Offer content—video, gamification, polling—and then bring people together around that. Speaking at the ongoing-through-May CES Deconstructed Jesse Serventi, founding partner, Renovus Capital, said (in a virtual discussion) today that we’re really just starting to learn how to “have a keen understanding of how to engage an audience virtually. A lot of it is asynchronous. You’re on an island. You’re going through it by yourself. It’s tough to engage. But then it’s also synchronous where you might be watching many hours of content. That’s tough too. The companies doing the best job are bringing in both. They might be starting off with prerecorded asynchronous content, watching video, doing a multiple choice quiz, and then coming together to do a group exercise around that and developing relationships—reaching you through multiple modalities. That’s just a great way to engage the customer or get customers hooked in an even better way than live in-person training. I do believe there’s great opportunity to use all these different tools to create a better experience.
“Virtual events break down geographic barriers to attendance. Stretch your event across time zones so participants can experience it live wherever they are. Leverage digital conferencing platforms… that enable live captioning and translation for speaker remarks so audience members can view subtitles in their local language.”
—Bob Bejan, Microsoft corporate VP, in a Fast Company article titled “8 Ways to Rethink Virtual Events for the Age of Social Distancing”
There’s no doubt that there are some drawbacks to virtual events. After all, we are social creatures. But there’s also a lot to embrace. At the SIPA 2020 Virtual Conference June 1-2, Matthew Cibellis of Education Week will speak about Creating a Stand-Out Virtual Event. Their Online Summits were revenue producers even before the pandemic hit, so they’ve been at this longer than most.
Here are other ways to take advantage of virtual events.
Go global. As mentioned above, there should be no barrier besides time difference why you can’t have a bigger global audience, if that works for your niche. Content from virtual events can also be put on-demand, so if the time difference is a hindrance, they could watch it anytime. “Consider how you can make the sessions and conversations viewable after the fact,” Bejan writes. “At Microsoft, we publish event recordings to Stream and Yammer for people to watch when it works for them.”
Audience access to editorial staff. EW’s Online Summits provide readers with a unique opportunity to interact directly with reporters, practitioners and experts. Attendees can participate actively in reporter-expert-peer/peer conversations around niches within K-12 educational topic areas. At live events, it may not always be easy to interact with who you want. They could be popular and busy, or there just isn’t time. In a virtual event, you can have a place where, for instance, Education Week journalists and guests staff online “discussion” rooms on a host of topics within a broader niche. This can also give good exposure to your editorial staff.
Try to bring in tougher speaker gets. There was a 90th birthday tribute to composer Stephen Sondheim a couple weeks ago and they had every star imaginable—Meryl Streep, Christine Baranski, Audra McDonald, Sutton Foster. And why shouldn’t they? Everybody’s home probably with some time on their hands. I’ve also seen online conversations with famous authors and playwrights. If there’s a speaker or two you couldn’t get before, try again now.
Get a top moderator. This is important in live events, of course. I don’t know how many Q&As I’ve been to where moderators let audience questioners go on far too long or don’t follow up enough on key questions. It might even be more important virtually. It’s so easy to turn away at home. The moderator needs to keep the conversation flowing and not get bogged down. And then she gets to choose which questions to ask; the QA&A could be the best part. When it’s live, you don’t have that choice in front of you.
Be creative. “Your exhibitors are in desperate need for leads,” said Brian Cuthbert, group vice president, Diversified Communication, who will also present at the SIPA Conference on 5 Things to Include in Every Event Contract. “So whether it’s virtual tradeshows or webinars with companies like Webex, or ON24, your vendors need leads… Everything is drying up and that lead funnel is critical. It’s about content and education. Can you create certificates, master classes, certification? Using a learning management system that tracks their progress through the experience. We’re thinking of a way to use e-learning as a component. Whether you try to replicate or go with webinars and e-learning, they’ll pay for it. Create it once in these platforms and sell it as many times as you can. It’s something we do a lot. We’ve used vFairs. The single most important thing is realistic expectations about what the sponsor and attendee can expect.”