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Best Practices for Virtual Event Experience Design

It is a stressful time to be working on events right now. We hope this article makes your life a little bit easier.

Many of us are making difficult decisions about our events. Some of those decisions include the option to offer a virtual experience to our attendees. It’s a great choice, and like everything else, planning an event should be approached with intention.

There are a lot of great tools that allow you to easily put your content online and share it with people in remote locations.

But it is important to remember why people are attracted to your event in the first place. Part of my job is to assess events and interview people about why they attend. The number one reason is always networking—it beats out content, and experience, and the parties. People come to events to connect and to learn and have fun in the process.

If we just take our PowerPoint presentations, record them, and post them online, then we are not providing our attendees with what they really want.

The benefits of a human-centered virtual event

A virtual event shouldn’t be a consolation prize. It is something to be designed with a human-centered approach. Even if it is being held in place of a live event, it should still deliver a winning experience for the participant.

There are multiple reasons for this:

  • It’s a service to your community, especially to provide some normalcy and engagement in this strange time.
  • It’s an opportunity to keep the community engaged and keep your event top of mind. You don’t want people to think that missing this year’s event wasn’t a big deal, and when next year comes around, it is even more distant. You want them to feel the connection to the community, with enough FOMO to get them to mark their calendars for next year.
  • It’s a great way to show off your event to new audiences. If an event has been cancelled and people have lost their “home,” you have a way to give them a new place to land. And maybe they will really like what they see and come back.
  • It is a bit of work to make a virtual event happen, and you don’t want the end result to be that someone is half listening through 6 hours of PowerPoint presentations while checking their email or playing a game. No one wins in that situation.

How do you make a compelling virtual experience?

Stop thinking of it as a virtual event. Focus on what it really is: binge watching a conference.

Think of yourself as a TV producer. You are the Shonda Rhimes of events. To be Shonda Rhimes, you have to create compelling content, direct the show in an interesting way, create drama through storytelling, and interact with your audience.

And we are lucky enough to have access to something even Shonda doesn’t—tools that allow for direct audience engagement through chats and polling.

You wanted a chance to shake things up and try new formats. You wouldn’t be reading Otter Talk if you didn’t. This is our chance Otters. Let’s do it.

Best Practices for Virtual Event Experience Design

Think short, digestible content.

  • Not too many people are excited about 8 hours straight of PowerPoint. Think about breaking the content into chunks. A good rule of thumb is no more than 20 minutes without changing something - offering Q&A, switching presenters, or taking a break.
  • Don’t forget about the Ignite®-style format, which can work really well online. Ignite® is a 5-minute format, invented by engineers, to communicate ideas quickly yet thoroughly. It is a great option for poster presentations or even technical paper presentations, and you can offer the opportunity to connect after for a deeper dive.
  • Panel discussions also translate well online, because the conversation shifts from person to person, so they are organically a bit more compelling than listening to one person speak.

Remember the narrative arc. Think of your event like a show.

  • There should be a brief opening that helps people transition into the right mindset, like the theme song for a TV show.
  • The content should follow along in a coherent way and should connect, not be disjointed.
  • Aim for small surprises (plot twists, special guests) and a little sprinkling of entertainment. This is something your sponsors could provide. Encourage them to create fun one-minute commercials that you can display to break up the talks.
  • Think about transitions. Consider background slides and playing public domain music to help with this experience.

Think about the small details.

  • Be mindful of time zones when scheduling. The West Coast audience is unlikely to be joining an event that starts at 8am Eastern Time.
  • Set up your system to automatically mute everyone on entry, and remove the “ding” when someone joins.
  • Coach your speakers on their backgrounds, how to use the tools, how to present online, and to be mindful of barking dogs in the background.
  • Don’t try to replicate an 8-hour day. Think 90-minute time blocks with breaks in between. Without the restriction of a physical venue, there is no reason why you have to deliver everything at once. Think Netflix, not Convention Center. You can spread your sessions out over a few weeks. Or plan to run one every Wednesday until next year’s event. It’s an excellent opportunity to try out year-round engagement.

Think about any policies you need to adjust for:

  • Are there rules about quorums?
  • Is there anything in your no-show policy to consider? Many groups have a no podium/no publish policy that states people have to be onsite. These will need to be revisited.

Most importantly, create space for people to engage and connect:

  • Chats with a moderator asking questions to engage people
  • Polling and Q&A apps
  • A page where people can search for experts and connect with them
  • Some tools offer breakout rooms, or you can open a separate instance of the tool to create a breakout
  • There are so many tools for online connection that it can be overwhelming. 360 Live Media is currently evaluating 15 different tools to potentially recommend.

If you want help or advice, please contact us. We’ve been designing virtual events for eight years and have lots of great lessons learned, examples to share, and experiments to try.

Also, we are hosting a special virtual edition of the Event Innovators Exchange on 3/25 where we will dive into this a bit more deeply.

The groups that will come out ok from this temporary crisis are the groups with a curious and innovative mindset. Hang in there Otters—this is our time to shine!

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We have ideas AND we have solutions. Contact us below to take the first step in transforming your event experience. Thanks for reading and looking forward to connecting.

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