Providing virtual access to event content continues to be an important strategy even as in-person conferences resume. It increases the value of your event for attendees, and broadens access to those who may not have attended in-person.
If you are planning to include virtual content as part of your next event, it’s important to remember the lessons we all learned about the strengths and limitations of virtual events over the past few years.
The following post was originally written in mid-2020. And while the kids are back at school and I’m spending part of my week in the office, many of these observations still apply.
Remembering the past: what we learned in 2020
To have a successful virtual conference, you need to truly understand what the life of a virtual participant looks like right now so you know what you can—and can’t—expect of them.
Normally, we don’t make our blog posts quite so personal. But this time, I’m going to get a little personal and share the first-hand wisdom I’ve gathered over the past week while my husband attended a three-day, all-day virtual event. Spoiler alert: while he absolutely loved the content and discussions with his peers, some of the logistics were both painful and funny (after the fact, of course).
A personal account of a virtual event experience
Typically at a conference, we’re more focused on the professional backgrounds of our attendees. But with so much of the population working from home, we must take into consideration their personal lives as well. Here’s what happened in my situation.
Both my husband and I work full time and have both been working from home since mid-March. We’re fortunate to have the tools and tech that allow us to work effectively: multiple monitors, great bandwidth, dedicated working spaces. Our two teenagers don’t always recognize the work/home divide. We also have two large dogs who are continually confused by why we are all home and not paying more attention to them.
So what did attending a 3-day live event look like in our household?
First, technology was not kind to us
Do you have any idea what having one person participate in a live video event all day does to the bandwidth in the house? The effects were immediate and dramatic. I had to take my Microsoft Teams meetings from the app on my phone, not my computer, with the wi-fi turned off. The kids were booted out of their online schoolwork and from their Facetime sessions with friends. Admittedly, much cursing occurred.
My husband, who was both an attendee and a speaker at this event, was in the middle of his presentation when one of the primary internet service providers in our area had two routers fail. He wasn’t prepped for any backup plan ahead of time, so he was scrambling to get the live streaming app downloaded to his phone. 30 minutes later he was back online, with just enough time to give an abrupt wrap-up. Things happen. They really do. To prove this point further, this is the same week that, back at the Omnipress offices where only a small staff remains on-site, a squirrel took out the power and internet for several hours. No joke. And while this had no effect on my husband, it only illustrates that technology will fail at some point, for someone. And there’s nothing you can do about it.
Tuning in (and tuning out) from a busy household
When you attend an in-person conference you’re away from the office, away from home, and away from the usual daily distractions, minus an urgent email here and there. With a virtual event, however, there is no mental or physical separation from work and home. You can’t delegate your spouse to deal with a vomiting dog, a kiddo who is frustrated with their math exercise, an impromptu 8th-grade graduation parade through the neighborhood (horns blazing, of course), or the UPS driver making his third delivery to your house that day, because she’s also on an important call!
The bottom line: it’s unrealistic to think that your attendees can dedicate significant amounts of focused, uninterrupted time to your event. As hard as they may try, life gets in the way.
A virtual group conversation is harder to navigate
Networking can sometimes be awkward, at best. Recently I’ve done several virtual happy hours with close friends and I find those to be more difficult and challenging than meeting up in person. Screens freeze up intermittently or people accidentally talk over each other which affects how naturally the conversation flows. But we manage because we know each other so well.
Now try doing the same thing with a group of strangers, especially if you’re more of an introvert, like my husband. Oh, he can fake his way through “forced” social events with the best of them, but he certainly doesn’t prefer it.
His event had several different networking opportunities built into the agenda. Some were unstructured happy hours and some were scheduled in-between sessions (ouch!). Others consisted of smaller collaboration groups, which he felt were the most beneficial and effective to establish a genuine connection with a group of people who rallied around a common set of challenges. It also helped when the virtual networking events were scheduled earlier in the day when his brain was fresh and he could absorb more of the educational content.
What did we take away from this experience?
I’ve lived in the association event space for more than a decade, so when I heard my husband was going to be participating in a three-day virtual event, I watched more closely than most spouses probably would. Putting on both my event planner and attendee hat, here’s the most important thing I learned:
An event that combines both live and pre-recorded content provides the best attendee experience—and the most room to get creative!
1. Making your content available on-demand is crucial
Give your attendees a way to access session content anytime. This not only helps to reinforce learning, but it also serves as a safety net if technology fails or life happens. Make sure all your presentations—even the live ones—are recorded and available in a way that is easy to search for and navigate, along with all related session materials. This also takes some of the pressure off your speakers and their tech.
If you have the resources, consider breaking up a single session video into multiple, shorter videos. Your on-demand viewers will find it easier to consume the content in smaller segments.
2. If you’re going to livestream, be selective
While presenting sessions live creates a sense of excitement and FOMO (Fear of Missing Out), it doesn’t work for all attendees, especially those in different time zones. And it’s definitely difficult to manage as an all-day event. Save the live streaming for the most popular portions of your conference, such as a keynote session.
3. There are many effective ways to craft a successful live/recorded blended event
As one example, you can “fake” a live experience by releasing pre-recorded content on a timed basis and hyping up the countdown on your event marketing channels. Follow this release with live, small-group discussion sessions around that content to create a sense of urgency for participants to view the content.
This also helps to create those more structured and deliberate networking conversations among attendees that tend to be more meaningful. This blended approach also makes it easier to program natural breaks in the agenda for your attendees to address everything else that’s currently happening in the background of their lives.
4. Create opportunities for participants to connect outside of the event
Even if your event content is only available on-demand, you can facilitate meaningful conversations among participants. Use your existing online communities. Pose a question of the day related to the content, and let attendees weigh-in. Or host a moderated online discussion around a specific topic at a scheduled time. All of these options bring virtual attendees together around a shared interest, and allow them to learn from each other.
How will you incorporate virtual content into your next event?
Whether you are offering events that are fully virtual, or providing on-demand access to virtual attendees, the same rules still apply even today. Attention spans are shorter, distractions are greater, and online networking is more difficult in a virtual setting. Virtual attendees will get more value from your conference if the content is designed specifically with these limitations in mind.