How to host a virtual event (that is not boring)

Once you’ve read this blog, you’ll know how to host a virtual event. It explains how to choose the content, find the perfect platform, recruit speakers, attract an audience, what to do on the day and how to collect feedback afterwards.

You will also learn why it is crucial to consider the benefits for all your stakeholders (those are your delegates, speakers, sponsors, employees, partners, customers, suppliers… the wider public AND our planet.

But first, let’s get this out of the way…

Virtual events will never replace in-person events. There’s no getting around that.

And, let’s be honest, we’ve all sat through interminable virtual conferences which offer as much value as a chocolate teapot.

So, let’s start with the obvious question:

Why bother?

Why bother running a virtual event? Because when done well, they are a win-win for everyone who takes part – the host, the audience and the speakers.

By hosting an event designed to help others, you capture the attention of thousands of people – new leads, business partners and suppliers, potential collaborators, new customers… It’s large-scale kudos.

The reach is huge. Aside from internet access, there are no barriers to attendance.

Your audience gets useful, relevant information – often for free – without having to go anywhere. People who can’t leave their jobs or family, those unable to travel or with mobility issues, or those who simply couldn’t afford it, can attend from anywhere in the world at the click of a mouse.

But, virtual events can also be better for the environment and our planet. They mean less (international) travel, waste, air or noise pollution, local traffic and overcrowding.

As for the speakers, they showcase their knowledge in front of a global audience – and experts rarely turn down the opportunity to gain a larger following… If the event is also right for THEM.

And, of course, everyone gets the chance for serendipitous networking.

So, how do you make your event a success? How do you avoid being the chocolate teapot?

Content is king (and queen)

Online audiences can be brutal. Virtual events are easy to join, but they are also easy to leave. It’s all down to the content quality.

Content is the driving force behind registrations and audience engagement, so begin by asking yourself some basic questions:

  • Who is the content for?
  • Which information is useful and relevant to the audience you want to attract?
  • What does this audience most want to learn?
  • Will they be able to use this information in the short or medium term?
  • How will they benefit from this information?

At the beginning of the planning process, give yourself the advantage by starting a conversation with your target audience . Create a poll of possible subject areas. That way, you’ll discover which topics engage them – and which don’t.

Top tip: Check for high-performing blog posts and whitepapers. If these subjects draw visitors to your website, they’re likely to engage your target audience.

Live or pre-recorded?

At this point, you need to decide whether to deliver the content live, pre-recorded or as a mixture of both.

Going 100% live is exciting but risky.  It only takes a few gaffes and technical glitches for your audience to switch off and find better things to do.

Pre-recording is safer. It gives you more control over the technology and makes your content accessible at any time, regardless of time zone. Adobe took the pre-recorded approach for their virtual summit, successfully swapping the live experience for impressively high production values and a superb website.

Think of ways to combine live and pre-recorded content. Live elements are more personal. They help replicate the `energy in the room’ of an in-person event.

Top tip: With pre-recorded presentations, encourage the audience to submit questions and ideas while watching. The speaker can take part in a live Q&A afterwards.

Keep it short, sweet and engaging

There’s a world of difference between sitting in a conference hall and staring at a computer screen.

You have to take attention spans into account.

The idea is to make your event as interactive as possible. If you simply stream content in one direction, why would your audience stay put? They’re not involved.

Here are a few ideas to mull over as you’re planning the event:

  • Try gamification with a points-to-reward element. Attendees get the chance to redeem points for desirable gifts.
  • Engage virtual audiences with live polls, quizzes and surveys.
  • Bring artists on board to create real-time illustrations.
  • Invite a yoga instructor to present a short desk yoga
  • Send kits in advance, then provide a cooking or mixology class.

Keep it short and sweet. Individual sessions should be concise and if you’re a beginner, limit the whole event to 1-2 hours maximum. Any longer and your audience may start drifting off.

Top tip: Consider hosting a series of mini-events – say, one or two presentations of 20 minutes each. Make them available afterwards so the audience can watch when it suits them.

Choose your platform

As you’ve probably noticed,  virtual platforms have been springing up left, right and centre. When you’re spoilt for choice, how do you pick the right one?

Start with the basics. What’s the purpose of your event?

If it’s virtual fundraising, go for platforms with easy-to-use donation features. For a product launch, you’ll need VR demo features.

