Feeding the Virtual Event Habit

Necessity is the mother of invention, and that is in fact the case with virtual events. The ability to host virtual events has been available for quite some time, but the demand has not been there. With the sudden shutdown of the country due to COVID-19, event planners looked to postpone events but, as the crisis continued, they quickly embraced the online medium to keep some kind of connection to the public they needed to reach.

Virtual events are proving to be more than a stopgap as we work through the response to a public health crisis. It is generally accepted that habits form after 21 days and lifestyle changes cement themselves after 90. Being far beyond 90 days into online meetings and gatherings, we all now accept and even enjoy attending events and learning online. For event planners, virtual events have proven to be an amplifier of their content, often attracting more people than would have attended in person and providing a recorded version of sessions that can be used in other ways throughout the year.

Given that virtual events are here to stay, it's important to look at what works (and does not work) in a virtual environment. First, it is important to remember that a virtual event cannot simply mimic a live event. Recording a panel discussion or speaker and putting it online does not create a virtual event. The power of events as a marketing tool rests in the ability to connect people and build an energy around a common purpose. This must be translated to a digital platform.

While it is hard, if not impossible, to capture the energy of in-person handshakes and buffet line meetings, connections can be formed in online events. Think about going to the movies vs. Netflix. You go to the movies for the full experience - the popcorn, the size and scope, the group reactions. Typically, you do that for movies you are excited about and save the so-so movies for a later Netflix rental. Make sure your live online event does not fall into the Netflix category with people just registering to get links to presentations after the event. Build-in shared live experiences.

Some of the work takes place before the actual event. Since people will not arrive onsite and get registration bags, consider mailing a thoughtful event package that contains more than just marketing collateral. It could be headphones that will aid in listening to the event, a mug or water bottle for staying hydrated, or a prop that will be used during a general session. Pre-event emails with instructions and tips on how to use the event platforms (perhaps presented as videos) is also a great way to welcome people to your event.

During the event, you can push notifications about upcoming sessions to attendees via a mobile app or even their email. Since they are likely multitasking (if you can't beat them, join them), there's a better chance they will see these in-event communications than if they were attending in person. Since connection is a critical part of event success -- whether in person or online -- ensure that there are ample opportunities for collaboration and discussion either in real-time video Q&As, separate chat rooms, or via online meeting rooms.

While at the beginning of the pandemic, people were accepting and forgiving of technical glitches and less than stellar production value, expectations have shifted. With more time to design these online events, attendee expectations have risen dramatically, making production quality a key component in their satisfaction with an event. Choosing a stable, proven platform and investing in cameras and editing capabilities should now be standard operating procedure.

We'd love to hear your thoughts on what makes a great virtual event experience. Share your thoughts in the comments.

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