How to Unlock Accessibility, Sustainability, and Scalability with Digital and Hybrid Events
How to Run Effective Digital or Hybrid Events
In 2019, events were the number one strategy to convert and accelerate leads. But by April 2020, 87% of Event ...
In 2019, events were the number one strategy to convert and accelerate leads. But by April 2020, 87% of Event Marketer’s survey respondents reported canceling their events. Since then, the stage for corporate events has gone almost fully digital.
Table of Contents
- Before the Event
- Develop Your Digital Event Concept
- Follow Your Plan, But Be Flexible
- Think Through Logistics
- Design the Format
- Identify Technology, AV, and Production Needs
- Understand the Strengths (and Limits) of Technology
- Know that Content is King
- Your Event Timeline
- Final Thoughts
While nothing compares to the connection and camaraderie delivered by great in-person experiences, that doesn't mean digital events are bound to be subpar. In fact, the move to a digital or hybrid format has offered many advantages to companies seeking to expand their audiences. Here are a few examples:
- Traveling can be exhausting, especially for people going to multiple back-to-back conferences. While many professionals enjoy attending these events, more and more people are looking to “skip the trip.” Digital events make attendance more convenient by eliminating the commute.
- Some people invited to your event may not be able to attend in person due to travel restrictions between countries, health issues, or other limitations. But with most digital environments, all you need is a stable internet connection. By hosting your event in a digital space, you can still capture a worldwide audience.
- Building capacity limits your ability to invite people to a physical venue. With digital events, this limitation doesn’t exist. As long as you choose the right platform, you can now invite everyone on your list.
- Without the lights, electricity, travel expenses, and the price of renting a large space, digital events cost far less to host than physical events. You can lower the financial requirements and decrease your carbon footprint by hosting the event online instead.
With all that said, today’s remote attendees are still expecting high-quality experiences from digital events — people now want to pay less for the same level of engagement. Sometimes, trying to deliver the same connective experience in a digital environment can be even more overwhelming than a live event. But it doesn’t have to be! At Fusion, we’ve put together this guide to help you plan effective digital events that deeply engage your participants.
While it may seem less than ideal to meet virtually, it’s only the stage that’s changed. Great events focus on bringing people together, sharing new ideas, celebrating success, and building what comes next. With careful attention to the design of your digital event, you can still deliver a powerful and memorable experience for everyone involved.
Before the Event
In virtual event planning, understanding the reason for the event is more important than ever. What is the purpose of holding this event? What should your attendees take away from this? What value do you promise your audience?
In-person events can achieve a good amount of success purely by offering a spectacle. For example, it is often more entertaining to see a famous person or a musical performance live and in person than on a screen.
However, if the spectacle is the only valuable thing about your event, it probably won’t work in a virtual environment. For this reason, the success of a virtual event depends especially on the people involved. That’s why understanding the context and the audience is so important.
To do this, it’s best to perform a detailed audit of your ideal customer personas. Where are they coming from? What do they want to experience? Why are they tuning in to your event? You may even consider adding personas who usually wouldn’t attend because of cost, accessibility, or distance and make a marketing plan specifically targeted to them. The better you can identify the demographics (or marketing personas) for the event, the better you can tailor your event objectives to meet their expectations.
If your attendees won’t benefit from a digital version of an event, it is often better to postpone it until it can happen in person.
For example, investor relations presentations, town hall meetings, and training sessions are often just as effective in a digital space. However, certain awards ceremonies, incentive events, and other event concepts may not translate very well. Product launches, sales meetings, and team-building events usually fall in the middle of the spectrum..
Develop Your Digital Event Concept
During in-person events, it's easier to control the thematic narrative: where people go, who they’re chatting with, and how they spend their time. However, with virtual events, your audience has more distractions and temptations — your content is competing with email, social media, and whatever is going on in your attendees’ surroundings.
In a digital environment, you need to intentionally develop the event's concept (or theme) in different ways. Here are the essential steps for developing your concept in a way that keeps your audience’s attention:
The planning stage is your blank canvas. Walk your team through the virtual event and write down everything you imagine would work well within the virtual format. While virtual events have their challenges, they also provide a lot of flexibility — especially when it comes to the agenda and format of the content.
