By now we’ve all probably sat through our fair share of virtual events. Most of us could probably name a virtual conference that was inspiring and insightful. While others are quick to point to an event that left them feeling bored, unengaged, and frustrated for wasting their precious time.What was the difference between the two? Where did the event organizer go wrong?
There’s no doubt that virtual events offer a new kind of opportunity. But, just like in-person events, they still require a lot of strategic planning to be effective. The disconnect often forms when event organizers fail to capture that same level of networking, interaction, and engagement that automatically comes with most in-person events.
Yes, it takes a bit more creativity to recreate that experience. But it’s possible. And if you lean into the opportunity, you’ll find that your virtual events have a much bigger impact on your attendees.
As you build your virtual event strategy, include these 9 smart ways to help keep virtual attendees engaged before, during, and after your virtual event.
Before Your Virtual Event
A full-proof engagement strategy begins way before your virtual event actually starts. By being strategic about your planning, you’ll not only create a better overall experience for your attendees, but you’ll get people excited about attending in the first place. Use the following tips to build up your engagement strategy before your event starts.
1. Decide on your Platform and Format
Of course, one of the first things on your to-do list when planning a virtual event is to select your hosting platform. You’ll also need to decide the format of your event. Here are some questions to consider:
- Will speakers be live-streamed or pre-recorded?
- Will attendees be able to talk and ask questions?
- How will these questions be asked?
- Will there be a live chat?
- Who will be monitoring these questions?
There’s really no wrong or right answer when it comes to format and platform, but based on some virtual events and conferences we’ve attended, we do have some suggestions for what works best at driving engagement.
First, when it comes to picking a platform, we’ve found that the most engaging events incorporate some type of online community. Think about the main reasons behind why most people attend in-person events, and try and recreate this with your online community. Remember, you can have great content, incredible speakers, and valuable insights but still not provide the engaging experience event attendees are looking for.
Popular reasons people attend conferences include:
- Networking opportunities
- Hear from industry experts
- Educational insights
- Ask questions to peers and industry experts
- Gather resources to support their own business needs
So how do you go about recreating those experiences virtually? Luckily, technology is in your favor. There are quite a few different virtual event hosting platforms that offer unique ways to accomplish all of the above. Here’s just a few that are worth looking into:
Hubb Virtual Event Platform - This platform is best for those planning a larger event like an annual conference. It’s extensive and provides an over-the-top engagement experience that isn’t quite necessary for monthly webinars or recurring meetings. The Hubb platform will allow attendees to build their own event schedules, visit virtual exhibit booths and virtual lobbies. It also features content library tools where you can organize all your sessions into an on-demand resource for your attendees.
Hopin Virtual Event Platform - Great for smaller businesses or events, Hopin offers a starter version at just $99 a month. They also offer more extensive business or enterprise versions. Hopin provinces live stage broadcasting, 1:1 video networking, breakout rooms, as well as marketing tools for your event.
Whova - Another tool great for smaller events, as the price will vary based on the event size. Whova is a simple and versatile tool that can be integrated with other tools like Zoom, Google Hangout, Youtube, and Vimeo. Its strength is found in its networking provisions. Offering features like live Q&A, discussion boards, meeting-matches, and virtual meet-ups, attendees will easily be able to meet and connect with their colleagues. Plus, event organizers can provide attendees with access to the Whova app prior to the event, which will allow people to virtually socialize with other meeting attendees ahead of time.
Once you’ve decided on your platform, you’ll next want to consider the format for your virtual event. To maximize engagement, we recommend pre-recording most of your segments and allowing the speaker to engage actively with the audience during the presentation. You can utilize your platform’s live chat functionality to accomplish this.
This method helps keep audience attendees engaged, instead of just sitting idly throughout a presentation.
Another option is to have a pre-recorded session and hold a live Q&A session after. This hybrid model will allow the audience to focus on the presentation, but also give them a chance to actively engage with the presenter when the time comes.
2. Set Expectations
Once you’ve settled on a platform and format, it’s important both your speakers and your audience knows and is comfortable with both. Similar to the concept of creating a compelling virtual presentation, it’s important that everyone understands what to expect and what their role will be. This will create cohesion and comfort, thus creating a space where both speakers and attendees aren’t afraid to engage when the time comes.
First, make sure your speakers understand what’s expected of them. Have they ever spoken at a virtual event before? If this is their first time, you’ll want to spend some time practicing and preparing with them or give them some tips to help them prepare on their own.
Keep in mind that a lot of powerful speakers get their energy from the audience. Because virtual events don’t offer that same audience feedback loop, speakers can often be thrown off guard and feel a disconnect from their audience that can affect their performance. Keep this in mind, and prepare your speakers accordingly. These are some great tips that can help as they prepare their virtual presentations.
