Great webinars and online meetings rarely just happen, and it’s a new tool for many people. Bad lighting, weak Wifi, audio holes and weird video can seem unprofessional.
With millions of Americans working from home, virtual events are the new reality. Companies have embraced technology to reach people at a time when in-person networking is on pause.
Virtual events are not without challenges. Faces freeze, and audio lag times conjure thoughts of poorly dubbed foreign films. Even if technical difficulties are avoided, well-intentioned events can quickly turn into shaking-my-head moments when audiences become disengaged and head to the fridge for a snack.
An effective virtual event – from staff meetings to webinars to conferences – requires preparation, flexibility and creativity. Experts say there’s a handful of tips and tricks that enable presenters and participants to get the most out of remote encounters.
1. Keep it real and make it fun
In a normal (non-COVID-19) year, the Columbus Young Professionals Club hosts about 150 events, says Derek Grosso, CEO and founder. With 20,000-plus members, the organization is all about networking, educating and advocacy. When Ohio’s stay-at-home order went into effect in March, CYPC had to figure out how to stay in touch with members and keep them engaged from afar.
One of the biggest hurdles in pivoting in-person events to a virtual environment is generating content that is relevant and informative, Grosso says. His advice: “Be authentic, be purposeful and make it engaging.”
Companies have a hard time visualizing how they can increase sales and host fundraisers in virtual environments, says Mike Yearling, vice president of sales and marketing for production company Mills James. “(But) people are constantly surprised and have a renewed hope as they realize they can actually reach more people this way,” he says. “It all comes down to the narrative you create.”
Mills James had already been seeing significant growth in this segment as companies reduced travel expenditures after the Great Recession, Yearling says. As such, his company was ready to help clients when the pandemic forced employees to work remotely. The company recently partnered with Mindset Digital to meet increased demand by offering gamified training and virtual events.
2. Pick a platform, any platform
Equally as important as the message is the medium used to convey it. There’s no shortage of platforms from which to choose. Zoom, Webex, GoToMeeting, Facebook Live, YouTube and a host of others share similar capabilities. The type of event and desired extent of active participation dictate the platform you choose.
“It depends on how (or whether) you want to interact with your audience,” says Fernando Bergas-Coria, integrated marketing director for Ologie, a marketing consulting and branding firm whose clients consist mainly of higher education institutions.
Yearling says he’s agnostic when it comes to platforms, but that they have to be properly vetted. “It’s a Wild West of platforms out there, and it can be scary for clients,” he says.
Kevin Lloyd, founder and CEO of Columbusblack.com, an online source for news, events and entertainment for the Black community in Columbus, quickly had to transition from live events to virtual events when the pandemic hit. “It changed my entire layout, and I learned how to livestream events on Facebook and YouTube using Zoom and other platforms,” Lloyd says.
Now Lloyd is helping others get their messages out virtually, including a weekly series with CYPC.
3. Engage your audience
Attendance and participation incentives are encouraged – virtual swag bags, mystery boxes delivered to home addresses and games, such as filling out bingo cards by catching someone yawn or spotting a pet.
To gauge participants’ state of mind, Ologie likes a polling plugin called Mentimeter. The results are tabulated almost immediately, Bergas-Coria says.
Yearling says attendance is increased if the process is easy and does not require passcodes, downloads or logins. “With livestream platforms, all you should have to do is click on a URL, show up and wait for it to start,” he says.
4. Avoid Zoom fatigue
Being “on” all of the time takes a toll. With face-to-face communication on hold, some folks are on calls and video chats nonstop, and workdays have no clear beginning or end.
“Zoom fatigue is a real thing,” says Bergas-Coria. Carve out time for lunch, take the dog for a walk, turn off Slack, or simply step away from your screen and block out your calendar.
Other ways to combat screen-time burnout is to limit presentations to an hour, respecting start and stop times, and to pre-record presentations, which alleviates stress for the presenter and offers flexibility to participants.
“The idea of a doing a broadcast TV-type of production is resonating with clients who are Zoom fatigued,” Yearling says.
5. A hybrid future
When companies and organizations return to pre-pandemic conditions, most say they will offer face-to-face and virtual attendance options.
“The future of events is going to be hybrid,” says Lloyd, who co-founded an event app called MYLE (Make Your Life Entertaining). Production will be a mixture of live and pre-recorded.
“The power of pre-recorded presentations is that you get the best version of a person,” says Rodrick Pauley, chief creative officer for Mills James. “All of the ‘ums’ and awkward silences are edited out, and presentations become shorter.”
If there’s any bright side to the pandemic, it’s that companies have learned to evolve, and do so quickly. Even when the world returns to pre-COVID working conditions, businesses will continue to explore digital opportunities as they have proven to be cost-effective ways to streamline and improve communications.
© Copyright 2020 Columbus C.E.O. All rights reserved. Rebecca Walters is a freelance writer.