Take a look at what’s going on with digital events in your industry, or ask your digital production company for help with researching other digital events. This field is still developing, so take time to learn from others so you can avoid their mistakes and emulate their successes. Planners are doing some amazing work in the digital space. Look at what they’re doing to gain inspiration for your event.
Build A Theme
Digital events need branding, too! Pay close attention to the visual and auditory elements of your event. Consider how they can work together to create an engaging experience for your attendees. Where do you want to take them? How do you want them to feel? How will those emotions translate into inspiration, action, and value?
Build An Inspiration Library
Creating an inspiration book (or folder) is a great way to visually represent event concepts and share them with your stakeholders or production company.
Think of this like a Pinterest board or brand guide. This resource will be helpful when handing off tasks to partners and vendors, such as marketing teams in charge of social media promotion and visual designers working on videos and slides.
Follow Your Plan, But Be Flexible
Attention to detail is critical for any event planner to succeed in the digital arena. Planning, organizing, and prioritizing are at the heart of any successful event. Adding a virtual component to an already planned event or building a digital event from the ground up will require a lot of support.
You’ll likely have to adapt to a few unexpected changes. So don’t be afraid to pivot from the original plan if necessary. Here are some tips to help with the planning process.
Create Your Team
A big misconception about virtual events is that, because they're digital, they’re simpler to execute than live events and can easily be managed by a single event planner; in reality, that's not the case. Successful digital events still require team support from multiple departments.
Make sure your event planner (or whoever has taken on that role) has the support of your IT team, art department, marketing, and PR teams. Choose your digital event production company wisely. Make sure everyone involved on your support team, your stakeholders, and your external partners are clear on who is responsible for each task. Setting clear expectations, working hours, and boundaries will help everyone understand their job description. These essential details will prevent people from being overworked or underperforming at the cost of the event.
Build Your Timeline
Like with in-person events, a clear timeline is an integral part of the event planning process. It will help your team stay focused on your goals, stay within the budget, and avoid missed deadlines. Make sure this timeline is available to everyone involved in the virtual event planning process; consider hosting it in the cloud.
Build your Budget
With any event, you need to know your numbers and define a clear budget. While a virtual event may not need to account for travel or food, there are certainly other areas that still apply to a digital space. Here are a few factors to consider:
- List Potential Event Income. Assuming you’re hosting a paid event, start by listing all the potential income streams. Vendor fees, ticket sales, sponsorships, live auctions, and live merchandise sales may apply.
- List Event Expenses. What is it going to cost to produce your digital event? Hosting and licensing for digital platforms won’t be free. You will also want to account for any paid design assets, speaker presentations, and entertainment. If you decide to offer special merchandise before the event, account for the cost of these items as well as shipping fees to send them to the participants. You can create different tiers of swag based on ticket prices if applicable. When in doubt, overestimate your expenses.
- Set Aside a Contingency. Make sure you have a 10% to 20% contingency budget up your sleeve, just in case you encounter any unexpected costs at the last minute.
- Keep Current. Create a channel in your preferred asynchronous communication platform (such as Microsoft Teams or Slack) where all team members can stay up to date on new changes as they occur. You don’t want to be surprised by changes in scope or budget right before the event.
Think Through Logistics
Virtual or digital events give you a lot of flexibility. Pre-recorded content and automated exercises can be offered alongside live content such as keynote presentations, panel discussions, and Q&A forums. Having a handle on what’s going on at any given moment and how attendees can mix and match their agenda will keep things moving smoothly for both your presenters and your audience.
Determine Dates and Times
Select the dates and times of the live components of your event (plus backup dates). Make sure that all key players on your team are available for those dates. Make sure your stakeholders’ calendars are also blocked for technical training, presentation coaching (if needed), and rehearsals. When managing a digital event where your presenters are connecting remotely, rehearsals are essential.
Be Aware of Other Events
Be sure that your event isn’t scheduled around the same time as other large or important events. Are the Grammys airing? Is there a concert livestream that may attract your target audience? In a virtual environment, you must be mindful that you could be competing against other big online events or even events within your organization. It’s important to consider these details so your target audience isn’t drawn away, distracted by, or double-booked with another event.
