Attendees might be able to point out a simple change that could be made overnight and improve the experience for all. Don’t wait until the end of the event to solicit ideas. It could even be a simple email address that they can send a note to. This is also an easy way to handle attendee questions.
  • Make sure that attendees have a way of connecting with other individual attendees (with a clear no-solicitation policy). This can help them connect in between sessions and after the event.
  • Get follow-up materials out as quickly as possible. Access to videos and presentations is important enough to have a dedicated team member(s) working on it.

Our 20 person team responsible for the production of a recent online conference with over 135 sessions and 600 speakers.

Sponsors

  • Don’t forget to show them some love. Now more than ever, they are probably worried about their bottom-lines.
  • Reconsider your sponsorship packages. Your lanyard sponsor won’t be getting the same visibility as they expected. How will you optimize the packages?
  • Get creative and try to put their logo and their people out there as much as possible. Consider having sponsors act as track emcees or introducing keynotes. You could share short video ads before sessions start or include banner ads in the daily email communications.

Working Group Meetings

While there are many large, industry-wide conferences going online, smaller working group face-to-face events are shifting online too. These working meetings are often critical for substantial progress to made toward completing the outstanding work items and determining the overall direction of the organization. By providing a space for members to collaborate face-to-face and focus on the work, many important milestones can be reached and goals accomplished.

  • Encourage all attendees to use their cameras. This helps to keep people engaged in the session and it also helps to build rapport – an important by-product of working group face-to-face meetings.
  • If time zones are a challenge, consider staggering sessions but keeping chairs/co-chairs on for consistency. Minuting meetings will be especially important for these sessions. Remind participants to include their company in their displayed name or to say their name and company regularly. When possible record the meetings and share them as soon as possible. If staggered times aren’t feasible, offer non-attendees a way to participate via commenting channels.
  • Take short breaks every hour or so and try not to schedule more than four hours of session per day. This may require extending beyond your typical dates, but it will result in better engagement.

It’s a whole new world out there, but virtual events are most certainly not new. We’re proud of our diverse team, that works cohesively for both in-person and online events. We hope these considerations are helpful to your organization. Did we miss anything? Please share in the comments section. Have questions? Don’t hesitate to email us.

Next in Part III, how our team transformed an annual meeting into a dynamic virtual conference with over 130 sessions and 600 speakers in less than two weeks!

A special thanks to our team of contributors:

  • Stacey Comito, Vice President, Marketing Communications
  • Jessie Hennion, Director, Public Relations
  • Justin Montville, Senior Director, Infrastructure & Information Technology
  • Patricia Morin, Senior Manager, Client Services
  • Margot Rodger, Vice President, Events & Meetings
  • Leah Sibilia, Director, Events

 

 

 

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