Some platforms offer inbuilt registration and ticketing, and consider prioritising those that don’t require a username and password. The idea is to create as few barriers to entry as possible.

For most online events, a networking function is crucial. Networking is one of the reasons why people attend events – regardless of whether they’re online or offline.

Organisers of the 5-day SBC digital summit understood this brilliantly.  Delegates were allowed to move freely between virtual event spaces, including a networking lounge with themed networking events, games and entertainment.

Top tip: Look for a platform which allows individual interaction opportunities for attendees – pre-event chat rooms, networking lounges, breakout rooms or fireside chats.

Recruit speakers

Before looking around for speakers, ask yourself this question:

Why would someone want to speak at my event? Speakers aren’t normally paid, so what’s in it for them? In short, it’s a two-way street:

  • Your audience is given valuable, relevant information.
  • The speaker massively expands their following. They become known as thought leaders and influencers.

Also, as the event host, you get to position your brand next to trusted experts (OK, that’s a three-way street, but you get the idea).

However, great things happen only when you recruit excellent speakers. How do you find them?

How to find expert speakers

When you’re looking for experienced speakers, YouTube, Slideshare and TED Talks are good places to start. Look at the view count. If it’s high, this person obviously strikes a chord with an online audience.

Remember, your ideal speaker isn’t just a subject boffin. Delivery is as important as knowledge. If you think a potential speaker lacks charisma online, don’t risk putting your audience to sleep.

While experienced speakers can be a safe bet, don’t rule out debut speakers. Audiences like being ahead of the curve when it comes to discovering new talent and fresh thinking.

Look for people who regularly blog and podcast innovative ideas about your chosen topic. It’s simple enough to approach them directly and ask them to take part.

Top tip: When you get a `yes’, maintain contact all the way up to the event. High-quality speakers balance dozens of commitments at a time. Your event needs to be top of mind.

Recruit an audience

Make sure to give yourself enough time for audience recruitment. There’s a lot to think about:

  • The event website is your key promotional tool. It’s where you communicate the value of attending. It contains the schedule and Q&As, it showcases speakers and entices visitors towards registration. It also contains videos and promotes your next event.
  • Registration is your data collection tool. It must be robust and easy to use, allowing people to register, submit their details and, where relevant, provide payment. This data is crucial to the event’s success and your future marketing efforts.
  • Email marketing drives demand, keeps attendees informed and reminds them that the event is happening. Use it imaginatively – e.g. lead magnets such as e-book and ticket combos, social proof (numbers already registered) or FOMO (number of tickets left) to create a sense of urgency about registering for the event.
  • Social media promotion will help build a community around the event. It allows attendees to begin networking and introducing themselves before, during and afterwards. Use it to start discussions, foster connections and create excitement.

Top tip: Think of ways to get them off the computer and into the real world. Send them out on a local treasure trail, stimulate their senses by delivering pre-event samples to smell and taste.

The event itself

Even with an entirely pre-recorded event, the opening and closing keynotes should always be live.

If you’re promoting something, do this during the opening address when the audience are fresh, keen and receptive to buy.

Bear in mind… technical problems. There are bound to be a few, so be prepared with a contingency plan.

If necessary, get technical support on board. And, if your wi-fi is temperamental, make sure a colleague is on hand to temporarily step in.

Top tip: Don’t assume that your audience is tech savvy. Create a pre-event guide which explains how to attend sessions and use interaction tools.

Feedback – Did you win, lose or draw?

This is where you look at what worked, what didn’t work, and what could have gone better.

Your audience will tell you everything you need to know so don’t forget to give them the opportunity to provide feedback – by email, post-event survey or a specialised feedback tool.

Provided you keep the list of questions short, consider asking your audience to rate each session separately, immediately after they participate. That instant `gut reaction’ is valuable.

Top tip: Look at the questions asked during the event. It helps gauge the quality of each session, and it’s a great source of ideas for future virtual events

And finally…

Hosting a virtual event is hard work but if you get it right, the payoffs are immense – not only for your business, but for everyone who takes part.

Virtual events are not just for COVID (sorry, we’ve mentioned the C-word) because when it comes to driving audience engagement, this is how every event should be organised – both online and offline.

Do you need help hosting your event? We’ve been managing virtual events since forever – way before they were the latest thing. Get in touch with us here.