Many planners are still struggling with creating virtual conferences that are both engaging and profitable. The main issue is that planners frequently attempt to put a square peg into a round hole: they are simply lifting face-to-face scheduling into a virtual platform. Unfortunately, this thinking often leads to dismal results.
The other problem is that planners will often lift the sponsorship/exhibitor model from the classic trade show and also slap it into a virtual product. This too has resulted in many dissatisfied vendors.
The key to producing successful virtual events is to embrace the possibilities of virtual. A simple model for good results is to staff and sponsor sessions in a way that takes advantage of the virtual world.This approach is straightforward and will naturally lend itself to better results. It will work particularly well when using video conferencing tools like Zoom.
One of EventRebels’ customers was self-hosting a webinar just as the COVID crisis hit. She spoke for about 45 minutes and then looked at the Zoom session Q&A to see if attendees had any questions. The first comment was “when are you going to show your screen?”
If you allow your speakers to self-host, this problem is likely to happen. Speakers are too concerned about their content to check on things like the quality of the video feed.
Most video conferencing tools will use the term host for the person who schedules, starts, and controls the meeting. This should NOT be an on-screen participant, but someone who is dedicated to the task. In effect, they are filling the role of the producer—making sure the stream is live, managing the recording, running audience participation features like polling, or controlling the slides and other visuals.
For larger meetings, it is good practice have a co-host available that has a copy of all of the presentation materials. They can step in if the host is overwhelmed, experiences any technical issues, or loses internet connection.
There is a lot of talk about attendees not being engaged in virtual sessions. Fortunately, video conferencing tools like Zoom provide great ways for attendees to interact with each other and the panelists. The main tools are polling, chat, and session question & answer. For the last two to work effectively, it is best to have a dedicated moderator (aka facilitator) who looks for attendee posts and responds to them when appropriate.
In the case of chat, a good session has an ongoing stream of activity. A good moderator will even post comments on chat relevant to the discussion to elicit responses.
Session question and answer is another area where the moderator can really enhance the conversation. When virtual is not thought out well, the presentations are more like a “broadcast,” such as television. Most sessions wait until the very end to go through questions, but there is a better approach. One way is to build in question periods throughout the discussion at specific transitions. The bolder way is to work the moderator into the discussion and let him or her actually dive into the discussion when a good question is posed. To really make virtual compelling, do not think of interruptions by the attendees as bad, but as an opportunity to liven the discussion.
$$$ Session Sponsor as Moderator
Planners are struggling to create attractive packages for virtual event sponsors. If your organization allows it, the low hanging fruit for virtual sponsorships is creating packages where your sponsors can participate in virtual sessions. Such a package can include:
- Sponsor video and logo on session home pages – if your virtual event software can support this.
- Let the sponsor make a short (60-90 seconds) intro of themselves and their company at the beginning of the session.
- Have the sponsor be the session moderator – handling questions from chat/Q&A and posing to the panel.
One reason such a package can work well is that sponsors, being salespeople, are by nature gregarious and so can liven up a session. If those sponsors have expertise in the areas being discussed, they can even contribute to the discussion.
Speakers Adapting to Virtual
Many speakers have been slow to adapt to the world of virtual. It is important for planners and speakers to know that their presentations should change in the new environment. Some things for presenters to consider to make their virtual session more compelling include:
- Interacting with the moderator throughout the session for chat comments and questions
- Polling attendees several times per session
- If appropriate, simulating in-person roundtables through virtual breakout rooms.
Other Support Staff
Much of the support needed during a virtual session consists of small tasks that may bit require a dedicated role. These tasks include:
- Reaching out to attendees who raise their hand
- Muting non-speaking participants
- Disabling video/screen sharing privileges
- Assigning attendees to breakout rooms
What about Hybrid?
This model can easily be extended to hybrid events. Face-to-face attendees will be using mobile event apps to be engaged, whereas the rest will be working with a virtual event platform Both of these should have tools for attendees to ask questions. As in the pure virtual case, a session moderator can address the questions to the panel. You may even consider having one moderator for the face-to-face mobile attendees, and another for virtual.
It is imperative that planners think of their education content in terms of what works in the world of virtual, rather than simply filming what used to be a face-to-face session. This requires rethinking how sessions are staffed, how speakers interact with attendees and, most importantly, generating more revenue through session sponsorships.
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