Virtual Events , Announcement

Forget This and Your Virtual Event Will Fail

Robert W. Sprague

It’s a good assumption that—in the wake of COVID-19—virtual or online events will see a resurgence in popularity.

Billions of dollars in marketing, cancellation fees, and exhibit revenue have been lost because of the live events canceled in the spring and early summer of 2020.  Sponsoring organizations will be missing out on a vital opportunity to communicate with attendees. Budgets decimated by the COVID-19 cancellations will limit what can be done in following years; and once burned, event sponsors will want a solid backup plan for any live event scheduled after the pandemic recedes.

Virtual events, however, have a checkered history. Few have delivered an experience as satisfying or useful as their in-person counterparts. Google released a blog only a week after the pandemic response took hold in the U.S. reminding us that “Digital events’ seems like an easy answer… but that doesn’t always mean it’s the right answer.”

There is one principle that—when forgotten—dooms a virtual event to failure. It is this: a virtual event is not the same as a live event.

It is blindingly obvious that the online medium is almost completely different than the in-person medium. Yet many virtual events are conceived and structured as if they were taking place in an auditorium or ballroom, where speakers and audiences alike share the energy and immediacy of an on-stage presentation.

Think for a moment about the evolution of movies and television from live theater. It didn’t take producers and directors very long to figure out that simply setting a camera at the back of a theater and filming a stage play was not going to satisfy an audience.  Instead a very different art emerged. Though live theater and movies tell stories with characters, sets, scenes, and dialogue, they do so in very different ways.

Virtual events, however, are often the digital equivalent of the single camera at the back of the room. Viewers are subjected to endless PowerPoint, narrated by an echoey or badly-lit presenter. Nothing substitutes for the applause, laughter, music, drama, lighting, or energy that attends to an in-person event.  We need a new model for our virtual events.

Here is a suggestion: the telethon.

Though less popular today, when viewers have hundreds of bingeable channels from which to choose, telethons once ruled the TV airwaves. For hour after hour of live television, often extending over a full night and day or more, telethons entertained viewers and drew millions of dollars in charitable contributions. Like our events, they delivered extensive content; like our events, they engaged and motivated viewers; and like our events, they were relatively inexpensive to produce.

Here are some telethon elements that can help make a virtual event come alive:

  • The celebrity host. Jerry Lewis (muscular dystrophy) and Donny and Marie (Children’s Miracle Network) may not be available, but a professional, personable, and loquacious emcee or moderator can keep things moving and provide transitions. 
  • The studio audience. Presenters will be more focused and energetic if they have even a small, safely positioned group to which they speak.
  • Set and lights. Most cities have at least one television studio, which can be turned into a set for a small fraction of the cost of a typical live main stage.  Once restrictions on gatherings are lifted and studios have reopened, using a studio setting can add a patina of professionalism and excitement.
  • Multiple cameras. Few of us look good on a FaceTime camera, and a single viewpoint is tedious. Using more than one camera, and switching back and forth between angles and cutaways of the audience or graphics, makes an event much more watchable.
  • The house band. Plenty of live events depend on musical acts to provide variety and excitement; appropriate recorded music—or even a small on-set combo—can do the same virtually.
  • The phone bank. Telethons often have a bank of volunteers taking donations. A similar setup could be used to stimulate the kind of audience interactivity virtual events often have to do without.
  • The teasers. Telethons keep their viewers hooked by ceaselessly promoting upcoming guest stars or challenges. Coming attractions in a virtual meeting can engage viewers the same way.

Of course, a telethon is not the same as a virtual event either. They serve different purposes and are delivered in very different ways. A commonality, however, is the value of dedicated production professionals who understand the medium and are dedicated to improving the overall experience. 

A telethon will employ directors, camera-people, stage managers, engineers, and musicians. Virtual meetings, all too often, are left to the presenters themselves or a helpful “guy from IT.”

As you plan a virtual meeting, remember how it differs from a live event. Consider the elements that make a telethon watchable and entertaining, and borrow whatever helps to enliven or differentiate the program you produce.

Finally, engage production professionals who understand virtual events, have experience in delivering engaging programs in that medium, and can free you and your presenters to concentrate on the content. The result—pandemic or no pandemic—will be an experience that is not the same as a live event, but has its own unique value.


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Robert W. Sprague
Robert W. Sprague
President & CEO