Virtual events are a great way to add value, keep members engaged and grow your community. Ever since the COVID-19 pandemic swept across the globe, in-person events have been canceled or postponed indefinitely. Now is a great time to start hosting virtual events.
Many members-only organizations are turning to virtual events to encourage engagement without risking the health of their attendees. If you’ve had experience hosting live events in the past, you’d assume that this would be an easy switch. After all, you no longer have to rent a venue, hire event staff or pay for speakers’ transportation and accommodation. However, just like a live event, there are many challenges to hosting a virtual event. In this article, we’re going to guide you through the process of hosting an engaging and successful virtual event.
What is a Virtual Event?
Any gathering or meet-up that takes place online can be considered a virtual event, whether you have 10 attendees or 1,000. Using online platforms and applications, virtual events allow you to connect with attendees from across the globe.
Just like in-person events, virtual events can take many forms, such as large-scale, multi-session conferences, webinars as well as one-on-one workshops. In fact, virtual events have many advantages over in-person events:
- Cost: It’s much cheaper to host a virtual event than it is to host a live event in person. You don’t have to spend on venue rental, catering, staff, logistics, and other expenses normally associated with physical events. You can work on a much smaller budget or redirect the money towards more aggressive marketing or additional panelists.
- Reach: With in-person events, your choice of location severely limits who can attend, but with a virtual event, anyone – no matter where they are in the world, as long as they have internet access – can participate.
- Ease: In-person events have a lot of moving parts, which means that they can be pretty stressful and difficult to manage. Virtual events will require the same effort and care, but they’re usually much easier to control.
- Data: Collecting information at a physical event is tough work. With virtual events, data collection and analysis are often integrated into the virtual event platform. This allows you to see important stats such as the number of attendees, attendee demographics and more.
- Safety: In the time of coronavirus, few considerations are more important than the safety of your attendees. Mass gatherings are a hotbed of disease – keeping things virtual allows your members to engage with your brand and each other without risking their health.
Types of Virtual Events
A virtual event is just as flexible as an in-person meet-up. There are many different types of virtual events that your organization can host, including:
- Live podcasts, radio and talk shows: Podcasts are usually pre-recorded audio shows, but you can turn it into an engaging event for your members by doing it live. Think of it like online radio – you can invite guests, field questions from listeners and even play ad breaks in between if you have sponsors. Some organizations even do video podcasts. The format is similar to an audio podcast, but with an added visual element to keep viewers engaged.
- Webinars: Webinars are a combination of the words “web” and “seminar.” If your main goal is to share something important or educate your members about a specific topic, then a webinar might be the right choice for your virtual event.
- Conferences: It’s difficult, but not impossible, to shift the live conference experience into a virtual one. Many virtual event platforms have enhanced their capabilities, allowing multi-session or even multi-day webinars. Attendees can even engage directly with the panelists or each other with the right cross-platform integrations.
- Live performances: Anything from stand-up comedy to theatrical shows to entire concerts can be streamed online. You can host these as standalone events or integrate them as entertainment breaks during a long webinar or e-conference for your members.
- Meet-ups: Networking is a staple of members-only organizations, but it has taken a big hit as countries have implemented lockdowns. You can recreate that experience by facilitating a virtual meet-up where your attendees can get to know each other and create meaningful connections. Adding meet up time at the beginning, middle or end of a larger online event can carve out time for attendees to network. Creating breakout rooms or having a moderated networking session is a good idea if you have more than say five to 10 attendees who want to participate.
- AMAs and Q&As: It’s pretty easy to set up an Ask Me Anything (AMA) or Q&A session. All you need is a camera, a microphone and a streaming platform that allows viewers to comment. The major social networks — YouTube, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and TikTok — all have a live feature where users can ask you questions in real-time. Platforms like Zoom also allow viewers to comment and interact with the host.
- Online training and workshops: This is similar to a webinar except much more interactive. Instead of “preaching to a screen,” you can have one-on-ones with attendees, share content on your screen for live feedback and have a productive back-and-forth with your students. You can also group your workshop participants into groups, to encourage participation while allowing them to network and collaborate in their own video conference call.
Tips on Hosting a Virtual Event
So, how do you go about planning a virtual event? And how do you avoid the dreaded webinar fatigue and keep your attendees engaged? Here are some actionable tips to help you host a successful event online.
