It’s no secret that the live event industry has suffered a tremendous blow in the era of COVID-19. Without a clear end in sight, nobody knows when conferences, awards shows and fundraisers will return to hosting guests in person. Many companies have been faced with the decision to either cancel their 2020 events or transition them to a virtual platform. From our personal experience, as well as that of some of our colleagues, the technological learning curve for some companies has been steep. Some might say horror stories amongst attendees have accumulated in scary amounts (just in time for Halloween).
With Virbela, you can host a virtual event. But you can also level up and create an entire virtual campus for your business with large meeting spaces such as dedicated 3D auditorium and conference halls. Video by Lure Digital.
With the right preparation and expertise though, virtual events can be successful without a hitch, creating valuable opportunities for one-on-one interactions and networking opportunities that extend beyond computer screens for your guests.
We interviewed a few professionals in our network (Jennifer LeMay, Director of Marketing & Communications for the SBCC Foundation, Cierra Ensign, Director of Admission & Financial Aid for Midland School, and Kate MacNaughton, Director of Development for Women’s Economic Ventures) about their experience attending and hosting virtual events this year as well as their tips and tricks for a value-driven and engaging event.
Question: What were some of the online programs/platforms that were used to host virtual events you attended this year?
Cierra Ensign (CE): Zoom has been the most stable, but we’ve also used Google Meet and GoToWebinar
Looking back at the ones you attended that were successful and enjoyable, what made these events “the best?” What details stood out to you?
JL: The best events were well planned, as with any in-person event. I especially enjoyed those that included a mix of professionally created digital content – featuring engaging stories, visuals and music – in addition to live streamed presentations. For example, for our event we knew that presenting moving stories from SBCC students and alumni would be a great way to connect with our audience, so we included beautiful, short video interviews in our presentation.
I enjoyed the virtual events that were a good length, and not too long. Also, events that offer a way for people to interact, often through a chat feature, are more fun and create an energy that’s similar to in-person events.
CE: I believe events that allowed for the presentation to be interactive, or at least provide a Q&A throughout/at the end of a presentation allowed for voices to feel heard and seen, as well as engage the audience in a way that left little room for "zoning out" or leaving the presentation all together. Our videos, created by Lure Digital, have also given us an incredible way to showcase all our school has to offer, while hearing directly from our students, faculty, and parents. They have allowed us to show our campus and community in a way that is not possible through still shots and voiceover.
KM: Logistically speaking, events lasting less than an hour that have interaction of some kind (such as breakout rooms or a lively chat box) have felt like the right formula.
Be authentic: authentic speakers have stood out as the differentiator in content - I attended a Facebook Live event recently and the host was nervous about the format but when he shared his trepidations it was quite charming and made me feel like I was sharing an experience with him.
Also, I’ve seen a few organizations remove their event ticket price and I think that’s helpful in removing barriers if you can achieve it. We switched from a ticketed event to free registration this spring because our main goal was to build community (which we achieved). Also, for that particular event costs had been partially reduced by moving virtual.
On the whole, the events I’ve been to have been nicely executed. I’m grateful to the organizations that hosted the early events and shared their knowledge as they paved the way for the rest of us.
Whether or not they were your own events that you hosted or events that you attended, what are some of the most common mistakes you witnessed?
JL: Events going for too long, speakers who hadn’t prepared and technical issues due to lack of planning.
I think getting familiar with the platform and doing a few rehearsals is important, as is having a detailed run-of-show that all participants agree to follow. Hiring professionals to help with creating engaging content, and handle live streaming and other technical aspects can also help ensure a successful event.
CE: Opening up the chat to both panelists and attendees, where a panelist accidentally sends a message to everyone that was only intended for the other panelists. Closing the chat and only allowing attendees to use the Q&A function (in Zoom). Keeping the chat box for panelist use only seemed to help avoid this. Another common mistake I've seen would be panelists not being well practiced in sharing computer sound, sharing their screen, or navigating simple, and yet important, tools such as using your keyboard arrows to move through your slides (rather than a loud mouse that attendees can hear).
It’s important to practice your presentation with members of your team to see what you can do to better the presentation for everyone. I have learned an incredible amount from taking the time to present to two team members for 20-30 minutes - from the mouse icon being in the middle of your screen to the reminder of sharing sound prior to sharing your screen.
KM: I would say that program length is key for virtual events. Even with the best virtual events in the world it’s hard to stay focused after the first hour. If your in-person event was going to last two hours it does not mean that you need to try to fill two hours virtually. It will likely serve you well to cut sections out when you switch to virtual and aim for one hour or less.
I’ve been to a couple of events where the host wasn’t quite ready to start or didn’t seem fluent with their chosen platform and that can feel a little awkward. In one case the host kept saying how awful it was going – I hadn’t actually noticed until they pointed it out but it went downhill from there. Virtual audiences can be quite forgiving, but I’d still advise planning a rehearsal session to walk through the format with any speakers in the same way that you would plan one for your in-person event. Also, Zoom has a practice mode for webinars that allows hosts and panelists to connect for a few minutes pre-event before letting attendees in and that small step can help make an event feel much more polished.
Simple, short and impactful. The Cancer Foundation of Santa Barbara took their in-person Walk/Run virtual by focusing on just a few key elements. Attendees learned about the history of the event, enjoyed the surprise winners, and were even able to participate in a raffle at their leisure. Video by Lure Digital.
What is your advice for fellow business owners when it comes to hosting a virtual event in 2020?
JL: Keep attending virtual events and taking notes about what works and what doesn’t. The technology and events will continue to evolve. Decide what fits with your own business / organization’s goals, assets and brand, as this helps with selecting the best platform and planning the event.
CE: PRACTICE! Get feedback from friends, colleagues or just anyone on what you can do to make the presentation more engaging.
KM: Ultimately, many of the steps involved in planning a virtual event are the same as the ones you would need to take for an in-person event. Think about your messaging, how you are inviting people and don’t forget to include the steps that are usually helpful like rehearsals for speakers.
You can choose to host a completely live, pre-recorded, or hybrid event. There’s likely no perfect/exact replacement for your in-person gathering and so find the one that is the best fit for your current need and don’t be afraid to try out different formats. Your virtual event might not feel exactly the same as your in person event would have, but it could still be just what your organization and community need right now.
Still have questions about hosting virtual events and best practices? We’re here to help you with FREE consultations to figure out how best to pivot your organization’s events in our current climate. Give us a call at 323.596.0606 or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.