If you've somehow lasted the pandemic without attending a virtual event, first of all...how? Second of all, truly how? With everything from "Zoom birthday parties" to "Virtual Graduation" or even "Virtual Conference with 3,000 of your closest friends," most of us have been to a virtual event of some kind over the past 15 months. With virtual becoming the de facto solution to lockdowns and social distancing, it made a lot of sense when you couldn't leave your house and you didn't need to put on pants. With vaccinations on the rise in the US and other parts of the world, live and hybrid events are starting to tick back up. But whether you want to save on airfare, your company has gone fully remote, or you think you can reach a broader audience through the magic of the interwebs, there are a lot of benefits to hosting a virtual event: save money on the venue, avoid costly and complicated liquor allowances, and again, no pants.
If you saw all these as major draws only to get into the weeds and discover that hosting a virtual event is no joke, do not panic. (Unless your event is tomorrow and you've done zero work, then you should probably panic.) We've compiled a newbie-friendly guide to help you build a killer virtual event from inception to last-minute details.
What Is A Virtual Event?
Let's start with the basics. If you've already got an idea for what kind of event you intend to throw, feel free to skip this section. If this is your first foray into virtual events and you're trying to meet a specific need, this is a great place to start getting a lay of the land and considering the next steps.
One of the many industries to take a huge hit in the past year has got to be in-person conferences. A hubbub for networking, exploring new ideas, and sharing resources, conferences and trade shows were the lifeblood of many industries and a huge part of doing business. Like CES, the world's largest tech conference, many conferences went fully digital last year and plan to do the same in 2021. Many have found a way to bring attendees the same engaging content conference-goers have come to expert in the comfort of their own home by offering speakers, networking events, attendee gift bags, and more. While you may be hard-pressed to outperform CES, if you're planning a virtual conference around a niche industry or pressing cause, there are many ways to get similar benefits to your viewers.
If interaction is not your goal, a webinar may be a great way to get your message out to a large group of people without needing to coordinate breakout rooms or other means of engagement. Webinars are mostly used as a marketing tool these days and are a great way to train people on a product, share exciting news, or disseminate critical information to a group of people. Though once a new and exciting format, webinar attendance and engagement have been slowly declining over the last few years, and people often see them as generic and impersonal. While it's true it may not be the best way get people talking, don't skip over a webinar if resources are low and you have the ability to repurpose content. A recurring webinar is a great way to get new users engaged with a product especially if there's very little lift on your end.
Hybrid Events seem to be all the rage these days. With some mix of virtual and in-person engagement, "hybrid event" is a pretty generic umbrella term for any event that blends the two worlds. This could be everything from an in-person event where attendees can continue to engage with other guests after the event, to a remote event where each attendee gets a physical gift bag or souvenir to enjoy offline. Either way you slice it, with the need to go virtual spurring a lot of invention in both areas, it's pretty universally agreed that hybrid events are here to stay.
While many of us got accustomed to - and perhaps sick of - social events over Zoom this past year, it did highlight the benefit of living in a highly connected world. Often the only things you need to see a loved one in a far off place, be it across the country or across the street during a lockdown, are a mobile device or computer and an internet connection. While extroverts like myself are positively giddy to reenter society, it would be foolish to forget the fact that social gatherings don't have to be limited to those in your immediate geographic vicinity. If flights aren't an option or you just want to be able to cast a wider net, a virtual birthday party or bridal shower is a great option given virtual capabilities.
The last type of major virtual event you might be after is a virtual fundraiser. While the possibility of donning black-tie and rubbing elbows with donors is not too far off, virtual fundraisers are a great way to capture a broader audience than the donors who might live nearby, and if you're raising funds for a cause, this could be a critical way to expand your reach. With virtual concerts, the ability to broadcast speeches, and virtual photo booths to round out the guest experience, you may find so much success in a virtual fundraiser it won't make sense to go back to the old ways.
Brainstorming Session: What Do I Need To Host An Event?
If this is your first virtual event, you’re probably asking yourself (and hopefully at least one other person, if not a team) where to begin. Well, now that you’ve got the lay of the land, it’s important to ask yourself a couple of key questions to determine what you want to get out of the event, which will inform your next steps. Time for a brainstorm.
A virtual event is built around content, attendee engagement, and data. Depending on what type of event you're throwing, the breakdown of time and energy you pay to any one of these will vary. For example, a webinar may be all about the content and data, whereas a company retreat or birthday party will be heavy on attendee engagement. Before diving into technologies or surveys or marketing options, think about what you want to achieve with the event.
Questions to Ask When Planning a Virtual Event:
- What is the primary goal of the event? What are the KPIs to measure that?
- What is the primary goal of my attendees? (These may be different)
- Do I need metrics from this event like engagement or NPS?
- What is the primary message I’m trying to convey?
- Which is more important: reaching the most amount of people or having attendees engage with one another?
- How much content do I need to prepare in advance of the event?
- What resources do I have to market my event?
- How do I want to follow up with my guests after the event?
By starting with these questions, hopefully you’re able to rule out some options and get clarity around what your event will look like. Now, the fun part.
Let's talk tech. Choosing the right technology is critical to making sure you have all the functionality to meet all your event goals. In light of that, here are a couple of questions you should ask yourself when deciding on an event platform to host your event:
- Is the event one-to-one, one-to-many, or many-to-many? If you're throwing your best friend a birthday surprise, FaceTime might work for a one-to-one engagement. One-to-many platforms are easy because they rely on one stream or source to be broadcast to many people. Many-to-many is where it gets tricky as, depending on the size of the event, you'll want to manage a range of interactions your guests can take, similar to a conference or trade show.
