From creating virtual tradeshows to turning a three-day event into a multi-week offering, event planners are getting experimental as they go virtual.
The current time requires more than a little improvisation just to keep things moving.
And sometimes, that improvisation can turn out to be something of a creative shot in the arm. In the case of their events, organizations have been willing to try lots of new things in an experimental form to help ensure that their members can benefit, even if it’s not the same thing as a person-to-person experience.
A few notable experiments have managed to stick in recent weeks. Among them:
Building a virtual expo hall. The Toy Association, which puts on two Toy Fair marketplaces annually, has taken those events virtual by putting on a series of digital “seven-day market weeks” that will help toymakers show off their wares through a number of virtual events. In a recent news release, the association noted that the structure would allow virtual attendees to browse exhibitors by category, take part in educational sessions, and take appointments with vendors—just like at any traditional tradeshow. (The group says the virtual shows will supplement, not replace, its existing events.) “Our aim is that Toy Fair Everywhere provides the industry with the much-needed opportunity to connect and engage from afar while continuing to make essential headway for their businesses to forge ahead in the current climate,” explained Marian Bossard, the association’s executive vice president of global market events. The first virtual event will take place starting July 13.
Boosting engagement with news customers. In recent years, news publishers have found success by building events businesses that help expand on their coverage. Why can’t that work online? As Digiday notes, many of these publishers, such as the Texas Tribune, have taken steps to set these events up virtually. The Tribune’s CEO, Evan Smith, noted that the nonprofit had already incorporated livestreaming elements into its approach and was expanding on those elements. “We’ve seen no disruption in revenue to this point,” Smith told the outlet. “It’s early, so I’m not foreclosing on the option for disruption, but it’s looking good.”
Stretching out the event digitally. The Brewers Association’s Craft Brewers Conference was supposed to be a three-day event in San Antonio, Texas, this month. Instead, it’s now a five-week program with offerings throughout the month—40 total seminars over five workweeks. Notably, the virtual event has been made free by the association. “Since we’re all social distancing and getting our share of screen time, CBC Online is an opportunity to invest in your education, so that when the dust finally settles, you will emerge stronger and smarter than ever before,” the conference website states. “We promise you’ll leave with some great new ideas to bring to your job.”
Developing educational opportunities, even for nonmembers. Around the country, the Girl Scouts are taking steps to help students remain active and earn badges. And if you don’t have a membership? No big deal. The Girl Scouts of Southeastern Michigan, for example, is offering its services to members and nonmembers alike, including by offering a virtual patch program to nonregistered scouts. “We want them to know that in the midst of all that’s going on, they can still learn and grow, and have fun at home while doing it,” said Tiffiny Griffin, the group’s vice president of programs, to The News-Herald.
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The past few months of life during the coronavirus pandemic have been a whirlwind of last-minute activity and decisions. Countless employees were suddenly thrust into remote work, changing their calendars on a dime, and many companies had to move in-person gatherings and conferences to virtual meetings.
For instance, the United Nations — known for its formal meetings and conferences — began teleconferencing with mixed results, according to Devex reporting from late April 2020. Not accustomed to working virtually, U.N. employees had to pivot to recover after initial hiccups with online meetings.
A June 2020 Harvard Business Review piece outlines a similar situation for Adobe. The brand had to cancel its annual Nevada convention abruptly in light of the pandemic. Rather than lose the chance to bring everyone together in one physical location, though, Adobe moved its conference online — and more than quintupled the guest list.
Making online miracles out of potential mayhem
Your company might not be as well-known as the U.N. or Adobe, but you’ve likely experienced the need for unplanned, urgent virtual meetings to deal with time-sensitive information during COVID-19. That won’t stop anytime soon.
You’ll continue to be bombarded by all kinds of unexpected information. Budgets will be lost and, in some cases, found. Markets will shift. The government could release regulations affecting your operations. These shifting sands mean you can expect to arrange and execute plenty of last-minute meetings. That can be a tall order, but it’s not too tall if you’re prepared.
Salesforce, as an example, had to switch its March 2020 World Tour Sydney event from an in-person gathering to an online experience with two weeks’ notice. Their leaders stepped up to the challenge and moved everything to a livestream format. The result? The company surpassed the expectations with a record 80,000 participants.
Handling last-minute meetings with confidenceTo be sure, Salesforce’s event planning was mostly done. The company could leverage talk tracks, sessions and content, making the move to a virtual stage slightly less arduous. Organizers didn’t need to start from scratch — they just needed to reframe a live experience to fit a digital format.
You might not be as lucky or well-equipped with resources the next time you face an urgent situation that requires immediate communication and collaboration through virtual channels. And that’s OK. You can still successfully host meetings and events online by practicing the three techniques below.