Decide on the type of event
First things first, you need to decide on what type of virtual event you want to host. Take into consideration your audience and what your goals are for the event. Consider the following questions when you’re deciding on the most suitable event for your members:
- What kind of content would interest them the most?
- What format would best get your ideas across?
- What platforms do your target attendees already use?
- Can you do anything innovative or unique with the format?
If your goal is to educate attendees on a particular topic, then an informative event format such as a webinar or workshop would serve your purpose well. If you want to facilitate conversations or encourage networking then something as simple as a Zoom meet-up could work just as well.
Choose the right time and date
Even though many platforms will allow audiences to replay your event at a later time, you want to maximize the number of attendees during the virtual event itself. As with in-person events, when you host it can be as much of a deal-breaker as what you’re hosting.
Although many people are staying or working at home, it doesn’t mean that you can choose to host your event at any time you want. You will still need to accommodate your members’ jobs and other commitments. Not to mention all of the other virtual events vying for your members’ attention. Look at the data to see when your audience is usually online, or make a poll to find out the most optimal time.
You also need to decide how long the virtual event will be. It’s not unusual to have a live in-person seminar last a few hours, but most people can’t and likely won’t stay glued to their screens for that long. Unless it’s absolutely necessary, 30-60 minute events are your best bet to avoid losing your audience’s attention. If you decide to host a longer event, you can consider having multiple breaks between sessions or speakers.
Choose the Perfect Platform
There is no shortage of platforms for your live event. Your job is to choose the platform that has all of the features you need to execute your event seamlessly. In addition to your requirements, think about the features that will enhance your audience’s experience.
When deciding on a platform, here are some important criteria to consider:
- Price: From free platforms to virtual event platforms that cost $100 to $500 or $2,000 and above, choose a platform that fits your budget.
- Customization: Take a look at whether the platform offers branded features, like branding and logo integration, custom websites, registration and branded virtual conference rooms. If you want to create a more authentic and branded virtual event experience, this is an important factor to consider.
- Engagement features: Not all platforms allow attendees to interact with the speakers or guests, and that might be a deal-breaker for you.
- Breakout rooms: If you want to allow attendees to break out into smaller groups, be sure your platform can accommodate it.
- Sponsorship and monetization feature: Some virtual event platforms allow you to monetize with sponsor ads and sales. From display advertisements on the homepage to banner ads, you can maximize your virtual monetization opportunity.
- Live broadcast: This is one of the most critical features when choosing a platform. Live broadcasts give a sense of urgency and allow members to directly connect with you in real-time, increasing engagement and interaction.
- Pre-recorded content: If you prefer to broadcast pre-recorded content instead, make sure the platform offers this option. This is especially important if some of your speakers are unable to attend live. Instead they can pre-record their content for you to broadcast during the live event.
- Ease of use: If you’re not as tech-savvy, choose a platform that is easy to use. For example, platforms like Zoom allow you to easily create a live event with just your computer or laptop.
- Security and reliability: Aside from the platform features, you want to choose a platform that’s reliable and secure to use.
- Familiarity: Which platforms are your audience most familiar with? Stick to familiar and reliable video conferencing software such as Zoom or social media platforms like Facebook and YouTube.
Create a clear and structured Powerpoint slideshow (if needed)
For topics that require in-depth discussions, you’ll want to have visual aids on hand. Charts, videos and other graphic content can go a long way in helping your audience understand the material. Plus, structuring your information before the actual presentation can help you stay on topic, cover everything you need to and avoid unnecessary deviations that extend your event.
If the information you share isn’t sensitive, you can create shareable facts, figures or takeaways on the slides. Your virtual event attendees can screen capture the slide and share them on their own social accounts. This will help to further amplify and drive awareness for your virtual event, which may encourage new members and future attendees.
Invite the right speakers and guests
Inviting speakers can significantly increase the interest in your virtual event, but need to ensure that you have the right speakers for the job. The good news is that there are no more geographical limitations – you can invite a speaker from halfway across the globe without having to worry about the costs. You can also use your special guests as an incentive to encourage your members to sign up for your virtual event.
When you’ve selected your panelist line-up, the next step is to brief them on the event. Make sure you give them the technical requirements, program structure and any questions they need to answer in advance to help them prepare. If you are not leading the panel yourself, a skilled moderator can keep panelists’ answers on track.
