12+ months after the initial pandemic moved events to a virtual platform, I have noticed a very dichotomous market. Some clients really get it and are outputting amazing virtual events, while others still think an MS Teams or Zoom meeting counts as an ‘event’. Remember you are organizing a virtual event. It is not a meeting. Virtual events are here to stay. Long after we are all vaccinated and free to move about again, virtual events will remain. There is inherent value in some events holding on to the digital connection. So here are some tips on how to host a great virtual event.
There are some very important ‘X’s in our lives. Malcom X helped change the world in terms of human rights. We’d all love to find an aged treasure map with an ‘X’ marking the spot. And in business, we all know about CX, the Customer Experience. Some HR practitioners talk about EX, the Employee Experience, but now there’s a new ‘X’ in town – VX, the Virtual Experience.
Ever since the pandemic and the global swing to digital tools for business and pleasure, the focus has shifted from platforms and the technology to the experience itself. Hosting a great virtual event should be an experience
Why run a virtual event?
Nowhere is this more evident that in the Conference & Events Industry, where what seemed like overnight, we were brought to a complete standstill for live events. Into that void stepped the virtual event, and over the past 12 months, the industry has truly embraced what was already a growing trend.
When planning a live event, we all know the importance of making it memorable. We talk about ‘optimising the delegate experience’ and focus on curating an event that delivers, examining the delegate journey, evaluating the touch points, making sure that every moving part is as it should be.
How do you create a virtual event?
However, in this transition to virtual, some event planners and clients have made a few mistakes, and as a speaker, this article is just to point out a few of the obvious watch-outs. I will not further clutter the blogsphere with another ‘how to create the perfect virtual event’ post. There are many already out there dealing with how virtual events work and the kinds of technology to use. This is about the experience itself and how to make your virtual event great.
5 Keys to a Successful Virtual Event
What the difference is between a virtual event and a webinar?
That is a distinction that many clients forget to pose. A webinar is still a ‘virtual event’ but one that focuses on usually a single topic. It has a relatively short time frame (60-90 minutes) and has limited interaction between attendees (beyond some virtual Q&A). There is no reason such an event can’t be an experience also of course.
A true virtual ‘event’ on the other hand may have multiple streams for an attendee to choose from, has significant inter-attendee interactivity options and above all is more of an Experience – there is that word again.
Now to be honest, regardless, if you are planning a 60-minute virtual event or a 2-day virtual conference, you need to have a strong look at your VX and how you are delivering. Digital Fatigue is something we are all aware of, and you need to work harder than you think if you are to produce an event that stands out.
Post pandemic, we are all tired of Zoom, MS Teams and Google Hangout calls (see this great article on the neuro effects of same – https://www.psychiatrictimes.com/view/psychological-exploration-zoom-fatigue)
Tired of screen meetings. Tired of hours and hours of sitting at the desk. You need to remember it is into this environment you are dropping your event. To you it’s your baby, your big virtual event, but for the viewer, it is just another video stream to watch today. This is why you have to make it an ‘Experience’, and just bolting a ‘Virtual Cocktail Hour’ at the end isn’t an experience. Just as you had to give them a reason to leave their office and travel to your live event, you have to give them a real reason to engage digitally.
Making your virtual event fun
But to make your event an Experience, you need to make it interactive and fun, interesting and provoking. You need attendees to walk back into their kitchen after the event and want to tell their significant other about what they just experienced. And you don’t deliver on that if you just push out a ‘zoom produced hour’ with a few screen shares.
You need to put VX front and centre in terms of planning. Think about how to really engage through the screen. Think about parallel gamification, interactivity and doing things a bit differently. It takes effort and time, but there is so much noise and clutter out there in terms of free webinar and social screen time that to truly cut-through. You have to promise and deliver on Experience.
It doesn’t all have to be Disco Bingo (see DiscoBingo Online) or Zarakoe (Zoom Karaoke). For corporate events, interactivity and fun can be as simple as challenging gamification tasks, with team members pitted against one another on screen.
Another major mistake that is being made by planners is not to build enough attendee interactivity into the event design. We cannot expect viewers to simply consume hours and hours of content without allowing them to feel part of the event. This isn’t just a one-way consumption product. A good virtual event is where the attendee leaves feeling they were ‘part of something’ – as they would from a live event.
How to make people participate in a virtual event?
While the Q&A, Chat and Polling functionalities on most platforms are the beginning of this, you shouldn’t stop there. Look to really interact with your audience. When I am playing virtual host, I love ‘randomly’ spotlighting attendees for a chat (who doesn’t like snooping around people’s homes!)
Showcasing attendees on the master screen involves an entire audience. Build interactivity breaks into the agenda, not just rest breaks. Use gamification and have some fun. Think about sending delegates pre-event goodie bags and use the contents on the day for games and puzzles. Build anticipation pre-event by letting the attendee know they are going to be ‘involved’.
