How to Plan a Virtual Event: Five Tips to Drive Attendee Engagement

Aidan Augustin
Co-founder & President of Feathr

by Michael Hoffman, CEO at Gather Voices

We’ve all gone virtual!

More accurately, we’ve gone digital. We are still here, flesh and blood humans who seek knowledge and connection. We just can’t meet in person anymore. And that means our meetings, events and conferences are going online.  Even after the initial crisis is over, digital engagement will continue to be a vital part of human connection and ways of working.

At Gather Voices, we enable our clients to collect videos from anyone, anywhere and make it easy to edit, caption and share that video.  We have had the privilege of assisting several organizations with their transition to virtual conferences over the last month. And we have also had discussions and consultations with many more. We’ve learned so much, including what works well and what to avoid.

From all this experience, we’ve distilled our top five tips for virtual conference success.

1. Strategy Before Tactics

In consulting with organizational leaders for the last 20 years, my mantra has always been strategy before tactics. This is especially true when it comes to virtual events. The strategy we speak of here works on both the macro of micro levels.

Macro-level strategy

On the macro level you need to have an Events Strategy, not just a this event strategy. You need to have a vision beyond this one event, so that what you do now will ladder up to the goals your organization needs to be successful. Think about:

  • How does this event fit into your year of online engagement?
  • How does it fit into the overall arc of connection you want to make with your members and other constituents?
  • How does the virtual conference compliment or replace continuing education offerings?

Micro-level strategy

On the micro level you need a strategy for the event itself. With your event strategy you have to decide on your desired outcomes and make sure those match with the format and the experience you can give your attendees.

Your in-person event did many things. At your in-person event people were:

  • Having conversations before and after sessions
  • Attending cocktail hours, receptions, and sponsor events
  • Making serendipitous, spur-of-the-moment social connections
  • Creating deeper connections with their teams and partners

Do you think you will accomplish all of that online? Think again.

There are just some things that happen naturally in person that, while not impossible online, take a lot more thought and planning — especially when it comes to social connection and engagement.

That’s why it’s critical to plan (and test) your activities and schedule with the virtual format in mind.

2. Three Types of Content That You Need

One of the biggest mistakes organizations make when planning a virtual conference is to think that all of the content needs to be live. It doesn’t!

In fact, there’s a name for an online learning event with all live content… we in the business call it a webinar!

Do you want to attend a 3-day webinar? Me either.

As Emma King from beedance says, the rule of thumb should be to take your curriculum and divide it into thirds.

  • Live content.
  • Simulated live content (pre-recorded video)
  • On demand content

Keep in mind that it’s not always an either/or proposition. Some content — like a Q&A session — can work in any of these three formats:

Live Video Content

Live content is what you think it is. It’s a webinar or livestream with someone presenting or introducing content, right there in the moment.

When most people think of virtual events, this is what they imagine. And no doubt, live video content is a critical piece of any virtual event.

But it’s not the only video you need…

Simulated Live Content (pre-recorded video)

Some of the content being introduced feels live to the attendee, but it is in fact pre-recorded. We call this “simulated live” because as far as the attendee is concerned they are having the same experience in front of their computer.

Awards, recognition, and thank you videos can work best as pre-recorded video. For example, ASi used pre-recorded thank you videos as part of their program for innovationsLIVE:

For you, however, this pre-recorded content has some distinct advantages:

  • You can get content from a wider range of people, which makes the presentation more interesting to the viewer.
  • You can collect attendee videos, making attendees co-creators, not just passive observers. And co-creators are super engaged.
  • You can control the timing better. No one goes over time, with less room for technical glitches.
  • Pre-recorded content can have better production value — including some motion graphics, titling, captions
  • You can use the content post-event to help continue online engagement throughout the year.

On-Demand Content

The final kind of content is on-demand. This is the same as the pre-recorded content, but it’s not presented live. It is a buffet for the attendee to snack on depending on their interests.

With on-demand content you don’t have to cram everything into the live program. Someone interested in taking a deeper dive into the content can access a set of recordings related to the topic. This means that those less interested aren’t sitting there bored out of their minds.

