As The Economist recently pointed out, late flights, noisy conference halls, time away from the office, bad coffee, and too much swag gave way in 2020 to a “new set of clichés: Forgetting to unmute. Arcane sign-up processes. Over-complicated technology platforms. Connectivity snafus.” Needed kids and pet breaks. Welcome to the not-so-new normal.
Having looked at virtual event life from both sides now—as an attendee and as part of the team putting it on—I can offer at least a partial list of lessons, good and bad, as we push forward to 2021. A move to hybrid events will hopefully follow by the fall, but in the meantime we are still in virtual event mode.
Put as much energy into attending as into registering. This may be one of the biggest differences. Yes, a couple people may have opted for the beach when our BIMS event was in Fort Lauderdale, but most had paid and traveled and were coming downstairs for the sessions. But now, with registration fees much lower or often free and Zoom fatigue hanging over us, we need to remind attendees why they registered and that our event looks even better now. This should go all the way up to the event. I’ve seen analytics where an email 10 minutes in gets a good amount of clicks.
Conduct a dry run. The Economist agreed on this one. “Invite presenters and exhibitors to tech-check sessions to introduce them to your chosen platform’s idiosyncrasies, and check network links, cameras and lighting. Ask presenters to use exactly the same set-up they will be using for the live event.” This may not always be possible, but if it is, it will help alleviate some things that the 15 minutes or less that a speaker joins you on the event day doesn’t allow time for. There’s just so much more that a dry run will do for you than the explanations of the best platform organizer.
Give as clear instructions as possible for attendees—and then go over them. This is all still pretty new, and as technologies get better, much will still be new. “Let participants know what is happening and when, with easy-to-navigate event schedules. If your event contains multiple tracks, make it easy for attendees to compare what’s happening in different tracks at a given time.” We get frustrated so easily these days—I’m put off when the toaster goes wrong. So your extra attention will be appreciated—especially when you want more networking. Set up a helpline to assist attendees and provide a separate “backstage” helpline for presenters.
Schedule breaks, anticipate shorter attention spans. We had a running joke here after the very content-strong SIPA 2020 event in June. One session went right into another with hardly time for a break, if you know what I mean. So lunch, bathroom breaks, checks on the kids and pets meant missing session time. It’s certainly a balance—you want to provide value above all else. But there’s just so much we can absorb now. Of course, also emphasize the on-demand-ness of all the content. “If it doesn’t work for you now, come back and consume at a time that does!” But again, this needs reminders and easy access as well.
Try not to panic in your marketing. People register late for virtual events—often in the last week. It’s just a fact. See what the analytics are telling you about your early emails. What are people looking at? Have a strategy and adjust to what seems to be getting eyeballs. And definitely keep at it until the end.Give extra focus to that last week.
Be okay with—and maybe even encourage—recorded sessions, as long as there are live Q&As. I’ve always been a proponent of live talks, but what’s gained from the spontaneity and “this is live” button can be made up for in the Q&A. And there will just be so many other things that you have to worry about, that if by recording sessions you can reduce that list, do it.
Diversify your speakers, in every sense. Our FISD Division just had a special event day in December, and for one particular session, I recall seeing perhaps five of the six speakers were women. For an international financial services group, this has not always been the case. It was just so impressive seeing this, and a big audience followed. Spend a little extra time reaching out. Diverse experts are out there; they may just be a little under the radar and not in your rolodex. Reach out on LinkedIn or in other places where you might find new speakers. The Plug is one new site focusing on Black entrepreneurs that our BIMS keynote, Sherrell Dorsey, founded and runs.
Networking is needed and wine tastings are being duplicated for a reason. At BIMS we had an excellent sommelier lead us through some great wine questions. People asked, they chatted and spoke to each other, they smiled and they sipped a bit as well. We had ours a couple hours after the last session, around 4:30. If you do this, send reminders.
And three more from The Economist:
Set clear expectations for presenters on technical standards, dress code (how casual?), and whether you expect them to use a virtual background or a real one. Ensure they have a decent webcam, microphone and lighting setup. Ship equipment to presenters in advance if necessary, particularly for keynote speakers. Provide a ‘how to prepare’ document that summarizes all requirements in one place.
Give every session a moderator, even those with just a single speaker. Don’t ask a presenter to be a host, manage chat sessions, or decide whom to answer during the Q&A. Speakers have enough going on. (One added tip—encourage communication between those moderators and the platform people, so they know exactly what will be taking place.)
Think about providing transcripts. Pre-recording sessions means event organizers can arrange for text chats, closed-captioning, even ASL interpretation. Even if you do the presentations live, providing transcripts later is enthusiastically welcomed. And there is now a wide range of AI tools that can provide accurate transcripts.