Navigating the Tricky Waters of Virtual Events
The world of event management has gone full virtual. I think it’s safe to say we’re now in full swing with virtual experiences. Over the last five months, we’ve all watched and experienced how companies, non-profits, government agencies, and more have shifted their in-person events to the digital world. Some nimble organizations were able to transform their events to virtual in less than six weeks. (I say this as someone who has been working feverishly to support clients who had to turn on a dime, or a euro, to go virtual.)
Virtual events aren’t new. C.KAY International has been producing virtual events, and in-person events with virtual components, for quite some time. But the digital arena is new to some event planners. Here are some tips and tricks on how to successfully navigate the tricky waters of virtual events.
Event Plan: Whether an event is in-person or virtual, a solid Event Plan is a must. It doesn’t have to be the length or detail of War and Peace — even a one-pager can be make the difference between a successful event and a flop. Running a virtual event is different than an on-site event and your plan needs to address that difference. Who is your target audience? (You have a wider potential reach by going virtual.) Why are you holding the event? What are the key metrics you will measure and shoot for? Will you have sponsors? If so, what’s in it for them? Your Event Plan should be the hymnal that everyone understands and is singing from in unison.
Budget: Have a clear grasp on your budget. If you’re re-purposing the budget from an in-person event, don’t just delete the food and beverage line item. You may need to move that money to your technology budget or for other elements you’ve never had to deal with in an event, like recording, captioning, or translations.
Platforms: It’s like the Wild West out there when it comes to technical platforms for virtual events! One size and technology doesn’t fit all. The platforms, some with app versions, have improved a lot in the last five months, making it easier for the users to navigate. User demands have broadened too. People use multiple devices to engage with virtual events — you can’t assume they’re watching from their laptops.
Broadcast: With the advances in platforms comes the ability to do so much more than a boring webinar! I have several clients who have moved to the broadcast model — using their own website with an audio-visual team to support streaming and recording. This is more expensive than the more traditional streaming approaches, so organizations with major budget limitations may find standard streaming platforms a better fit for their event.
Pre-recorded vs. Live Events: There is a lot of discussion and differing views on whether you stream pre-recorded content or conduct a live event. Pre-recorded is less risky. You can load up the recorded video days before your event and your speaker can interact with the audience in real time on the chat feature. But when your attendees know you’re there with them live, they’ll be more likely to stick around and engage with you throughout the presentation. The downside for live events: it takes a large amount of personal energy to provide engaging content since you don’t have audience interactions and feedback like you would at an in-person event. Speakers need to generate a large amount of enthusiasm.
Whether your event is pre-recorded or delivered live, your content and technology need to be rock solid. Plan to run ample tech checks and rehearsals. Have moderators assigned to help with the live chat or Q&A.
Audience members think of virtual events like any content that’s on the internet or TV. They’re busy and they want fast, easy access to content. So having on-demand options set up and readily available post event, or even during the event, is key.
Engagement: The old saying is “Content is King,” but content isn’t everything. You’ll need specific tactics to keep your attendees engaged. My friend and colleague, Dana Pake, (a.k.a. the “Queen of Creativity”) says this about audience engagement: “Before COVID, event designers used to take to Instagram to find inspiration for immersive experiences. In these #newtimes, look to what TV does to compete for attention and engagement. Your job now is to ‘edutain’ your audience — provide creative formats that deliver the right message to the right audience in non-traditional ways. For instance, rather than a simple panel discussion with moderator and panelists, consider a game show or cooking show format like Chopped, where participants are performing under pressure while answering questions. It puts your audience on the edge of their seat to see what happens next. The tl;dr: Your content delivery should both inform and entertain.”
But that doesn’t mean you can slack on content. Never hit a dead end on a virtual event — keep the content coming. It should feel like a TV broadcast.
Communication: When planning and producing any kind of event, I’m a huge fan of over communicating with all stakeholders — clients, vendors, audience members, behind-the-scenes support staff, on-screen talent, etc. Excellent internal and external communications are essential, especially if you have stakeholders who are new to virtual events.
Ensure communications are clear. Remember that even in this new world of virtual events, not everyone knows how to operate every platform. Event staff and audience members will appreciate a “Know Before You Show” document that offers user guidance, screen shots, and common trouble-shooting tips.
You may have noticed that a lot of these tips for virtual events apply to in-person events too. So perhaps apply another standard event strategy: hire an event management expert. Having a professional event planner help you navigate these new virtual waters might just help you cruise to a box-office hit!
Caroline Kay, Senior Event Planner & Producer