It’s a nightmare—the big, mission-critical, expensive meeting you’ve been planning for months is disrupted, and you’re forced to cancel.As I write, worldwide travel is being restricted and major events canceled due to 2020’s COVID-19 pandemic. In other cases it has been extreme weather, natural disasters, or man-made crises. In today’s world any number of eventualities can make it impossible or impractical to gather hundreds of people for a face-to-face conference.
Suppose you really need to proceed? The obvious answer is to go virtual. Virtual meeting technologies have become universal and cheap or even free. Connection speeds have improved. The problem is that most virtual meetings are—in a word—awful.
The webinars, conference calls, and video-conferences that we endure are typically tedious and frustrating. We stare at static PowerPoint slides while listening to a speaker drone on, or watch an unflattering phone cam video feed. Getting the technology to work properly for all at the beginning of a virtual meeting is a running joke. No wonder that engagement in virtual meetings is so low that many sponsors require participants to periodically click a link to prove that they are not simultaneously shopping or posting on their social media.
It need not be so.
There is no reason that a virtual meeting cannot be seamless, impactful, and nearly as engaging as an in-person event. The difference may be the presence of a seasoned virtual event production firm—one that not only offers expertise in the creative and technical factors involved in any event production, but also understands the particulars of succeeding in the virtual event medium.
A virtual event production firm will approach your virtual event in many of the ways a producer will approach an in-person or live event. This will include:
- Finding the right venue. Not all technologies are created equal, and the “virtual theater” must be capable of handling not only the number of participants expected, but also different browsers or platforms, and various kinds of media and interactive elements that are planned.
- Managing the agenda. Much can be done to increase the impact and reduce the tedium of a virtual event by understanding the “story arc”—working from the theme or key messages to structure an agenda with pace, variety, and logic. Engaging a remote audience means alternating the strength of different speakers and topics, using creative elements like videos and music to spice up the proceedings, and scheduling breaks and transitions to optimize the audience’s attention span.
- Adding rich media. Statistics support the significant benefit of using video, animation, and gamification to increase online engagement. All of these should be part of a virtual event also.
- Make it a performance. Few presenters are ready to deliver a strong virtual performance out of the gate. Attention to pace, intonation, and emphasis are even more important than they are on stage, while vocal tics (“um,” “y’know,”) are especially distracting. Smooth transitions are important lest you lose your participants during an awkward gap.
- Calling the cues. A virtual event should have the polish of a network news or sports broadcast, and those programs have directors who specialize in coordinating the technical elements and the content to deliver a seamless and exciting experience for viewers.
All of these attributes are important for in-person events, of course. But there are elements of a virtual event that are unique to the medium.
- The second screen. Nielsen reports that 45% of TV viewers “often” or “always” are using another device such as a smartphone or tablet while watching their favorite programs. One must assume that the audience for a virtual event will be doing the same. But this can be used to advantage by providing value-added content, for example, via a companion website.
- Make it interactive. Online participants expect to be able to create their own experience, so the degree to which a virtual event production firm can assist you in making the viewing experience active—as opposed to the generally passive nature of sitting in an audience—the more engaging the event will be.
- Measurement. Success in virtual events not only enables good measurement and metrics—it also requires them. Real-time dashboards aggregating event performance across channels and mediums can optimize both the experience and the results for sponsor and participant alike.
The unpredictability of today’s world—and the interconnected and global nature of our economies and markets—make it time to give virtual events a serious look. But don’t go it alone: only with the experience and professionalism of a reliable virtual event production firm are you likely to have an event that rivals the value of the in-person event it must replace.