As online events have proliferated and "Zoom fatigue" has grown, engaging remote attendees has become more important — and more challenging — than ever. To cut through the digital noise, organizers need to approach their programs with more thought and innovation.
As we reach the one-year anniversary of life during the Covid-19 pandemic, it's clear that virtual events will continue to be a key part of the meetings landscape. That means attracting the right attendees and keeping them engaged virtually is a skill all planners will need to master.
The good news is this: It's 100 percent possible to do just that if you focus on five key areas.
1. Define Your Scope
As an event professional, I know we often prefer to skip the beige tasks and move straight into the fun stuff — décor, signage, programming — but the event scope is even more imperative in a virtual setting than it is for in-person events. Taking the time to outline the "who, what, where, when, why and how" of an event clearly for all parties involved provides the foundation on which all your other decisions will be made throughout the entire planning process.
Here are some of the elements you should define among your team (marketing, events and sales) before you commence planning:
- Event mission: A two-to-three-sentence statement that describes your big-picture objective and goals, addressing elements like attendee growth or retention, sponsorship dollars, revenue targets, press hits, or overall attendee and stakeholder feedback. After all, "If you aim for nothing, you'll hit it every time."
- Messaging: Your event theme, one-paragraph sales blurb, three to five unique selling points that describe the key features of your event and the reason your event is different from others and your target audience
- Risk Management: Conducting an event SWOT (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats) analysis will enable you to avoid any surprises or last-minute fires down the line.
- Budget: Virtual events are not necessarily less expensive than in-person meetings; the money is just used differently. Be sure this is communicated up front.
One of my favorite quotes is, "if you're going to do something, do it well or don't do it at all." I use this as a guiding principle for every aspect of my life, including when I'm creating concepts for my clients and planning their events. While we may be working our way back to in-person events as the vaccine rolls out, we still need to do digital really well to keep business goals moving along.
2. Keep the Program Tight
Your program should not be more than a couple of hours. I'm still seeing three-day virtual events being promoted, which is inevitably followed by the "special rate extended…" emails indicating registration is not where the organizers want it to be.
It doesn't matter how good it is — no one is logging onto their computer for three days straight to watch your event. Carving out a few hours in a home-schooling, everyone-working-remote, pet-filled household is hard enough for most people, so increase your chances of keeping participants engaged by keeping the program tight.
Think of your virtual event as the first step in a longer relationship, providing actionable insights attendees will be able to apply immediately. Then focus on continually drawing your target audience back with ongoing drops of deep-dive content. This enables you to keep the conversation going for months after your event.
Each speaker's presentation should also be short, sharp and to the point. To keep things interesting, mix up the delivery format to include solo presenters, fireside chats and panels. Keep in mind that presenting or performing to a camera without an audience is a very different experience to what most speakers or performers may be used to, so ensure everyone you hire is experienced, confident and comfortable in front of a camera and buffer in a little extra time for training should it be required.
3. Don't Forget the Entertainment
Time is tight but music (via a DJ spinning live from their home studio or a preselected soundtrack) is an instant mood booster and will capture attendees' attention immediately and set the tone for the event.
Interactive features like photo booths, livescribes, virtual exhibitions, wellness classes led by an instructor, mixology sessions, gamification, topical roundtables and the like will serve as break points among the speaker-led presentations and ensure eyes stay engaged on your screen — and not on the email that just arrived or the dog who walked into the room.
4. Let Your Marketing Surprise and Delight
From your launch announcement right through to your post-event thank you, every marketing element needs to serve a purpose. We all know free digital events have a high no-show rate, so use your pre-event promotional efforts strategically.
The simplest way to explain how you can do this is to send along an item in the pre-event package that will be used in the program. Then, when guests use it, such as taking a photo with it via the virtual photo booth, they share it on social media with your event hashtag to enter a competition. This offers a fun element for attendees and helps you spread the word, promote your event (and brand) and drive future attendance.
5. Follow Up Effectively
Post-event, tie one of your interactive features into your thank-you note. Artwork created by a livescribe highlighting the day's biggest takeaways, or a collage of all of the images uploaded via your photo booth, for example, can serve as the perfect graphic for the front of a thank-you card sent to everyone who attended.
Before the event, you defined your goals; I can almost guarantee that no part of that plan was a one-and-done approach — if it was, it definitely shouldn't be. You should have an action plan for every single one of your attendees, whether it involves joining a targeted funnel or being passed on to your sales team, partner alliances or recruitment team.
View your virtual event as a launchpad, and keep the conversation and momentum going via email marketing and offline interactions after the initial meeting concludes.
Melissa "Mel" Park is a global event producer who has utilized her engaging personality, unending energy and attention to logistical and design details to build an award-winning event business recognized across the U.S. and Australia. She is the creator of the 7 Steps to Event Success! Masterclass, producer and host of The Mel-Factor Podcast, a contributing writer to numerous publications, and a sought-after keynote speaker and panelist.