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Spoiler alert: Virtual events need as much TLC as a live event

So you’ve decided to go ahead and honour your promise to your community to bring them together at a conference, albeit in a virtual environment. Good job! We applaud any effort to help propel business forward, especially during these turbulent times.

However, if you think it’s a simple case of signing up for a Zoom account and sending out an invitation, think again.

Live and virtual events are identical in that they have the exact same ingredients for success. These include defining a clear purpose, outlining detailed objectives and outcomes, along with consideration of the design and delivery of your event. No, we don’t mean the venue, staging and refreshments. We’re referring to the participant journey and what they’ll gain in exchange for giving up their time, attention and if you’re lucky, money.

Following these crucial steps ensures information isn’t just shared at a conference; it’s transformed. That’s where the value lies. This can only happen when a group of like-minded people show up with the intent to contribute and achieve something, together.

Without these basics in place, we would argue there’s no real point in running a conference – in real life (IRL) or otherwise. Sure, you might be tempted to think that it’s so much “easier” for participants to join an event online, as they no longer have to worry about travelling to a venue and the associated costs. But there’s one big challenge that every conference faces: audience engagement.

It’s bad enough IRL. Death-by-powerpoint, mobile phones, inappropriate venues and so on means keeping an audience's attention is a challenge for almost any conference. And that’s when there are speakers standing right in front of them!

Try getting an audience any larger than 4-5 people to remain engaged online, especially over an extended period, and you realise the problem. Between screaming children, pesky dogs and “urgent” emails, it’s almost impossible.

There is a way to do it though and it’s the same whether your event is face-to-face or virtual. Seth Godin clearly and simply explained it in a recent post. Meetings, and by extension, conferences, should be about having a conversation.

If you’re not gathering people to encourage a dialogue and facilitate participation, then record a video of the presentation and invite people to download it.

If it’s also the case your gathering is attended because people want to network, then your challenges are magnified. Despite our familiarity with dating apps and being comfortable sharing intimate details with complete strangers online, when it comes to virtual meetings and events, awkward is the word.

One of our favourite techniques for encouraging meaningful networking is relatively simple: breakouts. Again, whether you’re hosting a live event or doing it online, they work.

Yep. It’s about getting your audience to actually participate. And in a breakout with a small number of participants, they cannot hide, as this HBR article explains perfectly.

It’s logistically possible to create breakouts both on and offline. But it’s how you manage them that determines the overall success of your event.

So please, do deliver a much-needed platform for your community to “gather” and share their experiences and challenges. In the current climate, they possibly have more time to give, with #wfh situations on the rise and work meetings on the decline.

We, as an industry, have a unique opportunity to be a source of comfort in these trying times, by continuing to design and deliver purposeful conferences for our communities to join virtually.


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