How to run engaging virtual events

In the current landscape, more than a few organisations are pivoting their planned, in-person events to instead take place virtually. These virtual events can extend to everything from shared watch parties or performances, to more formal and interactive conferences and webinars.

However, before businesses invite participants and send out the meeting link, there are a few key elements to consider, not the least of which is how you'll engage your audience in this new virtual normal.

A few perks of going digital

While having to shift a previously planned, in-person event to a virtual stage isn't ideal - and certainly takes its fair share of effort and retargeting - there are a few benefits to this approach.

As Forbes contributor Serenity Gibbons pointed out, a virtual gathering frees up event hosts from dealing with venue restrictions, and can even end up being more cost-effective for both event sponsors and attendees.

"47% of individuals are more likely to ask a question during a virtual event."

"The elimination of travel expenses opens up an event to people who might not otherwise have made the effort to join," Gibbons noted.

Additionally, without the pressures that an in-person event can bring, participants are also more likely to engage. According to WorkCast, 47% of individuals said they'd be more likely to ask a question during a virtual event, and another 30% noted they'd be more likely to network with people in virtual event booths than physical ones.

How to support engagement virtually

Although a virtual event can put hosts on the right path to engage their audience, it takes more than a digital meeting link - without the right planning and effort, event hosts and sponsors run the risk that attendees will simply click open the link, and let it run, without actually engaging.

There are a few things event hosts can do to help prevent this, including:

Supporting high production quality

While virtual meetings hosted from participants' living rooms are common, event organisers can do better for their digital events. Scott Schoenneberger, managing partner of tech firm Bluewater, told Gibbons that it's best to approach digital events like a high-quality news broadcast. This includes using robust tools for audio and video, and even putting together a studio, supported by high capacity bandwidth for top-notch digital performance.

"Production value is more important than event when you're pivoting to a digital event, largely because it's so obvious to your viewers," Gibbons pointed out. "If your so-called event is now just a Zoom call with the Golden Gate Bridge background and your 5-year-old interrupting to ask for a grilled cheese, you're doing it wrong."

Choose speakers or presenters carefully - and make sure they can be seen

Just like an in-person event, a digital event benefits from the participation of varied speakers or presenters, who can each lend their own expertise and point of view to the topic of discussion. To ensure engagement, it's important to select these presenters carefully, and choose those that will offer an enthusiastic performance, even over digital channels.

Additionally, while it's tempting to throw a slide presentation up and let speakers explain over the top of it, Eventbrite recommends making sure that attendees can put a face to the voice. Facial expressions and other non-verbal cues are key, even when participants can't be in the same room.

Speakers should also include natural pauses in their presentations, which provide the opportunity for participants to collaborate, share and engage.

Speaker at a podium in front of empty venue hall seating.
Empty venue halls won't stop events from taking place through digital channels.

Offer interactive tools

Speaking of giving participants the opportunity to engage, event hosts will also need to ensure that their digital meeting platform has the capabilities to support this. Video conferencing and other presentation apps should include features that enable interactive Q&A sessions, polling and more, so that participants have the ability to truly engage.

Hosts can also consider setting up breakout sessions and digital meeting rooms, similar to the experience attendees would see at an in-person conference.

Re-create the in-person experience

One of the best ways to encourage engagement with your audience is to include a few extra elements to help them feel as though they attended a traditional event. For instance, Zoom suggested in its online events guide that hosts consider what participants would have received at an in-person event, and send these things beforehand. For instance, if lunch was planned, hosts can send food delivery gift cards so attendees can still enjoy a digital lunch together. Similarly, if a gift bag or branded event swag was planned, hosts can send these out with event invitations, or as part of the event follow-up.

Post-event follow-up

It's also critical to touch base and thank event participants and attendees after the event. Sending out a thank you email, complete with follow-up materials and content can help the audience keep the event's purpose or lessons top-of-mind - and can help boost engagement for the next virtual gathering.

To find out more about planning, hosting and running engaging virtual events, check out our whitepaper and webinar series, "This is business as (un)Usual," and connect with us at cievents today.

A major focus for cievents was, is and always will be your safety.

Get in touch with us to make your event dream become a reality.


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