- Do you need breakout rooms or breakout sessions? Do guests need to interact with one another or can they consume content by themselves? More and more people are looking for engagement in these virtual get-togethers so consider a platform that solves for this.
- Do you want a live q&a? Chat features are a great way to get everyone involved and get direct feedback from guests and speakers. They can also facilitate live engagement so it feels less like you're watching a recording.
Based on your answers to some of these questions, you've probably got a shortlist of options for your virtual event. If you need some tips though, keep reading, as old technologies evolve and new technologies emerge almost daily. Below are the buckets of options you have to choose from, as well as some tools you'll want to consider.
The simplest one-to-many option, Livestreaming is a great way to share news, present a program with entertainment or speakers, and share your content to as many people as possible. When it comes to live-streaming, there's no shortage of options, with some of the leaders like Facebook Live and Instagram Live, YouTube Live, Twitch and others making it simple and easy to set up a live stream. Whether you're broadcasting from your couch or using OBS to dazzle your guests with high production value, livestreaming optimizes for that one-to-many connection. While these platforms don't offer breakout rooms or networking capabilities typically, they are getting more and more sophisticated with online chat, individual recommendations from monitors and personalized experiences that make it feel more personalized.
If you want your guests to interact with your content, speakers, and each other, you may want to consider a platform that has more of these features built into the virtual experience over a simple livestream. With green rooms for speakers, breakout rooms for guests, quizzes, polls, integrations, Q&A sessions and more, these platforms include event technology you probably have never heard of, all designed to optimize audience engagement. Of course, we have to mention Zoom, which, for some of us, swooped in out of nowhere to become the de facto conferencing app early in the pandemic. They're releasing new features every day like Immersive View, which helps your guests look a little less like floating heads. Newer players are starting to make a splash as well, like Hopin and Experience Welcome, which have that hip feel of a new toy with some awesome features to make your virtual event pop.
An emerging theme in the pandemic was the idea that everyone would be so bored at home, they'd essentially opt into what are essentially conference calls. While it sounds like this writer's personal version of hell, apps like Clubhouse, now valued at $4 Billion, have become so popular they have tech giants like Twitter essentially copying their whole offering. With no visuals or chat features or anything else, really, you can set up rooms to talk about whatever you want in a brand new way which is exactly like the old way. Clubhouse found a niche among certain communities early on and it seemed enough people flocked there to get a fair amount of attention. It remains to be seen if they can hold onto this engagement as in-person events like concerts and comedy clubs return (both power users of the audio-only app). However, if you don't have any necessary visuals you can probably get away with paying a Clubhouse personality to join your room and bring their followers along to save on production costs.
How Much Do Virtual Events Cost?
Well, that really depends. This one's really up to you. YouTube, Facebook, Instagram, and even Twitch all offer free versions of their live-streaming products you can take advantage of to share your event on a budget. If you're running a more engaging event you'll want a virtual events platform like Zoom, VFairs, Socio, Bizzabo, or another previously listed in order to add a sophisticated level of engagement to your event. Then there are the big players like IBM and others who have the technology, though it might come with a bit of a learning curve. We could write a whole blog post on this topic alone, so instead of getting too into the nitty-gritty, here are some steps to take when planning out your budget:
- What are the bare minimum functions the platform requires based on the above questions?
- How much do you intend to spend marketing the event?
- Do you intend to pay speakers?
- Will you collect sponsorships?
- Will you send guests an event package?
- Will you pay a production team to run the event?
Hopefully, by getting ahead of these questions now you won't be surprised when the day arrives and you realize you spent all your production costs on fancy SWAG bags. Try this virtual events calculator to figure out where you might have missed an expensive line item.
Tips for Making it Stand Out
When planning your virtual event you may want to cut corners, reuse modules, and sacrifice the magic to come in under budget. While that's all well and necessary sometimes, here are some must-do tips to make sure your event stands out, even if it's coming in at cost.
- Your Focus Should Always be your Guests. From registration to thank-you emails, the attendees of your events should be your number one focus even when it feels like your sponsors and speakers need more attention. Send agenda reminders in advance, stick to schedules as much as possible to respect their time. Build content that actually helps/entertains your attendees, not just shows off your product. Encourage attendee participation by including natural pauses in content, live Q&A, and fun networking opportunities like live trivia.
- Expect Technical Difficulties. Unfortunately, live events are prone to technical glitches, and online events are no exception. While you may plan for what you see as every potential outcome, life often finds a way, and it's less about how quickly you recover than how well you handle the frenzy in the moment. Your guests are much more likely to excuse a technical hiccup if you stay calm and collected, even laugh it off, than if you start running around like a chicken with its head cut off. Include a technical mishap in your rehearsal if possible and see if your speakers and moderators can roll with it. If not, provide feedback on how they can inspire confidence in their guests even when sh*t hits the fan.
- Make it Human. COVID-19 has forced us inside and away from our human interactions that make live events so worthwhile. It may be cost-effective to recycle content or throw up a presentation, but feature live humans as much as possible. Even a picture-in-picture can be enough to provide a human element instead of a voice-over.
- First and Last Impressions Matter. While we may want to think our content is king (and it certainly is important), guests are going to most likely judge your event by their first and last interactions. Make sure joining is easy and seamless as possible and guests are welcomed with something fun and interactive. To close the day, thank participants and share an exciting announcement or the fact that a personalized gift bag is on its way to their home address. With an exciting opening and close, guests will forgive any snafu.
While virtual events may not have the appeal of a live concert or pub night out with coworkers, there are many benefits to hosting your next event online, and many companies may be sticking to this format moving forward. While you may think technical capabilities or expensive prizes are what will make or break your event, people are looking for human connection more than anything. If you can nail this in a virtual setting, your event will surely be a success.