Mastering the new reality of virtual events

Published on in Advice / Tips & Tricks

By Andrea Heuston

Pre-COVID my company specialized in designing and executing corporate events – from visual concepts, video, motion graphics and animation to presentation design to speaker training and support– for events from 5 to 50,000 attendees. Clearly all that has changed. These days we’re helping our clients pivot to virtual events. One thing we’ve learned, it’s not as simple as turning on a camera and live streaming the event. If you want an effective and compelling event, one that will engage your audiences, you need to rethink the format, delivery and content. 

Here are some of the things we have learned.

Rethink the entire format

If your event was a full day or multi-day event, does it still need to be that way now that it’s virtual? For one client, we were scheduled to produce their national sales meeting of 500 people with stakeholders coming from across the country and three different continents. Instead of sticking with the 3-day format, we produced a series of videos and rolled them out like a Netflix series, with new videos dropping almost daily over a 6-7-week period. This allowed attendees to navigate their own journey through the content on their own timeline, and to view the content as often as they wanted to, to take it in. It also eliminated the challenges of planning around different time zones and connectivity, since everyone’s WFH situation and bandwidth is different. The content has now been stored and can be rolled out for other purposes — such as onboarding new employees and training other departments — so it has a much longer shelf life and more value for the client than a live event. 

Rethink how you engage your audience

There are very few of us who don’t have Zoom (or Go-To-Meeting, Google Hangouts or Microsoft Teams) fatigue by now. If your event has a steady stream of back-to-back-to-back talking heads, it’s almost guaranteed to lose your audience. When designing your digital event, brainstorm what you can do to engage the audience. Beautiful visuals, video, motion graphics and animation should be a given. But what else can you do? Think about designing engagement points throughout each session of your event such interactive exercises, shared experiences, branded materials shipped ahead of time, and more.

For some events we’ve worked with Boxperience to send customized connection boxes. The content and theme of the boxes - with personalized audio or video cards - is tailored to match the content of the event and tied to the agenda.  At a certain point the moderator/presenter instructs the audience to open their box and leads them through the content, so it becomes a fun and interactive presentation. We’ve also found this to be more valuable than your standard swag bag of tchotchkes at a conference. It’s curated more thoughtfully, and for the person receiving it, it becomes something they want to keep and refer back to.

Also think about incorporating shared experiences such as trying out products. Or adding a virtual happy hour at the end of the day. For a Fortune 500 wine brand’s upcoming national distributor summit, we are proposing sending out wine and chocolate so that attendees can participate together in a wine tasting and food pairing experience. 

To liven things up for an upcoming virtual, live client event we’ve hired a nationally known comedian to emcee the event. It adds a level of energy and engagement that draws people in.

Rethink the delivery

The format of an in-person event of a keynote address or presentation of 30–45-minutes does not work online. We all have short attention spans and even more so now with our Zoom fatigue. You’ll start losing people at around 12.5 minutes. So plan for a greater variety of speakers or for your speakers to appear more frequently but for shorter periods throughout the event.  We also recommend that speakers mix it up and pepper their presentations with an assortment of methods and interactions such as polls, videos, breakout rooms, real-time chat and Q&A sessions, increasing the engagement level. Note, it’s key that a live Q&A is moderated and it’s best if it’s scripted; where you can poll people ahead of time and then ask questions. Having a moderator is important as s/he can watch the chat thread and feed the questions and comments to the speaker. This leaves the speaker free to concentrate on their content and not be distracted by needing to watch the chat box.   

We also recommend a mix of live and pre-recorded presentations. What pre-recorded sessions may lack in real-time engagement they make up for in production value, and your speakers can have multiple takes to ensure their message is clear, concise and on-point. An added bonus is that those speakers who aren’t comfortable with live presentations really appreciate this. When using recorded video, we recommend following it up with a live Q&A with the audience and an exercise of some sort. That way you get the best of both worlds – a polished presentation and the audience gets to interact with the speaker.

At the end of the day, it’s all about keeping people entertained and engaged; if they’re not engaged, they won’t hear anything you have to say, so plan your event — be it online, in-person or a hybrid —accordingly. Focus on snackable content and audience engagement.

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About the Author

Andrea Heuston
Andrea Heuston is the founder and CEO of Artitudes Design, a 25 year-old experiential design firm that works with Fortune 500 companies (Microsoft, Starbucks and Expedia to name a few) as well as startups and non-profits.

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