For many event planners, virtual events have become a necessary part of their jobs. While face-to-face contact remains highly valuable, virtual events have become much more common in most industries. The key to success is learning the best practices for putting one together.
The first step is to understand that virtual event planning requires just as much planning and care as an in-person event. Both require good great promotion and marketing, high-quality and engaging entertainment, networking opportunities and all the other rewards of a well-run conference. But virtual events require taking some extra steps.
Defining a Virtual Event
Strictly speaking, a virtual event is one where the experience and content is entirely online.
But the term includes much more than it did just a few years ago. The term “virtual” is used to describe everything from online yoga classes to weekly team meetings where everyone is working from home. Most virtual events break down into one of four types.
Webinars. Webinars typically involve an expert or panel of experts presenting content, and people from around the world can join and listen. They usually last from 45 to 80 minutes.
Virtual conferences. Live, online events that include keynote speakers, breakout sessions, and the ability to interact with other attendees. The best feature on-demand content and give attendees the chance to build their own agendas.
Internal/external hybrid events. Internal hybrids share information and connect people within a company (sales kicks offs, town halls, etc.). External hybrid events are for those outside your industry, such as industry conferences.
The following looks mostly at issues involving video conferences, which can include elements of all the above.
Deciding Between Virtual and In-Person Events
Some events naturally fit with a virtual environment. For example, webinars have been an easy choice for virtual because they work best as events where people can check in from wherever they are, listen to experts and then get a chance to ask questions. Conferences traditionally seem better suited to in-person events and the opportunity to speak to other people one-on-one.
But virtual events of all types come with benefits. The three biggest:
- They’re more accessible. Anyone can attend from anywhere on the planet as long as they have a good internet connection. This is especially helpful to people who would not normally have the time to travel to an in-person event.
- They’re less expensive. For those looking to keep costs down or who plan to hold a smaller event, virtual can have far less impact on a budget, including the lack of need for meeting space.
- They’re immune to bad weather. Inclement weather, natural disaster, canceled flights – none of that has any impact on a virtual event.
As pointed out in Quartz, the potential of virtual technology is changing events of all kinds. They write: “Participation is no longer dependent on geography or limited by the number of seats in a venue. This creates tremendous new market opportunities for event organizers.”
Of course, virtual events also come with limitations. For example, conferences typically are held in places people might want to visit, such as large cities or places with great weather. In a virtual event, the success or failure of the event depends entirely on the quality of the content.
The other obvious loss is the ability for people to network face-to-face. Virtual events can provide the ability to connect with other attendees. But for many people, nothing takes the place of meeting face-to-face.
Managing of Virtual Events
The following looks at a few key areas to consider when planning a virtual event.
The Technology Needed
The bottom line for virtual events is that they succeed or fail based on the quality of the technology attendees can use and the content they can see. When it comes to technology, the basic elements include the following.
- A site specifically dedicated to the event
- Online event registration
- Live, synchronous presentation content
- Pre-recorded content on demand
- The ability to host question and answer sessions
- Live polling and surveys
- A direct messaging system for one-to-one contact
- Giving attendees the ability to take notes and mark favorite slides
- Interactive video conferencing
- A mobile event app
All this technology is readily available, and there are companies that specialize in hosting virtual events. Once a platform is set up and attendees sign up for the event, give them a chance to test out some of the platform’s features and provide feedback on what works and what doesn’t work. There are almost always some wrinkles that have to get ironed out.
This is the area where many virtual events run into difficulties. Nowhere is there more of a difference between a virtual event or an in-person event. At a traditional event, the sights and sounds of the surrounding environment, as well as the presence of other people and in-person events such as happy hours, are all part of the experience. In a virtual event, the content needs to engage.
There are ways to do this. Much of it involves what we work with on social media every day in our personal lives. This includes event hashtags, messaging capabilities, responding to polls, setting up one-on-one meetings with other attendees, posting pictures and video, and more. The idea is that every time an attendee checks into the event platform, they feel like they are part of a community and have plenty of ways to engage both with content and other people at the conference.
Other virtual engagement ideas include:
- Scavenger hunts
- Audience interaction at virtual sessions
- Games and contests
- Feedback surveys
- Training and tips content
Essentially, whatever can get done on social media can happen in a virtual event platform.
Networking at Virtual Events
As stated above, the inability to meet one-on-one is one of the downsides of a virtual event. Great care should be taken in providing conference attendees the ability to go into virtual breakout sessions or meet one-on-one. A mobile event app makes it easier for people to connect and schedule one-on-one meetings with exhibitors or other attendees.
Event planners also should provide prominent messaging that encourages people to meet. They also can find people using registration data who are from the same location or who have similar interests and recommend a group chat to them. Successful networking is possible as long as attendees have the proper guidance and the tools they need.
Virtual events also provide plenty of data that can help quantify whether the event was a success. For example, there the number of registrants, their location, and the sessions that drew the most people. That’s all easily accessible data that can help plan for the next event.
But data from virtual events goes even deeper, providing numbers for the number of people who engage with various forms of content, the response to polls and surveys, and the number of leads generated.
Virtual events provide planners with challenges, but they also have proven to be very popular and effective when done correctly. It’s a chance to bring people together who otherwise might never have met, in an environment where both companies and individuals can shine.