Virtual Event Platform Comparison: A Needs Assessment

While the calendar shows that 2020 is behind us, uncertainty surrounding the timing of in-person events is not. The common belief is that in-person conferences could return at some point during the second half of the year. But exactly when, and at what capacity, is still unknown.

As meeting professionals plan for either a full or partial virtual event in 2021, they are faced with the daunting task of assessing and selecting a virtual event platform in a marketplace that has expanded tenfold since the pandemic began less than a year ago.

Got Demo Fatigue From Virtual Event Platform Comparison?

According to one association-based meetings manager, “I’m completely overwhelmed by the options, and honestly, the demos start to blur together.”

Sound familiar? If so, you’re not alone. Demo fatigue is real, especially when you’re trying to select a platform that fits within your budget, is manageable for your team, and meets the needs of a diverse set of attendees, exhibitors, and sponsors.

Identify Your Organization’s Platform Needs With This Worksheet

To make it easier to narrow in on the best solution for your event, we’ve created this handy Virtual Event Platform Needs Assessment Worksheet.

Before you schedule any product demos, take some time to think about and document your answers to the six questions outlined in this worksheet. Taking this time will accomplish several key things:

  1. Completing it ahead of the demo not only gives you a more finely tuned checklist of requirements to evaluate but also ensures the rest of your planning team is aligned early in the process.
  2. It’s easy to be “wowed” by features that are fun and interesting but provide minimal added value to your event. Our worksheet will help you separate and prioritize must-have vs. nice-to-have features.
  3. Providing this information to your potential vendor partners helps them deliver a more personalized and relevant product demo so you can spend your limited time on features and functionality that actually matter to you.

Download the worksheet

Whether you’re thinking about featuring a simple agenda with a few session links on our own website or are looking for an end-to-end, immersive virtual experience, using our worksheet to organize and prioritize your needs and requirements will make it easier to navigate your options.

Why Virtual Attendees Need Conference Welcome Kits More Than Ever

Several surveys indicate that most conference attendees still prefer in-person events and look forward to the day they can safely resume. However, a recent report released by PCMA tells us that virtual events—in one form or another—are here to stay for the foreseeable future. As we become more accustomed to doing nearly everything virtually, we’re going to expect more from virtual conferences. It won’t be enough to deliver great content through easily accessible technology. We also need to think about how we deliver a more human event experience in this now-virtual world.

Virtual Event Welcome Kits & Swag Bags

Cue the conference welcome packet. Or welcome kit. Or swag bag. Whichever you prefer. We once felt they were an important part of an in-person conference—important enough to spend the wee hours of the morning stuffing tote bags! Why? They set the tone of the meeting, made our attendees feel important, created sponsorship opportunities, and provided key information for navigating the event.

A welcome kit mailed to virtual attendees ahead of the event provides some much-needed return to normalcy.

Common Challenges for Virtual Attendees

It’s possible your attendees are not going to experience the same level of excitement and anticipation leading up to your virtual event as they do for the in-person version simply because there is less to get excited about. No new city to explore. Fewer opportunities to meet and truly connect with old friends and new acquaintances. Fewer of those “surprise and delight” moments that make the meeting fun and memorable.

More attendees run the risk of feeling anonymous and less important at a virtual event—both to the organizers and to other attendees, especially if they are newer to the organization. The perception can be that it’s easier to become lost in a sea of Zoom faces or duck out of a session without anyone really noticing.

Virtual conferences can also be more difficult to navigate. For example, if you have a logistical question or don’t know where the next session is at an in-person conference you simply ask someone—event staff, volunteers, or fellow attendees. But for a virtual conference, you need to understand the schedule, technology requirements, login URLs and credentials, how to use the platform, and any important details and expectations, like how to connect with the speaker. Or, what do I need to know for Happy Hour Trivia again? In the days leading up to and during the conference, it can be too easy for important instructions and information to get lost in the abyss of email.

Welcome Kits Create Anticipation, Build Connections, and Provide Information

A welcome kit can be used to capture the spirit of your event, help facilitate attendee connections, create sponsorship opportunities, and provide important information. It also makes your attendees feel appreciated and part of something important before the first session even begins.

