How to plan virtual events that engage your audience
If you had seen the original 1995 comedy “Mallrats,” you might not have been tempted to tune in to the live Facebook screening on April 20 – except for the fact that writer-director Kevin Smith was watching with you, sharing fun facts about the movie as it unfolded. In this case, even the most familiar viewer could have woken up and shown renewed interest.
The livestream, which was a hosted Focus Features benefit for the Entertainment Industry Foundation’s COVID-19 Response Fund, provides an interesting case study for pandemic era events. The takeaway: something special is needed to engage an audience it’s not at an in-person event.
Virtually endless ways to surprise and delight
Virtual events are non-negotiable as we navigate the COVID-19 crisis, but hosting a successful virtual event isn’t as easy as sending a Zoom link and hoping attendees pay more attention to your event than on their phone. If you’ve been forced to cancel an exciting upcoming event, now is your chance to get back to the drawing board and think about how you can truly engage your audience online.
Virtual events actually have a few advantages over traditional in-person experiences. Eliminating travel costs opens up an event to people who might not have made the effort to attend otherwise. You can also take advantage of fewer capacity restrictions for attendees without having to worry about running out of catered lunches.
Despite these advantages, there are a few drawbacks, and the most critical is the difficulty in engaging an online audience. These ideas can help you turn your next virtual event into a viral success:
1. Reach out to guest stars
Forwarding events in the virtual domain removes a few barriers to entry that you may have encountered before. You may have wanted to eliminate or reduce the price of your event ticket to attract more attendees, but the venue fees were too high for it to work. Or maybe you wanted to book a popular speaker, but couldn’t find the sky-high travel funds or make your schedules work.
Imagine how your employees would react if their favorite podcaster or radio personality was on your next corporate call or virtual corporate event. Reach out to customers who are normally outside your operating area or budget. The worst thing they can say is no. Politico, which organizes signature and personalized events as an extension of its journalistic efforts, has adopted this tactic and landed guests for virtual events like US Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.
2. Preserving the value of production
The value of production is more important than ever when you turn to a digital event, in large part because it’s so obvious to your viewers. If your so-called event is just a Zoom call with the background of the Golden Gate Bridge and your 5-year-old interrupts you to ask for a grilled cheese, you’re wrong. It’s just a meeting – and not a very good one.
“Instead of thinking of a simple video meeting or screen sharing, instead think of the kind of high-quality broadcast you see from a large news network with the ability to be interactive.” advises Scott Schoeneberger, Managing Partner of Technology Company Bluewater. It means setting up a studio and taking care of the details. Make sure your network can support the event you are hosting and that you have the bandwidth for the number of attendees you anticipate. When Salesforce transformed its annual World Tour conference into a virtual event, registration increased by 23% compared to the traditional on-site projection, and the views have soared. If in doubt, add capacity to make sure everything goes without a hitch.
3. Interact with your audience
As a presenter, it’s important to remember that your audience members are no longer stuck in the same room. Instead, they’re home, lounging in their pajamas and wondering if the coffeemaker has finished brewing their second carafe of the morning. In this environment, distractions – texts, emails, news notifications, and even barking dogs – are everywhere, so you need to engage your audience to grab (and hold) attendees’ attention.
Surveys and quick quizzes are great engagement tools, and they can actually be more effective in a virtual environment. “While all of this is very possible with physical events, you cannot share the instant results you would see online (for example, showing graphs summarizing an audience survey seconds after the distribution)” mentionned Anna Anisin, founder and CEO of experiential marketing agency Formulated.by. “It can give you insight into the audience you’re reaching out to and provide you with great conversation starters. Whichever way you choose to do it, be sure to engage with your audience and encourage viewer participation.
Whatever cool tricks you have up your sleeve, it’s important to remember to keep virtual events and meetings short and small. With so many distractions around us at home, from kids and pets to our mobile devices, virtual attention span will be significantly shorter than it could have been in person. That doesn’t mean you can’t cover the same amount of information – you’ll just need to break it down into easily digestible chunks.
Going remotely is not the death of your event plan. This is the opportunity to completely reinvent audience engagement and expand your audience while doing it.