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How to Transition Events from In-Person to Virtual

Kurt Voelker

Vice President, Business Strategy and Growth, Forum One

Professional events and convenings are critical for many nonprofits and NGOs. They help increase awareness, connect communities and experts, drive dialogue, and of course, for many, they are key sources of revenue. The reality of our current situation has forced many organizations to figure out how to transition events from in-person to virtual. 

Replacing your real-world event with a digital experience does not have to be a step-down. A typical in-person event is exclusive, intense, and potentially limiting because participants need to drop everything to participate 14 hours a day, expensive, and over in a blip – and everyone goes back to reality and insights lessons fade. There are opportunities to make the online event bigger, more unique, and engaging and perhaps have a longer-term impact than your traditional convening.

If you’re scrambling to transform your canceled event into an engaging digital convening, here are some key considerations to help your planning.

Layer opportunities for attendee participation

What is an event anyway? It’s keynotes and breakouts, coffees and free-form networking, hallway conversations, and social outings like the morning yoga group or an evening dinner. It’s layer upon layer of engagement, and you should be planning your virtual event around layering participation as well. The layers you build into your virtual event could depend a great deal on the nature and type of real-world event you are replacing. How many attendees, the duration, the tone, and the purpose of your event should all be drivers of the participation you “layer” into your online event.  Below are a number of ideas and considerations for what those layers of participation could be.

Spread it out and potentially increase attendance

Your virtual event does not need to, and probably shouldn’t, have the same duration and cadence of its in-person equivalent. In-person attendance and the event’s duration are restricted by needing a physical space to meet, they require travel and time away from attendees’ day-jobs, and they can be expensive to attend. Your virtual event doesn’t have these same restrictions. What was originally planned as an intense two-day event could be redesigned to be a few hours a day over a week, maybe even two. Think strategically about timing for your virtual event, and know that a different cadence may be better suited for the virtual version.

Reducing admission fees and removing the other costs of real-world attendance could increase the number of attendees, even significantly. Edward Wendling, the head of Global Marketing for Advanced Solutions didn’t cancel his organization’s annual partner and client innovation conference; he moved it online—and attendance nearly doubled from last year,  from 250 to 415 attendees.

Have a home base: the “virtual hub”

Participation for in-person events is anchored by your physical space. Your online event needs a “home base”’ as well—a central place to orchestrate activities and communicate agendas. Let’s call this the “virtual hub” of your event. Your virtual hub should be a dedicated website or section of your existing website where you’ll point your attendees to for agendas and session content, announcements, and other relevant event information. Your virtual hub serves as a jumping-off point for all of the layers you’re providing.

The watercooler: replicating and improving an  in-person vibe

Attendee interactions are a big part of what makes in-person events so great. There are a number of ways to encourage and support attendee to attendee interaction online. At the heart of those interactions are the people, so be sure to make it easy to discover others by sharing attendee profiles and session sign-up lists for example. Carrie Clyne, the Deputy Director of Events and Community at The Communications Network, shared with us in a recent conversation that they are looking into tools like Brella.io to facilitate virtual “match-making” that suggest to attendees to connect with.

Plan to have a permanent place for asynchronous conversations among all attendees. Slack can work well as your “main lobby” and can also support the ad-hoc creation of small groups—the equivalent of “birds-of-a-feather” or “lunch table topics” type gatherings at an in-person event.  Though Slack is certainly not the only tool available, you could use discussion boards or embedded chat services on your own site. 

In addition to an always available “room” for ongoing conversations, consider layering in activities that bring people together at the same time. By now most of us are familiar with the Zoom happy hour. Whether it’s Zoom or another realtime connection platform, plan for social gatherings that are not structured and are likely shorter than their real-time counterparts such as a 20-minute virtual coffee at the beginning of each day, or a 45-minute happy hour to conclude each day or both. These social sessions can also be great ways to get your Sponsors much-desired facetime. You can ask them to open the happy hour with a toast or say a few words at the virtual coffee. 

Just like the helpful staff you find circulating at a real event, your online event will need some community guidance. Be sure to have your team familiar with whichever online tools you choose and assign specific responsibilities to curate conversations, post, share, and encourage the event’s attendees to connect.

Create special opportunities for sponsors

Speaking of sponsors, your event revenue likely depends largely on opportunities for their exposure. Don’t cancel the swag bag just because your event is virtual.  Take some of your event fees and meal savings and mail attendees your t-shirts and sponsor mugs. Encourage those showing up for virtual coffees to show off their swag!

Highlight your sponsors using “virtual booths.” These can be areas linked to your event’s main hub where you can house sponsor content, contact information, even make live chat available.  Depending upon the nature and type of your event, you may want to consider making attendee access and usage data of the “virtual booth” available to your sponsor—the equivalent of scanning a badge at a real conference, for example.

Think beyond “webinar” to virtualize keynotes and sessions

Using the web as a one-to-many live broadcast has a pretty proven model: the webinar. But a faceless presenter and long list of dialed-in attendees certainly doesn’t replicate the energy of a great keynote or the intimacy of question and answer engagement with experts. For keynotes, platforms like FaceBook Live, YouTube Live, and Instagram TV give virtual participants ways to provide feedback to presenters and could also attract broader audiences if that is one of your goals. 

Content sessions are the heart of most professional events your nonprofit is likely hosting. For the Advanced Solutions Innovation Conference mentioned earlier, they pre-recorded the presentation panels and made it available for the conference’s duration, which meant attendees could benefit from more of the event’s content than they would if they were there in-person. 

To support real-time sessions, Zoom provides excellent functionality for making virtual sessions feel intimate. For sessions with a few panelists and up to 50 or so attendees, encourage every attendee to participate with their video on. All 125 Forum One staff connect on Zoom for our monthly all-hands meetings presentations (now weekly during our stay-at-home order). Even with 125 simultaneous participants, the question and answer portion doesn’t feel disconnected. Polling, break out rooms within a session, and participant chat are also great Zoom capabilities that can make a virtual session feel even more valuable than sitting in a hotel conference room watching panelists.

Don’t forget the technical nitty-gritty

You’re still going to need registration and payment processing. Depending upon the event’s importance to your organization, you may want integration with your CRM or AMS to help personalize experiences. We’ve mentioned a number of specific technical tools throughout this post – including your own website, Zoom, Slack, Bela.io, and various streaming video services. We think it’s smart for you to combine the right tools to create the event experience you are looking for. There are also all-in-one platforms that are specifically designed for online convenings and could be a good fit for your organization. A few we’re seeing our clients evaluate include Hopin.to and Higher Logic’s Virtual Event Community.

As your organization moves ahead with virtual meetings and conferences, we hope these suggestions for layering engagement can help make your event a success. We’re working and learning more every day from our clients as they do the same – please get in touch if you are planning your event and would like support!

Written By

Kurt Voelker

Vice President, Business Strategy and Growth, Forum One

Need help transitioning your in-person event to virtual?

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