Test your equipment and prepare for technical issues
Because you physically cannot be there to fix everyone’s technical issues, a rehearsal or tech run before the virtual event date is absolutely essential. Just as you would for an in-person event, a rehearsal can help hosts, speakers and guests to familiarize the flow of the event and times they will be speaking. Here are some things you need to check off the list:
- Ensure everyone has the necessary equipment, such as a camera, microphone or required software to support your platform of choice.
- All of the speakers have a fast and reliable internet connection, especially if the event will be streamed live.
- Audio and visuals are running smoothly without lag. Remember to check and see if there is no sound or image.
- Play pre-recorded videos to ensure things run smoothly.
- Allow the speakers and yourself to be familiar with the platform.
- The day before the event, end out one last reminder to attendees with the meeting links, passwords and any other information they need. This will remind members to tune in and help those who have a hard time sorting through past emails.
Sometimes tech issues like slow internet can make certain activities impossible to live stream. For example, a live concert where each band member is in a different place would be difficult to watch and produce because of the lag. In these cases pre-record the content and then webcast it later.
And remember Murphy’s Law: if something bad could happen, it often will. Technical problems are pretty much inevitable. The important thing is that you can roll with the punches and have a back-up plan such as an alternative platform.
Promote the event on social media and email
In-person events force people to make a day of it, thus driving momentum for the event and keeping it at the forefront of their minds. With virtual events, it’s easy for someone to forget that they have an event, especially with all of the online events that are popping up nowadays.
Event marketing is crucial to your virtual event’s success. Enlist a team member to promote the event regularly on your socials and through email, especially in the days leading up to the event itself. Create teaser posts and interactive posts like polls to drive engagement and awareness. You can also use last year’s content to remind members and audiences about the amazing content during your events.
Use exclusivity to attract sign-ups
Members-only content is a great way to promote your membership organization. By promising exclusive access to your virtual events, you can increase sign-up rates. Consider adding a “cut-off” date for registrations to up the ante and convince people to sign on now or lose the opportunity.
Provide incentives for your audience
Want to know what will really set your virtual event apart from other practically identical ones? Goodies!
Everyone likes freebies and giveaways. If you can’t get enough attendees with your all-star lineup, then providing incentives can be a good way to increase attendance. After all, many in-person conferences give out loot bags to attendees; you can do the same for a virtual event.
Consider having a giveaway for the members who have attended the virtual event. Or provide these event attendees an exclusive code or discount for the next virtual event you host.
Encourage engagement during the virtual event
An engaged audience is more likely to stay throughout the entire event and attend future ones. Here are some ideas for increasing engagement through the screen:
- Use a platform with a chat feature that allows the audience to ask questions, comment on what’s happening and talk to other attendees. Make sure you have a moderator or team member relaying the questions from your guests to the presenter.
- For longer events, have frequent breaks where attendees can stretch their legs or use the restroom without missing anything.
- Encourage live tweeting with an event hashtag.
- Acknowledge viewers and attendees that are actively participating during the event.
- Look for opportunities to break out into smaller groups. The smaller the group, the more engaged your attendees will be.
- Host a giveaway during the event and reward your most engaged attendees.
Provide opportunities for members to network
If you have a lot of attendees, it’s easy for any single viewer to feel isolated and “talked at.” Some video call platforms allow you to group people into smaller batches, which encourages people to contribute to the discussion. Consider doing some data-gathering before the event so that you can group people into similar interests or backgrounds.
You can even allot a specific time for networking. Set aside around 15-20 minutes of uninterrupted networking between members. Make sure that the platform you choose supports both group and personal messaging.
Follow up with your audience
A post-event follow-up can help you create better, more interesting virtual events in the future. One thing you can do is ask attendees to fill out a questionnaire or survey to see what you did well and what you could do better.
You should also keep the conversation going even after the event is done. Post clips and shareable quotes from the virtual event. Share presentation links or additional resources for further learning. You can even post the entire stream on your social platforms or send a link via email so that members who missed out can still catch up with what happened.
Hosting a virtual event for your members is one of the best ways to promote your brand, keep your community engaged and share important content – especially now when face-to-face meet-ups are unsafe. With the right event type and platform, you can still create meaningful experiences for your attendees.