2020 brought many changes. In addition to the challenges of navigating the virtual workplace, business and association leaders were challenged with how to stay connected with clients, customers and members. Gone in 2020 were the traditional annual meetings, conferences and events. With large gatherings off the table, organizations scrambled to transition from pre-COVID in-person to virtual events. AOE, among others, recognized the challenges and offered tips for shifting big meetings to virtual.
Now that we are well into the new year, it’s clear that many of the changes brought by 2020 will likely continue. As businesses continue to restrict travel and gatherings, not to mention the reductions to the professional development budgets, associations have recognized the need to embrace digital technology as a powerful tool for member engagement.
Many organizers who switched to virtual last year would tell you it was a scramble. They were working to make the best of the situation—often within significant time constraints—yet many pulled it off.
The result is a greater appreciation of how digital can enhance the event experience. Even if in-person events make a comeback this year, 78 percent of event planners recently surveyed by Pathable plan to host events with both in-person and virtual components. Digital has raised the bar for event production and with it comes higher expectations from attendees.
So, how does an organization build a virtual or combined digital and in-person (hybrid) event and exceed their attendees’ expectations?
Build from the ground up
Virtual and hybrid event planning require a different approach than traditional in-person events. Organizers should start fresh beginning with an evaluation of their event strategy and all aspects of the event through the eyes of both the in-person attendee and the one logging in. Whether in person or on their laptop, each participant should feel equally important. For example, during breaks people in the room may use the time to network. Can you offer a similar opportunity to your virtual attendees? The goal is to ensure your audience feels valued, no matter where they sit. And, it is key to remember that it is okay if the virtual experience is different from the in-person experience, as long as it is meeting the needs of both audiences.
Test, test and test some more
In addition to testing the technologies you will be using, consider a dry run with your event team or perhaps a small group of members—from pre-event registration to post-event follow-up. Solicit their honest feedback. Did they find the registration process easy? Were they engaged throughout the event? Did they find the post-event communications valuable?
Engage your audience
Keeping your virtual attendees’ attention can be particularly challenging. Whether juggling their children’s remote learning needs or dealing with job demands, those working from home will likely be multi-tasking during your event. You can improve their experience and increase engagement by providing easily digestible sessions (20 or 30-minutes in length) and breakout sessions, and by using interactive tools like the chat function and polls.
Association consulting firms, Ricochet and Event Garde, have identified Six Phases of Virtual Event Creation that are common across all virtual event planning. These include:
- Methodically establishing your event goals, budget and revenue opportunities.
- Selecting the technology platform that will power your event based on the features and capabilities that are most aligned with your priorities.
- Expanding your reach to a new virtual audience using a new marketing approach to include segmented messaging, traditional and social media engagement.
- Bringing it all together–from completing the full event schedule and developing the content to selecting and preparing your speakers.
- Organizing all the content to ensure post-event participant engagement, complete event analysis and follow-through on education credential requirements.
- Allowing the time needed post-event to organize materials and lessons learned as well as complete a full financial analysis that will be useful in the future.
In addition to these steps, Event Garde and Ricochet’s guide includes a 147-item checklist to help organizers get started.
This is an exciting time for event organizers and there is no turning back. But who would want to? The tools to take your event to a whole new level are at your fingertips. With the right planning, you will deliver an experience your audience will not forget.
If you would like more information on how to plan your next meeting or event, AOE is here to help.