Fasten your seatbelts, it may be a bumpy ride: Meeting professionals who have been forced to deliver their award-winning programs digitally are getting a crash course in the right and wrong ways to design a virtual event.
Some are learning hard lessons about the pitfalls of trying to copy and paste a 3-D agenda into a format that’s delivered through a flat screen.
To make the landing a little softer, we gathered three innovators—Brandt Krueger, Smart Meetings event tech correspondent and owner of Event Technology Consulting; Sarah Reed, director of global strategic events for Zendesk; and Timothy Simpson, brand and engagement chief strategist for Design Studio by Maritz Global Events—on a video call and asked, “What should meeting professionals absolutely, positively, not do when planning their next virtual event?”
Don’t Start with the Platform
What topped the list of mistakes for all three? “Never start with the tech.”
Admittedly, it’s tempting to ask, “What is the best platform?” But it’s not the right question because there is no silver-bullet, unicorn technology.
Reed fesses up that, in the beginning, she defaulted to what she was most comfortable with, webinar technology. “In most cases, that just doesn’t work for the experience we’re trying to create. So, yeah, we fell into that trap, I think, like everybody did out of necessity, and also because we just didn’t know what we didn’t know.”
Now she backs into the technology decision by starting with the experience she needs to create. For the specific audience. The feeling. The emotion. “Those are things we took for granted in the physical space, and they’re really challenging to do in a webinar format.” Often, achieving the desired outcome requires cobbling together tech solutions—for a hybrid virtual, if you will .
Simpson points out that organizational transformation starts with people, process, strategy, policy—and then technology.
Don’t Be Afraid to Fail
Reed’s events are all about customer support—specifically, creating customer-service champions. She was loading in for a big user conference in Miami the first week of March, an event for about 2,800 people her team had been planning for 18 months. Three days before people were to begin arriving, they decided the risk was too big and called it off. Three weeks later, they hit start on their first virtual event.
“Six months later, we’re still figuring out the strategy. This is all new territory, and no one is an expert in virtual events. We all have to come to terms with that,” she admits. “The reality keeps changing, so we learn and evolve after each event.”
Simpson’s focus is on mapping experiences to business outcomes. He quickly realized his clients needed help in right-sizing their strategies.
“I love some of the insights we’ve gained—the surprising moments where organizations say, ‘Maybe there is a better way to approach this,’” he says. His advice is to go back to the drawing board and rethink the approach. “One thing hasn’t changed. Every organization is different, and the people we are designing for are different, so they need different solutions.”
Don’t Try to Do Too Much
Reed realized, pretty early on, that the company as a whole was planning too many virtual events. There were events on top of events. “Anyone with a Zoom account was throwing a virtual event,” she says. “We were overwhelming our executives with asks, our customers and our prospects with too many invitations, and we were overwhelming ourselves keeping track of things. We had to put some governance in place.”
Content at the meetings that did happen had to be dialed back, too.
Meeting professionals are so accustomed to giving audience members everything at a physical event—networking, big celebrity keynotes, dozens of breakouts, training, meetings with executives, the list was endless. “Well, in the virtual space, nobody wants that. And you don’t have to do it all,” Reed confides. “Don’t overcomplicate it and shove it all into one technology that wasn’t made for that.”
Simpson starts with the business dynamics for that organization. What is it we want to accomplish? What are the tactical, measurable business outcomes we want to design for? What impression needs to be made? Is the goal 10 percent growth? If so, attendees had better leave the meeting with a clear understanding of what they need to do to drive 10 percent growth.
Here’s the only way to get to that: By understanding the personas of the people who are attending—based not on hunches, demographics, archetypes or segments, but on their behavior, motivations, learning styles and preferences.
Next, consider tolerance levels—how much time can this audience actually sit behind the screen? On average, it might be 15 to 30 minutes; it just depends. You must really understand who you are designing for. And then create an “empathy journey map” of the experience that improves it for that audience.
A survey isn’t going to get Simpson to that level of detail. “I’ve never met a satisfaction survey that’s given me any good insights,” he quips.
Don’t Forget the Touchy-feely Aspect
Reed knows that some of her personas are motivated by social impact and company values. That means she had to take the CSR component that was part of the physical meeting into the digital space. “That has been a big challenge,” she admits.
In contrast, some things fell away—important in physical meetings but not in the new reality. Grouping people based on geography, for instance, makes no sense online. Before, regional user conferences made sense because they were easier logistically, but now divvying them into groups based on common challenges or other factors makes more sense.
“That was this weird, massive ‘aha’ for us after the fact,” she says.
Krueger warns that the reason for having the virtual meeting can get lost in the checking of boxes. He tells of a fundraiser he attended that sent a cold meal from a local restaurant to his house because the usual gala included dinner. Organizers showed a YouTube video of someone feeding a bird, and there was a celebrity appearance because that is what they always did. But at no point during the meeting did anyone ever mention that the auction was going on to raise money for the cause.
Don’t Allow Boring Speakers
Don’t just gloss over the design of your agenda. Simpson likes to ask how each speaker will bring the desired experience to life. “What are they communicating? How do we set that person up for success? It’s not just as simple as having them showing up anymore. We expect dynamisms in digital presentations,” he says, emphatically.
Reed points out that digital events make diversity even more urgent. If all the speakers look the same, that’s even more noticeable when you can see them all on the screen at the same time. “We won’t do that again,” she says with a grin.
Don’t Get Stuck in a Rut
“I remind our team all the time we’re not stuck in time,” Reed says. “We have a chance right now to take risks we never really could before.” She has used the virtual format to make changes quickly and flip formats constantly, experimenting with new ways of reaching people, including spreading out content to reach people in different time zones.
Simpson sees the unique opportunity virtual events offer to extend the experience so people can recall and relive it. “You create memory markers based on emotional moments that you can now capture—to remind people and bring them back to that moment.”
The ability to record and curate event content could bridge the gap with a company’s marketing strategy in a purposeful way. The shift to virtual could be an opportunity to elevate the strategic relevance of events within organizations by reaching more people, starting conversations and advancing the company’s goals.
Don’t Forget the Bottom Line
Simpson likes to answer logistical questions with strategic questions. So, if the question is, “Should we charge for our event and if so, how much?” the corresponding question is, “What is the problem you are trying to solve for?”
If the answer is, “We want to create a perceived value, so people take it seriously and show up,” then he suggests looking at the alternatives. In this case, charging would be a preventative measure to trigger loss prevention behavior. The alternative is promotional motivation. Convince attendees they are getting something truly valuable. “If you give people really good reasons to be there, they’ll come; you don’t need to make them pay,” he says.
If, instead, the problem you are solving for is cost, then the options are charging for attendance or selling sponsorships or a combination of the above. Even though virtual events bypass the costs of a venue, travel and catering, they still come with expenses in terms of technology, AV budgets, marketing and time.
One trick: Use the design principles of scarcity and exclusivity. Offer experiences within the greater experience that require a whole different level of commitment and charge for those.
Reed offers a novel suggestion. Look at partners as solution providers instead of strictly revenue sources. Then they are getting involved on the content side—the fun, experiential side. And will more likely be loyal partners into the future.
There were a lot more unanswered questions, so I followed up with Reed and Simpson. Check it out below: