Tips for planning virtual events

Dec 18, 2020 | Conferences & Trade Shows, Event Management

Virtual Events are here to stay. Here’s how you plan them.

We’re all excited to jump back into face-to-face events for all the obvious reasons. We crave human interaction. It feeds our minds and our hearts. But, we also recognize virtual events in some form are here to stay. Approximately 90% of planners are working on virtual events and 34% of planners are working exclusively on virtual meetings.

But are they working? Early results say, “yes!” Virtual events are a fantastic way to reach more of your audience than ever before. Suddenly, travel budgets, work schedules, and work/life balance doesn’t get in the way of attending a meeting or event. Virtual events help break down barriers and allow more of your team, from all corners of the world, to join the discussion. That’s powerful, and it opens up a wealth of opportunities for you.

When we can safely gather, hybrid meetings and events will be used to transition back to face-to-face opportunities. Some events may even continue to integrate a few virtual elements indefinitely. This means that a virtual element will remain part of your event strategy. So let’s make sure you are doing it right.

What is a virtual event?

Let’s start by making sure we’re on the same page. What does “virtual event” really mean? A virtual event is where individuals experience the event and its content online rather than gathering in person. Sounds simple, right? Well, it gets more complicated.

What are the types of virtual events? A virtual event can take on so many forms. It could be as simple as a live or recorded video or information webinar with supplemental digital material for participants to download. This type of event offers low or no participant interactivity. A virtual event could be a live event delivered via a virtual environment with multiple sessions, networking opportunities, and entertainment. This type of virtual event offers participants high interactivity and requires end-to-end production design and development. This one is definitely more complex, but both examples are considered virtual events.

There are multiple terms used to describe a virtual event. You may hear it called a corporate meeting, business conference, tradeshow, award show, incentive, recognition, or educational opportunities. Additionally, virtual events can be scaled up or down to accommodate any group size – from a group of +20,000 to a private 1:1 conversation, making the possibilities of reaching your audiences endless.

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Begin with the Basics

How do you start planning for a virtual event? Don’t let the virtual description scare you. Just like when planning face-to-face meetings, you begin with the basics.

Before you jump into planning the agenda and developing your content, start by understand your audience. Dig deep to truly get to know your participants. What’s their average age? What are their interests? What common threads bond the group together? A good way to get started is by creating a list of the three top characteristics that will bring your attendees together, rather than divide them. Once you establish that list of attendee characteristics, then you’re on your way to planning a truly engaging virtual event.

Next, decide why are you bringing your teams together in the first place? It sounds like an easy question to answer, but it’s worth the discussion at the front of the planning process. While it’s common to have multiple goals for the virtual event content, it helps to focus your efforts on a few. What are you looking to gain and what do you want your participants to do as a result of the virtual event? Plainly stated, what are your business goals and how can the virtual event help you achieve those goals?

Common goals for virtual events include education, recognition and loyalty. Let’s look at these in greater depth:

  • Education: Will you be launching a new product in the coming months and need to generate excitement to enhance product kick-off? Are you implementing a new process that could be reinforced through demonstrations and the opportunity to ask questions? A virtual event will be more effective than self-study options. Consider offering breakout sessions as part of your virtual event to enhance the overall experience, such as specific learning modules, testing certifications and incentives.
  • Recognition: Do you want to announce company winners or reward top performers? We all love recognition, even if it’s in the form of socially distanced fun. Virtual events can be a fun way to show your teams just how much they are appreciated.
  • Loyalty: In-person “by invitation only” events have always been a go-to method to convey commitment and trust while strengthening relationships with valued stakeholders. But, entering into the conversation in a live room can be intimidating. Here’s where virtual events can be impactful. Virtual events can still offer a sense of exclusivity and provide wonderful opportunities for collaboration. Plus, writing a question in a chat box as part of an online platform can be less stressful and more manageable, leading to even more meaningful discussion than you ever thought possible.

