Vote on Questions, Reimagine Swag and Get Out a Bit to Reenergize Your Events

How I would’ve loved to vote on which questions get asked at the many panels and interviews I attended in-person pre-pandemic. Now we can. What else can we do to liven up our virtual events in 2021? Swag, speaker walks, a new networking game. One thing is for sure–it’s worth the risk to be a little creative.

In a park in Palatine, Ill., in March last year—with birds really chirping—a bundled-up Wylecia Wiggs Harris, CEO of the American Health Information Management Association (AHIMA), addressed members on Facebook Watch before taking a much-needed walk. She wanted to assure everyone that she and her colleagues were okay, and, of course, make sure that members were doing okay as well.

It was a very effective use of video and the elements. I thought of this again when reading a 2021 recommendation that we encourage our speakers to take us somewhere new this year—literally.

“In-person keynotes and education sessions are compelling partly because dynamic speakers walk around the stage or even draw a picture or do something else creative while presenting,” Samantha Whitehorne wrote in Associations Now. “Find a way to get your virtual presenters to do the same. During his prerecorded keynote for the Turnaround Management Association’s IMPACT 2020 virtual meeting, Duncan Wardle, former head of innovation at Disney, walked around, used different camera angles, and had large paper slides hanging behind him that he illustrated himself.”

While most agree that virtual events will take a supporting role—in the name of hybrid—once in-person events return, that does not mean that they can’t improve this year. Here are a few more ideas that I’ve seen that can improve the virtual event experience.

Network like the old days. Fast Company calls Gather “half video game, half video call.” “Spend time with your friends, coworkers, and communities like you would in real life,” their site says. Everyone at a gathering is “represented as little controllable avatars that can stroll around and talk to each other. When your avatar approaches another one, the real-life video from your respective webcams will pop up on-screen so you can converse face-to-face. Walk away, and the video disappears. Small talk has never felt so fun!” It’s free for up to 25 users, with paid plans starting at $7 per user, per month, for additional features.

Explore new ways to pick questions for Q&A. (From The Economist) At one conference, questions were displayed in a queue. Attendees could donate “points” to other people’s questions based on their interests—like a Reddit upvote. The moderator then asked the highest-ranked questions first. This ensured that the questions asked were those that mattered most to attendees.

Provide transcripts. (Also from The Economist) “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.”

Consider mingle-with-speaker sessions after panels. We did this for our BIMS 2020 conference—letting attendees chat with one another and the speakers on Zoom directly after a session. I was the lookout/moderator for a few of these. We did not have huge crowds join us in the Zoom rooms—maybe 4-6 people—but the people who were in there said they got great value by being able to ask questions in this more intimate space. So it felt worth it.

Reach out to presenters—look for enthusiasm. Asked what makes a virtual event great, 49% of respondents in a recent survey said when “presenters are enthusiastic and engaging.” Three in four respondents (74%) said passion and good online delivery were essential qualities in a great presenter—well ahead of being knowledgeable about the content (22%). To improve events, 51% said “being able to access the presenter after the event in an online forum” (see previous bullet) and almost a third said smoother technology.

Re-imagine swag. This idea—sending items to participants ahead of time—really picked up steam as the year went along and will probably get even more popular in early 2021. In late June, the American Society for Clinical Laboratory Science and the Association of Genetic Technologists sent swag boxes to attendees—JAM Packs—that included a kazoo. Guess what the concerts were called? The Daily Kazoom. BIO Digital (Biotechnology Innovation Organization) took place in June with more than 7,000 participants from 64 countries. To foster community, they changed the meeting’s tagline from “Beyond” to “Nothing Stops Innovation.” Then, in advance of the conference, BIO mailed all speakers a custom mug with the new tagline.