How to plan and host a successful virtual event for your business

Laveta Brigham

If you’re looking to plan a virtual event for your small business, you need to first figure out what you want to accomplish — whether it’s to attract customers or network or for another reason. Don’t trap your audience behind a screen — consider breaking the event into bite-sized pieces. […]

  • If you’re looking to plan a virtual event for your small business, you need to first figure out what you want to accomplish — whether it’s to attract customers or network or for another reason.
  • Don’t trap your audience behind a screen — consider breaking the event into bite-sized pieces.
  • Trying to recreate a live event online is a big no, especially as technical requirements will require more time to plan and execute.
  • Inserting more games and contests into the events, and treats such as sending attendees physical engagement kits, are some ways that hosts can get the audience feeling more invested.
  • This article is part of a series called Resources for Resilience, focused on providing tips and inspiration for small businesses who are learning how to survive and thrive in today’s economy.

Migrating live events to online spaces has been one of the great workplace challenges of the pandemic. Many small businesses have had to get creative to survive lockdowns, keep clients coming in, and network with fellow entrepreneurs. 

And there’s good reason to keep up (virtual) appearances: Cybersecurity firm Data Connectors says that 86% of participants in online meetings report equal or higher levels of engagement compared to in person. 

As it looks like we’ll still be virtually meeting for some time to come, Business Insider consulted two experts in virtual event planning to find out the secrets to hosting engaging and successful online experiences for your customers.

Establish what you’re trying to accomplish first

Tim Simpson, brand and engagement chief strategist at experience design company Maritz Global Events, said that there’s a clear benefit to organizations in keeping communities alive virtually, so long as the experience is done right.

“You need to keep the brand in front of people,” he told Business Insider. “We’re seeing an ability for businesses to expand their reach by connecting with individuals who do not attend in person. One of our tech clients saw attendance to their digital experience reach over 10,000 when their face-to-face audience is usually around 3,000.”

Tim Simpson

Tim Simpson.

Tim Simpson

On the other hand, he said that he’s seen many small businesses fall into the trap of planning an online event “because they think they need to.”

Simpson said that it’s a mistake to dive straight into the technical requirements or even the creative side of a digital event when you first get going. His first question to clients planning an online event is: Why are you doing this? 

“Once you know the why, you can work out what you are trying to accomplish, then that’s going to dictate the how,” he said. “With a strong intention and a clear purpose, you are ready to communicate to your audience exactly what you’re doing and why they should participate.”

Simpson said that you need to let the audience “peek behind the curtain” and share your intentions — something a lot of firms are making the mistake of overlooking when planning their online events.  

‘When we think about outfitting the experience, we’re asking purpose questions to determine what level of production value is needed,” he said. “You are communicating something about your brand to a specific audience — but that doesn’t mean you have to go all out to make an impact.”

Consider breaking up a traditionally long event into smaller chunks

Research Simpson has conducted with behavioral science experts has encouraged his team to break virtual events down into bite-sized pieces.

“In some cases that means we’re taking something that is traditionally a two-day, face-to-face event and making [it] spread out over four or five days, or even longer,” he said.

The idea is for audiences to not be “trapped behind a screen all the time,” he said. He added that planners need to focus on making the event both educational and entertaining, as many audiences associate screen time with YouTube and Netflix.

“You might start with a general session, then move into small-group breakouts, keeping every session to about 20 minutes,” he said. “Also think about alternative deliveries, like podcasts, where you’re enabling people to take their dogs out for a walk or work out while still consuming the digital content, staying connected to that event experience.”

Keri McIntosh, senior vice president at event management company The Castle Group, said that after the logistics, the biggest challenge for a virtual event is to create a program that’s succinct, well organized, and compelling, all while bearing in mind that an audience’s attention span is reduced in a digital environment.

Keri McIntosh

Keri McIntosh.

Keri McIntosh

“For every 10-15 minutes of presentation time, there should be at least one instance of audience engagement,” she said. “For example, in a 30-minute presentation, the audience should be asked to participate in a poll, submit a question, or contribute to the chat at least two to three times.”

Give yourself enough lead time to plan logistics

McIntosh said that hosting a virtual event is about far more than just “throwing something online.” A good online function often takes more preparation than its offline equivalent. 

McIntosh noted that businesses using online tech platforms for their event need to prepare and test their capabilities well in advance. Even free services may require you to upgrade to a plan for a certain number of guests or length of the event.

“This is a busy time for vendors, such as virtual event platform companies and video production partners,” McIntosh said. “Many virtual event platform companies schedule events around their bandwidth and available technical support and may require weeks of lead time.” 

She said that there are hundreds of platforms out there to choose from that largely depend upon the scope of your event, and recommended BizBash as a useful directory to get you started. She also believes that project management software or a detailed Excel spreadsheet is critical for planning out your event.

“Start by developing a timeline and break up your planning into categories of need, such as marketing and communications, sponsorship, and collateral, which are any materials you’re making for the event, such as invites and branded notebooks, and any pre-recorded segments,” she said.

Once you have a timeline in place for what needs to be done, McIntosh suggested buffering the time needed to plan each item with days or weeks, depending on the size and scope of your event.

McIntosh added that virtual events usually require more pre-event content collection than in-person events.  

“Make sure to build extra time into your project timeline to collect content, upload, and test before going live,” she said.

Don’t try to just recreate a live event online

While the outline of a past event is always useful, planning a virtual event still requires a lot of attention.

McIntosh recently turned an annual women’s business conference into an online event. After breaking up the event into smaller chunks over longer periods of time, she found that there needed to be a “paradigm shift” in the way it was marketed from when it was live.

“Market it toward the sessions rather than the wider event,” she said. “In this case, we turned the second day into a women of color summit, which is much more deliberate, focused, and condensed.”

She said that most people tend to find networking the hardest thing to recreate in an online setting. First and foremost, you have to give people a reason to be there.

“One conference we recently worked on asked people to select their networking topic in advance, which focused their attention more,” she said. “Facilitators for these events are really important. They need to have the right personality and tech nous to help people, as well as be organized and experienced in running sessions, otherwise, it can easily fall flat.”

Make it interactive with surveys, games, and other tricks for sparking engagement

Most importantly, McIntosh said that you need to integrate tangible elements throughout the event to help your audience feel invested in it. 

She suggested that the best starting place is offering sessions with attendee-driven topics by surveying attendees in advance and asking them what they’re interested in. You can then plan different segments of the event to be interactive in different ways.

This is a great opportunity to get any sponsors or partners involved. McIntosh’s favorite way to do this is by sending out physical toolkits with items that can be used throughout the experience, such as swag, a cocktail-making kit for happy hour sessions, and a notebook with a physical copy of the program.

“Develop gamification or contests for attendees, and strategies to incentivize participation such as awarding points or prizes for attendee participation,” she added.

The most important factor should be thinking about your audience, but McIntosh has a few tried and tested concepts.

“I’ve found having a social feed similar to Facebook, where for example you can ask to post a picture of a woman that inspires them, is a great way to get people to start engaging with each other,” she said. “Splicing events with things such as polls, teasers, virtual raffles, stretch breaks, and even a conference playlist on Spotify have all been well received.”

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