How to Get the Most Out of Virtual Events

Digital event strategist Jennifer Kingen Kush discusses best practices for virtual meetings and how to prepare for a hybrid future.

Best Practices for Hybrid Events
Learn smart strategies for combining in-person and digital events during a free Northstar Meetings Group webcast on Nov. 11, at 2 p.m. EST. Register here.

Updated Oct. 29, 2020.

In many parts of the country, some in-person gatherings have resumed. But it’s clear that virtual events will remain a large part of the meetings industry even after the Covid-19 crisis has passed. 

In a recent survey conducted by Northstar Meetings Group, 24 percent of planners said virtual events are the only gatherings they are currently planning, while 35 percent said more than half of their upcoming meetings will be held online.

To discuss the opportunity of virtual events and the future of the meetings industry, we spoke with Jennifer Kingen Kush, founder of the digital-event strategy firm Kingen Kush Solutions. She is also the former vice president and executive director of the Professional Convention Management Association's Digital Experience Institute, where she guided the organization on advancing engagement around digital events and meetings. We discussed how planners can get the most out of their virtual events and how incorporating online meetings into their offerings can set them up for long-term success.  

On Nov. 11, Kingen Kush will join a panel of industry experts for a free Northstar Meetings Group webcast on best practices for hybrid events (register here). The panelists will cover tips for engaging in-person and remote attendees simultaneously, how to create interaction between both audiences, and how combining both live and digital components can generate long-term business benefits. 

Virtual Event Insight From Jennifer Kingen Kush

What are some of the most interesting virtual events you’ve seen over the past few months?

The National Electrical Contractors Association's 2020 Annual Convention and Trade Show, held Oct. 6-8, delivered a five-star approach to digital events. It created a brand-new experience that focused on expanding, educating, engaging, entertaining and exciting attendees. It was a tremendous success that exceeded all goals, including attracting over 5,000 guests and nearly 100 exhibitors.

The heart and soul of the organization were evident at every corner, including an event playlist curated with favorite songs from the NECA staff. NECA CEO David Long even dyed his hair pink for the closing session, delivering on a bet he made with his team if they exceeded their goals and were able to raise over $5,000 for breast cancer research (October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month). 

The entertainment was off the charts with an MTV-style opening reception, which included a concert by the Milwaukee Tool Shed Band. Dueling pianos delighted and brought together participants across the country during the second night, and the improvisational comedy group Second City performed at the closing ceremony.

The education was relevant, with a focus on professional development and helping attendees navigate these uncertain times. A variety of session formats and lengths were offered, including podcasts recorded in studios.

Jennifer Kingen Kush, founder of digital-event strategy firm Kingen Kush Solutions
Jennifer Kingen Kush, founder of digital-event strategy firm Kingen Kush Solutions

Exhibitors and sponsors were woven throughout the experience, including via a dynamic virtual tradeshow floor, and thoughtful educational sessions and interviews. Attendees could navigate and connect with each other freely, just like at a face-to-face reception, and join in on the various trivia games and activities that were held on different floors. 

The 2020 Democratic National Convention is an exciting example outside of the industry. The broadcast was successful at catering to a virtual audience and bringing many attendees into the program itself. For example, the DNC:

  • Incorporated galleries of audience members clapping or responding to the program throughout.
  • Engaged remote attendees in small, live-streamed group discussions with former Vice President Joe Biden.
  • Featured speeches that were digestible and fast-paced, averaging around one minute each. Many included personal messages from big-name presenters such as Michelle Obama.
  • Used backstage video interviews that provided an intimate way to connect with the audience.
  • Included a mixture of the prerecorded video programs and live streams, and a virtual emcee engaged the audience throughout.  

There are lots of interesting nuggets and techniques from these examples that meeting planners can use as inspiration for creating more robust and engaging events in the months ahead. 

We’ve all attended more virtual meetings than we can count and by now, some attendees might be losing interest in online events. What can planners do to combat this and make their meetings more enticing?

The organizations we’ve been working with have actually experienced the opposite: Their audiences have embraced the virtual space. They were surprised by how engaging digital events can be and want it to be incorporated moving forward.

Meeting planners can take their virtual events to the next level by:

  • Creating a welcoming and inclusive environment with thoughtful design;
  • Delivering education that is relevant, engaging and digestible, with various session formats;
  • Incorporating surprise and delight elements;
  • Offering innovative ways to connect and build community; and
  • Providing fun and meaningful elements into the program.

Do you expect to see more organizers expanding their virtual-event offerings, even for gatherings planned for far into the future?

I see it as three stages: First, there's the crisis management, which we saw at the beginning of the pandemic. Second, you have the incorporation of digital as a way to diversify your offerings. And third is more long-term thinking about next year and beyond, where you start looking at things more strategically. 

The barriers to entry are lower for virtual events and audiences are more comfortable in the space, so it will need to be a priority moving forward. Thanks to streaming on Netflix or FaceTiming with their families, it's more familiar now than it's ever been. Ten years ago, planners may have said, "my audience isn't ready for virtual," but every year it's been progressing.

When you're challenged, you have to explore new options and look differently at things. There have been a lot of companies and solutions in the space for a long time, working especially in the tech world and corporate world. But now it's on the forefront for everyone.

Are you concerned that over the long term, digital meetings will eat into the revenue of face-to-face gatherings? 

Watch Now
Watch Now
View our on-demand webcast "Welcoming the Virtual Attendee," for a deep dive into best practices for virtual events, with insights from experts on how to engage attendees watching from elsewhere and create a parallel experience that speaks to them. Watch here

When I was at PCMA there were concerns that digital events could cannibalize in-person gatherings. So, we conducted research and created an ROI Report in 2016. It reviewed five years of data around Convening Leaders and our Education Conference, looking at who had attended our live events after taking part in the digital ones. We found that hybrid and rebroadcast events brought PCMA 3,933 new prospects and more than $1 million in incremental dollars to the organization, including more than $110,000 in new memberships, $305,000 for membership renewals and $562,000 for face-to-face registrations. Rather than cannibalizing in-person events, digital meetings can actually enhance them. 

The whole data side, on the back end, is a great opportunity for groups, because online people are very participatory. They will voice their opinion. When you do digital, you can really engage them and they will tell you what they want. You can see where people go, what sessions they like and what they say in the chat. Being able to know your audience and then adapt your education and products to better address their needs is powerful. 

From everyone I'm talking to, they just want to help each other get through this, work together to say "how do we create a solution to minimize risks while engaging your audience and achieving your goals?" The ultimate goal is to strengthen face-to-face and group events. 

Looking ahead to 2021, how do you see digital events evolving?

Virtual events will continue to help organizations navigate these uncertain times by diversifying risk, extending their reach, engaging their audiences and creating a strategic foundation for future growth. Technology platforms have been accelerating at incredible speeds, offering newly enhanced and improved features and additional integration at rapid rates. Innovation is at the forefront as both companies and organizations are navigating this exploding place together. 

2020 has proven that digital events are not only a powerful way for organizations to connect, but that they can also be profitable and drive results. To stay competitive in your industry segment, you should start exploring how did digital events support your objectives for long-term success.

Digital and hybrid events are here to stay. Even as face-to-face gatherings resume, digital and hybrid meetings will continue to play a strong role in a successful event portfolio.