1. Map out a fluff-free agenda and guidelines.
You just realized you need to set up an online gathering. Don’t panic. Instead, channel your nervous energy into creating and disseminating an airtight agenda. Having a set schedule ensures all topics remain relevant to attendees. Plus, you can distribute the agenda ahead of time to encourage ordinarily quiet people to participate more fully by giving them time to think.
While working on the agenda, consider the overall length of your meeting to ensure it doesn’t spin out of control or devolve into endless segments. Thirty minutes is a good baseline. Remember: virtual-meet fatigue is real — real enough to warrant coverage by the BBC. Keep sessions tight, allowing only priority items to make the final cut. It’s easier to schedule a follow-up meeting than force people to stare at their screens for hours.
As a final note, craft meeting guidelines surrounding expected protocol, such as when participants should unmute themselves or whether everyone is required to appear on video. Mention whether you’re archiving and recording the communication to share with anyone who is unable to attend. If you’re worried about this, you can hire a digital producer to facilitate the production aspects and leave you to focus on the content.
2. Divvy up assignments and take a practice run.
Have you ever sat in a meeting without clear leadership or purpose? It’s frustrating and often disastrous. Even if you’re pressed for time, determine who needs to be present and who needs to speak. Figure out who will handle the technical aspects and who will be front and center. Even if you’re planning a seemingly straightforward meeting, outline everyone’s role to prevent missing anything important.
After fleshing out an event management document that includes specific assignments, share it. The more prepared everyone is, the better the event will flow. Oh, and make sure to practice everything from screen-sharing to using touchscreen interactive software. Videos don’t always look flawless when played over teleconferencing platforms. Slide decks can freeze and screens can become pixelated. Technology is designed to make your meetings productive and compelling, but it’s always prudent to give everything a trial run before going live.
3. Answer questions candidly and with empathy.
If you’ve asked attendees for questions in advance, distribute them to every presenter to make Q&A sessions efficient. If you haven’t requested audience questions, try to anticipate the questions participants might ask. Once you have a good idea of what people might want to know, you can consider your responses and write down bullet points. When you’re leading the meeting, answer into the camera with conviction and honesty.
When Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg faced 25,000 unhappy workers via a video call in June 2020, he could have prepared and delivered a clear answer in response to concerns about the controversy swirling around the president’s "shoot and loot" posts. He didn’t, according to Vox’s coverage. Instead, he talked about trust with employees, using language that made him seem less like their boss and more like an equally concerned colleague. His words weren’t eloquent, but they spoke volumes because they were authentic. Even though your job is to plan for your last-minute meetings, don’t plan so much that you sound robotic.
It’s tough to pull together an award-winning show without much notice, but it certainly can be done. The next time you’re faced with whipping up an online meeting, take a deep breath and apply the aforementioned best practices. Over time, you’ll get a reputation for hosting every impromptu event just as well as you would have in-person.
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The distractions of home can make it easy to ignore a virtual event. Give your annual meeting added punch by supporting it with innovative content.
There’s a certain level of commitment to attending a live event.
When someone pays money to register for an annual meeting or tradeshow, they’ve already committed to showing up and taking part in your event. And they’re generally looking forward to discovering a new or familiar place as they interact with their colleagues and peers.
But these are different times, thanks largely to the complexities of COVID-19. What was once live is now virtual. This changes the equation, not only for event organizers and sponsors, but also attendees.
In a webinar study that has some important takeaways for digital events, GoToWebinar finds that virtual marketing events have an attendance rate of just 44 percent. With everything virtual there is to choose from, and everyone working at or near a comfortable couch, how do you make your virtual event stand out as one that must be attended?
DRIVE VIRTUAL ATTENDANCE WITH CONTENT
Here are a few ways it could help your next event:
It can provide an additional funnel. Content can help get people in the door at a time when traditional buzz may be harder to build, which is why it needs to take on a more significant role now. For example, rather than simply sharing ramp-up content on social media a week ahead of the event, consider planning for a more robust build-out months in advance—maybe driven by a vlog, a series of behind-the-scenes newsletters to members, or perhaps even interactive quizzes.
It’s a good way to add context. Often at annual meetings, attendees tend to stumble into breakout sessions based on the title or just to see if they might find a gem—perhaps with the help of a printed conference guide or app. In a virtual context, this sort of self-discovery is a lot tougher to do. Fortunately, content can save the day. A well-considered pre-event strategy can build excitement around your speakers (keynoters and breakout speakers alike) and illustrate your event’s breadth. That can help differentiate your offering from just another glossy webinar.
