COVID-19 has significantly shifted the events landscape. The 2020 calendar of conferences, conventions, and customer meetings were all shelved in March, leaving thousands of hosts to wonder, "What do we do now?"
Beckie Towle, founder of The Events Raccoon, a UK-based event planning and consultancy agency, is busier than ever supporting clients, regardless of whether they are in a room together physically or virtually. “Events should be run to engage, educate and excite the audience and that 'return on experience' should be your main focus, regardless of whether your event is live or virtual,” she says. “Just because we can’t be in a room together, doesn’t mean we can’t still have fun together – it just needs a new approach in the planning.”
If your goal was to acquire new connections, it may be hard to achieve through a virtual event – getting new people to show up online is challenging. If the event is meant to accelerate sales, or build loyalty with existing clients, taking it online may make sense. In these cases, you already have an audience for the event – you just need to figure out how to create virtual content that will add value for them while promoting your brand.
How to create a great online event
For business leaders trying to figure out how to host a virtual event that will wow attendees, the following tips offer a great starting point:
1. Set the scene
Manage expectations with clear communication before the event. If there will be a call-to-action during your virtual event, give attendees the heads-up to avoid the "tumbleweed moment" when you open the floor up to their thoughts. Get questions submitted in advance and get them thinking and engaging before they turn up.
2. Do a tech run-through
You wouldn’t start a conference without doing a soundcheck, run the showreel or walked the stage for your run-through. So don’t be fooled that technology will have your back.
There are dozens of virtual event platforms on the market, ranging from simple, inexpensive solutions such as Facebook Live and GoToWebinar, to more customisable options with lots of added features, such as Accelevents, HopIn, and On24. Take the time to run through their demos then choose the solution that meets your needs and budget.
3. Create stand-out experiences
This is not a place for PowerPoint presentations or long speeches. If you want people to stick around, give them opportunities to interact with their peers, ask live questions of speakers, watch exciting events and participate in games or treasure hunts. These are the kinds of events that people get excited about.
4. Meet your audience at the level they are on
This is super important if you are discussing a product or service that is complex. Assuming that your participants understand your acronyms or what you're sharing on screen may be a turn off for your audience, and prompt them to play catch-up instead of paying attention to what you're saying. If you’re running a virtual event, your message needs to be really clear, concise, and to the point. Don't be afraid to take an extra moment to explain your talking points in full.
5. Take things offline
Interacting with attendees is one of the most valuable features of any live event. So find ways to make that happen. even in a virtual setting. Opening up breakout rooms for 1-2-1 sessions with the board, your CEO, or the panel can be a great value-add for your attendees. This could be an effective way to approach social selling in the current context.
6. Send them off with something meaningful
Create value by offering something your audience will remember your brand by, whether it's a fun recipe or a pub quiz at the end of your event, with a charity donation made on behalf of the winner. Remember, again, that the "return on experience" may need to take priority over the ROI right now.
Why virtual events could be the future
The virtual world can offer the ability to interact with your audience on a much more personal level. “Smart platforms create an engaging journey that collects data and allows us to manage more personalised content delivery, that is relevant and specific to the user,” says Adam Proto, of the global content and creative team at HP GSB.
“A high percentage of data collected at trade shows goes cold by the time it is processed and acted on,” he continues. "In the new virtual world, the response is immediate and the data arguably richer than a live trade show or conference environment.” This can mean a more qualified connection and a more productive live experience.
Proto believes that while live events will return, the landscape has changed. But this can be to the benefit of event planners in the longer-term.
"Webinars are here to stay and the cost of booking expensive real estate at venues will forevermore be compared against the cost of maintaining a virtual platform,” he says. “My prediction is that physical footprints will reduce and a virtual engagement will be the normal start to a journey. Audiences will arrive at live events more informed and already engaged.”