With the global pandemic of 2020 shutting down travel and large gatherings, face-to-face events and networking have come to a full stop. Industries have adopted virtual events as a way to engage with their audiences, share information and provide resources to customers. In the beginning, many businesses found themselves forced into an abrupt shift, sometimes resulting in frenzied and poorly executed events. Now that a full year has passed, virtual events are becoming the norm as businesses can’t afford to ignore the value of connecting with stakeholders.
Like in-person events, virtual events start with goals and objectives. They must be planned and executed with the end goal in mind. The event itself is part of an organization’s larger marketing strategy. When thinking of planning a virtual event, there are many factors to consider: pre-recorded vs. live, which platform to choose, how to keep the audience engaged and what content is best communicated virtually.
Mark DeVito, former television producer and current president at Beyond Definition, a brand experience agency, and George Rice, managing partner at SkyHawk Global, a consulting firm, offer tips, best practices and practical advice for planning and executing effective virtual events and share their expectations of what the future holds for virtual events.
Understanding the Challenges and Managing Expectations
Anyone who has hosted or participated in a virtual meeting or event knows that technical difficulties are inevitable. These can range from people not being able to log in to the platform, connectivity issues, company restrictions and more. A lot of this can be mitigated by choosing the right platform and delivery method, according to DeVito. Pre-recorded sessions have fewer technical issues, but Rice notes that these have to be meticulously scripted and produced almost like a television program in order to work well as a substitute for an in-person event. Furthermore, he notes that the pre-recorded content should be part of a live event to enhance engagement, such as running it in conjunction with a live Q&A.
Live format events, DeVito notes, are “part of the promise” of replacing in-person events with virtual. He said, “I would not imagine going to a live event and just watching a video; it’s about the interaction and seeing people react to things that are unfolding before your eyes.” That said, problems do occur, so proper planning and choosing the right platform are critical, as well as managing the expectations of the audience and being realistic about what a virtual event can offer over in-person events. If the goal is networking, a virtual event can’t be a true replacement. DeVito explains, “It’s hard to network on certain platforms. The networking component should be taken off the list of attributes as a general rule. Until we can figure out a better way to get people to come into your environment, it should not be factored in.”
Selecting the Best Content and Increasing Engagement
Both DeVito and Rice agree that the best type of content is anything that is personalized for the end user, as well as anything with inspirational or emotional components that people can connect to. DeVito says, “I think we need to break out of the general content and think about what we’d do as a content strategy where everything is customized to a specific market.” Virtual events provide an opportunity for this level of customization where there are break-out sessions, lots of moderators and giving participants the opportunity to choose what they want to do. Agendas can be more interactive and therefore more engaging.
The content also needs to be kept short and compelling. DeVito says in this day and age with so many platforms, “We all have the power to be content creators. Now, everyone has the control and we don’t actually know what is watchable; we have good content managers but they may not be content producers.” Indeed, it is not often that internal marketing staff has the experience needed to produce compelling content that tells a story. These are areas where the industry will have a learning curve before virtual events can be a stand-alone platform for engagement.
Rice suggests giving the participants the opportunity to create their own content. “If you have the registration far enough in advance, you can send a questionnaire so that they can actually shape the sessions. This requires deep planning, but it puts the attendee in the driver’s seat of creating the content.” He also suggests using the virtual event as a way to get direct feedback from the audience as not only a way of engagement, but also a chance to receive valuable information. This can be achieved with the use of online polling in the midst of an event.
Another tactic that DeVito has found successful in enhancing engagement is to make the event smaller and more intimate, noting that making it feel like the audience member is there for a reason and that they matter is effective, and also makes it harder for people to multi-task and lose interest along the way. He says, “We have to be creative and think of engaging ways, think about the take-aways, and think about what people are skeptical about and how to overcome these.”
Offering Value for Your Event
Producing good content, engaging with the audience, and maintaining some degree of interaction are all important for virtual events, but businesses must also consider the overall value that the event will bring to their audience. Rice says that in order to maximize the value, companies need to think of the virtual event as one piece of an overall marketing campaign. In addition to creating a sequence leading up to the event to get the audience interested, “Follow-on is critical,” he emphasizes. “There should be an ongoing amplification of the event and overall continuity throughout.”
Costs are also a consideration. DeVito agrees that it’s a hard sell to charge someone the same amount for a virtual event as you would for a live event. You have to consider the complete customer journey that supports the true nature of what the virtual event is trying to do. “I think people need to come to their senses a bit about what virtual events can and should be,” he says. “There is a lot of excitement and other components that make certain experiences unique. I don’t think virtual events will go away as far as member value, but you need to look at what else you are doing to bring member value.”
Regardless of the pandemic situation, both DeVito and Rice predict that virtual events are here to stay in some capacity. Though they may not fully replace live, in-person events, there are many benefits and they should be viewed as yet another disruptive technology that will impact the way we do business, work and learn. DeVito notes, “Part of this conversation will be, will it work? At the end of the day, we are always going to be moving toward humanizing experience. It won’t be a group mentality. It will be personalized. It could be that we have an option of in-person and virtual. Different communities will arise out of the virtual environment.”
Learn more about virtual programming in our blog, 5 Ways to Elevate Your Virtual Programming.