Design the Format
Considering the format of your event is perhaps the biggest mental shift you’ll need to make when planning for a digital environment. How do you want your audience to interact with the content? How will the audience be able to engage with your event’s design? Do you want attendees to go between virtual rooms, or will you set up breakout sessions?
With virtual events, some agenda items may only be available live at a specific date and time. Others may be stored as recordings that viewers can replay at their convenience. Are there chats or panels with an attendee cap? Considering the format in this way could impact your agenda, the technology you use, or your approach to content development.
As you define the format for your event, keep in mind that feedback is an essential element to improving future events. But instead of relying so heavily on the post-event assessment, it’s best to incorporate opportunities for feedback throughout the experience via mini-surveys or comment opportunities after each session.
If your attendees only need to tune in and listen to the speaker during one session, it is perfectly fine to opt for a webcast or webinar format. Ideally, these sessions should be in half-hour blocks. With anything longer than that, you may have issues retaining your audience’s attention; consider breaking it up with a short intermission, inserting a video halfway through, or dividing the content between two different speakers.
Streaming is one of the most basic considerations for a digital event, and there are several choices that you can use for the most effect. For example, are you broadcasting from a studio or corporate headquarters? Will each speaker broadcast live from their home, or will some of them be pre-recorded? Shop around to find the best options for your format and decide how you could take advantage of the features available.
During virtual events, attendees miss out on the opportunity to naturally engage with one another and share ideas organically simply because they aren't in the same room; this is why interactivity is key to audience engagement in a digital environment.
Consider what types of apps, services, or other features will best allow your attendees to communicate with each other and the presenters. For example, should there be specific chat rooms with moderators? When will you allow open discussion, and what are the rules/guidelines for engagement?
Panel Discussions and Forums
Forums and panel discussions are a staple of any engaging event. However, since the event is virtual, these are bound to operate a little differently. Typically if you are hosting a panel on a live streaming platform like Zoom, each speaker can join from a different location, and their faces will be tiled across the screen in a grid. Since audiences will likely not be on camera, you’ll need to decide how your attendees will interact with panelists. How will you manage Q&A sessions to moderate discussion and make sure each question gets answered?
Depending on the platform you use, you could have attendees ask questions in the chat area, raise their hands on camera, or indicate their questions with a built-in feature. You may also offer polls for people to share their opinions with limited answer options or simply an up/down vote.
Beyond that, any way you can gamify the discussion will help you create better engagement overall. For example, you might host friendly competitions, award prizes for social media engagement, or even play trivia games to help the audience retain key information from speaker sessions.
Often, it pays to hire a dedicated moderator for any virtual discussion. Just be sure to document how you will facilitate the flow of questions and requests.
Other Engagement Strategies
Get creative to increase engagement. While you will be limited by a remote environment, you can often still enjoy benefits of in-person events:
- Virtual Cocktail Hours. During lunch, other breaks, or even after the event, arrange for people to gather in a virtual space for an informal chat over a nice cocktail or soft drink.
- Food Vouchers. In-person events often offer refreshments and snacks or even buffet or sit-down meal options. In a digital space, consider using part of that original budget to offer food vouchers or gift cards instead. This way, attendees can still order complimentary food and enjoy lunch with other attendees.
- Breakout Sessions. Invite select attendees to private breakouts or pitch sessions with key speakers and other VIPs.
Identify Technology, AV, and Production Needs
Your virtual event needs technology, AV, and production management. A good production company can help you align these requirements with your content delivery and goals.
- Learn Terminology. AV and production terms can sometimes feel like a different language. Take time to learn important industry terms and technical vernacular so you can communicate well with your stakeholders, production company, and partners.
- Form Clear Partnerships. When you partner with production companies or other contributors, have them walk you through their proposal carefully. Be sure you understand what they plan to contribute to your event and all the technical details. And ask questions; any good partner would welcome them.
- Connect Your Partners with Talent. Your production company or content developers should be able to help your speakers build the confidence and technical skills required to deliver their message in a virtual environment. Connecting them will help deliver the most value to your audience.