Here are some ideas of what to include in your welcome kit:

  • Branded promotional items that align with your event’s theme
  • Items that make it easier to participate from home, such as snacks, water, coffee, earbuds, a mi-fi, fidget toy, and even a themed “Do Not Disturb” sign to hang on their home office door
  • Items that help create conversation and bring attendees together during a fun social or network event, such as t-shirts, silly sunglasses, an item for a virtual scavenger hunt, etc.
  • Helpful, informative materials such as happy hour drink recipe cards, tips for looking your best on webcam, etc.
  • Sponsor and exhibitor materials that help attendees connect with the products and solutions they need.

Include a Printed Program Book in Virtual Event Welcome Kits

Believe it or not, the printed program book still plays an important role in the virtual event. It serves as a guide to navigating the schedule and provides a centralized place for all participation instructions. It can also be used as a handy place to take notes, which can be harder to do on a computer or other device during a virtual meeting, especially if your attendees don’t have the benefit of multiple monitors. And, of course, it provides an opportunity to showcase your sponsors and exhibitors. Pair the printed book with a digital conference flipbook to give sponsors even more exposure such as embedded videos, virtual callouts, and web links.

When our conferences shifted from in-person to online, we lost the tactile component of the meeting, which is proving to be an important part of a virtual event. Meeting planners should consider a physical mailing to attendees that contain promotional items and printed materials to bridge the gap between the in-person and the virtual event experience.

Need help printing, stuffing, and mailing your attendee welcome packets, swag bags, or other pre-event materials?

Contact us to receive a quote!

Why Your Virtual Educational Event Shouldn’t Be 100% Digital

Over the past two months, we’ve experienced a race to go virtual across all aspects of our personal and professional lives. From birthday celebrations and happy hour meet-ups with friends. To meetings, conferences, and instructor-led training events nearly everything we do outside of our immediate household is happening online. But going online doesn’t mean that all of your educational content should be delivered digitally. In this (now) virtual world, there are still significant benefits to offering a blend of printed and digital materials to enhance learning.

Using a Mix of Media to Increase Learning Comprehension

Since the rise of the internet, e-readers, and mobile technology, researchers have been studying the differences in reading and learning comprehension when content is provided in digital format versus print. In 2017, the American Educational Research Association published findings from their research on the impact of reading print material versus digital and what effect each has on learning retention. Here is a summary of some of their key takeaways:

Reading on a digital device:

  1. Students prefer to read digitally
  2. They read faster online than in print
  3. There is little-to-no-difference in how well the student understood the main idea of the selected text when reading online versus reading in print

Reading printed material:

  1. Students tended to read more slowly in print
  2. Comprehension of more specific details and concepts was significantly better in print than digital

Reasons for the difference in deep learning on a digital device versus print

When you think about how we generally consume content online or on a mobile device, we’re conditioned to “scroll and scan” as a means of sifting through a tremendous amount of content—in our social and news feeds for instance—as quickly as possible. Interestingly, the act of scrolling itself was found to be more disruptive to comprehension than turning a page.

Additionally, researchers since the 1970’s have noticed that memory appears to be visual-spatial. The tactile sense of progress through a book aids the reader with understanding the progress of the story or text.

These findings, however, do not mean that a virtual course or conference is inherently less effective. What it does mean is that there is a place—and even a significant need— for both to co-exist as part of an integrated learning strategy, instead of the either/or approach that many organizations tend to take today with their educational programs.

Using a Mix of Media to Increase Retention and Application

Incorporating a blend of print and digital materials into your virtual educational programming does more than increase initial comprehension. Allowing participants to learn multiple ways also increases learning retention and application.

According to the Principles of Adult Learning & Instructional Design, we tend to retain only 10% of what we see, but 90% of what we see, hear and do. Judy Willis, a noted neurologist and researcher on learning and the brain observes, “The more regions of the brain that store data about a subject, the more interconnection there is. This cross-referencing of data means we have learned, rather than just memorized.”

