From corporate gatherings, industry meetings, and roadshows to trade shows and massive expos, events have been around forever. That's because they offer an optimal place to make connections and build business. If things go right, everyone -- attendees, organizers, and sponsors -- leaves feeling like the event was worth the time, money, and effort.
Many of us have very mixed feelings about virtual events, though. It can be hard to imagine how an audience of hundreds or thousands can really "come together" through computer screens. But we know they can. The ability of social media to galvanize like-minded people shows us that powerful connections can be made online.
The difference is that standout virtual events don't simply try to replicate in-person events. They reimagine what's possible. Think back to all the mistakes of migrations-past that took the replica approach online. Yes, the digital experience is different. But different is not worse. To truly succeed at connecting with customers through virtual events, you need to think differently. Instead of your event's being a sad shadow of what it might have been in person, you need to play to the strength of digital.
Based upon the research my co-author David Meerman Scott and I did for our book Standout Virtual Events: How to Create an Experience That Your Audience Will Love, here are two things to focus on that will help you maximize your investment in virtual events.
1. Think TV, not theater.
Virtual events are more like television than theater. In a theatrical performance, the audience is present. Their feedback is immediate and palpable. The speaker is on the big stage and plays big and bold to connect with those in the back row. However, stage performers sometimes struggle to transition to the screen because of the proximity to the camera and the lack of an in-person audience. To deliver a powerful virtual presentation, speakers need to think about their art in an entirely new way.
At the same time, event producers need to reimagine what is possible. They need to choose speakers who grasp how to make the virtual format engaging and interactive. Event producers will also need to think more like television producers as they help their presenters to adjust to the format. This involves everything from sound, lighting, and video quality to mastering the feature set of a given virtual event platform and creating a presentation that will engage an screen-based audience.
2. Optimize for engagement.
The fact is that attention spans are shorter for virtual events. Speakers will need to think about breaking up a long keynote into smaller segments, interspersed with other elements such as video, quizzes, and audience-interaction to maintain attention. Event planners will want to think about breaking a day long event into a series of mini-events, single sessions, or a day of fast-paced short talks. They'll want to explore the interactive or community-centric options their event platform offers such as real time polling, reactions, chat, or breakout rooms.
For previously recorded sessions, organizers can facilitate live Q&A sessions with popular speakers or breakout discussions to let attendees dig more deeply into topics. Some events effectively use chat roulette or interest-based matchmaking, which can be even more powerful if they integrate with LinkedIn. And, of course, it is critical to lead and engage in discussions on social platforms using an event hashtag. In addition to enriching the attendee experience, these approaches provide experiences akin interaction people enjoy at in-person events.
Virtual events have tremendous potential to create fans of the organizations that host or sponsor them. Done well, a virtual event can be the best marketing a company can do all year. Massive audiences can be convened. Sales leads can be generated. Non-profits can secure donations. Trade associations and other organizations can maintain member satisfaction.
As you look for events to partner with, develop thought leadership sessions or keynotes from your organization, or build your very own virtual event, be sure you don't simply try to recreate what you love about offline events. Digital is different. We need to embrace what is possible, experiment, and engage to create virtual events that audiences love.