By Ms Patricia Cheong, Managing Director, Asia of International Conference Services (ICS)
With relatively little additional cost with a potential to increase brand awareness and optimise audience reach, organising a virtual event seems like the easiest choice to make as part of a business growth strategy, while we still observe the changing public health guidelines and operating in new-normal MICE settings.
However, hosting a virtual event presents very different considerations from delivering one live in person. Resources such as venue rental may not be a concern, but the quality of audience engagement and technology are, among other factors.
To stand out from the crowd, we can also integrate in-person and virtual elements (hence transformed into hybrid events)!
Here are my tips on how you can design a successful and immersive virtual event.
- Content is key. It is especially crowded in the virtual space–make sure that you have sharp, compelling and differentiated content that will give your attendees a reason to come to your event. Find a topic that resonates with your audience.
- Focus on getting great speakers and prep them with presenter run-throughs. Guest speakers might be one of the key attractions of your virtual event. Set up speaker rehearsals to ensure the quality of both of your content and the equipment they will use at the event.
Virtual conferences have many moving parts, so by getting sufficient practice in, helps your organising team and the speakers be comfortable with the technology, event flow or allocated timeslots. Any challenges may also be predicated and addressed early.
During a practice run with your speakers, take on a directing role with them and encourage them to stay engaged with the audience or fellow speakers while presenting. Where possible, they should also look into their web-camera. Should you utilise a virtual event software, speakers can explore the platform and its interface before their engagement.
- Keep your sessions short and incorporate break-times. While 60-minute sessions at an in-person event are generally accepted by attendees, conversely, it is more difficult to keep the audience rapt in attention in a virtual environment. That is why you should think about shortening the time you would allocate for a physical event by 15 or 30 minutes, for an equivalent virtual session. For example, a 60-minute in-person networking session should be 45 or 30 minutes when delivered online [in a breakout set-up].
Generally, keep your sessions to 45 to 90 minutes at maximum for the best chance at capturing your audience’s full attention. Also make sure to include designated spots for virtual attendees–and your team–to take a short break. This way, you give them time to make small adjustments to their personal event experience without having to miss your content.
- Have a right mix of live and pre-recorded sessions. We would advise against hosting an entire event based solely on pre-recordings. Pre-recorded events tend to be monotonous and uninteresting, so consider adding a live component, like a moderator or host, to capture real-time interactions, questions and responses.
Establish the roles and responsibilities of your event stakeholders, from hosts, to moderators or speakers, and be sure communicate this to them early on. For example, you can establish who will be screening or capturing questions from the audience, or how they will be answered.
- Focus on participant engagement and encourage interaction. To make your virtual event a success, engaging an audience is critical. Hosting a Q&A session is the simplest way to accomplish this, with a choice of various functionalities such as chat boxes, a microsite, Google Forms, or simply asking the audience at the end of the presentation. Your goal is to make the audience feel like they are a part of the event.
You may also consider conducting polls or surveys during the session. Make sure that someone is monitoring the chat for inappropriate commentary or promotional attempts. Small group discussions can also be facilitated through virtual breakout sessions, or simply check in with your attendees in the main chat function.
- Select the right platform to host your virtual event. The platform and its features play a vital role in your virtual event. Establish what your event needs and find the suitable platform to make it stand out. Ideally, you should provide your speakers with the necessary tools to connect with the audience on a deeper level.
Look for a platform that offers analytics and metrics in real-time and lets attendees to have conversations with each other. If your event is hosted on a completely new platform, prepare an easy-to-follow guide for attendees to easily navigate the event.
- Ensure all event stakeholders are able to communicate off-screen. Create a separate communication channel outside of the event platform, in case an unforeseen occurrence or technical issue crops up while a speaker is presenting or getting ready for his/her segment.
Use virtual green rooms if your virtual platform allows it, so that speakers are staggered and waiting in a different room before going live. Or consider initiating a WhatsApp or Slack group discussion so that issues can be communicated immediately.
- Choose the right time for your event. While the total runtime of the event is an important factor to establish, so is the date and time it is scheduled to run! Check for potential clashes with any major holiday or event.
If you seek to attract an international audience, consider picking a time zone that suits multiple countries or hosting multiple sessions at different timings. Alternatively, you can promote an on-demand option so that your target audience can re-watch when it suits them.
- Test all equipment & be prepared to troubleshoot. Just like in-person events, virtual events can experience unexpected technical glitches. Anticipating technical difficulties gives you more opportunity to solve and learn from them. Prior to the start of your virtual event, make sure to test the internet connection and advise your speakers to do the same.
Ensure that everyone involved in the event line-up has a strong Wi-Fi connection. They can also shut other active applications or programmes running on their device. Make sure they have their devices set to silent.
You can also control the display of your presenters’ slides if they are provided to you. Finally, have a back-up plan in place. This could include pre-recorded presentations or videos to keep audiences engaged while the issue is being resolved.
- Make sure you have full production support. Like an in-person event, you will need full production support on the live days of your event. Depending on the size of your event, on average, you should maintain a six- to eight-person crew. Their work functions should include: managing the event graphics behind the scenes, audio, transitions, directing the guests or speakers, virtual green rooms, tech and attendee support.
In addition, providing live tech support will help address hardware or software issues which your audience or presenters may struggle with.
- Set up a dedicated space for networking. It is true that while virtual events cannot offer the same appeal as in-person events for networking among attendees (a downside for sponsors or exhibitors too), there are solutions for greater engagement. Set up a dedicated space or time-slot where sponsors and attendees can connect and build rapport with one another in one-to-one meetings or group sessions.
- Use analytics. One of the biggest differentiators between an in-person event and a virtual one is the type of analytics you receive post-event.
Besides getting a clear picture of event registrations versus attendee numbers, distinctive and useful data for virtual events may include: how long did the average user stay for sessions, whether live or on-demand; how the audiences were engaged, via questions or comments; where your attendees are watching from, their viewing times or even their device type! With all these sources of data, you can monitor and pinpoint which parts of the event had worked or did not, which can indubitably help your marketing endeavours for future events.
As fully online and hybrid events grow prominently in our modern era, centering the attendee experience and engaging them is a must. Follow these event strategies, and you are on track to hosting your next virtual event that attendees will love!
International Conference Services (ICS) is an internationally recognized full service PCO with over 45 years of experience managing various conferences globally, with attendance ranging from 50 to 15,000 delegates. We have more than 80 staff speaking upwards of 25 languages across 8 offices throughout Europe, North America, and Asia; ensuring that we are strategically positioned to provide our clients with prompt, effective on-the-ground service, regardless of geographical location. ICS is one of the very few PCOs in the industry to have been running successful hybrid and fully virtual meetings since 2011.
About Patricia Cheong