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Virtual flavours: Are you vanilla or kahlua?

Lychee Martini, Cherry Brandy, Kahlua Krunch, Bailey’s & Bourbon, Wineberries.

What's up with the explosion of "grown-up" ice cream flavours lately? Not that we’re complaining. It's exciting to see attention being paid to what’s long been a ‘vanilla, chocolate, strawberry’ situation.

Aside from making you want to reach for the tub in your freezer, what's ice cream got to do with virtual events and experiences?

Much like the expanding range on offer at the local ice creamery, many virtual event hosts are now experimenting with grown-up features such as allowing and even encouraging actual conversations amongst participants.

But just like some of the ice cream flavours, not all are as appealing as they sound.

So after some serious sampling of these new virtual events, we’re ready to share our verdict on what we loved about them, and what are some of the lessons we took away.

What we’re lovin’

First up, we want to acknowledge the Willy Wonkas of the event world. If we had to sit through another set of talking heads rambling on about how to do this or that, we were going to throw a tantrum of Violet Beauregarde proportions.

Next, we applaud the use of our much preferred method of getting participants involved in creating the outcomes they’re searching for. We see it as a bit like inviting customers to suggest new ice cream flavours. In some cases that even meant adopting the unconference approach of doing it on the fly, which made for a very dynamic experience, as the event literally unfolded in real time.

We also love the attempt at recreating the intimacy we used to have at in-person events. The equivalent of our teenage years’, date in the corner, sharing a single cone. For the events we participated in, all of the attempts featured a variation of joining a small breakout group and having an actual conversation (gasp).

To sum up, giving the power back to people and getting out of their way is what worked. The upside of this is obvious, including such old favourites as serendipitous moments and authentic connections being realised again.

That said, it wasn’t all hot fudge and sprinkles...

What we learnt

Firstly, we spotted some interesting patterns linked to culture and social norms. The events run by organisations in the "west" were definitely more lively, but suffered from spotlight hoggers. And a lot of people clearly like the sound of their own voices!

As for hosts in the “east”, the opposite was true. Lots of lingerers and very limited preparedness for participants to take the lead. This has very important implications from the experience design perspective.

Beyond that, identifying the right topics to be discussed is hard. So if it’s an unconference make-the-topics-up-on-the-day type event, prime the audience with what to expect, so they come prepared to roll their sleeves up and do the work.

Even then, we must understand that we might still alienate some people, potentially resulting in the dreaded End Meeting link being hit. But that’s okay. We can’t deliver something truly valuable to everyone - by definition, trying to please everyone often means it appeals to no one.

To get around this we’d suggest a pre-sign-up process where people indicate at least broad subject matter interest. But if we’re really serious about getting a diverse range of thoughts shared on a subject, look for ways to pre-determine who’s going to be around a “table”.

We’d also suggest assigning a facilitator to each “table”, someone to seed the conversation or shut down the spotlight hoggers. Could be plucked from the audience, and given a bit of preparation. Or go pro, if budget permits.

Adding guardrails by preselecting the topics to be discussed might make sense too. But then it’s crucial to find out what’s really keeping people up at night through cold, hard research calls. A survey, or even worse, guessing, just won’t cut it.

Yes, we get that all this represents more work, and potentially increased costs. But having done this dozens of times ourselves, we know for certain it’s the only way to truly make “grown-up” virtual events work.

And let’s face it, who doesn’t love the buzz that comes from having a dash of booze in your ice cream. So go forth and be the next Willy Wonka of events. And we’d love to hear what flavours your next event has...


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