Get Creative with your Communications

Remember way back in 2019 when you were getting ready to travel to a meeting or event? You wanted as much information as possible to help you prepare. When do I need to arrive? What is the schedule of events? What do I need to bring? What fun activities do I need to pack for? The same applies to your virtual event attendees. Strong and consistent communication is still essential. Helping your attendees prepare for the virtual event goes beyond simply encouraging them to test their computer to ensure it’s technologically capable of streaming the event.

Don’t let this happen to your attendees.

Instead, you can use communication to make the most of their experience and ensure every aspect of the experience is true to your brand and event objectives.

Don’t wait until the day of the event to begin your communications. Ensure you have a solid, multi-pronged communication strategy to continue funneling useful information to your attendees before the event. Start by generating excitement from your attendees with a cleverly designed event announcement or invitation. Could you mail printed materials to homes, then follow up with digital communication? How about continuing to deliver valuable information before the event through text messages and SMS? Consider all options to engage your teams and generate excitement for the virtual event.

Include creative components into your virtual event that allows your event theme or company brand to shine through. This includes immersing your audience with your company logo, colors, graphics or phrases that you would normally incorporate into any face-to-face event. This goes beyond simply adding a company logo to the virtual event page. Make sure every element of your virtual event incorporates these visual components – from the look and feel of the environment, to the templates the speakers use, to the downloadable collateral.

Amp up the Amusement

How do you make a virtual event fun and interesting? Ask yourself this, “Would my audience be engaged in this content if it were delivered in person?” If the answer is “no,” then don’t expect them to be engaged virtually, either. We all know how important engagement is in face-to-face events. We constantly struggle with keeping our participants hooked to eliminate their desire to reach for their mobile devices and get sidetracked. Keeping those drifters captivated by your virtual event requires a little more creativity.

How long should a virtual event really be? Short is the way to go. We recommend shorter events and shorter sessions within those events. Gone are the 60-minute keynote addresses. Consider 20-minute “Power Hours” instead. Don’t forget the on-demand content either. This can supplement the live presentations, offering a great way for all attendees to experience the conference on their terms.

During the event, maximize the connection points to keep the engagement levels high. Keep your attendees thinking and connected with questions or polls, Q&A with a live moderator, live chants with leaders or networking lounges to connect with other participants.

The possibilities are far greater for personalized recognition at virtual events. Remember your last face-to-face event, when at least one presenter would pose a question to the audience. In a room filled with hundreds of people, you have no idea who that person is who shared a meaningful question or valuable feedback. With virtual events, you have real time and specific participant information right at your fingertips. Use it to reward and recognize those engaged participants with personal notes or virtual swag.

Prep your Presenter

Presenting in-person and in a virtual event are two different experiences. In face-to-face meetings, skilled presenters read the room, feed off facial expressions, and quickly pivot the conversation as the audiences’ needs change. Presenting in a virtual event is different. You lack the immediate reactions that you’re used to. With multiple screens so handy, and the ability to cut video feed, presenters are also battling to keep their audience’s attention more than ever. You simply cannot assume that your tried-and-true in-person presentation and presentation style will easily transition into a virtual event.

Presenters must learn new techniques to excel in a virtual setting. This includes constructing the presentation for a virtual audience to ensure consistency, minimize redundancy, and eliminate contradictory information. Presenters must understand the need for pacing during a virtual event. They also must integrate effective interactions for insight and engagement among the audience.

Dive into the Data

All you data junkies out there have to be overjoyed with the sheer amount of data available after a virtual event. The ability to collect data is one of the key benefits of virtual meetings and events. Suddenly, you know every action an attendee takes, from what sessions they attended, to how long they stayed, to what they downloaded. The opportunities to collect and analyze the data are endless and exciting!

Don’t let this opportunity pass you by. Make sure you are doing something impactful with all this data. It starts with a strategy to determine your key performance indicators. What really matters? How can this virtual meeting or event help you reach your business goals?

