Top 20 Tips for a Successful Virtual Event
By Olivia Brooks Allan
Over the past 90 days, our team at Landmark Ventures has hosted more than 32 virtual events – whew! Utilizing a variety of virtual formats, we are continuing to leverage our extensive personal network of CXO’s and our deep subject matter expertise to execute internal and client custom events that bring people together in a meaningful way.
Last month, on short notice and in a rapidly changing global environment, the Landmark team pivoted our largest internal event – Social Innovation Summit 2020 – to a virtual platform. On the heels of the event’s success, many have been asking us to share our playbook as people from all industries and sizes grapple with going digital. We welcomed more than 5,000 attendees virtually; the all-digital Summit delivered the same inspiring content, interactivity, and networking opportunities that our in-person events are known for, with an even larger audience than ever before. Through this career-defining moment, we as a team learned many best practices that we are confident could help others conquer the mighty task of a virtual summit.
For those planning an event in this evolving landscape, check out our 20 “best tips” for virtual success in 2020 as below:
1. Holistic Marketing Approach – Effective usage of blended campaigns works best when recruiting an audience. A targeted combination of email, social media, retargeting ads, and media coverage yields excellent results. We obtained a lot of high-profile attendees, including many global executives, through our social channels with the highest numbers from LinkedIn.
2. Tickets (Free) – Previously, we charged for Social Innovation Summit, but we knew that we would have to make general admission complimentary upon converting to a virtual platform. Free tickets greatly allowed us to access a new, broader audience, and democratize critical conversations that may otherwise have had less scale and reach. In our view, every virtual event intended for a broad audience should be made freely available with the lowest friction possible for registration and access.
3. Tickets (VIP) – By the same token, we also recognized that some of the VIPs and senior executives might need appealing reasons to join beyond the general admission access. For this group, which can also include Speakers & Sponsors, we suggest creating “VIP-only” conversations, green rooms, networking lounges, and exclusive content, facilitating an enhanced level of access or opportunity to generate even greater interest.
4. Audience Journey – From a Customer Service standpoint, your attendee questions shift significantly. Instead of being asked about the timing of particular talks, where rooms are, or when lunch is being served, you will mostly receive questions about technical difficulties. Take some time to brainstorm potential issues and problems, and create a response guide for your team to field questions quickly.
Strategy & Programming
5. Diversity Matters! – While there is always room for improvement, our events are designed to be diverse, across gender, race, industry, sector, geography, and age. Hopefully, this diversity weaves a beautiful and seamless tapestry that reflects what our communities truly look like and amplifies all voices. That said, if you find that your sessions are not incorporating inclusive perspectives please challenge yourself to make a conscious effort, you will be greatly rewarded by an enriching conversation.
6. Format & Tempo – Audiences rave about varying the pace, cadence, and formats of the programming. Not all sessions have to be panels following panels. Think of varying the flow: going from short talks to fireside chats, to focused (2-3 person max!) panels, and back again. For a virtual event, we strongly recommend that no single piece of content be longer than 25-30 minutes, and ideally, most segments of content should be between 5-15 minutes. Instead of a 60-minute panel, why not divide it into 3 focused fireside chats of 20 minutes each, or 6 talks of 10 minutes each, or better yet, mix and match these options.
7. Create Intimacy & Interactivity – Don’t leave your audience uninspired and disengaged. Allow them to participate in the conversation! At the least, offer live polling and quizzes, perhaps with some Q&A. But why not do better? We love to incorporate small group breakouts or even roundtable discussions, mixing and matching formats from plenary to discussion groups. We recommend that you broadcast your keynote speakers and then add a web conferencing discussion/roundtable layer.
8. Headliners & Keynotes – We find that our best speakers are amazing, even on a “virtual stage!” Great speakers are captivating and make you forget that you aren’t live in the room. We continuously find that our best content and top headliners have an equal impact on the audience that they would have had during a live event. While you sometimes need to pay premier rates to hire talent through a booking agent, many of the world’s best speakers are willing to engage more easily now in the virtual world – be that discounted or free. Also, there are many new and up-and-coming voices that can dazzle, if you know where to look and give them the opportunity.
9. Performances & Special Touches – True to form, we aim to have something “special” built into every session. Be that a poet, an inspirational reading, a Broadway star, a surprising athlete, or celebrity cameo, every investment is made to provide a unique perspective in an engaging and unexpected manner. We find the audience has highly appreciated this—our rule of thumb, aim for one great moment of surprise and delight during every hour of main-stage content!
10. Graphics, Sound, Visuals – We invested heavily in our video production using live mixing and editing, framing templates, alternating backgrounds, lower thirds, bumpers, pre-roll, etc. and were delighted with the final product. For most large/corporate events, it shouldn’t look like the same video call that you do with your friends and family over the weekend. For events that are smaller or on a budget, you can still use a web conferencing platform but make small investments such as opening and closing PowerPoint presentations, speaker transition slides, and if adventurous, you can program music at arrival before the show starts and upon exit.
