Over the course of the last few weeks, we have researched and attended a variety of virtual events. While we are not certain exactly where the industry is headed, the team has collected a few poignant thoughts around what is crucial and what should be avoided when hosting an online event. Additionally, we’ve received outstanding input from many of our clients who are leading and examining this new normal of hosting virtual events.

The Do List

1. Survey your audience to find out what they want.
One crucial element to events is understanding what your audience and sponsors want from the experience. You should cater to them versus fulfilling what you think they want. The best option is to survey your attendees and sponsors first in order to find out what they want to walk away with from the event. This might dictate what platform you choose, if you include tracks or not, speakers, etc.

Simply trying to echo or retro-fit what an in-person event might have looked like might not be the strongest option. Attendees are aware the experience will not be the same and may indicate different needs that they have for virtual events.

2. Explore all options for virtual event platforms.
In a time period exploding with digital platforms, you will find many new options for hosting your virtual event. Make sure to explore all options that interest you. Take demos on each of them with your team and be certain that you can deliver on the items that are most important to your audience and sponsors.

Rob Paciorek of Access Intelligence advises, “Make sure to properly vet your provider’s technical capabilities. There are plenty of new virtual vendors popping up with fresh looking platforms, but there’s nothing worse than having an eager audience ready to engage in your virtual event, only to have the provider let you down. With increased demand for bandwidth, even the bigger platforms have had to deal with outages, just make sure you’re dealing with someone who can give you your best chance for success.”

Additionally, we want to point out that figuring out the networking within the platform early on and communicating on that networking is key! A team member from Omeda wound up being fairly surprised as they joined a track space while on a virtual event to learn more on a topic of interest and instead of a sponsored track, it was a chat room. Suddenly, they were on camera with a room full of others without any structure.

As we reached out to clients on this piece of do’s and don’t’s, Rob Paciorek also offered up additional advice when looking for a provider. You will see how important it is to consider how you will run networking very early on:

“When it comes to evaluating providers, it’s important to understand how your audience likes to engage with other attendees. Is text chat okay? Would they prefer one on one video interactions? Would a platform that offers matchmaking be of interest? Having the answers to those questions will help narrow down the list of providers you should be considering.

3. Gate your content, including on-demand sessions, product demos, and post-event recordings.
This “do” was provided by Tara Jacobs, Event Manager and Stacy Bradshaw, Project Manager at Annex Business Media who also relayed a corresponding “don’t” we’ve included below:

“Gating helps drive registrations to the live event, and helps you deliver more qualified leads for sponsors. Don’t expect your virtual event platform to provide this service. Work with a CDP professional who can help you gate your content and bridge your event registrations with your existing user database.”

Just as you would with an email communication or a form, be certain that all information from the online event is then stored in your database to complete the 360 view of your audience. Omeda’s platform is designed to easily integrate event registrants into your existing database.

4. Make the agenda accessible everywhere – both on your website and on the platform.
One of the most important aspects of a virtual event is to be certain your audience knows how to participate. The agenda must be readily available. It should be both on the website and within the platform. This is a really important small detail because you don’t want attendees to leave your platform or open new tabs just to navigate who is next on the list. At a minimum, host a pdf or tab within the platform for your agenda. Place it as an ending slide or as many spots as possible – especially when there are multiple tracks – so that attendees know where to head to next.

5. Communicate! And communicate again.
As always communication is key. Don’t underestimate the power of promoting the virtual event and then following up with communications to attendees on how the event will work. Each online event has been completely different, so set up expectations with your audience in advance is important. For example, let them know where to find networking opportunities within the online platform, if recordings are available after, what is unique about the platform the event is taking place on, etc.

6. Consider a mix of live and virtual sessions.
We recently took part in an event that didn’t have on-demand events and it felt very choppy. While researching for the piece, we felt validated in also hearing the following from Annex Business Media:

“Deliver a mix of live and on-demand sessions. Audiences need to be engaged with polls, questions and other interactive elements to make it feel like an authentic live experience. Don’t treat virtual events like a standard webinar or series of webinars.”

The Don’t List

1. Don’t expect speakers and panelists to know the best practices around delivering content virtually.
The above “don’t” was contributed by the Annex Business Media team. They have recently been running live events and relayed the following,

“Take the time to practice transitions, test your technology and lighting. Write a script and host a “dry-run.” Ensure your emcee, moderator, speakers and panelists are aware of their roles, and are comfortable delivering on a virtual stage.”

We think the above point is incredibly true. Your speakers should be just as strong as if it were an in person event. Additionally, they should speak to a level that is up to par with any other event you would produce. It is still pertinent to get speaker content in advance as well as to do the proper tech run throughs to ensure it all runs smoothly.

2. Don’t expect everyone to be online at the same time during the event.
Instead of expecting attendees to make it to all sessions, create a library of recordings for after with reminders to access recordings. Most virtual events are set up in this way. However, not everyone is communicating on it. Attendees need to know from the start of the event that recordings will all be accessible after the event.

3. Don’t overpromise (on the networking or sponsorship front).
Don’t overpromise networking. we are finding that many of the virtual formats for networking are extremely different than an in-person event. Going back to one of our “do’s”: please make certain that you have chosen a technology that will deliver on the type of networking you want and secondly, communicate on it.

If you are falling short in the area of sponsorship leads and networking: maybe there are other add on features for a sponsor that you could offer instead of promising virtual networking – for example an e-promotion or a hosted pdf after the event could help make up for missed leads.

4. Don’t schedule an all day event (9-5).
People can’t hang in virtually for the entire day as they would at a live event. Our favorite virtual event structures have been those that are structured for half days or less. It is not realistic to expect your attendees, exhibitors, sponsors or speakers to sit in front of the screen from 9am-5pm.

During an in-person trade show there are always work emails that come through and emergency phone calls. In the new working from home environment, your attendees will have both work priorities as well as home distractions. Even without these necessities, attendees are not going to engage in front of the screen all day.

5. Don’t schedule sessions back-to-back. (especially if there are multiple tracks)
Attendees will often have to review the agenda in between sessions in order to determine what session they want to attend next. They also have emails to check in between and restroom stops to make. Please allow for sessions to have a small space in between or for the next session to have more of a rolling start. We recently had a team attend a virtual event which did not have time in between and this caused logistical issues.

6. Don’t forget to follow up! Promoting shouldn’t stop after the event.
Promoting should continue after the event. One event went completely silent after the event when there was really more opportunity for them to promote their events and the sponsors. More importantly, find out what went well and what could have gone better for next time. Look back to our “do’s” section on surveying as this will make your next virtual event stronger.