Now, what data really matters? Make sure you are collecting the right data. Consider pre-event surveys to understand attendees’ mindset, incorporate polls and quizzes to measure audience response, or include a gamification element to increase interaction during the event. After the event, measure your attendees’ satisfaction. Did your attendees walk away from the event with the necessary skills or information you were hoping for? Did employees understand, or do they need further training or job aides? Were customers excited about new products at the end of the event? Are your distributors feeling appreciated and motivated?

Reward and Recognition Reigns Supreme

So many face-to-face events culminated with an award ceremony that highlighted the accomplishments of attendees. This recognition is a powerful motivator, and it shouldn’t go away just because we aren’t gathering in person. Reward and recognition are essential in virtual events. This reward and recognition can take on many forms, from integrated, memorable ceremonies where the physical awards are sent to the winners’ homes, to a stand-alone motivational award program.

Curated, live digital experiences are becoming very popular with virtual event attendees and are a superb motivator. These can be single experiences that are used to reward top performers or recognize a significant accomplishment. They can also be integrated into your broader virtual event agenda to create a more complex and exciting virtual meeting. These include a dynamic “kick-off,” celebrity chef luncheon, exclusive entertainment, a thoughtful keynote address, or fireside chats on topics that matter the most to your attendees.

Enhance the Full Experience

There are ways you can incorporate “real world” items to your virtual event to delight your attendees. First, make sure all attendees can easily participate. This includes checking the technical quality of their devices or giving your attendees tools to enhance their experience, like earbuds, headsets, or speakers. Even sending each attendee a themed pad of paper and pen to write down notes and ideas can go a long way in setting the stage for a successful virtual event.

Food and beverage is still an essential element for any event. Send your attendees specially curated snacks ahead of the event, or schedule a meal to arrive “just in time” for a lunch break or as the ending to a great day. Continue building meaningful relationships by surprising your attendees with a gift to reinforce your commitment and appreciation.

How about incorporating pre-event experiences to bring your participants together for a socially distanced good time. Events like a morning coffee or a 5K run have been good pre-event teambuilding activities. Get them in the mood for fun by encouraging participation in a collective activity, such as everyone singing off the same songbook.

One of the great benefits of face-to-face meetings is the CSR component. You can still encourage your virtual teams to give back by adding a virtual team-building exercise to your event. Consider mailing a “CSR kit” to participants so they can do an activity for charity on your company’s dime.

We all know golf is a popular face-to-face incentive trip activity. While we can’t all be playing together right now, our Travel Directors have the courses looking pretty slick. Perhaps incorporating a socially distanced golf game with a fully paid round at a local course would be a way to recognize a certain contingent of golf lovers?

The fairways are nice and clean for you.

Trust a Team of Pros

How does a virtual event really work? Well, it’s complicated, and now’s not the time to test your DIY skills. Trust a team of professionals who have plenty of experience navigating successful virtual (and face-to-face) events. Look for a management company who focuses on delivering excellent events for clients both in your industry and others. That way, your virtual event management company can pull from their vast experience and apply it to your meeting or event. Plus, an experienced event management company can be prepared to support your creative and production needs to help your virtual event be as successful as possible.

Regardless of the event type – face-to-face, virtual, or a hybrid of both – we still must focus on the same objective of delivering an outstanding return on investment. Don’t shy away from virtual events. Instead, find a trusted partner who can help you align your strategy, engage your audience, and inspire action. It is possible to plan for and navigate a successful virtual event with the right partner that helps you shatter your business goals.

Remember, when you are ready for face-to-face events, we are here for you.

Samantha Decker

Samantha Decker

Samantha Decker is the Marketing Director at One10. Decker oversees marketing initiatives for all three of One10’s business segments – travel and events, incentives and recognition and marketing services. Bringing unique marketing experience to One10, Decker has led rebranding and growth efforts for every organization she has been a part of and is a strong advocate that purpose and profits can coexist in business. Decker was named a Corporate Connect 40 Under 40, has been published in industry articles, and is currently a member of Team Women in Minneapolis.