• Danielle Allard

5 Lessons TV Teaches Us About Virtual Events

Thinking about taking your event virtual? Use some of your favorite shows as inspiration.

What is the one thing event professionals fear the most?

Being unprepared.

That fear became an unfortunate reality with the recent global crisis. While some planners and organizations may have already been actively running or investigating virtual events, it’s safe to say that as an industry, our focus has been on creating live experiences.

At the end of March, the Events Industry Council hosted a webinar to discuss, “How to Transition Your Live Event to an Engaging Virtual Experience.” There were multiple informative panelists, but I really found Paul Salinger, VP Marketing at Oracle, to be particularly insightful.

One of his many smart comments included looking at where TV is successful and modeling our virtual events after that. I thought it was so wise in fact, it inspired me to dive deeper into what it would look like. So, with that, here are 5 Lessons TV Can Teach Us About Virtual Events:

1. Attendees Want Flexible, Personalized Experiences

There’s a reason why Netflix has over 182 million subscribers worldwide. They provide viewers with the ability to choose what they want to watch and when. The Netflix model removes the interruption of commercials and allows viewers to enjoy content on their own time.

In exploring the design of your next virtual event, think about how you can create an experience that takes this type of flexibility into account. On-demand content is one way to go about doing that, but it’s certainly less engaging.

Think about the timing and offering choices. Can you create an agenda that offers the same live session at different times? Attendees could pick the right time for their schedule, without missing out on a live experience. You can then use that data to inform your future events to determine the most popular time slot.

Every organization has different needs, limitations, and goals, so of course there will be more than one right answer.

Another reason why Netflix is so successful is because of their original content. According to Forbes, “one of the biggest factors for consumers deciding how to view content is the programming. Consumers don’t want to pay for content they won’t watch."

This is true for virtual events as well. Content needs to be even more engaging in a virtual experience when attendees aren’t tied to their seats, and face additional distractions.

Ensuring that your content is personalized to your audience and is framed to meet their goals, not just the planners’, will be key to a successful event.

2. Present Your Content in Digestible Segments

Taking a look at ESPN or a news broadcast, we see that in most cases, the broadcasters aren’t talking for more than 2-3 minutes or less. They then switch to an interview, highlight reel, video etc. Switching up the type, length and style of content is what keeps viewers watching.

The same goes for your virtual event. Attendees aren’t going to sit in their home offices for hours on end, watching lengthy presentations, no matter what format they’re in. Keep your content short, sweet and to the point.

Controlling your content length may mean having additional conversations with your speakers and sponsors in advance of the event. Make sure your expectations are clearly defined in your speaker contracts and your presenters are well aware of what guidelines to follow when crafting their presentations.

I’m sure we’ve all experienced the cringe-worthy moment when you’re handed a slide deck that never ends. It’s our jobs as planners to consider the needs and goals of all of our stakeholders. That includes, speakers, sponsors, attendees, executives etc. While your presenter may want to take the time to dive deep into a topic, we need to consider how it will be received by attendees and what their preferred learning style is.

Finding the balance between creating valuable content and keeping the length to digestible segments, is a challenge we will all need to think creatively about.

3. Breaks in Content Need to be Thoughtful and Engaging

Offering your attendees multiple breaks throughout a longer virtual event, is an absolute must. But instead of just glazing over them, view the time as an opportunity to create even more value and engagement.

Look at the Super Bowl commercials for example. For the most part, commercials are loathed interruptions to the actual content we’re trying to consume. But during the Super Bowl, commercials are eagerly anticipated and excitedly viewed. When designing your own virtual event, get creative in thinking about how you can use your breaks.

Everyone is thinking about what type of sponsorships are valuable in a virtual setting. Perhaps you have a sponsor that brings in a popular musician or band to play during a “commercial.” Can you bring in a popular fitness guru to lead a 7th inning yoga stretch later in the day? Whatever the answer is for your audience, be sure to utilize every moment you can to engage your attendees.

Your breaks in educational content should also bear in mind purposeful networking opportunities, similar to what you’d expect at a live event.

Consider how you will enable your attendees to “bump into” each other, and how you can make the interaction feel organic. There are a lot great virtual event technologies out there, but be sure to vet out your requirements before you select the tech. Let your event design inform your technology selection, not the other way around.

4. The Audience needs to be Actively Involved

Some of the most watched shows on TV have been made popular because of how they involve the audience. Shows like American Idol or The Voice give their viewers well, a voice, – no pun intended. They provide a chance for the audience to participate in the live action.

Popular features such as polling and chats can be effective, but only if utilized in the right way. For example, incorporating a poll that only serves the purpose of collecting attendee data, is not the best idea. Instead, make sure you’re asking questions that offer the attendees additional insight and connection to others.

If you’re offering a chat feature, you’ll want to have a moderator and tech support. What’s the point in having a chat box if attendees aren’t going to get their questions answered, or on the other hand, if no one is actively chatting? Be mindful of proper staffing to moderate and initiate conversation.

And don’t forget about tech support. Depending on your audience, you shouldn’t assume that everyone is aware of how to use virtual event technology. Having designated staff ready to assist with login issues or technical difficulties, will provide the attendee with a smoother experience and help keep your virtual event running seamlessly.

5. Your Virtual Event Should Tell a Story

Popular TV shows all have one thing in common: they tell a good story. Have you ever seen a movie or a show that starts out confusing and never gets better, or it ends very anti-climatically? You leave feeling like you wasted your time and money. Don’t do this to your attendees.

A good virtual event should have a clear story line that attendees can easily follow. Give your event a beginning, a middle and an end. It’s human nature to want resolution. Leave your attendees feeling like they found the answers to their questions and they are glad to have invested time and money into your story.

But don’t give it all away in one setting. Long running TV shows keep viewers coming back for more. Make sure you have a plan for how you will continue to engage your attendees post-event. Not only do you want your attendees to engage with your brand, you want them to keep engaging with each other.

Can you set up a post-event Slack channel where attendees can continue the conversation? Your virtual event should lend itself to additional conversations and touch points. Mapping this out in advance will be beneficial for everyone.

What other sources can give us inspiration for running a great virtual event?