5 things to consider when planning a virtual event

5 things to consider when planning a virtual event
(Image credit: Everything Possible / Shutterstock)

Living in a virtual world right now does not need to be so confining. While it’s true that many of us are self-isolating and tapping into work using a business laptop and Zoom chat, there are ways to hold a virtual event for a business meet-up, video conference, product demonstration, or even a full-fledged kick-off party. As business leaders, we don’t have to wonder if people will skip out of the event or even avoid attending because there are better options.

Fortunately, many of the principles and concepts from a real in-person event still apply to holding a virtual event -- right down to the snacks and the coffee and the get-to-know-you time. It’s a good idea to mimic a real event as much as possible to help people feel comfortable and participate, and also so they stick with the event and don’t drop out suddenly.

While there may be a few technical hurdles, it’s still possible to engage with the masses in a way that is effective and productive and leads to the same level of success. The most important part of this is being intentional -- realizing that people are worried and stressed about the worldwide pandemic and that they have many things competing for their attention. When there is a streamlined approach to the event, consistent communication, and extra perks involved, you will discover that people are just as interested and captive.

1. Communicate about what to expect

One of the most important steps for any event is a carryover from the real world. The more you can communicate about what to expect -- using an agenda, a website with more details, emails with updates about the schedule, and photos of those who are speaking -- the better. This taps into the basic human need to be “in the know” about any event. 

It also helps participants know whether the event will be highly structured and worthwhile, even if it is “required” for them. (Avoid the mistake of thinking that a required event will automatically guarantee success.) A virtual event is already hampered by the fact that an attendee might have a smartphone sitting next to them or even a home television and a video game console. If they know there will be detailed discussion and decision-making involved, they will set the phone aside.

2. Use Facebook event features

There’s something almost magical about using the Facebook event features. For starters, in a virtual environment where everyone is on a laptop and using Zoom to attend, the event features on social media are pure gold. They make it all seem more official. However, the event features also do much more than that. 

Because we’re all distracted these days, with multiple options in terms of how we connect, the event features will send notifications as reminders and track who actually attends and who skips out. This data can help you for every meeting. Once you hold one event, you can then track the success and contact those who skipped out directly. And, don’t underestimate the value of peer pressure. The event features show the potential attendees who else has agreed to be part of the event.

3. Plan for impromptu discussion

Another lesson learned from real-world events is to allow for impromptu discussions. There’s a temptation to get down to business right away, to jump right into the agenda. Avoid that scenario. Again, we’re talking about distracted humans attending on a laptop. Most of us need a period of time to adjust to the strangeness of attending a virtual event, and we like to get to know those who are attending in a non-structured way. 

Allow at least 10 minutes or more for people to catch-up, chat about the weather, and even digress into personal issues. No one likes to attend a meeting where there is a cold, sterile agenda and one main talking head. Even in the real world, these are events that people skip out of as soon as they start.

4. Do three times as much promotion

To make sure a virtual event is a success, it’s important to remind attendees multiple times. Assume that people are extremely distracted, so you will need to promote the event three times as much or more. This might include sending emails, text messages, social media chat messages, and other invites beyond what you would normally ever do. Understanding how people use digital communication -- that is, they scroll past things quickly -- means you will need to over-communicate with them and try to catch their interest and attention. 

One tip here is to track the success of all invites for every event. If you send emails, make sure you use a tool that can track whether potential attendees opened and read the message. If you post on social media, track the likes and shares. This will help you stay intentional about how often you communicate about the event and what has or has not worked in the past.

5. Encourage snack and coffee time

Guess what? One reason we attend real in-person meetings is for the free snacks. It’s human nature. In a virtual setting, this can be challenging but not impossible. If you decide to hold a company meeting in a few weeks and want everyone to attend, try offering similar incentives. On the event management website EventBrite, for example, you can create a registration page for your employees. If they fill it out and click the right options during the sign-up, offer a promo code for a free UberEats delivery or a free bagel at a local eatery -- delivered for the meeting. 

Let’s say you are planning a new product launch -- send every participant a free code for a coffee at Starbucks they can use for the meeting. This concept might seem old-school and employees or attenders might just use the code and not attend the meeting, but at least it’s an attempt to mimic a real-world incentive that actually works.

John Brandon

John Brandon has covered gadgets and cars for the past 12 years having published over 12,000 articles and tested nearly 8,000 products. He's nothing if not prolific. Before starting his writing career, he led an Information Design practice at a large consumer electronics retailer in the US. His hobbies include deep sea exploration, complaining about the weather, and engineering a vast multiverse conspiracy.