A bunch of things I’ve learned hosting 20+ virtual events over the past 5 months.
Over the past 9 years I’ve spent in the event industry (last 2 years running events for the #p9Family), I’ve run 100s of events and faced many unusual challenges. So, when back in March we all had to start adapting to the new normal, I was pretty confident I’d be able to embrace the exclusively virtual event world easily. Don’t get me wrong, I knew I’d need to employ some different skills and also that I had to create online initiatives that would stand out from a sea of options. What I wasn’t prepared for, however, was some of the new ‘gotchas’ I’d come up against.
A very basic one I discovered early on was to always ensure you had a backup. This is especially important when running a long (in my case five hours) conference without any gaps for comfort breaks. I ended up having to sit in front of my laptop for the whole five hours straight to monitor the event and make sure all went smoothly — I am happy and relieved (pun intended) to report it did.
As we all know there are many factors that go into organizing and hosting an event online or in real life (IRL). However, I want to share two of the things I struggled with the most when making the switch to virtual events. Namely, i) choosing the right online events platform and ii) being clear on how the event will be moderated. The post ends with a few random bits I’ve learned the hard way.
I) Choosing the right platform (a.k.a. get your ducks in a row 🦆🦆🦆 )
The mother of all ducks for me was finding the right platform. There has been an abundance of virtual event tools popping up everywhere which can be a bit overwhelming. From the super-popular ones like Zoom & Hopin to the lesser-known ones like Socio & Run The World they all have their advantages and disadvantages. The main challenge is finding the one that best matches the needs of your audience. Here’s my assessment based on 3 key criteria.
If you are like me, easy to use will rank pretty high on your list. What I have discovered is that actually on most of the platforms I’ve tried (20+) it is pretty easy to build your event page but as always, the devil is in the detail. So think about your audience and your speakers then ask yourself:
- Is the registration process quick and clear? This is your first interaction with your audience which will set the tone for your event so it has to be as smooth as possible.
- Is the event page easy to navigate? If you have multiple activities happening at the same time you want to make sure you optimize the UX eliminating any accessibility barriers.
- How do you onboard the speakers? Anything more than two steps tends to get confusing because you have a very limited amount of time with your speakers.
- How does the backstage work, would the next speaker joining the backstage a bit early to prepare, interrupt the current person speaking? This is super important especially if you have consecutive sessions without a break.
- Does the platform support different slide formats? The last thing you want is to ask your speakers to reformat their slides before the event.
In other words when deciding if a platform is easy to use do not focus mainly on the backend instead try to put yourself in the shoes of your audience, step by step, in order to make sure you are creating a smooth and nice experience for all your stakeholders.
Next up on my list is the functionality of the tool. In order to decide what features you need, try to think about why you are running the event, who your audience is, and what you hope they will get out of it. For example, if connecting people is your main goal and you want an interactive experience, make sure there is a group chat function, a Q&A & polling option, a networking function (e.g. chat roulette) and the option for attendees to have their cameras on, be invited on screen for live conversations and easily exchange contact details. If your main focus is sharing knowledge, having the possibility to record the sessions and share slides and other relevant materials is a must-have.
Third up, customer service, I don’t know about you but I want all the help I can get 😊. In most situations, good and fast customer service is nice to have. When it comes to virtual events it is more of a necessity — choose a tool that offers efficient support around the clock. There are two main reasons for this. Firstly and most importantly being able to receive the help you need to fix any technical issues during the event can make the difference in having a successful event.
Secondly, if you are playing around with a new tool the chance is you will have questions and given the nature of events you will be under a tight time pressure, so being able to receive fast and knowledgeable support plays a key role.
Keep in mind that not all virtual events are the same (eg. webinar, conference, virtual round table, networking events, etc) so choose your tools and design your experiences accordingly.
II) Moderating the event (a.k.a. managing the big day 🎤)
As highlighted above an important step in hosting an online event is to make sure all your stakeholders know how the event will be moderated. Having the right process & moderator is the glue that brings all the different functions and pieces together to ensure the success of the event. The moderator is the one that sets the tone for the event, manages the expectations of the attendees, deals with the flow and the transitions between sessions, supports the speakers, and is the first responder in case anything goes wrong. It can seem like a lot to do at once, so I have broken it down into a few guidelines I usually follow:
- Welcome everybody and quickly introduce yourself
- Wait 2–5min until the majority of your expected attendees have joined, good skills in making chit chat definitely come in handy for this part
- Once you have a full house intro your company, explain the format, intro the topics and speakers
- Depending on the size of the audience either start by encouraging people to switch on their camera followed by a short intro round (<6ppl) or encourage the attendees to quickly share their name, role and company if they ask a question
- Meet the speaker backstage in order to make sure everything is working and they are ready to go live
- If you are running Q&A after the presentations support the speakers by filtering through the questions and don’t be afraid to step in when necessary.
- Encourage people to ask questions, ask a question yourself, or add something to the discussion from your own experience.
- Keep the time, let the presenter know if they are running out of time, and wrap up the session by giving kudos to the speaker and introducing the next talk.
- Once the event is done thank everyone for their participation, let them know when/if the content will be shared and mention any relevant future initiatives.
🤦♀️ III) The Random bits (I learned the hard way)
- Time zone — with virtual events most likely your audience is global so make sure the time zone of your event is clear.
- Backup — make sure more than one person on your team has admin rights, you never know when your internet connection decides to take a break.
- More backup — create a backup plan in case a speaker is late or too late, this can happen a lot easier in the virtual world and it can be much more difficult to resolve on the spot.
- Drop-out — when planning your event and your promotion strategy keep in mind the industry average drop-out rate for virtual events can be over 60%
- Test, test, test — test the tool with your team before you commit to it, test the registration process, test the session links, run individual tests with the speakers, test the tests 😜
My final and maybe most important piece of advice is to set realistic expectations for everyone involved including yourself. I believe that trying to replicate an IRL event online is not feasible. The main reason is the fact that people act and interact differently online and that’s ok. Instead of going down that rabbit hole try to identify the main goal of your event and focus on how you can deliver that and bring value to your audience.
Most of us have experience in running IRL events and are used to being perfectionists — being in total control. However, the rules of the game have changed and mistakes will happen. Learn from them and move on. At the end of the day, practice makes perfect and as Level 42 sang out in the mid-80s, we’re only human after all.