Few industries have been more affected by the coronavirus pandemic than event planning. While most sectors have been able to open at least temporarily in 2020, physical events have been on hold indefinitely in many countries as large gatherings have been banned and many people continue to be wary of mixing freely in substantial numbers.

While this has been devastating for the industry, the one glimmer of hope is just how much people want to continue attending events. Whether personal or professional, the desire to meet peers, network, share experiences and learn certainly has not gone away.

And, as restrictions remain, in many cases virtual events have stepped in to fill the gap. To be done properly, and to be of value to attendees, however, virtual events can’t simply be online versions of their physical counterparts. Virtual events have their own strengths, they need to be personalised to meet the needs of guests and they need to take into account that some things are more of a challenge when done virtually. So, how do you plan a virtual event that guests will love?

What is a virtual event?

Virtual events come in many forms. It may be as simple as tuning into a webinar or panel discussion, attending a networking event over video or the more complex virtual tradeshow, complete with booth visits and virtual meetings. What’s important is that you build an event that your target market wants, make it clear how it’ll work and utilise the right tools to ensure you have all the features you need to create an engaging, enjoyable experience.

Five key features your virtual event needs

So, once you’ve taken the decision to host a virtual event, where do you start actually putting one together? In truth, there isn’t much difference between virtual and physical events when it comes to preparing your content, and the focus should be on building a strong offering that will make your event unmissable. This begins with an attractive agenda.

Develop your agenda

It’s here that you will start to notice the differences between preparing for an in-person event and a virtual one. For example, during physical events everyone will be in the same place; when it comes to virtual events, however, your audience could be spread across countries and even continents, making timing a bigger factor in your agenda.

This means that keynotes and more popular sessions may be better of being held in the afternoon UK time so that European and North American attendees can also join.

The decision also needs to be made as to whether you’ll run multiple content streams simultaneously, as would often happen at physical events, or if you’ll focus on one session at a time, and whether all your content will be live-streamed or if you’ll opt for a mix or live and pre-recorded content. There’s no right or wrong answer here but your decision will affect your technology and streaming requirements as well as impact your agenda so it needs to be made early on in the planning stages.

It’s also important to factor in breaks and downtime within the agenda. When people are attending a physical event they’re less likely to be distracted by emails, work, family and all the other elements that can impact a remote working day. When arranging a virtual event, including short breaks so people can keep up to date with other demands without missing out on important content can make for a much more engaged audience.

  1. Ensure engagement

One area in which virtual events are often said to fall short when compared to their physical counterparts is in terms of audience engagement. And, while it’s true that a basic webinar stream doesn’t offer much in the way of interaction, it’s also the case that there are many ways in which engagement can be encouraged to bring it closer to in-person levels.

Again, it’s important to plan this in at an early stage to make sure each and every session is as engaging as possible. This could include briefing speakers to ensure they include elements such as quizzes or polls in their sessions, creating the opportunity for regular Q&As, offering a raised hand function, and so on. While you don’t want this to get in the way of your content, it is important to dot these activities throughout a session, particularly lengthy ones. It’s also a good idea to invest in a moderator who is experienced in hosting virtual events. Not only does this add another visual and vocal element to the session, but it also creates a way to bring the audience in to a session by asking their questions or steering the conversation to those points the audience is focusing on.

While engaging with the content and the speaker is vital, it’s often the more informal conversations that people feel are missing from virtual events, so also consider ways that attendees can interact with one another. This could involve the addition of smaller breakout areas, end of event happy hours or even online meeting planners that encourage attendees to catch up after the event. All of these will add value to the attendee experience and offer something that’s ever closer to the in-person event.

  1. Choose your tools

To achieve all of this, however, you’ll need to evaluate the virtual event platforms and tools available and choose one that is capable of meeting your needs. Costs can vary hugely here depending on functionality, so again be clear on what your audience expects and what truly matters to them before investing in a high-spec platform that you won’t fully utlilise.

When choosing your platform, a key consideration will be functionality. Does your preferred option enable the networking and interaction that we know is so important? Do you need additional features such as VR to add that extra impact to your product launch or demo? If your platform doesn’t meet the needs of your content and your audience then it isn’t the right one for you.

Other factors to bear in mind include ease of use and access for attendees – think simple access to sessions without the need for passwords and usernames that can be easily forgotten – the level of support available from the provider both for organisers and attendees, and the level of customisation available to ensure your brand and those of your sponsors is clearly visible throughout.

  1. Utilise data

The right platform will also continue to benefit organisers both during and after the event in the form of the data and analytics it provides. The ability to delve into real-time analytics, analyse engagement and identify touchpoints throughout your event is crucial in learning and developing your offering, and it’ll provide you with information on your audience you’re unlikely to be able to access elsewhere.

Key metrics to look at include the basics such as registration numbers both by session and overall and how these translate into actual attendees, and the open rate and click through rate of your marketing emails promoting the event. Other areas to consider include demographic information of attendees – remember your reach is likely to be much wider at a virtual event so location information may help you to target or refine future offerings, both physical and virtual. Data can also help you gauge audience engagement, by looking at the response rate to your quizzes, polls and other activities; social media activity can also be a useful stat here, highlighting if your content resonates with your audience.

If you’re offering virtual meetings and networking, look at the number of people who exchanged contact information, the number of meetings that were set up and even the number of people who engaged with a sponsor in some way. The latter piece of data will be crucial in showcasing the value of sponsorship at future events, along with qualified sales leads your able to pass on.

  1. Enable feedback

Another key factor is feedback. As with a physical event, it’s important to evaluate your event once it’s happened in order to learn and grow for any future sessions you plan to host, and to do so quickly before people’s attentions turn elsewhere. The good news is, this is often easier in the virtual world than in the real one, and the right event platform can again be of help here.

A useful first step would be to send out an attendee feedback survey to gather information about their thoughts on the virtual event. Here specific questions can be asked on factors such as quality of content, overall experience, whether they’d attend future events or recommend them to others. This latter point is of particular value when launching a virtual event. The net promoter score as it’s known can be of huge value in gauging how your event has been received. To ensure that you can utilise this data fully, be sure to ask specific questions that can be answered by selecting a numeric option.

Whether planning physical or virtual events, the fundamentals are key – good content that is of value to your audience, engaging sessions and bringing people together. Doing this in a virtual setting can be more of a challenge, but technology limitations shouldn’t add to that challenge. In fact, a robust, reliable and professional live streaming solution provides an opportunity to extend your audience beyond its traditional members, opening up new geographies and industries to your offering and providing you with content that lasts well beyond the dates of your event.

If you want to discover the value of live streaming and virtual events, or you need help producing/planning your next virtual event, get in touch with the StriveAV Live team.