Using a Multi-Media Learning Strategy in Your Virtual Educational Event

In-person events provide a tremendous amount of value that can’t always be easily replicated in an online environment. So instead of trying to mimic in-person learning, use your virtual educational event as an opportunity to re-think how a multi-faceted approach could work together to provide a better learning experience for participants. Some considerations include:

  • What is the role of each element of your course or event? For instance, the learning materials could serve as a general introduction to a concept, while the speaker or instructor video takes a deeper dive to help reinforce the content. Meanwhile, supplemental materials, exercises, and virtual discussion groups could help participants apply knowledge in practical scenarios.
  • If your in-person event uses printed learning materials such as manuals, books, proceedings, etc., why not send materials to virtual participants ahead of time? This will not only help maintain the value of the event, but it will also help to build pre-event anticipation to help boost participation.
  • If you are sending printed materials directly to individual participants, consider adding elements to the page that provide a gateway to a multi-media learning experience. One example would be incorporating QR codes that direct the reader to supplemental learning tools such as videos, interactive applications, or even a podcast.

While we don’t know what the future holds, it’s highly likely that virtual educational events such as training courses and conferences won’t fully replace in-person learning. Until these programs can resume, think about how you can use your virtual platform to deliver a more multi-dimensional approach to learning. Chances are, once we go back to in-person events, this same approach—engineered in reverse—will become a new standard for delivering education.

Turn Virtual Events into a Year-Round Learning and Engagement Strategy

With the cancellation of spring conferences and the fate of summer and fall events still up in the air, we’re tasked with figuring out how to turn in-person conferences into successful virtual events—whether that means live-streaming sessions, providing on-demand access to pre-recorded sessions, or a mix of both.

Whatever strategy you choose, we believe there is a broader consideration to make: how can you use this new opportunity to utilize the virtual event content you and your speakers create to turn your online conference in a year-round learning and engagement opportunity?

Event Content Must Serve a Higher Purpose For Attendees and the Organization

Our 2020 State of the Conference Industry Report, which was developed and released before COVID-19 became a major disruptor, indicates that to achieve growth and success in 2020 and beyond, the content sourced and shared at a conference will need to serve a purpose beyond simply marketing next year’s event.

There is a significant opportunity to re-purpose and re-package this content not just to reach new audiences, but to reinforce key learning concepts, facilitate ongoing peer connections, and provide more value to members.

At the time that respondents were surveyed in late 2019, more meeting planners indicated they were starting to re-use conference session content to promote learning retention. But they also stated this was one of their top challenges because many did not have the tools, platforms, or processes in place to fully support this strategy.

Reworking Your Conference Strategy for Virtual Events

While the sudden need to go virtual with conferences has created substantial challenges, it has also opened the door to new opportunities. A virtual conference may not carry the same perceived value to attendees, exhibitors, and sponsors. And practically speaking, it doesn’t work well being delivered in the same timeframe of the in-person event.

In order to retain registration fees and sponsor dollars, you already need to rethink how the conference is delivered. Why limit your timeframe to just a few days or a few weeks? Why not use this as a chance to create a must-see event throughout the year.

Here are a few ideas to help get the wheels spinning:

If your event is going fully virtual:

  • Use the initial timeframe of the in-person conference to feature live (virtual) sessions from keynote speakers and plenary sessions
  • Have your session speakers and paper or poster presenters pre-record their sessions, which you can then release on a timed basis over the course of several weeks
  • Create a series of both live (virtual) and on-demand follow-up sessions that attendees pre-register and potentially pay for. These sessions could allow them to dive deeper into a sub-topic, participate in a discussion group with the presenter, or even allow them to share challenges and on-the-job “a-ha” moments with each other as they attempt to put these learnings into practice
  • These sessions can be hosted by an exhibitor or sponsor; or, you can work with your sponsors to develop additional live and on-demand educational content

If your conference is a blended event (both live and virtual options):

  • Much of the same ideas still apply! Use your virtual platforms to deliver follow-up content and provide additional learning, networking, and sharing opportunities throughout the year

We hope this current pandemic will soon be a distant memory. But even when that happens, there is a good chance that the format of conferences will be forever changed, with more organizations creating a virtual component to a live event.

Don’t limit yourself just to the conference itself. Use this as a springboard to deliver year-round learning and peer connections, while creating potential new streams of non-dues revenue.

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