Other important topics to discuss with your speakers include their camera backgrounds, lighting, their dress code, and technology. By having these conversations beforehand, you’ll ensure a seamless experience for your audience, and thus an overall more engaging one.
Next, you’ll want to prepare your audience. How can you expect them to engage during the event, if they don’t know how to do it?
Let them know that you value their feedback during sessions, and make it clear how they can give it. If you’re having all attendees muted until the live Q&A - let them know! When they are able to voice their questions, make it clear where they should submit them or make them known.
By setting clear expectations, you’ll see a better overall engagement rate simply because attendees will know how to engage. It sounds simple, but yet it’s so easy to forget.
3. Create Excitement
Excitement is the path to engagement. To get people to interact, you have to get them buzzing. It’s a basic physiological principle. Excitement creates more powerful emotions, which in return gets people talking. The more buzz there is about your event, the more people will want to join in. You’ll not only see a boost in attendance, but your attendees will actually look forward to your event, which can provide some additional event marketing.
Here are some suggestions for increasing excitement before your event:
Send a Custom Virtual Event Swag Box
Who doesn’t love receiving a custom box of free giveaways in the mail? Sending a box of strategically planned swag items ahead of your event is one easy way to get people talking before your event starts. We’ve seen the excitement swag can create firsthand. Read about the success one of our own clients saw from sending virtual event swag.
We always recommend creating a hashtag for your event and incorporating it somehow into your virtual event box. This will give attendees a place to share their excitement, post pictures of their swag items, and give them an outlet to connect. It will also drive engagement to your event and help as you look to get the word out.
Tap into FOMO
Another simple way to increase event excitement is to tap into FOMO marketing or fear of missing out. Use social media, email, website pages, and blog posts to slowly create suspense for your event. Drip campaigns like the announcement of a new speaker or a new segment added due to popular demand are all great examples.
Promotional Videos & Graphics
Consider investing in a well-made promotional video for your event. Just like a trailer for a new movie, videos create an unmatchable type of excitement. You’ll want to invest in something professional, which could be costly. But consider using short clips of this promo video to expand the investment. You can share these on social media, event pages, and through email campaigns. They can even be used as you plan out your next event, especially useful if it’s an annual conference that’s repeated every year.
During Your Virtual Event
Strategically planning your agenda to drive engagement is a critical key to success. Here are some things you’ll want to incorporate during your event.
4. Get Creative with Activities
Utilize your platform to the fullest ability. There’s a reason many of the tools listed above have built-in Q&A’s, live chats, and special meeting rooms. It’s all to help event planners like you keep their attendees engaged. Here are some interactive activities you can include within your agenda:
Live chat - Q&A’s during presentations
Polls - a great way to get to know your attendees
Surveys - whether you’re trying to prove a point in a presentation or just get your attendees involved, surveys are a great way to keep people tuned in
Quizzes - host quiz sessions at the end of each event to see if attendees were paying attention
Contests - take your quizzes a step further by making them a contest, and consider offering awards to the winners
Debates - have two of your speakers “debate” each other live, and then ask for audience feedback on the winner
Speaker panels - instead of just one speaker, consider multiple speakers that can feed off of each other, and create more of a conversation instead of a formal presentation
Additionally, consider including activities that promote networking and connection among attendees. Here are a few examples:
Ask Me Anything Sessions - A tactic that’s gaining popularity among virtual events, is “ask me anything” sessions. These small breakout sessions utilize a subject matter expert (SME) that if at an in-person event, people would be lining up to network with and ask questions. The speaker then hosts a “roundtable” type session, where they don’t have an agenda, but the attendees drive the conversation with specific questions they ask. Remember to make sure your SME has a list of backup questions, just in case the conversation is slow to get started.
Personal Meetup Sessions - Another networking incentivizer is small “meetup” groups. Create a session with limited entries to allow people to connect better virtually. You’ll want to encourage people with similar interests, or job titles to gather together to make the meetups more attractive to attend. Consider having a leader in each group, with start-up questions or activities to break the ice. Another way to make these sessions less intimidating is by branding them “coffee time”, or “cocktail hours”. You can even include a branded drinkware item in your swag box, and encourage attendees on the agenda to grab their mug and share a drink virtually.
Virtual Trade Show Booths - A big part of the in-person conference is the tradeshow. Luckily, many virtual event hosting platforms have found creative ways to recreate this online. Consider incorporating vendors who would have been present at your live event by giving them a special page to display their own profile, images, logos, posters, or anything else they would want to include. Also, encourage vendors to have a staff member virtually present on the page, so they can interact with any attendees who visit their booth. It can be a bit hard to wrap your head around the idea of a virtual tradeshow, but below is an example of what an online booth looks like on the Whova platform.