3. Planning for Engagement

When I’m at a conference in another city, that conference is all I need to think about. My kids and chores reside elsewhere. I can be focused and fully engaged. I can meet people in the hall, sit down to lunch with a new group of friends, and have a shared experience with my colleagues.  Online? Not so much.

Online engagement is totally different. In a world with micro-attention-spans, you have to work for it, keep it moving and interesting. You also have to create deliberate opportunities for networking. Sitting in your house watching a webinar is not usually a community experience. To make it one takes work.

Here are three tips for planning for engagement.

  • Collect dozens of short videos from attendees in advance of your conference with their opinions on key subjects that will be covered. Insert those short videos in-between sessions, during a lunch break and at key points.
  • Make the back-channel visible. Add chat features to your conference and have a chat/social media host who is engaging with the attendees while the presenters are doing their thing.
  • Add a fun elements such as a virtual happy hour, virtual scavenger hunt or a team-based activity that gets people working together, and getting to know each other.

4. Pick the Right Tools

You are so lucky!

We are in the age where the technology tools for virtual events are maturing. In order to pick the right tools, you have to first understand your event strategy and your engagement plan.

Don’t assume that because you use Zoom or WebEx for your meetings that they are the right tool for your virtual event.

You need tools for:

  • Registration
  • Live streaming / synchronous presentation
  • Pre-recorded content
  • Chat / community

There are several different ways to do this, not one right way! So it’s important to understand your goals and audience, and pick the best technology partner(s) to deliver on that specific scope of work.

For example, have you considered embedding your streaming into your website? That might make a lot of sense and it’s easier than you think.

At Gather Voices, we’re focused on the pre-recorded content piece, enabling our clients to collect videos from anyone, anywhere and make it easy to edit, caption and share that video.

5. Maximize Your Revenue

Last, but certainly not least, there’s revenue. Revenue is often a key organizational goal of our conference and events. And when we have to cancel those events, we can take a big revenue hit.

Revenue primarily comes from two sources, paid tickets and sponsors. Tickets can be for the live event, but can also be for the on-demand content and the recordings of the conference after it is over.

In some ways, there are advantages to online events when it comes to revenue. Video can live online long after the event — consider making that video available year-round as an added value for your attendees. Or give sponsors opportunities to reach your audience year-round (for an additional fee).

Sponsorship is a serious revenue opportunity

Sponsor revenue is one of the least considered opportunities of virtual conferences. Sponsors can get a high degree of visibility at the event and in your other channels.

Typically, organizations will put the sponsor’s logo on all the conference materials and give them a shout-out at the plenary session or in the wrap up. They might also let the sponsor include something in an email after the event.

Be more creative! There are many ways to deliver value to sponsor in a virtual event environment.

With Gather Voices, we’re helping organizations collect videos from sponsors that can be interspersed within the conference. A 30 second demo or pitch, a learning tidbit and a direct-to-camera message to the community.

Here’s an example of a high-impact sponsor promotion video:

These videos can have additional reach on organizational website and social media pages, as well as in post-event emails. Talk about adding value to sponsors!

Digital engagement is here to stay. How will you make the most of it?

Given the current state of the world, digital engagement is more critical than ever.  It’s also here to stay.  

When transitioning your live event to virtual, it’s important to align on the strategy before the tactics, leverage a mix of live and pre-recorded content, plan for engagement-specific activities, partner with the right technology partners, and give your sponsors a chance to invest and participate.

As we add to our knowledge we’ll come back with some new and additional tips.

In the meantime, have a look at how Gather Voices can make your virtual conference unforgettable.

Aidan Augustin
Co-founder & President of Feathr

Aidan Augustin is the co-founder and president of Feathr, an industry-leading software company making digital marketing more accessible to nonprofits and event organizers. Feathr has helped over 800 nonprofits and thousands of events know, grow, and engage their audiences. When he's not steering the ship at Feathr, he's playing strategy games, singing karaoke, or reading books about people who changed the world.

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