- Connect with Your Event Producer / Production Manager. Open communication and regular reports from the person managing your event are essential. Together, you can navigate roadblocks and take urgent action during the event if necessary.
Understand the Strengths (and Limits) of Technology
Technology takes the driver’s seat for digital or virtual events. Without a doubt, this can be intimidating unless you fully understand the capabilities of each tool you’re using and the technological requirements of your event. Take time to ensure you have the right internal and external resources at your disposal.
Think twice before selecting an all-in-one platform that promises to deliver everything you need for your virtual event. Instead, investigate the best options for each part of your event and find the right tools to deliver the best experience. Here are some examples of tools you might use:
- Live Streaming Platforms - Zoom Webinar & Events is the obvious choice, but many other platforms like Brightcove and Vimeo Livestream have similar functionality.
- Chat Rooms - You could use Facebook Messenger if you’re running a public-facing event, but internal corporate/B2B events are better suited for programs like Slack, Microsoft Teams, or Arena. Furthermore, many live streaming platforms already have chat functionality built-in.
- Event Management Software - There are many programs available in this category. Eventbrite, Whova, and Zoom Events are just a few. However, you may also use your existing project management software to accomplish this.
Your attendees’ experience is of paramount importance. The value they derive from their experience will define the event's overall success. Therefore, make sure the selected platform for your event is user-friendly and provides the best experience possible for your audience. Test the technology in settings similar to how your attendees will experience the event (for example, desktop computer, tablet, and smartphone). If it’s uncomfortable or difficult for you to navigate on these devices, it won’t be an ideal experience for your audience either.
There’s an App for That
A custom event app can provide access to content, notifications, feedback, and more. A great app experience will also allow you to track your ROI and potentially offer monetized opportunities to sponsors. Push notifications, virtual scavenger hunts, feedback collection, augmented reality features, polling, networking options, and digital collateral are all ideas to consider within a dedicated event app. However, know that apps like this must be private and secure. If a partner or internal department is developing one, make sure there is enough time and budget to support the effort.
Create Digital Wayfinding
Map out the user experience for attendees from start to finish (paying careful attention to personas) to be sure you are giving them a valuable experience. Then, create a solution to automatically notify and direct users through your event to avoid confusion about what’s next.
Account for Accessibility
Ensure your event adheres to Web Content Accessibility Standards so that your content is consumable for everyone. You may need to hire a team to do a technical and accessibility audit of your event once it’s completely planned.
Privacy & Security
Cybersecurity is just as important for a virtual event as security guards are for a live event. Ensure all vendors can report and explain the security protocols behind the tools and technology you are using to support your event.
Extend Your Reach
Consider tools with features that will extend the value of the event’s content. For example, can sessions be recorded and turned into evergreen content to be used on your website? Can you collect attendee feedback to be used later as testimonials? Are there ways to provide summaries, guidelines, and collateral during and after the digital sessions? Are you able to track downloads and consumption to determine what mattered most to your audience?
Chatbots & Machine Learning
Chatbots can be a great tool for in-person events but may be essential depending on your unique virtual environment. Their primary function is to give pre-programmed answers to common questions via artificial intelligence. Chatbots may help provide additional coverage to augment your human support team by answering simple or frequently asked questions from a remote audience. That said, chatbots may quickly become an annoyance when they keep people from accessing help from live team members. When possible, support from a real person is always better.
Know that Content is King
The content you offer to your attendees is the most important part of creating an effective digital event. While it may take time to curate, booking fun, engaging, and informative content that speaks to what your audience will surely pay off in the end. Research your event contributors (speakers, partners, entertainers, etc.) to be sure they are bringing value to your event.
Working with Partners and Stakeholders
- Check Credentials: If you're hiring external content creators, ask them about their experience with virtual events. Do they have a studio where they produce and broadcast their content? Are they able to deal with unexpected issues that might arise during a virtual event? Be sure to ask them for a brief demonstration.
- Partner Portfolios: When evaluating design firms, make sure they provide examples of past designs and how that work supported the overall goals of the event. Ask to review portfolios from past virtual events if possible.
