When Face to Face Must Be Virtual
Transitioning previously face-to-face events to a virtual format is a tricky proposition. What works well in person may not pan out as planned online, with low audience engagement, missed networking opportunities and frustration on the part of organizers and audience all negatively impacting virtual events. We believe there are several concrete steps organizers can take to ensure their virtual events are successful, possibly even more so than their previous in-person iterations:
Good Planning Is Crucial
Preparing for your virtual event requires substantial thought and attention, since things can quickly go wrong. It’s important to have your team consider every touchpoint your virtual audience can expect. Here, user experience is key. Assume your audience will also be struggling to adapt to a completely online world, but will have the same expectations of event ROI as if they were attending a normal conference. Designate one individual as a host or moderator to guide the experience and serve as a friendly face for the event, as in a real-world conference. This individual should be responsible for communicating transitions from one segment to another as well as breaks, which will help the audience plan their time and minimize distractions.
Content Is King
Just as in face-to-face events, the content you’re offering — topics, speakers, slides, videos and high-quality interactions — is the most important lure to attract and keep an audience engaged. The quality, clarity and appropriateness of content are crucial to your event’s success, never more so than now when uncertainty reigns. However, writing content to be engaging in the virtual world is a skill set in itself, and very different to writing for a face-to-face engagement. There are multiple potential pitfalls in the virtual world for inappropriate content that could trigger sensitivities or be considered tone-deaf or not useful. Developing communication experiences that deliver content-rich virtual interactions that engage, educate and excite customers, partners and employees alike is key to a successful virtual event.
Get Your Tech Ready and Practice, Practice, Practice
One of the biggest concerns in transitioning to a virtual event is the inherent technical issues. Whether in the real world or the virtual, we believe a flawless delivery goes a long way to improving audience ROI, and this takes time, effort and attention to detail. There is a wealth of online event platforms out there. Research one that makes sense with your budget, audience size and expectations and technical sophistication. In addition to choosing the right tech that won’t let you down, your presenters must tailor their content in a way that makes sense virtually. Make sure that platform is able to support personalization that reflects your own brand. Think about details like internet bandwidth, lighting, microphone quality, recording options and break-out chat rooms. Whenever possible include a PIP (Picture In Picture) set-up, which creates a studio-like, newscaster viewing experience. The goal should be to replicate as much as possible a high-quality, television-style broadcast experience.
To Charge or Not to Charge?
Given the enormous amount of free content available, it can be tough to justify charging attendees to participate in an event — especially when the current trend is to give most content away at zero cost. That said, events still need to monetize somehow, though removing the costs associated with a physical event can drastically reduce the required investment. One option is to enlist and charge sponsors for advertising. In a virtual event, this means taking tricks from digital advertising playbooks, including in-app sponsorships, banner ads, push notifications and video ads during transitions between parts of the conference. Keep in mind the sleekest events with the most polished, professional look-and-feel can justify commanding higher sponsorship fees, or even charging attendees a nominal fee for the ‘slot’.
Full-Throttle Your Analytics
A very important note here: switching events to the virtual world offers an unparalleled opportunity to apply audience analytics in a way unheard of in a real-world context. Track audience identity and participation analytics to prove the ROI of your events and incorporate it into subsequent marketing to sponsors. Provide additional services like automatically integrating audience information into a sponsor’s CRM platform.
How to Keep an Audience Engaged?
One of your biggest challenges is going to be keeping your virtual audience engaged. The human attention span is notoriously short online, and adding in the additional distractions of kids home from school, chats, social media and even getting a snack can derail an audience’s concentration. First to help are format tricks — shorter sessions, with an overall duration of no more than 1-2 hours per day is a good start, plus combining presentations with streaming video, panel sessions, speeches, round-table discussions and more. If you feel you need a longer event, consider breaking it up over several days. Another tool is building in as many interactive activities as possible — Q&A sessions, real-time audience polling, social feeds, direct messaging and trivia games — all help a virtual audience to stay connected and engaged in the event. Pre-event engagement also has a role to play. From a simple response to someone registering to sending a physical package containing relevant event-themed merchandise, all contact goes towards improving engagement.
Networking Is Still the Key
Most event attendees, virtual or otherwise, agree that successful, high-value networking is one of the key components to evaluating the ROI of their participation. There are many tools available to help audience members make the connections they value. Digital speed-dating, virtual cocktail sessions and virtual meet-ups are all on the table. Attendees can still participate in virtual coffee meetings during breaks, and then ask others if they’d like to speak in a private chat conversation. Another good tool is to pre-arrange one-on-one networking sessions before the event, and then dedicate a period of time between presentation sessions as a networking break.
Once again taking advantage of the digital over the physical, employ tools such as AI to help facilitate networking. At a large real-world event, finding and connecting with exactly the right people can be exhausting, if not impossible. Artificial Intelligence platforms online can evaluate attendee profiles and create a list of the most relevant participants for you to meet. As always, keep in mind the reasons people network. Some want to stay on top of industry trends, others are looking for leads to sell to, while others may be looking for employment opportunities.
The transition to virtual events can be stressful but a little thought and a lot of preparation can result in outsized benefits for both organizers and attendees alike. Following these steps can lead to a successful virtual communication experience:
- Plan out every touchpoint for your audience, particularly the technology set-up, will go a long way in producing a smooth event with few hiccups.
- Make sure to have engaging speakers, topics, slides and high production value to initially capture your audience and keep their attention for the duration.
- Remember that networking and interaction are key drivers of event participation and you’ll need to provide these opportunities, especially if you’re going to charge for an event.