11. Show Calling – Because our team did most of the production live and in real-time, we needed to “call” the show live. For example, when to use a given video frame (all 3 on the screen or a focused shot of 1 speaker), when to bring “up” on camera the speaker title or name of the session, etc. This only works if you are VERY aware of the content. While this wasn’t a concern for us, this could be for another group if you are outsourcing the show calling to a person/party that is not fully clear on the agenda/program/flow.
We aim to have something “special” built into every session. Be that a poet, an inspirational reading, a Broadway star, a surprising athlete, or celebrity cameo, every investment is made to provide a unique perspective in an engaging and unexpected manner.
12. Project Management – The common assumption that we hear is that a virtual event is “less” work, or if done well, less expensive than a live event. Appreciating that a virtual event actually has few limitations and therefore more permutations than a live event, I would say it’s just as much work and possibly even more work than traditional physical events both in scope and cost. Our advice, do NOT underestimate this, and ensure that you have a strong project management plan, team, timeline, budget, and execution schedule in place.
13. Executing a “Live” Virtual Event – During Social Innovation Summit, we ambitiously had more than 130 speakers each speak live over 3 days from all over the world. Remembering Murphy’s Law, whatever can go wrong, will go wrong. We had a cat jump on camera, we had 2 storms knock out power, we had a landline ring for minutes on live air, we had a battery die and stop a presenter from advancing PowerPoint slides, and we had numerous internet connections come and go. While technical difficulties are inevitable, we found that doing tech checks prior to going live helped greatly.
14. The Same Authenticity as a Live Event – In hindsight, it was a little crazy to produce this many live speakers. If we had to do it again, we would have aimed to pre-record more with the ability to do re-takes, pause and fix a speaker’s microphone, and fix anything needed calmly in post-production. However, balance is key. Similar to an in-person event, there is an authenticity to being live in a speaker’s home experiencing the conversation as it happens and seeing the inevitable mishaps along the way.
15. Rehearse, Rehearse, Rehearse Prior – This is probably the most essential part of doing a virtual event. Ironically, you don’t just need your speakers to rehearse, you need your TEAM to rehearse. Your production, tech, and execution teams need to be on the same page.
Virtual Event Technology
16. Your Attendee Experience (i.e., the “Virtual Event Platform”) – From lightweight microsite solutions to all-in-ones, you need to have an event platform where your attendees can access your content. Some people like to separate marketing and registration tools from the eventual content delivery platform, while others prefer having one vendor. We have a repository of about 30 tech players that we use in a mix-and-match configuration depending on needs and budget, but the key is to have one anchor platform to serve as the major hub for your virtual event.
17. Video / Broadcast Layer – Depending on your goals, this can be simple or be extremely complex. Our larger events use a production studio approach that gives us that “TV newsroom” quality feeling, including various speaker frames, overlays, and graphic/audio enhancements. If budget is a restriction, you can utilize basic web conferencing tools. To enhance your offering, use studio-quality production and streaming players all feeding content back into your event hub.
18. Interactivity, Engagement & Activations – People love event activations in-person, so why not offer them for virtual events too? There are many options from digital mosaics, virtual photobooths, 1:1 networking tools, icebreakers, avatar cocktail hours, and more. The key though is to do SOMETHING special to leave your audience with memorable moments.
19. Back-Up Plan – From inclement weather to cancelled flights to speakers that don’t show, great events teams always troubleshoot every detail that could go wrong in advance of their event – the same is true in a virtual environment. Now, however, layer in that you are no longer in the war-room together as a team to tackle the problems! For all of the above, you should have a thoughtful backup plan in case something goes wrong. For example, can you create a backup livestream solution and have the ability to “failover” immediately if something happens to your primary stream? Maybe you preferred that all guests access your content via a password. Well, if something goes wrong, have a secret link in your back pocket that doesn’t need a password to quickly direct the audience so they don’t miss a beat.
20. How to Select a Primary Vendor – Here’s where you get to define your Goldilocks! What is your business’s event objective? Is this a large event for thousands of people where you value reliability? Is this an informal event where you can experiment with some new leading-edge tools and be forgiven if not everything is perfect? Most vendors will let you experiment with free trials, and/or point you to other events that are currently using their solutions that you can try for free or with modest registration. To date, we’ve evaluated about 350 vendors so far, and going, and we continue to identify additional vendors as we look to build our best-in-class tech stacks that can be mixed, matched, and configured for any occasion.
There you have it, our top 20 tips and best practices leveraging our accumulated wisdom having produced events for over a decade both internally and for a range of Fortune 500 clients, Startups, Non-Profits, Brands, and more.
Conversations build knowledge, and we would love to hear more from you too. What tips are we missing? What have your experiences been so far? We welcome your comments below so this thread can serve as a larger repository of experiences for those now grappling with converting their formerly live events into virtual ones.
From our side, we are always happy to help. If you have any questions on the above, or think our team can be of service in partnering with you to help produce your own event – please feel free to reach out to me directly at firstname.lastname@example.org. We offer turnkey event service that includes high-profile speaker and program development, attendee recruitment, marketing and communications, virtual event production, and event planning for those who may need some help.
In closing, during this incredible moment in history I’m thinking of you all and sending health, wellness, and resilience. We are all in this together.