Ten top tips to help you create a successful virtual event for your organization

by Simon Sanders

30 November 2020

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The ongoing global pandemic will mean yet more face-to-face events will need to move online. It’s a pity for organizers and attendees alike because, of course, wouldn’t it be great to be able to meet up with people? To connect in person with colleagues and contacts, old and new, and for social interaction? However, whilst it’s sad to focus on what can’t take place in person, you can still create a very successful virtual event; something to really connect your community in these challenging times.

They may not be able to fully replicate in-person events, they can provide a fantastic and versatile alternative, and suit a wide range of use cases. These include regular staff presentations and town-hall meetings; training and education webinars; and any kind of wider stakeholder briefing. On a larger scale, they can include full-on company-wide or industry conferences and exhibitions, and even festivals and award ceremonies.

Extend online and expand your reach

What’s more, because of the certainty that virtual events offer – no need to rely on travel restrictions or fears – they can be planned in now. You can remove any doubt, plan in earnest, and send out those ‘save the date’ or ‘book now’ invites. Why focus on the downsides when by contrast you can focus on everything that makes for a successful virtual event? Wherever you or your audience are based, you can now bring your dispersed colleague together, unite all those experts and professionals in your sector.

What’s more, for conferences and industry gatherings, you can extend your reach and embrace a bigger audience too. You’ll have reduced expenses as an organizer, and potential attendees won’t be facing travel, hotel, and other costs, plus time out of the office to attend. If you are charging for attendance, then you can aim for greater revenues, hosting more virtual numbers than would have previously attended in person. And then there’s the versatility: attendees can be there via any connected device, from anywhere in the world – and you can offer live attendance, and on-demand catch-up too.

So far so good. But these events don’t just organize themselves – they still need to be expertly planned and prepared. These tips and guidelines will help you do just that and deliver a truly successful virtual event.

1.Sharpen your offer

If your event is one that is already well-established, then your regulars may well be primed to go virtual this time around. Similarly, if you are planning an internal event, you may already have a captive audience. But what if your event is new and needs to attract an audience? First and foremost, make sure you are creating a distinctive event. Be sure to clearly answer ‘what’s in it for me?’ if you want to cut through and demand attention.

2. Plan your promotion

‘If you build it, they will come.’ Well, not necessarily. However strong your event, people still need to know about it and commit that digital date in their diary. Whether you are promoting internally to colleagues, or externally, be sure to plan out your promotion and build the buzz. Email, social media, blogs, and highly visual content can all help keep your event on the radar and ensuring there are no excuses for missing your virtual gathering!

3. Set your agenda

Beyond the headline, a successful virtual event needs a compelling agenda. Whether it’s one speaker for one session or a whole squad of speakers, be sure to carefully plan your sessions. Got lots to squeeze in and different areas of interest to cater for? Not a problem. Even if you don’t seem to have enough linear time available, you can offer breakout sessions.

These offer alternatives running in parallel and can allow attendees to choose the sessions that suit them best. Be sure to also plan in breaks if your event is running over a half-day or full day. People will need time away from their screen, whether to eat, freshen up, or deal with other personal commitments. You can also plan in time for virtual networking too. This could be using messaging breakout groups, virtual social gatherings, and even exhibition spaces.

4. Keep sessions short

At face-to-face events, sessions could run up to an hour. When it’s strictly online, and especially if you are running an all-day event, reduce this. Not only are you trying to project through the screen, in two-dimensions, your audience may well be coming to your session or event from another video meeting or session. And going on to another one right after that. Not every talk can be an entertaining, thought-provoking, TED Talks blockbuster. Taking 15, 20 or even 30 minutes out of those potential hour-long windows will help you deliver more, boost buy-in, and attendance. And attention too.

5. Practice and prepare

If your presenters are all in different locations, then you’ll have multiple environments to manage. They may expect to just log on, and use their onboard webcam, built-in mic, and ambient lighting. That might be fine, but best that you prep with each one from the space they plan to use. You want to be confident that how it will look and sound. You also need to ensure they’re online in good time, and on point with cues they will receive and give, where they can see messages and their slides and so on. A hard copy print-out of their own slides can be a lifesaver too!

