3 Lessons Learned to Elevate Your Next Virtual Event
In March 2020, in-person events came to an abrupt halt due to the pandemic. Some nonprofits and associations decided to cancel their conferences and fundraisers, while others shifted to a virtual platform. It was a daunting challenge for event organizers and CMPs, as everyone worked to navigate unfamiliar territory.
In the beginning, there was a novelty to attending a virtual event. Attendees and speakers were forgiving of the hiccups and technical snafus. People were simply happy to be able to network and learn alongside people who were outside of their daily WFH bubble. Today, nearly everyone seems to be experiencing COVID-19 fatigue and we are all feeling a bit Zoomed out.
However, as the pandemic lingers long past what anyone hoped, companies are very cautious to embrace a return to business travel. A nonprofit client’s recent poll of member companies identified that 90% have significantly reduced travel budgets for 2022. As a result, many nonprofit organizations and associations are considering virtual events again in 2022.
Given the ongoing prevalence of virtual events, it’s worthwhile to take a step back to assess the good, the bad and the ugly to help build a road map for a smoother ride as we move forward. In the virtual events that I experienced to date, there have been blips, blunders, and major bright spots.
Picking the Right Virtual Event Platform
It seems that overnight hundreds of companies began to offer virtual platforms. In fact, a November 2021 Google search for “virtual event platforms” yielded 39.8 million findings! From traditional live event audio visual (AV) companies to event app developers and others, there is no shortage of options. That in and of itself is a problem. While event organizers are experts in live events, most had never utilized a virtual platform. CMPs and event planners weren’t sure which features and functionalities would be important to their speakers and attendees.
Having been involved in virtual events in 2020 and 2021 as an attendee and as an organizer, I can tell you that the experiences varied dramatically from platform to platform. Sound issues, abrupt silence when speakers lost their broadband connections, clunky speaker transitions and overwhelming navigation menus, all played a part.
Virtual event platforms took those experiences in stride and identified ways to mitigate the issues. Consequently, quality and functionality improved across the board in 2021. However, the sheer demand for virtual platforms has also driven up pricing. For one client, a professional association in the human resources industry, their platform provider doubled pricing in 2021.
I believe the most important criteria for selecting a virtual platform is the scope and quality of the technical services provided. Most association and nonprofit staff members are not adept at using a template to build out their own platform (it took a Chicago nonprofit more than 80 hours to populate their DIY platform with content). And, they are not experts at managing multiple speakers with varying levels of technical know-how. The technical team can truly make or break your event, so choose wisely. Of all the different platforms I’ve experienced live or in demos, the ones that are a step above the rest have three key offerings:
A technical professional that builds out and tests your platform,
A dedicated show manager that is your go-to person for any and everything before and during your event, and
A virtual green room for speakers and staff to hang out before they take the stage.
Engaging Virtual Attendees
Engagement was a hard nut to crack! How do you get attendees to interact when they aren’t shoulder-to-shoulder in a hotel ballroom? Add in the fact that any attendee, at any time, can disengage from the event by simply walking away from their screen or muting their device.
A winning solution that we developed for a human resources association was to leverage the virtual platform’s photo gallery. We aggressively promoted the daily themes for photo sharing in attendee emails leading up to the event and in the show daily. We kept the themes light and fun, and attendees responded by posting numerous pictures throughout the four-day conference. For some of the posts, we focused on selfies, such as their “mug shot”—a photo with their favorite coffee mug (see screen shot below). On team spirit day attendees wore their favorite sports team apparel. On other days, we invited them to upload photos of their favorite pets, Throwback Thursday pics, and images of their happy place. Even if attendees didn’t post a pic, they regularly visited the gallery to scroll through the photos.
Another tactic to engage attendees was our use of playful polls. No, we’re not talking about the polls that the speakers use to get attendee feedback during a session. These single question surveys would pop up on the screen while attendees were waiting for a session to begin, and the queries were strictly fun in nature. At the end of each day, and in the following day’s show daily, we shared the results. During the client’s 2021 event, a whopping 70% of the attendees participated in at least one of the polls. Since the virtual conference was held in August, we focused on summertime questions. Among the questions posed, were:
What’s your favorite summer Olympic sport?
If you were an ice-cream flavor, what would you be?
What’s your favorite BBQ food?
Other popular ways to engage attendees is to offer small-group discussions immediately following a session and compelling networking events. The most popular virtual networking events are ones that feature a unique experience. Think outside of the box and get creative. From a short cooking demo that teaches attendees how to build an amazing charcuterie board to a mixologist sharing a favorite cocktail recipe, social events offer an opportunity to connect attendees with each other outside of the sessions.
Every virtual event platform that I’ve experienced offers some type of gamification that allows attendees to earn points throughout your event by visiting the virtual exhibit hall, swapping business cards, posting comments, sharing photos in the gallery and other activities. While the platform provides the backend support, it’s up to the event host to spark that competitive spirit among attendees. First, pick a prize that will grab your attendees’ interest. Amazon gift cards are easy, but boring. Instead, give attendees a choice of prizes so they can select a prize that speaks to them. We developed these prize options for a client’s conference and branded them as follows:
For multi-day events, I recommend awarding a prize to the leader at the end of each day, with a grand prize on the last day. Also, use push notifications to remind attendees to view the leaderboard. And don’t forget to recognize the winner(s) in your email communications with attendees and post on social media.
Amplify the Virtual Experience
When you walk into a live event, the drama of the stage set, the lighting, the music, and the low roar of attendee chatter work in concert to set the tone for the event. It’s important to build that same level of anticipation for your attendees as they await the kickoff of your virtual conference or fundraiser. Select upbeat music that reflects the personality of your audience and create a playlist that you can use before each session. My agency, Mosaic Marketing, likes to use https://artlist.io/ for affordable, royalty-free music that is easy to search by mood and genre.
Another way to enhance your virtual event is by using a bold color palette with contrasting colors that will pop off the screen. The theme and branding that Mosaic Marketing developed for the 2021 C2HR CON was a mix of fuchsia, yellow and orange tones and included two art elements, a digital illustration of a woman’s eyes and a colorful camera lens. The variety of colors and design elements allowed us to create a collection of artwork not only for the platform design, but also title and speaker PowerPoint slides. By mixing up the decks for each day of sessions, we were able to avoid the virtual stage looking stale over the course of the four-day conference. Four of the slide templates are shown below.
A countdown clock is a great visual tool to help you alert attendees that the opening session is about to start. I recommend a 60 second or 30 second timer that gives attendees time to wrap up their multitasking. iStock has numerous countdown video clips available, or your virtual AV team may have one for you to use.
Creating a dynamic opening video will set the stage for the event and focus attendees on the screen before you introduce the first speaker. For affordable videos, we use a combination of footage of constituents (be they donors, board members or such), PowerPoint slides and stock video. You can use Zoom to record video clips. When that’s not possible, you can invite key people to record themselves using their mobile phone. However, the downfall of phone videos is that the quality of their video clip is no longer controlled by you. You’ll fair best if you give them specific instructions, such as to record themselves in a very quiet, well-lit room. Also, remind them to have the phone in a horizontal position so that their video clip will fill the horizontal screen of the virtual platform. Here is a low-cost, 60-second video we produced to get the attendees excited about the sessions they were going to experience during the Catalysts for Change 2020 C2HR CON.
If you’re planning a virtual event in 2022, I hope that you can apply some of these lessons learned to elevate your attendee experience. I wish you great success!!