It can add fresh value to your event. Virtual events pose a clear challenge, since attendees may not give them the same weight as your in-person events. But that’s only the half of it: Sponsors and exhibitors may feel shortchanged without a convention hall to highlight their wares. This is where content can save the day, not only by supplementing the digital event itself—by curating hours of coverage into thoughtful articles and video coverage—but by giving those sponsors and exhibitors effective alternatives to the convention hall. If designed right, a strong content program can offer both attendees and sponsors something very impactful: a leave-behind component (maybe an in-depth curated resource or a piece of swag), that lives on well past the event itself.
MAKE ROOM FOR PRINT, TOO
Considering everything else about most events is already digital, it’s important to think about nondigital content strategies, too. While print content has been less popular than digital content in recent years, ironically, it may be just what the doctor ordered in the current climate—adding much-needed texture to your virtual meeting. There are many directions printed content for a virtual meeting can go.
For example, researchers have found that, in a learning environment, people tend to remember more when they write things down with a paper and pen. This is a clear opportunity to create dedicated notebooks for attendees that you can send to their homes, complete with additional educational resources.
But even before the meeting begins, there are plenty of ways to reach your attendees through print, which offers the personal touch we so desperately crave right now. You can send printed letters or handwritten postcards (perhaps penned by the keynote speaker); create a conference magazine or newsletter; or even offer a “special gift” to attendees pre-event--something political fundraisers are doing a lot these days. It’s a small way to close the gap between a live event and a virtual one.
Physical events give your association the important opportunity to showcase its weight and scale. Virtual events can do the same. They will just require a bit more planning and ingenuity, beyond simply livestreaming presentations, to make it happen. With a carefully crafted content strategy melding both the digital and tangible worlds, you could see success rivaling the good old days of destination meetings.
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Taking your conference virtual doesn’t mean you have to lose the networking and interaction that occurs at your in-person events. Some ideas for building better online engagement.
As associations continue to host virtual conferences due to COVID-19, many are concerned about the ability to replicate the interaction, networking, engagement, and hallway conversations that are staples of face-to-face events.
During a March 2020 ASAE webcast called “Tips and Tools for Creating and Awesome Virtual Event Experience,” the two presenters said it is definitely possible—you just need to be thoughtful and creative.
Here are five ideas that 360 Live Media Director of Experience Design Beth Surmont, CMP, CAE, and Matchbox Virtual Cofounder and CEO Arianna Rehak shared during that webinar that are still relevant today:
Prepare your speakers. “It is extremely difficult to present to nobody,” Surmont said. “A lot of speakers feed off their audience. So, the first time you present to no one, it is very strange experience and it can throw people off.” That means associations need to talk to their presenters about what to expect—and also what they can do to deliver the best experience to attendees. If they’ll be on video, that includes having a clean background (“think newcasts,” she said), wearing clothing that is not distracting, and having front lighting.
Get your audience ready too. “It’s very important to bring a specific level of intention to your virtual event to help your audience understand how they can have the best experience,” Surmont said. Tell them how to engage. “For example, submit your questions here. Raise your hand this way,” she said.
Surmont suggested thinking of engagement through four dimensions: physical, physiological, intellectual, and emotional. For the physical dimension, for example, consider where people are participating from and offer tips on how they can create the best environment for themselves: “Keep your door closed, or put a sign on your door so you won’t be disturbed,” Surmont said.
Build a virtual environment that’s conducive to conversation. “While pre-recording sessions often gets a bad rap,” Rehak said, doing so allows speakers to engage actively in the conversation that is going on while attendees are watching their session. “The speakers love this by the way,” she said. “They are seeing their content come to life.”
If you do go this route, Rehak recommends having chat animators who “create a positive conversational environment that signals to other that they can join,” she said. “That can be as simple as being the first to say, ‘Hey, really excited to be here and get started.’ That will set the right tone.”
Host virtual roundtable discussions. “If you want attendees to dive into a specific topic, you may want to consider video chat breakout rooms,” Rehak said. “It’s really a way for folks to meaningfully connect with one another.”
To make this happen, have a designated facilitator in each room so the conversation stays focused and gets people talking. If your association is unable to provide multiple facilitators, Rehak suggest supplying each room with a list of guiding questions. “You want to give them a sense of purpose around their interaction together,” she said.
Offer a little bit of fun between sessions. Create moments between sessions that capture people’s attention. For example, you can provide additional content during breaks, such as meditation or a trivia game. Or if you have awards to present, consider playing short videos of the winners. “Really, the world is your oyster in terms of that you can offer attendees during these breaks,” Rehak said.
What ideas have you implemented for introducing engagement and conversation during your virtual events? Please share in the comments.
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