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InContext / An inside look at the business of digital content

Five tips for running (much) better online events

October 12, 2020 | By Corinne Podger—Director, Digital Skills Agency @corinne_podger

This year, we’ve all swapped physical conferences for online ones. Socializing over tiny sandwiches and buffet lines has been replaced by what feels a bit like one long Zoom call.

However, thanks to Covid-19 (if you will), I’ve been able to participate in more events than ever now that they are online. Some have been great, and some have been truly awful. Of course, pretty much all of us are figuring this out in real time. So, here are five tips for creating online events your target attendee might not just sign up for, but actually enjoy.

Choose a platform wisely

If you are launching a virtual event, choosing a platform is likely going to be one of the most significant decisions you make. When selecting or updating your platform choice, involve your target participants. Get a focus group together to demonstrate the available options. Explore the pros and cons collaboratively, so you can settle on one that will make people like them more likely to sign up.

There are certainly plenty of options. Eight months ago, most of us would have balked at a Zoom call. Now, there are dozens of online platforms to choose from, and they’re all rapidly iterating.

Virtual events in virtual reality

You might try a VR platforms like Mozilla Hubs, which was used to deliver IEEEVR back in March. You could also take a look at VFairs , which created a physical convention center last month for The Photography and Video Show. They went all in on the digital replica model, including a foyer (image above), exhibition hall, main stage, workshop rooms, and an in-platform chat facility for networking.

VR platforms might suit you if your participants are tech-savvy enough to learn a new platform quickly, and keen to be immersed in a long-form event and take. But if your ideal attendee only has a spare hour or two and/or doesn’t want to learn a new digital interface, that’s not going to work.

Webinars evolve

At the other end of the complexity scale are webinar platforms like Zoom and Google Meet. Most of us are familiar with them (or have gotten familiar this year). Therefore, you can reasonably expect attendees to jump straight into the proceedings without spending too much time learning the interface.

Webinar platforms can work for time-poor attendees. However, they don’t offer much in the way of networking tools. If that’s important to your audience, you may need a third-party tool like Telegram or Slack to keep them happy.

Conferences that have taken this approach include Splice Beta. They ran dozens of one-hour events throughout September using Google Meet. They also set up a Telegram group for off-site networking during and after the conference period.

Meet in the middle

Platforms that offer a middle way between real-life replication and a webinar include HopIn and EventsAir. They have better interactivity tools. However, they typically take longer for your events team and attendees to learn to use and navigate. If you up your game in terms of platform, you’ll need to be prepared to offer sufficient guidance and tech support for attendees before and during the event.

That was a sacrifice worth making for Audiocraft, a day-long Australian podcast festival held in July. According to organizer Jess O’Callaghan, “There are those accidental encounters at physical conferences. You’re just eating a sandwich with someone you’ve never talked to before, and all of a sudden you have a connection that leads to something new and exciting. Offering that online was essential for our attendees”.

HopIn allowed Audiocraft participants to direct-message each other. They could create their own meetups during conference breaks and attend three-minute speed-networking sessions. To make the event a seamless experience, O’Callaghan’s team spent hours on rehearsals. They used HopIn for staff meetings to ensure everyone was comfortable with the interface. They also appointed “virtual ambassadors” to help field participant questions on the day.

Success is in the details

This attention to detail is essential, according to David Meerman Scott, Wall Street Journal bestselling author of Fanocracy. Scott has spoken at more than two dozen virtual events around the world since March. Unfortunately, he says, many virtual events are “mind-numbingly awful”.

“People are using the old-school webinar approach. It’s a big set of slides with a voice track over it, and a tiny thumbnail of someone at their kitchen table,” he says. “The other thing that’s happening is people are trying to recreate an in-person event and put it online. That is essentially televising a keynote, like a TED talk. Why would someone pay or persevere through a TED talk that’s not just 12 minutes, but 45?”

Scott has just published Standout Virtual Events, co-authored with Digital Content Next editor and event organizer Michelle Manafy. The book is packed with recommendations for designing events, considerations for choosing a platform, ideas for audience interactivity, and pricing strategies.

Critically, the book also offers tips to help speakers deliver their best on the day. “As an event organizer, you have to take charge of the quality of the event. You simply cannot assume the speaker is going to be able to pull it off without your help,” Scott says.

Define and measure your impact

Razlan Manjaji has led the events team at the South China Morning Post for the past year. Under his leadership, the team of 12 has gone from running one virtual event a month to one every week, with revenue targets for most of them. “That was a leap of faith for us, because it was four times our previous workload,” he says.

It’s involved more than faith, though. Manjaji sets KPIs for every event, and gives each event a net score based on attendee satisfaction. The Post uses Bizzabo, a platform that allows users to track performance on key metrics.

SCMP’s KPIs include overall sign-ups as well as the percentage of attendees that meet a sponsor’s desired demographics. They also measure actual turn-out on the day and how long attendees spend on the event platform. They also track well as whether they interact with the content and each other during the event. And, of course, they are keeping a close eye on revenue generation.

For events aimed at new audiences, like the Digital Transformation Series for tech leaders, Manjaji takes a pilot-and-scale approach. He works with supportive brands like Microsoft to sponsor a test event before turning it into an ongoing project.

Not everything has worked well, or indeed at all. An attempt to return to live events in June with a kindergarten showcase aimed at young parents was “a disaster,” according to Manjaji. But the learnings are being ploughed into a second education-focused conference later this month.

“It’s a learning time for everyone, and there will be more mistakes than usual. But the point is that we’re moving in the right direction, and I feel very encouraged by that fact,” he says.

Don’t forget the long tail

Yes, you can put the whole conference on YouTube for free. Or you can make it available as a recording for a set price. But is that the best value you can have from that content, given the time, energy and money you’ve put into making it perfect?

I’ve been really impressed  by SRCCON, which ran online in July. Some of that content was repurposed into Watch Parties a few weeks later. A small selection has been made permanently public, which is an innovative way of attracting new audiences to your brand, long after you’ve turned off the computer at the end of your next event.

Embrace experimentation

My last tip is to stop wishing for a return to the “old normal.” For however long social distancing is with us, and it could be years, offline meetings will be risky to run and tough to make profitable. Of course we miss the camaraderie of physical conferences. It’s a chance to see old friends and have those accidental meetings that help drive new projects and business. But this is no time for nostalgia. It’s a time for brave experimentation in the online space to reach and leverage new audiences for your brand.

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