6. Steer with an anchor!

Having an overall host to anchor your event is the best way to ensure flow and continuity. They may not be the star of the show, and in fact, they probably won’t be – but they can act as chairperson and moderator. As such, they can really be the linchpin of a successful virtual event. They can introduce guests, ensure smooth handovers, and field incoming questions which they pitch on to speakers. Other crucial roles, just like real events, will likely be to summarize discussions, keep things running to time, and issuing ‘house-keeping’ notices – perhaps reminding attendees where they can find extra files and resources.

7. Be creative, be ambitious and be in control

Your event is just that. Yours. At its simplest, you may want your presenters to simply be seen on camera and talk through a deck of slides. Or to gather several people together to discuss a topic as a virtual panel. But there are lots of ways to make your successful virtual event really standout. How about a two-camera option and a switch between angles to offer some visual variety? Or maybe you want to allow presenters to walk and talk as if on a real stage? Or to use a whiteboard?

As lockdowns ease, you may even want to create a hybrid event and bring together a group of speakers. Subject to social distancing requirements you could broadcast from one location. Here, an onsite setup using multiple cameras and a video mixer can offer close-ups, cutaways, and much needed variety. In this way, you can make your online event look more like television – ironically just as many television shows have in recent months looked more like online meetings! How you choose to use video, music, graphics, and branding are all ways you can choose to ensure what’s seen on screen is just how you want it. How will you lift your event beyond just another online meeting?

8. Encourage questions

Allowing attendees to ask questions helps your audience get more from the session. Have they understood what you’ve presented? What haven’t you mentioned? What needs clarifying? You can let people send in their questions via a chat box and select those you wish to answer. You can take questions in advance, or only ‘in-flight’. Either way, you get to listen and learn, and by answering questions only at the end of your session, or in set breaks, you can do so without interrupting the flow or getting dragged off track. An extra pair of virtual hands, to sort, select and feed appropriate questions and comments to your on-screen chairperson or moderator is a great way to ensure an efficient and effective experience.

9. Poll your audience

Another way to involve your audience is by using polls. These give attendees the chance to share their view – and just as importantly they can give you useful feedback too. You could run one at the start of a session to gauge and acknowledge priority areas of interest amongst your attendees. In this way, you can pick up on those points you may need to emphasize. Similarly, you could run another at the end, to check understanding or hear which feature you have discussed they like best. Clearly, you can use these as you wish – but one of the great features of polling is that you can quickly push an auto-generated graphic back onto screen and provide commentary and follow-up.

10. Run quizzes and competitions

Quizzes are another way to promote interactivity and engagement. Use them at the end of a session to test what’s been retained, or who’s been paying attention. In a fun way of course! You can offer instant prizes, or even gamify sessions by running a leaderboard across your whole event. Attendees can either message in their answers or you can use an app in parallel with fastest-finger voting options. If your event involves sponsors this can be a way of bringing their prizes into your sessions. And just like real-world trade shows, exhibitors can offer goodies up for grabs for those who ‘visit’ their virtual trade-show stand.

11. Let’s wrap it up

Ten tips would have been neater. But here’s an extra one that mustn’t be forgotten. However you stage your event, and however great it went, you’ll want feedback. The beauty of digital events is that there is so much useful data you can review. Not just registrations and attendees, but which sessions, live and on-demand, how long they watched for, and much more besides. You should also have lots of submitted questions, comments, and queries too.

Whatever arrives organically, do be sure to send out feedback forms – whether as pop-ups on screen or via email – so you can gather genuine feedback. Maybe people want more networking opportunities? Longer deep-dive sessions? More Q&A time? This feedback not only shows you are listening but will help you ensure your next event – whether in-person, virtual, or a hybrid – is better than the last.

Put your plans into action

And talking of your planning your next event….do talk to us about how we can help you deliver it successfully. It’s never too soon to be thinking ahead and putting plans into motion.

Click here to read the case study

In just the past few months alone, we’ve helped organizations around the world, helping them deliver thousands of virtual events to their essential stakeholders. We can certainly do the same for you.

Simon Sanders

Social Media & Content Manager at the Cloud Communications division of NTT Ltd.