Whether it’s a one-day conference or a full week (or month!) of programming, making the jump to a full-on virtual event can put a lot of strain on association staff. This is especially true for smaller associations that have fewer staff members to produce these virtual meetings. When we collectively pivoted earlier this year, there wasn’t time for much strategy or reflection. Now that many smaller associations have multiple virtual events under their belts, we have gathered our lessons learned and are better equipped to design engaging events for a virtual audience. Here are some tips from the trenches.
Start With Why
Just like with any event, you need to define the purpose. It doesn’t matter if you are producing an in-person, virtual or hybrid event – stakeholder alignment is key when defining the purpose of the event. A truly successful event changes participants’ behavior. If you create the story of your event with these defined changes in mind, you will succeed. Until you define the purpose you can’t identify speakers, platforms or design for engagement. And don’t be worried if your “Why” has evolved now that you are planning a virtual event. Virtual events allow your association to cast a wider net and include those who may not have traditionally been able to attend in person.
Design an Experience
Even in a virtual event, associations are still creating an experience, not simply planning meetings. Arguably, this is even more important virtually than in person. You can’t simply translate what you have done in real life to a virtual event – at least not well. Start by involving your stakeholders in the meeting design. Whether you have a budget for production or your association staff is the one behind the screen, it is essential that you engage your attendees. We are six months into zoom fatigue, so your meeting needs to offer something more than just a talking head on a screen. Content is still king when it comes to virtual events – a compelling message, cohort-style interaction, and extended engagement will keep your attendees singing your praises well after the event. Consider adding bonus content, like “Follow-Up Fridays” for a deeper dive into some of the content that was shared during the meeting. And don’t miss an opportunity to monetize the content after the fact; selling recordings of individual sessions or the entire event can be a nice way to make up for any on-site lost revenue.
Prep & Practice. And Repeat.
I can’t stress this enough – being prepared is integral to the success of your association’s event. In many cases this is the first time your speakers, staff and participants have engaged in a virtual platform (beyond Zoom or Teams). Set aside time for your staff to practice using the platform, and if possible, look for other events that are using the same platform and attend those. This way, you can experience everything through the lens of your participants and empathize with your potential attendees, helping create an even better experience. Once the staff is comfortable, it is time to prep your speakers (see our blog on tips for speakers at virtual events). Whether you choose to pre-record your sessions (highly recommended) or go live, your speakers will need to be completely comfortable with your virtual platform. Finally – set your attendees up for success by exposing them to the platform ahead of time. Consider an informal “Social Hour” or “Trivia Night” to allow them to sort through any tech issues ahead of the big event. And don’t underestimate the importance of a staff member dedicated to the virtual “Help Lounge” and a comprehensive “Know Before You Log-In” FAQ.
Gather Lessons Learned
For many of us, this is our first experience designing and producing a virtual event. Give yourself some grace. There will be hiccups and headaches along the way, but those are simply lessons learned. Consider creating a google doc to share with staff during the event to capture quick solutions that can be easily copied and pasted into emails or attendee chats. Debrief with the entire team when you wrap, create a post-con survey and continually look at how you can improve on your processes. Although this is listed as the last step, it is important to note that you can course-correct at any point in your planning process. If you run a Pre-Event Social and see that your members are struggling with embracing the new platform, then do something about it right away. Add more “office hours” or tech support, create how-to videos or add another event to help get them ready. If we have learned one thing throughout this year, it is this: we can’t just keep doing things the way we always have. Adapt now.
Although virtual events feel like a reaction to our current situation, they aren’t likely to go away any time soon. We have introduced new attendees to conferences that they may never have been able to attend in the past. Don’t let this opportunity to engage a greater audience than ever before pass you by.