The pivot to online or hybrid conferences can feel daunting; you want to deliver client value, but you may have a lot of questions. How do you design your event so it still fulfils its objectives? Are there strategies for keeping your conferences exciting, engaging and energetic? How do you create opportunities for participants to genuinely connect with each other and engage with your great content? Is there a way to re-imagine networking online? Can sponsors have meaningful experiences and make meaningful connections that meet their business goals?
Over the last four months we’ve been researching, learning, and leveraging our decades of physical event design experience to create 10 guiding principles for designing online events that deliver.
1 Know your event objective
Great events deliver on their purpose. It seems even more important now to sense-check in the move to online that all your stakeholders are aligned on your event objectives and how you will evaluate success. We use our Event Narrative Framework methodology to work through event purpose and design. We all are likely to be delivering online or hybrid events for some time and will want to demonstrate measurable results.
2 Content is king
Conferences have always been about the content – your on-the-pulse keynotes, those thoughtful firesides, fascinating panels – and that’s exponentially true in the next normal. Your delegates attend because you’re convening the right people talking about timely topics, and content-rich events transfer online better than many.
Online conference content needs to be even more tightly curated; conference programmes with shorter and more focused sessions; delegates attention spans may be pulled in multiple directions, so you may want to direct sessions and script panel outlines to ensure that focused content keeps people’s participation.
3 Think creatively about event design
In the early days – back in March – some organisers were simply transferring their physical event online. The opportunities for virtual are varied; reaching a wider geographical audience, no travel limitations, no room-size limitations and enhanced event sustainability all help re-imagine events.
We’re looking at modular content, timing shifts to attract international time-zones. However, an event is about gathering; bringing people together at a time and in a (virtual) place, and so an online focal point makes sense, albeit with content possibly spread over a slightly longer period, and with breaks, including engagement and networking possibilities, to reflect participants home-based lives. To create the momentum of an event, a short time period (day / week) rather than a month of webinars, might create more of a buzz.
4 Know your audience
While physical events are often about “time out”, away from the office, virtual events are “time in”, and so you are vying for your participants’ attention and may need to rethink how people are consuming your content.
Of course everyone is different; you may have multitaskers, listening or watching while also doing something else, binge watchers who watch the whole thing either live or possibly the recorded sessions, and intentional schedulers who will diarise the sessions they want to attend in advance.
Your event design needs to consider a balance of modular content, with long enough time blocks to encourage online conversation, and allowing breaks so delegates do not suffer from screen fatigue.
5 Live or pre-record
There seems to be a debate about live content or pre-recorded; we’re recommending a mix. An entirely pre-recorded event, while lower risk, does not create the energy of live responses, polls and questions. However, a great keynote speaker – and we’re finding you can sometimes reach an enhanced level of speaker when the ask is 30 minutes from their spare room – may only be available for a pre-record, although ideally can come online for the live Q&A.
6 Talk to production early
Hybrid and virtual events are effectively TV shows; the quality of event production and broadcast impacts how participants experience it, and so it’s vital to work with your livestreaming and production team early to ensure the programme you have in mind is deliverable from a production perspective. Start early, and loop in your production professionals to ensure that any challenges are dealt with up front. You’ll also want to consider creating interstitials and idents for slick crossovers between sessions. Branded event studios, where those speakers who are able to travel can record high quality broadcast content are part of all our futures.
7 A strong event host
Even more so than physical events, online events needs a strong MC to greet and guide people through the event, and we’re finding that professionals with broadcast TV experience are skilled at bringing people along
8 The all-important engagement
Enabling participants to engage with each other, speakers and sponsors is one of the ways that your live-online gathering differentiates itself from a series of linked webinars. We’re looking at platforms with live Q&A, question upvoting, chat and polls at the side of the broadcast stage, as well as 1:1 video chat and random networking; just like when you meet someone at the coffee station. You could also create themed roundtables and “coffee lounge”. There’s a vast range of activities that speak to participants “authentic selves”; yoga and drink mixing demos in breaks, competitions, gamification, virtual goodie bags or online scavenger hunts… the list is endless.
Virtual sponsor booths – with short video, 1:1 networking, and active lead generation techniques such as downloading white papers can help sponsors achieve the value they seek, and you may want to enhance this with session content or roundtables.
10 Don’t forget the tech
Once you’ve established your event design, giving you a functionality “wish list”, you can start selecting your online event platform; let the event drive the tech. The market is fast-moving, and there are new event platforms coming online – be prepared to compromise and find one that meets the majority of your needs. You’ll need to evaluate whether you’re looking for an all-in-one platform, or whether you’re open to integrating video broadcast, Q&A or other elements.
With a lack of clarity from the government on when physical events might open up, virtual event design seems a skill we’re needing to learn fast.
A vesion of this article appears in the August 2020 issue of Conference News.