5. Be sure to give attendees a break
Breaks seem to come natural during in-person events. Typically people have to walk to a new place in between sessions. Plus, there’s usually a built-in lunch or snack time for added socializing.
But when we’re all virtual, it can be easy to plan a full day of sessions and not even consider building in a break. Ironically, the best practice for virtual events is to build in more breaks. Because distractions from the “real world” don’t disappear during virtual events, attendees have much shorter attention spans.
A good benchmark to go by is for every hour of a live presentation, about half that time will work in a virtual setting. So a typical 60-minute keynote speaker should be broken down into a 30-minute session virtually.
Consider getting creative with your breaks too. Allow some time where participants can catch up on their personal needs, but also allow some additional interactive breaks.
Think about how you would entertain guests or attendees at an in-person event. Why not recreate that experience virtually. Here are some ideas:
Wellness break - consider holding a mediation, stretch, or yoga session with your attendees.
Entertainment - consider including a concert, live music, or another form of entertainment that might be relevant to your industry.
Magic trick session - tap into the talent at your company, or hire an outside magician.
Cooking session - use a quick “mind” break to teach a cooking lesson or fun recipe.
Talent show - allow attendees to send in videos ahead of the event, and feature them in a talent show during one of the breaks. This is also a great networking opportunity and gives people a chance to laugh and interact with each other.
6. Keep up the conversations with a virtual emcee
Breaks are extremely effective at promoting engagement, even if you just opt for the traditional intermission style. But it’s important that you don’t just let attendees go off on their own, without any sort of incentive to come back. Again, distractions are high during virtual events. You don’t want to risk having attendees getting caught up in an unrelated task, and completely forget to rejoin your conference.
Push notifications can be a great way to keep everyone on task. Send reminders as to how long each break is, and when you are returning. You can also use notifications to keep conversations going throughout the event itself.
Consider sending out interesting facts during the day, or shouting out contest winners. Think of push notifications, or email blasts, or social media posts, as an in-person event emcee. Though not an actual person, this type of correspondence during the event is a way to give a voice to your conference while keeping everyone together and engaged.
After Your Virtual Event
Your engagement strategy should never end with the event. There’s a lot of opportunity after the event to continue the conversation and keep attendees excited about their experience and your company. So keep that fire going with the following engagement tips.
7. Use User-Generated Content Marketing
User-generated content is one of the most powerful ways to connect people with your brand, and therefore your event. Remember that event hashtag we talked about earlier? Now it’s time to tap into it.
If you promoted your hashtag throughout your event, you likely have a stockpile of content uploaded from your attendees that you can share and promote. Leverage this content on your social pages, in your email follow-ups, and on your website pages. Reach out to some of these people who offered positive feedback, and ask if you can use them in a testimonial. These can be valuable when you go to build your marketing campaign for your next event.
8. Share Resources
The whole point of your virtual event likely was to educate and inspire your attendees. So keep that inspiration going after the event by sharing resources they can take with them and use throughout their lives.
One of the biggest benefits of virtual events is the easy way that people can go back and watch sessions they either missed or found especially valuable. Make sure you provide them with this opportunity by making your content library accessible to everyone who attended.
You can also use clips of these sessions, or specific speaker slide decks, to help your audience continue learning throughout the year, keeping the excitement fresh. Repurpose sessions into bite-sized clips that you can share via email or social media. This can also be another way to get people excited about the next event on the calendar.
9. Ask for Feedback
Finally, the best thing you can do to improve your virtual event engagement is to ask for feedback. Your audience is the one experiencing your event, and they’ll have the best insights into the areas you can improve upon.
Consider sending out a survey after the event to collect feedback on the best sessions and activities. Here are some suggested questions you might want to include:
- Why did you attend our event and what were you hoping to take away from it?
- Did you take away what you were hoping to take away?
- What did we do best?
- What areas of the event do you think we can improve upon?
- What session was your favorite and why?
- What type of sessions do you wish we had more of?
Access the responses you get. Did a particular topic or format resonate better with attendees? This will give you valuable insight into what your audience enjoys, and how you can improve your format, activities, and overall engagement tactics for the next conference.
Next - Level Up Your Virtual Events
As you plan your next virtual event, remember the competition is high. Businesses everywhere are shifting their event strategies to capitalize on the virtual movement. Use this knowledge to fuel your competitive side, as you brainstorm ways to provide a better experience for your event goers.
It may take some reimagining , but audience engagement is certainly still accomplishable in the virtual world. In fact, with a little creativity you can inspire your attendees in ways they’ve very seen before. And don’t forget, if done correctly, your virtual event can reach and engage people who you never would have captured at a physical event.
The opportunities are endless, so use the ideas above to build up your engagement strategy and expand your audience while doing it.