If you don’t interact with an audience, they do not feel part of what is happening. This is even more true of digital events, where ‘zoning out’ is so easy. In fact, with one click of a button they can leave and check their email.
How can you energise your next virtual event?
Interactivity brings energy to a virtual event. It breaks up the visual monotony on screen and makes an event more ‘us’ than just ‘them’. Ask yourself how you can make your virtual event fun? Remember, you are trying to host a great virtual event.
3.Hire a Professional Host
Some physical live events don’t bother with an Emcee, or may use an internal one. Sometimes it works, but most times it doesn’t. Without a host running an event, you lack the cohesion you need to bring everything together. This is far more important when it comes to virtual hosting, even critical I would say.
How to deliver a cohesive virtual event?
The role of the virtual emcee is to energise the event throughout. This is about authentic speaker introductions, genuine attendee connections down the lens, using interactivity and humour throughout to engage the audience and being a golden thread tying everything together. Think about the Oscars or Golden Globes without their hosts.
Whether it is a 90-minute or a 2-day virtual event, a professional host is essential if you are to deliver a slick, professional digital experience. Asking someone internal in the organisation to host a digital event is like asking a member of the public strolling past a TV studio to come in and host the chat show.
Virtual event hosting is closer to TV production than it is to anything else. There is so much amateur virtual noise out there at the moment, you do not want your event to be added to that list. Make sure your virtual host ties it all together and gives the event some ‘digital sizzle’. A good virtual host ‘performs’ as opposed to simply introduces speakers or segments. Read more about my own virtual hosting product here > https://kenhughes.info/virtual-emcee/
4.Hire the Right Production Company
The agency that you have been using for your physical live events in the past may not be the right fit for your virtual event. Remember you want to host a great virtual event, not an average one. Even if your brand is pushing out webinar content, while it is tempting to do it yourself (after all you organised your family Zoom quiz night, how hard can it be?), without the professionals involved, the look and feel of your event can come off as very amateur.
How do virtual events work?
Think of it like this – if you were planning a live stage event, would you put a single podium in the middle and leave it at that, or would you hire an agency to design a set, lighting and an event ‘look and feel’. Well, it is the same thing here – just because the technology seems easy to use, try and get the budget together to hire a professional digital events agency. I have spoken at so many events where the client has got this part wrong.
Aside from the huge technical experience they will bring, they will also manage the varied inbound feeds and output with high production values. Adding lower-thirds, graphics, split screens, animations and vision mixing to broadcast standards will make your digital content an ‘event’. Otherwise, you may just look like another free/cheap webinar on a platform.
If looking for some of my production agency recommendations, try UK based Top Banana (https://top-b.com/) or US based JPL Creative (https://www.jplcreative.com/)
5. Hire Good Digital Speakers
Into that space there are many that will now speak at your digital event for free. Few events are made up of 100% paid professional speakers, so there is still plenty room for the invited speaker. But I recently heard it phrased like this – the free speaker is like that cover band you might see in your local bar on a Friday night – they’re good, but unlikely you’ll buy a ticket to see them. On the other hand, you’ll buy a $100 ticket 6-months ahead of time to attend a concert to see the genuine thing.
What is the ideal virtual event content?
There is a strong temptation with digital events to avoid speaker fees and populate the content with all those ‘free webinar’ speakers, usually promoting a product/service in the background. In terms of engagement virtually, your content has to be rock solid and give significant value to the viewer.
As we have witnessed over the past year, even professional speakers who may be great on stage do not all make good transitions to digital. They may have an amazing story to tell, but there is little point in hiring them unless they have adapted their performances for the new virtual audiences and environment. I have watched some top-tier speaker names on digital events recently and it has been a cringe-fest. Some were still not able to make maximum use of the technology, others not adapting their style or story to the new medium. You need to ensure you hire speakers that are digital savvy and have the energy and style to ‘work it’ down the lens.
Go Host a Great Virtual Event
So these are the 5 tips to keep in mind:
- Experience. Keep this word in your head at all times. Your virtual event needs to feel like an experience
- Interactivity. Digital fatigue isn’t helped by one-directional content. Engage an audience and plan several interaction points
- Hire a Virtual Host. Come out of the gates strong – a host brings it all together, makes it look/feel like TV and raises it the professional standard it should be
- Engage a Production Company. Make it look different from every other digital interface everyone is using every day. Invest in look & feel
- Curate Spectacular Speakers. Budget for some professional speaker content to motivate, inspire and provoke thought.
So they are my 5 tips (ok – so I do have a vested interest in points 3 and 5, as I am both a virtual speaker and virtual host) but the facts remain – unless you invest in virtual events and optimise the VX, there is a real danger you just become more of that digital noise that is circulating at present.
The world has changed in so many ways over the past year, and will continue to do so for the near future. Internal and external events will be virtual or hybrid for some time to come. It is imperative that you dial-up the VX element to deliver – it’s time to sparkle. Go host a great virtual event.
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