Editor’s Note: As part of Back Light, a series of articles sharing illuminating insider observations, we asked Shameka Jennings, director of meetings and partnership development with National Coalition of STD Directors, to share her experiences planning meetings during a pandemic.

Most meeting planners are in a world of upheaval right now. We must pivot to transition our normally in-person events to virtual platforms, maintain a connection with our communities, and bring in revenue to support our organizations. Over the past few months, I have hosted two virtual conferences and have a lot of lessons learned. While the experience was tough, I had fun challenging myself to be more innovative to produce our virtual events.

Here are seven critical areas to focus on as you pivot your in-person events online.

1. Picking the Right Platform

When planning a virtual conference, start with the end in mind. Design your meeting experience first. Similar to planning in-person events, identify your goals and objectives. Are you trying to foster connections, drive innovation, generate leads, educate, or simply keep your foot in the door? Once you define your goals and the experience you want to deliver, you can identify the right platform.

If you want to foster connections among attendees, then a well-designed chat mechanism is critical. If your event is more about building brand awareness, sharing information or educating attendees, then the video stream’s quality will be key. If one of your desired outcomes is to retain sponsorship, you will want an engaging way for attendees to interact with sponsors.

Here are some questions to ask vendors so you can be sure that it will provide the right features and benefits for your event:

  • What types of communication features and tech integrations does this platform have?
  • Is your support team responsive, knowledgeable and experienced?
  • Do you capture, record and store my event’s content?
  • Does this platform offer branding opportunities, advertisement space or other customization and monetization features?
  • Can I see the backend of the virtual event platform functions?
  • What types of analytics, insight or metrics do you provide?
  • How does your company expect to grow in the upcoming years?

2. Designing an Agenda

Remember that many of your attendees’ lives and routines have changed dramatically due to COVID-19 shut-downs. No attendee wants to sit in front of their computer for hours listening to a series of speakers go on and on.

A digital meeting gives you more flexibility as you plan. You are not confined to a particular set of days in a set number of hours. One advantage of virtual meetings is your agenda can and should extend beyond your typical meeting schedule and live online for a specified time so guests can interact with the material at their leisure.

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This is especially true since your attendees’ time zones now vary dramatically. Your meeting agenda must consider many time zones when planning sessions and have the ability for attendees to interact dynamically.

3. Marketing to Your Audience

People need to know why they should attend your virtual event. If you want to stand out, you need to get them excited and keep them motivated right up until showtime. That takes more than early-bird specials, countdown emails and keynote reveals. A few unique ways to market your virtual event are:

  • Incorporate videos. Get a message from your boss, a member of your community or even a celebrity (using Cameo!) to entice people to come.
  • Word of mouth in business is always a good thing. Create social media badges for attendees to share with their social network and include on their website or email signature to get people talking.

4. Engaging Your Attendees

Unlike in-person meetings and events, virtual events provide attendees with more opportunities to “zone out” as attendees are already on the computer and distraction is only a click away. With event management technology and a little creativity, you can create virtual events that are more than attendees watching a screen.

One way is to ensure the features of your selected platform allow for engagement and attendee interactions. Another is to pivot your traditional social events and put them online. Think virtual trivia, bingo, DJ-dance parties, cocktail making classes, wine tastings. With the right tools, the sky is the limit.

5. Managing Your Speakers

While many presentation skills and best practices apply to both in-person and virtual presentations, expert virtual presenters understand the importance of adjusting their approach to match the medium.

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Speakers need to be prepared with the right lighting, camera placement, clothing choices and technology. Sessions can be presented live, semi-live, or pre-recorded. It is vital to keep speakers engaged every step of the way with important information and training so they are comfortable with the process and the platform.

6. Identifying Team Roles

Assembling a team that supports your attendees to ensure they are getting the most value from their experience is crucial to a successful virtual event. Break down staff roles into two categories—technical support staff and session support staff.

  • Technical support staff includes platform support, email support and speaker support.
  • Session support staff consists of moderators, emcees and session managers.

7. Engaging Your Sponsors

There is a whole new world of opportunities to monetize virtual sponsorships thanks to the digital nature of virtual events. Consider what a sponsor might typically bring to the table for an in-person event and apply that to a virtual event context.

Does a company normally sponsor signage? Offer banner ads on the platform? Maybe they sponsor a demo session. Move it online. Does a group traditionally exhibit with you? Ask if they’d be interested in a virtual booth.

There are also opportunities for short commercials before sessions begin, sponsored gamification or sponsored mailed gifts. Sponsors are an integral part of your event, so they must generate value from their participation.

Shameka Jennings, MTA, CMP, is director of meetings and partnership development with National Coalition of STD Directors and a 2019 Smart Women in Meetings Award winner.