Events are still an excellent tactic for helping your marketing communications gain traction among your target audiences. Social media and advertising are great tactics too, but nothing can replace real-time engagement, whether in person or online. But these are different times; social distancing now makes in-person events impractical. Luckily, with more digital tools and live streaming capabilities available now than ever before, all kinds of online alternatives are possible, including virtual events.

Virtual events have become popular in recent years because they’re more affordable to produce and can be powerful experiences for building community. They won’t provide the same kind of intimate interaction you get at an in-person event, but they still provide opportunities for engagement, learning, knowledge sharing and networking.

Before we dive into some of the details, let’s address the elephant in the room: A virtual event is way more than a webinar. Virtual events incorporate elements of in-person events like networking, discussion groups and opportunities for two-way conversation and collaboration, making them far more interactive. Webinars generally provide limited communication between and with attendees, other than the obligatory Q&A section at the end.

As with in-person events, there are many things to consider for online events, such as:

Preparing your attendees

There will be technical challenges for your attendees. Give them time to get comfortable with your tools and technology platform, and provide help for those who need it. Create and distribute content and guides specific to your event, and provide an internal contact in case help is needed ahead of your event. This will provide a much better, customized user experience than anything your platform’s “help” feature will provide.

In addition, perform at least one dry run before your event. Rehearsing before a big event is always a smart idea, but it’s especially important when your team is using new technology. Practicing with the software allows you and the rest of your presenters to become familiar with its basic functionality and services – and that confidence will make your message even stronger.

Planning and prepping  

You’re likely to also run into technical challenges, especially when attempting to stream live content. Plan out exactly how everything will run, then practice with your speakers, partners and anyone else involved in creating and presenting content so they understand the nuances of the technology. Have presenters do their practice run in the very room and with the same computer they’ll use for the event to check for acoustic and other issues in advance.

For the best results, consider recording the practice run and having your presenters watch their online delivery – even the liveliest in-person presenter can fall flat online. If that happens, help your presenter knock it out of the park by suggesting they stand up as they deliver their content, just as they would for an in-person event, rather than sitting down in front of their computer.

Setting the appropriate session length

For virtual events, go short. Holding an audience’s attention is far more difficult with online events. While a 60-minute keynote or breakout session may be standard for an in-person event, it’s simply too long for an online event. You’ll want to shorten session times by 15 to 30 minutes.

Deciding if you’ll record the event

Virtual events can be recorded to offer content to those unable to attend or those who want to view it again. Although mentioning recorded content will be made available can affect the number of people who show up for the event, it’ll also demonstrate inclusivity and improve your reach.

Establishing ground rules

Set ground rules up front about what the format will be and when attendees can speak and ask questions so you don’t get a lot of people trying to talk over each other. Ideally, everyone will have an opportunity to feel included and contribute. You’ll also want to set ground rules for any chat spaces you create; after an event grows beyond a few dozen attendees, moderation may be necessary to keep discussions on-topic and productive.

Creating a dedicated networking or brainstorming space

What makes the best events so special isn’t always the content, talks, presentations, etc., but the hallway conversations, socializing and opportunities for collaboration. When planning an online event, identify technology solutions enabling similar opportunities in an online setting.

Publicizing the event

Be sure to create a communications plan to publicize your event. Think about an initial “save-the-date” announcement, then release more details with greater frequency in the months and weeks leading up to the event, depending on its size. Craft a value proposition and related messaging and weave that into your communications.

Whether your audience is internal or external, leverage all the tactics and tools you have at your disposal, from your company’s intranet, departmental meetings, newsletter and digital signage to blogging, social media posts, email blasts and earned media. If your audience is external, encourage your social media followers to share the event with a branded hashtag. If your budget is sufficient, paid advertising may be an option. Make sure session titles and descriptions for your event’s programming are descriptive and compelling. Be sure to tell your target audience what they’ll learn and how they’ll benefit from attending the event.

Maintaining social distance doesn’t mean the end of meeting, collaborating and engaging. If you’re looking for more details on producing an effective and engaging online event providing value for your stakeholders, colleagues and customers, feel free to contact us.

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