8 Tips for Connecting Attendees Virtually

For a digital event to be successful, it must offer plentiful networking opportunities.


21 Virtual Sponsorship Ideas
There are many creative ways to incorporate revenue-generating opportunities into online events. Get tips from industry experts here.

While the pandemic has grounded travel and severely limited face-to-face gatherings, digital events have thrived. Even now, as all 50 states are in some phase of reopening, virtual meetings continue to flourish. Virtual event platforms were noted as the top priority among meeting planners polled in Northstar Meetings Group's latest Pulse Survey. Many event professionals expect the technology will maintain its popularity and that a hybrid approach will emerge as the new industry standard.  

"I've been an event planner for 20 years and I've been doing virtual events for eight years, but I think there's a big difference between the pre-COVID and post-COVID approach to virtual," said Beth Surmont, director of design experience at the event agency 360 Live Media. "Nobody had high expectations for a pre-COVID event. It was the sort of the thing you can watch and do other things at the same time. But when COVID-19 hit and virtual became our only way of coming together, it increased in both importance and expectation."

Surmont, who spoke recently at Northstar Meetings Group's Women In Leadership Meetings + Incentives event, said she has lost track of how many digital meetings she has produced and attended in the past three months. But according to her, the key ingredient among those that have been successful is plenty of opportunities for attendees to network and connect.

"We live in a time where we're craving connection with people outside of our homes," she said. "There's a lot of people who are living alone and not getting to really see or interact with people right now. So, creating these moments of connection in the virtual space has been extremely valuable."

Below, Surmont shares some of her top tips for how to connect virtual attendees and make your meetings more impactful.

Know Your Audience

Networking comes in many forms and different groups will have different expectations. To ensure your sessions are successful, Surmont recommends evaluating the personality and needs of your attendee base early in the planning process. For example, how tech-savvy are they and how interactive are they looking to get?

"The thing with networking is people use it as a very generic term, but there's lots of different types of networking," Surmont pointed out. "There's networking for getting new ideas, networking for trying to advance my career, and there's networking for just seeing my friends and colleagues and having fun," she said. "Always start with 'what do your attendees want to accomplish?' If they want ideas, don't put them in a space where they can't share ideas or talk to each other. If they want to just have a drink and relax, don't put them in a place where you're expecting them to dive into serious content."

Keep it Small

Networking sessions are best kept small, so attendees aren't overwhelmed or afraid to speak up. Surmont suggests breaking out into groups of 10-12 people.

"I think the best way to engage people virtually is to put them together in a small group to solve the problem or share information," she said. "A really nice model is you listen to a speaker talk about something and then you break people into groups to discuss. It's best to keep it small; the same number of people that you would normally sit around a round table is usually the measurement that I use."

Assign a Facilitator

To get the conversation going and ensure it continues to run smoothly, planners should consider assigning a facilitator to each group. This could be either a staff member or speaker. Whichever you choose, they should be prepared to lead the conversation and step in with questions or comments during silences.

"You don't want to just throw people into a chatroom or video breakout without either having a leader, or giving them clear instructions on something to do," Surmont said. "In the beginning when we were doing some experimenting, we sent people off into breakout rooms and when there wasn't somebody in there to help drive the conversation, we found that people were sort of shy to engage."

Invite the Family

By now, we're all used to seeing family members walk through the background of a meeting or having kids crash in, mid-sentence. As planners adjust their events to cater to the at-home attendee, they might also want to consider creating a few family-friendly options. This could include a virtual trivia session, yoga class or more.

"We're used to designing in-person events for people to come just by themselves and meet other people. But in this really interesting space that we're in at the moment, we're designing for people who are home with their families," Surmont noted. "So how cool is it at the end of the day to let your kid come and watch a magician with you or join a virtual game night? We've gotten a lot of positive feedback on those types of things."

Balance Education and Fun

Fun, interactive sessions can help break up a longer event, keep attendees engaged and create a more memorable experience. But these lighthearted sessions like virtual escape rooms, games and quizzes should be thoughtfully balanced with peer-to-peer discussions on event content and industry challenges.

"I would say to use the fun stuff like a seasoning," said Surmont. "So, not too much but just enough to sort of get people engaged. Make sure you leave plenty of room for the meat and potatoes."

Understand Attendee Limits

Unlike live events where planners could get away with a full day of scheduled meetings and sessions, the threshold for digital events is much lower. Virtual attendees are more likely to get distracted or pulled away, whether it be due to work or family obligations. To combat this, Surmont recommends keeping the agenda short but sweet, and building in breaks for guests to grab a bite to eat or catch up on emails.  

"Don't overdo it," she said. "I have seen groups that are so excited about virtual that they basically are packing their entire day with sessions. You don't need to do everything."

Consider Sponsorship Opportunities

One of the biggest concerns planners have about virtual meetings is revenue. Translating sponsorships from live events to the digital realm can be tricky. But when done well, it can prove wildly successful.

Inviting sponsors to get involved in or host the networking and connection-focused sessions is one option to consider. For example, a company could sponsor the happy hour and provide pre-mailed cocktail kits for guests. Virtual scavenger hunts, escape rooms and games are also good options for sponsorships. For more ideas, click here.

"If sponsors have already booked their booths but you know you're not going to have the event in person, you need to come up with ways to retain the value," explained Surmont. "It's much better and much more memorable to host something special than to just have your banner splashed across the screen."

Keep Experimenting

Most meeting planners are just starting to dip their toes into the digital events world, and that's OK. But creating a standout event means taking risks. Surmont encourages planners to get creative and continually test new tactics. 

"There's a lot of things to try and experiment with," she said. "There's new tools and methods every day. Audiences are forgiving and understand that this is a new space, so don't be afraid to try new things."