November 24, 2020
When I refer to the first wave of online events, I mean those that took place soon after the pandemic’s arrival, from about late March until, well, about now. My biggest takeaway from this first wave: You can’t just recreate a live event online; the in-person experience doesn’t translate one-to-one in an online environment. Here are five lessons learned and advice for your next online conference or meeting:
Play with event formats: When the virus first hit, many event planners — especially those with Spring events — had little time to pivot to digital. In the scramble to revisit venue contracts, deal with vendors, communicate to all stakeholders and find a virtual event platform, there wasn’t much room for innovation. As a result, early online events were rather underwhelming and even exhausting, akin to back-to-back webinars. Go beyond the traditional presentation format and take advantage of the flexibility virtual brings to the table: You don’t have to stick to a two-day event or your usual agenda. In fact, you should avoid trying to cram the program for a 2-day in-person event into a 2-day online one.
For our event, we added an orientation day, reduced the number of sessions, and shortened presentation times. Mindful of attendees’ shorter attention spans and the fatigue that can set in from staring at a screen for several hours, we aimed to deliver the program in bite-size chunks. We kept sessions to the mornings and planned for looser exhibit exploration and networking in the afternoons. And we didn’t have to ‘get rid’ of any inventory: Having attended several online events ourselves, we realized many attendees preferred to consume on-demand content in their own time. For those that didn’t care to watch sessions in real time, we had a “content drop” of pre-recorded case studies on the third day of the event.
Focus on the attendee experience: It’s not enough to get people to sign up for your event. You have to get them to sign in and stay signed in. Remember what it was like going to a conference pre-COVID? Attending on behalf of your company perhaps with a colleague or two, conferences were a break from the usual work week. You showed up to the venue, checked in at registration, and everything — food, sessions, networking — was contained within the physical space of the conference. Online event attendees aren’t as shut off from the real world; it’s easy to get distracted and fatigued. Don’t trap your audience behind the screen; redesign the attendee journey to account for breaks and the distractions of working from home (work emails, kids, pets, multiple screens, social media, etc.) Understand that attendees have busy workdays outside of your event (there’s no OOO) and they’re tired of Zoom. People associate screen time with YouTube and Netflix and attention spans are reduced, so deliver content in spurts, make it bingeworthy, keep sessions to around 20 minutes, and have a mix of pre-recorded, live and simulive content interspersed with opportunities for audience engagement (polls, Q&A, etc.) Remember, it’s really easy (and less noticeable) to exit a virtual event.
Getting attendees to stay signed in and interact with your event in large part comes down to the platform you choose. Basic polls, Q&A and chat are not enough to keep your audience engaged. This is why we built a variety of networking and communication tools into ConnectworX, to accommodate individual preferences and comfort levels (ex. attendees who shy away from video chat can use text or audio instead; frequent Facetime users will love video matchmaking, etc.) The right platform will turn your attendees into an active community through features like feeds and gamification and make it easy for them to form the right connections. For instance, ConnectworX has a really useful audience search feature, instant contact info exchange, and native video chat (1:1 and group). On the gamification front, the platform supports polls and surveys (of course) as well as contests and trivia, rewarding attendees for using platform features and interacting with content to incentivize engagement. Make sure your platform is also device- and browser-agnostic for convenient access (mobile-friendly!).
Have a backup plan and tech support: If the first wave is any indication, you’ll have to manage technical issues during your virtual event. In nearly every virtual event I’ve attended, the platform crashed at some point, usually when hundreds or thousands of people tried to log in at once. Test the capabilities of your platform in advance (stress tests) and set up contingencies in case the site’s overwhelmed. How are you going to communicate issues to speakers and attendees? How are you going to manage program delays? Reduce risk by not relying entirely on live content and have live technical support. Responsive, day-of technical support is critical; make sure your team is prepared to troubleshoot issues (90% of our technical issues had to do with corporate firewalls). It also helps to have a good host who can buy you time with the audience while you address production issues.
For our event, we had dedicated, real-time support for each user type (attendee, speaker, exhibitor) right in the platform. We also had staff monitoring all communication channels to answer questions and direct people to tech support. ConnectworX’s fully integrated recording, broadcasting and streaming also eliminated any problems to do with integrating multiple tools and relying on multiple solution providers.
Collect data: Going digital offers the unprecedented opportunity to collect tons of data and analyze your event. Gain insight into attendee behavior (what users viewed, which features they used, etc.) and use it to get to know your audience better and improve the event experience. This is a key advantage of virtual events, and one you should extend to stakeholders.
This piece of advice really depends upon the virtual event technology you use, so look into data touchpoints, report capabilities, etc. ConnectworX has data capture and analytics for both the event organizer and sponsors, which enabled us to adapt our event to our audience in real time and deliver clear ROI to our sponsors and exhibitors. On the organizer’s end, ConnectworX showed us metrics on everything from content consumption to how many messages were sent through the platform over the course of the event (6,598). Knowing the number of concurrent active users or which posts in the Activity Feed performed well helped us tailor our engagement strategy on the fly. We could even see the most followed organizations, allowing us to determine which exhibitors needed our help. As a sponsor or exhibitor, I could see who visited my booth, who downloaded my content, and export all leads to CSV.
Content is king but looks do matter: Lastly, your virtual event is not just your product; it’s an extension of your brand and should convey your brand identity. Everything from the aesthetics of the platform to production quality contributes to the overall event experience, so choose a platform that lets you create a consistent, branded experience from registration through the event. An aesthetically pleasing and authentic design is vital. Of course, you want a platform that’s user friendly but you also need it to be screenshot-worthy so you and your attendees can capture moments from the event. Avoid outdated-looking platforms and cookie-cutter templates.
ConnectworX transformed into the virtual venue we needed, complete with personalized branding (logos, colors, etc.). We were able to capture images from the event for our website and promotional materials, and it was quick and easy to onboard our AV team. (*Team up with an AV company to boost production value.) Fully customizable, the platform empowered us to build exactly what we wanted and stay true to our brand, which will be incredibly important for future hybrid events.