How to Make Your Digital Event Stand Out From the Crowd

As webcasts and virtual town halls proliferate, here's how to set yours apart.

Best Practices for Virtual Events
Best Practices for Virtual Events
Take a look at some key tips from the world's largest computing society that can be applied to a wide range of digital meeting types.

A few short weeks ago, we could throw anything at the online wall and it would stick. The world was so hungry for any human interaction that we would all log in to every virtual town hall, Zoom happy hour or work Hangout — but that new-car smell is starting to fade. As our friends, colleagues and industry peers become familiar with the technology and grow more comfortable being on camera for the world to see, their expectations of the content we deliver are evolving. "If you build it, they will come" is fast becoming "If you build it, a few people might show up."

So, how do you keep the eyes on the screens and ensure that as more and more events come online, yours is the one that stands out and is remembered? While there is no magic bullet, there are some practical tips and tricks that you can follow that will make your virtual event stand out in a crowded field. 

Virtual meetings succeed or fail for the same reasons live events do: ease of access, quality content and return on investment. If I give you my money or time, you must make it simple for me to get something in return.

Distinguishing Your Virtual Event 

Here are a few tips.

Select the right "venue."

Meeting and event professionals will go to the ends of the earth to find the right venue for their in-person meetings and events and we should do the same with our online venues. There are many to choose from across the spectrum of price points. Do the research and make sure that you are getting the right amount of technology for your dollar. Remember, it can take months to find the right real-world venue; take at least a week to vet your online properties.

Engage your audience before the event.

You might feel like you know your members' needs, desires and pain points and have no trouble coming up with topics for the digital events that will engage them. But the world of meeting planning in this current pandemic is changing by the week, if not the day, so it's worthwhile to check in with your audience members several times ahead of the online event to ensure it is speaking to their immediate questions and needs. Before you even decide on the event's topic, conduct a survey about what is affecting your audience at this moment. Poll your members, audience, speakers and sponsors to gauge whether there is enthusiasm to meet online and for which particular topics. Remember, what is true today may not be true next month — so if they don't want to meet tomorrow, this answer can change in just a few short weeks.

"Poll your members, audience, speakers and sponsors to gauge whether there is enthusiasm to meet online and for which particular topics."

Once you start promoting the event, be sure the registration form includes a field in which they can ask a question of the presenter or share "their top concern right now" so your speaker(s) can incorporate the most popular responses into their presentations. Rehashing some of last year's speakers and content may have been fine a few months ago, but considering the current moment and the crowded field of online events, now you need to provide content that's fresh, new and current. 

Help speakers engage attendees.

Many amazing live speakers are still learning how to deliver their content digitally. Some still sit in their living room with the TV blaring in the background, appear as a silhouette with a sunny window behind them or don't understand the meeting controls and keep asking "can you all hear me?" Educate your speakers and presenters about your platform and give them tips on how to put their best foot forward when engaging your audience. 

"In fact, having speakers pre-record their sessions will oftentimes lead to a better product, especially when combined with live elements, like a post-presentation Q&A."

Gauge your speaker's style. Some live speakers project to fill the space, some fall back on their slides, some are animated and run around the stage. In order to be engaging, a speaker has to understand that the format is much more intimate. They are not projecting out to one thousand attendees that are in front of them, they are connecting directly with ten thousand individual attendees in their homes. You need the person that would captivate at a dinner party, not the person who should go on tour.

Create compelling learning outcomes.

No one will hand over their money if they don't know what they are going to get out of the experience. Plan clearly and concisely so attendees know what they will take away from the experience, and spell it out to your audience. If you will be offering any type of continuing education credit or certification, make the process easy for the attendee to achieve.

Develop a format that benefits attendees.

Face-to-face events are often predictable. We all know the routine of 90-minute keynotes or panels, 60-minute breakouts, half-day workshops. This is not going to work in this world, where shorter is better. Forty-five-minute keynotes and plenaries are good and you can chop breakouts, workshops, and panels into 20-minute sessions.

Avoid one-size-fits all delivery.

Pull on your creativity as a meeting planner to deliver a unique experience for each session's attendees. Use any pre-event survey results or understanding of your audience to determine what will most appeal to them. There is no reason to think that all aspects of your virtual event need to be live. In fact, having speakers pre-record their sessions will oftentimes lead to a better product, especially when combined with live elements, like a post-presentation Q&A. 

Make it a never-ending event.

Your virtual event should not end when your presenter signs off. Even in such a fast-changing world, there is still something called evergreen content — videos, articles and other pieces that stand the test of time with limited updates. Look for ways to make your conference evergreen, whether on-demand in its entirety, or with portions of it reused and repurposed throughout the year as blog posts, press releases, email blasts, website content and marketing materials. If attendees are not able to attend this week, they can sign up and attend when it is convenient, even if it happens to be in the middle of the night.

You are not alone. The anxiety, fear and confusion that you are feeling is felt by everyone, so use that to your advantage. Your members and attendees are just as eager for answers as you are, so make the decision to educate yourself and your team in all of the ways you can be there for them. You may find that starting off with a series of town halls is the best way to build up your confidence. You might pare a three-day program down to a day or two to make the best use of your resources. Whichever road you choose to take, know that there are professionals out there who are willing and able to help. 

Keith Johnston is a member of Remote, Reliable and Responsible, an industry consortium of business-meeting and event strategists that helps meeting strategists and event planners accomplish their goals during this uncertain and unpredictable time. He has more than 15 years of experience planning strategic meetings, conferences and incentives for clients worldwide. Johnston focuses on helping his clients understand how social media, content marketing and technology affect the attendee experience.