Perhaps one of the most unexpected outcomes of the last year of unexpected outcomes is the fact that virtual event platforms have become a huge point of discussion.
But I’m going to say this: forget about the platform. At least, to start with.
That might be an unexpected statement from someone with an events platform to promote, but I say it with good reason. The technology is not, and will never be, the great panacea. You will not find the answer to all of your problems at the bottom of a digital tool.
I’m going to recommend a wholly different approach: think about the delegate experience first, before anything else. Ask yourself this: how do you want your delegate to walk away feeling, after the event? What do you want your delegate to say about the event to his or her peers?
Think about how you are going to orchestrate the event in order to help the delegates to navigate the experience, friction-free. Because the potential for distraction is huge.
There are three ingredients to achieving a friction-free event: Thematic, dramatic, and fun.
As I’ve already mentioned – technology cannot solve your problems. What engages people at an event is the content. Content needs to be rewarding, and it needs to have value. All that you need your event platform to do is to be able to make that content sing.
By focusing on the user experience, things will be made much clearer. In particular, are there ways to create thematic content? Can you tailor your content to attendees, and run sessions that are as specific as possible?
When it comes to the format of your event, challenge yourself. Deconstruct the average nine to five event and consider new ways of using time. It is also very difficult to instantly move 300 people to another part of the event when they are attending physically. But with a virtual event you can guide that number of people almost instantly, at the push of a button.
Consider how you can create a thematic structure to your event by using separate rooms in which to provide buckets of content. You can split delegates into thematic groups and direct them to the most relevant content at the right time. By orchestrating the event experience in this way, using content that is consistently beneficial to delegates, you can reward them for arriving and then reward them again for staying.
But signposting needs to come to the fore. Remember, at a physical event a fortune would have been spent on signage to create a visual narrative of what is happening where. The same approach needs to be taken online.
People engage with online events in a very different way to how they take part in real life events. There may have been certain touchpoints that were a regular feature of your physical events – perhaps you would make a big ceremonial deal of the registration process. But the likelihood is that these features won’t hit the spot anymore.
But you still need to instil your events with drama, to maintain people’s interest. So how do you do it? My answer is to look to TV for your guide, because your virtual event is going to be a lot closer to TV as a medium than to those physical events you once organised.
Develop a channel strategy that emulates your favourite TV channel. Think about how TV shows signpost content. Consider the use of teasers and other visual cues of what is coming up, and recap over the content already presented. Bookend presentations with interesting short snippets. Use stings, links and thumbnails to differentiate from other events and trap delegates in your bingeable loop.
These are the tricks that TV uses to create engagement, and they are now your tools to grab your audience’s attention.
No matter how serious your subject matter is, you can still have fun with your content.
Look for ways to break up your content into digestible nuggets. You may have always opened your event with a one hour slot, but as we already know, what works for real life doesn’t necessarily work for virtual. So, chop up that presentation into three sets of 20 minutes and throw in a round of quick-fire questions for each presenter.
You can also bring the fun by providing delegates with engagement and control. Give them the opportunity to curate their own content. Ask them what they want in the morning and give it to them in the afternoon. You could event allow them to completely create their own experience, which can be extremely powerful.
In time you can develop your own style of house content, something which is recognisable and bespoke to your events. This might seem out of reach, but you can do it by taking small steps to take your content forward. And in time you may even find that the style you’ve developed for online bleeds into your hybrid and live events as well, providing a 360 degree identity for your brand.
Virtual events afford you with the opportunity to try these things out to see if they work. Don’t be afraid to experiment - think about what might pique an attendee’s curiosity and then try it. Your platform should be able to do this at no extra cost to you.
My final thought is this: there is no silver bullet. Just as there is no perfect format for holding a real-life event, there is no formula for the perfect virtual event. It is ever-changing. That’s why you need to be able to constantly adapt to the needs and whims of online attendees.
By creating an agile workflow that allows your events to morph freely and respond to ever-changing online attendee needs and requirements, you will give yourself the best chance of events success on 2021 and beyond.
Christopher is the Chief Creative Officer and Co-founder of Totem