By Abby Eastman, Director of Events, and Madeline Merritt, SDI Intern
Susan Davis International
Nearly every industry has been hit in some form by the Covid-19 pandemic. The live events industry has been hit particularly hard.
Even as business crawls toward some mixture of normal and new normal, the question remains: When will people feel comfortable attending large events surrounded by colleagues, acquaintances and strangers?
Let’s face it – virtual events are here to stay and may upend the business model for live events in the long run. Businesses must learn to adapt and be successful in a virtual environment, regardless of scale.
Despite the challenges, there are many innovative ideas emerging in the industry for online events. At SDI, we are focused on building the future, helping clients take their events virtual in creative and engaging ways, maximizing participation while promoting client interests.
Recently, we transformed what normally is a traditional two-day, in-person event into a three-day virtual conference. Together with the platform provider, Countable, we designed a custom event hub, dedicated event spaces within the site, and managed an interactive administrative dashboard to collect attendee data. With engagement and creativity as our top priorities, we focused on three key areas as we planned, produced and executed our mission.
Learning about peers and interacting with presenters are common expectations of attendees. Within the virtual platform, we created an area on the homepage where attendees were able to record and upload a 30-second video of themselves as an introduction to the other participants.
Attendees also had the opportunity to react to the various content within the site by liking, commenting and sharing the content. When a user commented on a specific piece of content, a fellow attendee was able to “follow” the activity of that user, view their profile, and ultimately make a connection. This is what events are all about.
Live events offer interactive components and are centered around human connection and some form of networking. One challenge with virtual events is boredom from solely listening to a speaker or presentation on a small screen for long periods of time. To surmount that challenge, various live Q&As were scheduled to allow the audience to pose questions to the speakers in an interactive format. The site also allowed attendees to pose questions inside a comment box at their leisure, to which speakers responded within a few days.
Over the course of the multi-day conference significant content was generated. We organized a fun way to recap the content-filled days producing a sponsored trivia happy hour via Zoom. We selected pop-culture as a category and grouped attendees into teams using the Zoom breakout feature. We served as Emcee, put the attendees through three trivia rounds, then reconstituted the group in the main Zoom room where they shared their answers over the roaring laughter of their competitors.
In a virtual environment, pre-recorded content is not only more acceptable, it has the advantage of leaving little room for error. SDI produced four keynotes, multiple panels, case studies, research briefings, and three competitions all in advance of the conference. Prerecording gave us more quality control for each session. The sessions were released at designated times to maintain the feeling of a scheduled live event. All prerecorded content remains on demand for the attendees to watch at their leisure, tripling the amount of content they would normally be exposed to at the in-person event.
Remember to keep the sessions short because less is more. According to neuroscientist John Medina from the University of Washington School of Medicine, your audiences’ attention will start to drain around nine minutes and 59 seconds of your presentation. And with virtual events, audience members have a lot more distractions than they do in an in-person format. Most people are still working from home, balancing their personal lives with family, friends, and household distractions. It is important to allow attendees to watch content at their leisure. Many of the sessions we offered ranged between 15-40 minutes, and were then made available for on-demand viewing. Attendees could watch sessions from start to finish, or toggle through the video for tidbits of information. Downloadable slide decks were also made available.
Make sure your key stakeholders feel truly valued and understand their return on investment. Exhibitors and sponsors are accustomed to an in-person format, so messaging needs to be super clear on expectations.
For the exhibitors, we created a virtual exhibit hall, giving these companies a unique opportunity to interface with attendees. Each exhibitor received their own virtual booth, which included a 2-minute product demo video, space to provide content or resources, and multiple ways for attendees to contact them (lead retrieval). This included direct links to an email address, webpage, or the opportunity to leave a comment on their page. Normally, conference websites have a sponsor recognition page. We took it one step further by building out custom sponsor profiles allowing the attendee to get to know the sponsor. Sponsors had the opportunity to provide a video highlighting their most recent product or display downloadable content such as sales kits or op-ed pieces.
We also designed a digital media room for the marketing and media partners allowing for one-on-one interviews with entrepreneurs, showcasing recent event press releases and more.
For Your Events Moving Forward
Virtual events will continue to improve. Enhancing the attendee experience and keeping your audience engaged should always be the main driver. With event technology trends constantly evolving and advancing, the possibilities are endless. It all boils down to what your event goals are, and what matters most to your audience. Is it making a connection with an exhibitor, or sponsor, viewing high-quality content, or the opportunity to engage with a community that matters most?
Once you have established this, the real fun begins − creating memorable events with purpose and impact in unique and invigorating formats.