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Virtual Events Done Right

By now we’ve all realized that the world can’t just stop. We must keep plodding forward in our work and in our everyday lives, which can admittedly be a challenge when so much of the world is working from couches, dining room tables, basements, or kitchens (with a computer balanced on milk crates because both the lighting and the background are the best in that room). Yes, that was a kid who just whizzed by and the cat really did just step on the keyboard again and fill the Google Sheet with a bunch of gibberish.

Because it’s 2020 – and at this point, we’re all used to the added stress and chaos and know that we need to bring extra creativity to how we work. That includes exploring new ways to interact with each other. Over the past year, we’ve realized the importance of the activities we used to do regularly – the strategy and brainstorming sessions, breakfasts with the boss, all-company meetings, and happy hours. While we have been forced to abandon many of our routines, we must replace those with new activities and actions because we simply can’t stop connecting and think business will continue as usual.

Sending one-off chat messages is not enough – we need activities that help us connect with each other in meaningful ways. We need to see and actually interact with people. We do this in small ways online within teams and with friends, but companies have quickly realized that the big-picture meetings – the annual all-company conferences – must go on regardless of the challenges the business faces. People still need to connect to discuss strategy and move the company forward.

Mastering the Large-Scale Event

Many of us have mastered the virtual small-scale meeting – we’re proficient in client meetings and happy hours with coworkers – and those of us who haven’t mastered this can at least hack our way through it. But we need the large-scale interaction, both for the sake of the business and for the sake of our own sanity.

The last in-person conference you attended might’ve gone something like this: You walked into the main room on Thursday morning, listened to the opening speaker and took some notes, and then went to four breakout sessions and lunch before reconvening in the same big room at the end of the afternoon. You rarely saw the same person twice in one day and didn’t interact with many people (you even skipped the optional dinners and happy hours because, well, they were optional). You were mostly focused on packing your head with information and absorbing as much as you could.

You did this for three days – and learned a lot. In fact, everyone walked away happy, because this format worked to reach the broadest possible audience of people from different industries. On top of that, you were so thrilled with the platform they used (mostly because it wasn’t a PowerPoint presentation) that you wrote down its name and told everyone you knew about it. You were so head over heels about the platform that you pushed your organization to start using it too. It worked well live. And sure, it probably would have worked equally well in a virtual environment too. But the reality of events is this – what is an incredible platform one venue and one conference might not be the right choice for the next venue and next conference. Choosing the right platform isn’t a “one size fits all” situation.

Elevating the Virtual Event Experience

What the freewheeling nature of the large-scale platform lacks, however, is unity and control. When picking a virtual setting to host a conference, you likely don’t want people scattered and on their own, learning about disconnected topics and getting lost between meetings. In the ideal situation, you control the experience so everyone takes away the same key messages of your company’s strategy (or whatever it is you’re meeting about).

There’s a big difference between your event and, say, a day at an amusement park. At the park, you’d want your employees to arrive, split up, and have fun doing whatever they want to do. Some would come back at the end of the day raving about how awesome Roller Coaster X was, and others would say how relaxing it was to just sit on the Ferris wheel and eat elephant ears and funnel cakes. Your employees would leave having had disparate experiences.

Now think about your virtual event. You want to engage people. You want them to have fun. Most importantly, though, you want them to absorb the same information in the same way, so when everyone goes back to work, they all have a collective idea of what’s going on. No one is lost, no one is texting a friend to ask what they learned about, and the business can thrive because of the clear direction given in the meeting. You have control, employees are unified, and you make the experience happen in a more intimate environment. Now your people feel connected and engaged because you’ve given them a directed experience.

Organizations must prioritize creating universal experiences like this when choosing a platform to deliver their virtual events. They also need to think about the content they need to deliver during those events.

Making the Best Choice

So how do you choose a platform? There’s no one right answer, but there’s a lot to consider as you sift through them to find one that’s right for your event. At Root, when we build a virtual event, we consider these factors to determine which platform to recommend:

  1. Your goals. What’s the desired outcome? What’s your purpose? What do you want your people to take away from the event? Tailoring the experience for your audience is paramount.
  2. The structure. Choosing the right platform will allow you to drive toward your goals as you direct the experience for your attendees.
  3. What your people will have to do to get rolling. Will they need to set up new accounts with new usernames and passwords? How will you coordinate this? Alternatively, can you use your current learning management system and build your event in your current platform?
  4. All the bells and whistles that some platforms offer. Do you need these features? Likely not – too many features can be a distraction and make the event difficult to navigate. Features don’t make experiences. People will remember the connections and the unity among the attendees, not the technological gimmicks.
  5. The direction. Do you want people wandering from room to room on their own? Or do you need to create a guided experience to achieve your desired outcomes?
  6. Whether you’d benefit from a blended experience. Could you improve the session by using printed materials to supplement the virtual experience? How would attendees feel about getting a care package the week of the event? You can include workshop materials, such as a workbook to write in, but also snacks and treats – maybe even a bottle of wine. This little extra effort can go a long way in making the event memorable.

Think about which options will most benefit your event and attendees. And while you’re thinking, here’s a checklist to help you situate your thoughts:

  • Build a custom agenda on a platform that everyone can log into using existing credentials.
  • Use a variety of engagement methods (such as video, small groups, large groups, networking, prework, and accompanying physical materials), but present the materials through a single portal.
  • Put people in a story that you direct and control. Curate the experience so people don’t get lost – help them focus on the experience instead of how to get to the next room.
  • Make it easy to manage by eliminating the confusion of physical events, which so many virtual platforms fail to do.

In the end, the goal is to create a directed experience that you can control, that your people can unify around, and that everyone will remember. The more you focus on the experience – not the show – the more information people will retain. And that’s the point, right?

November 19, 2020

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