- Internal Stakeholders: Work with your agency or internal communications department to set expectations with executives and build compelling content for the audience. Ensure your internal stakeholders understand how to engage remote audiences during the event.
Evaluate Your Speakers
- Choose the Right Digital Stage: When it comes to virtual presentations, it’s important to remember that a good in-person presenter isn’t always comfortable in front of a camera. What’s more, people who produce YouTube videos aren’t always the best presenters for a live webinar session. The point is to make sure the presenters’ talents are showcased when developing the agenda. If a presenter works better with a live audience, a livestream format will probably suit them just fine. However, if a presenter is more comfortable in an intimate setting in front of their computer, using the best take from a pre-recorded presentation may be the way to go.
- Bring Value: Speakers should have something valuable to offer your attendees. Ask your design firm or internal communication group to make sure visuals, video, and interactivity are designed to build a connection with the virtual audience.
- Set Expectations: Just like with your content creators, you want to make sure your speakers know what’s ahead. Ask them for examples of virtual events they’ve done in the past. Ask them about their concerns. If it’s clear that a speaker has trouble engaging with a virtual or remote audience, you may try coaching them or consider an alternative speaker (if possible).
There’s Room for Entertainment
Even during strictly educational virtual events, entertainment is still possible. In fact, it can be a big draw for your audience. Engage a DJ, band, or other artists to livestream performances for digital events. There are online directories available to make sourcing these entertainers easier.
If appropriate, try hiring a band, comedian, or some other kind of entertainment for either the time between sessions or during lunch. Just because the audience isn’t physically in the same venue doesn’t mean they won’t enjoy the show.
While marketing will certainly help you promote your virtual event, it’s also an opportunity to orient your audience to the event’s unique offerings. For example, if your event has one-time-only sessions, make sure your audience knows when to tune in, so they don’t miss that part of the program. In addition, if there are panel discussions, breakouts, or sessions that will be downloadable after the event, you can start to build awareness with trailers and sneak peeks to get the audience excited about this content ahead of time.
Here’s how you can use marketing to boost the impact of your digital event:
Build Your Marketing Plan
Build a marketing plan that targets your attendees in the right environment. If it’s an internal event, ensure corporate communications and internal departments provide you with the proper channels to promote and inform. Pre-event microsites are a great way to drive interest and collect registration information. Targeting potential attendees on LinkedIn, YouTube, and Facebook will require custom content and messaging if the event is externally facing.
Make sure your design firm or internal communications department promotes the event message while complying with brand guidelines. For external marketing, your legal and communications departments may need to get involved to make sure you’re aligned with company policies.
Create a Strong Online Presence
Launch your websites and social media campaigns once you’ve received all necessary approvals. Create hashtags to help make your social posts findable. Your virtual event will take place online, so make sure you use that to your advantage. You may even pay to promote these posts on social media and other channels to optimize your content for better visibility.
Don’t Forget Swag
Giving out branded items like t-shirts, pens, notebooks, or stickers is a great way to extend the notoriety of your event. In a physical environment, you usually hand these out at the door or after a session. But while it may require some extra planning and resources, you should still do this for a digital event. Ship these out to your attendees ahead of time, so they can tune into your event wearing or using these gifts.
Your Digital/Hybrid Events Timeline
Once you have all of the preliminary details laid out - including the content, the technology, your marketing strategy, and a complete plan for your digital event - let’s take a detailed look at the timeline for execution. Download yours now!
As remote work and digital engagement continue to be part of our every day lives, learning how to bring your event onto a virtual stage is more important than ever.
At this point, it’s clear that the majority of events will be at least partially digital moving forward. Learning how to integrate them into our regular operations will set companies up for success for years to come. While we can't always predict life-changing events like the COVID-19 pandemic, we can adapt to the digital transformation happening in almost every industry.
If you're new to planning digital events, or you would like to have a team of professionals design your event for you, we’re here to help you. At Fusion Media, we offer event design and execution services to help your team plan your next event from start to finish. We can also help to design digital elements that engage your audience at a hybrid event. Visit our website and see how our services might help your organization immerse the audience in your brand experience. Start planning your next event today!