4 TIPS for business holding virtual events and digital summits amid COVID-19

The pandemic has forced every organization to move events online but it's not always as easy as it looks. Here's how to work out the kinks.

Organizations across the world have had to cancel thousands of events, conferences and seminars due to concerns about the spread of coronavirus. In order to save annual events that drew millions, enterprises are trying to use a variety of platforms to hold virtual summits and webinars. But over the last month, dozens of organizations have learned the hard way that digitized events are not as easy as they seem. It can be difficult finding the right platform, keeping attendees engaged and bringing the same value enterprises did with in-person summits.  

Mark Bornstein, vice president of marketing for digital experience platform ON24, said things are getting better but organizations are still working out the kinks of digital events.  

"Digital engagement has been getting better and better over the past few years, but the way in which people have responded in the past month to all the social distancing has been interesting. All of the ways in which people are having virtual happy hours, virtual parties and virtual painting classes with kids," Bornstein said. 

"They've found ways to get creative and stay engaged online in ways like never before. So the expectations are greater for digital events."

While some companies had concerns about whether people would show up to digital summits and virtual events, the numbers show that attendance is through the roof. Bornstein said ON24 has seen the number of live webinars and events in their network increase by 330% year over year, and the company is on pace to deliver a quarter of a million webinars this year alone. ON24 has seen about a billion minutes of audience engagement, according to Bornstein.

TechRepublic spoke with experts who shared four tips organizations can use when holding digital events.


1. Keep people engaged

Engagement is probably one of the biggest issues event holders face when moving things onto video conferencing platforms. 

Jacques Botbol, vice president of marketing at AI captioning company Verbit, said interactivity is key to keeping people engaged through their computer screens.

"We add a lot of interactivity during our summits and webinars. We try to do a lot of polls and take in live questions from the public, which we believe that is really important. We do live polls and then share the results with everyone," Botbol said. 

"We then share insights on the poll that was given. We also suggest live captions to increase engagement and accessibility. Our data shows that even for people that are not hard of hearing, they are engaged 80% more with live captions than without live captions. It is a really important metric in terms of engagement."

Bornstein added that effective digital events still have the element of human immersion and approachability that an actual, physical event would have.

Virtual events still need to be interactive and still need to have social networking as well as attendee to attendee networking. Just because an event is held through a video platform does not mean it should become a passive experience, he added. 

"People view digital events as something that is like streaming a presentation, but really great events are more interactive and engaging with people asking questions and downloading content. I have seen some organizations move to basically just a streaming platform or using social streaming to stream an event," Bornstein said. "That's fine, and you can get lots of people to watch a presentation. But it's a completely passive experience. All your audience can do is just watch and listen."

The successful virtual events keep people involved through polls, forums and discussions. Every event should have open Q and A sessions as well as ways to download the kind of gifts that normally would be handed out at in-person events. Some companies can even add gamification if possible, Bornstein added. 

2. Keep it short, offer parallel sessions

Botbol stressed that digital events cannot be as long as in-person summits because most people will not have the mental bandwidth to sit in front of a screen for seven or eight hours. 

"We like to schedule very short virtual summits, usually two or two and a half hours, where we have put several tracks in place that run in parallel. People join the tracks that suit them best, but it's only two hours of their time," Botbol said. 

"It's not the whole day. We suggest doing short meetings of 30 minutes. Usually there are some meetings with a strong panel, and if it has several people they can go up to 45 minutes. But more than that is overkill for the audience."

Botbol suggested running parallel sessions so that people have more options for the kind of content they're looking for, giving organizations the ability to hone in on specific content rather than trying to make content for wide audiences that would need hours to get through everything.  

Bornstein echoed those comments, saying companies cannot expect audiences to sit and stare at their computer for hours and hours.

3. Choose the right platform

Both Bornstein and Botbol said it was key for enterprises to tailor the platforms they use to the kind of event they're holding. Some video conferencing platforms are better for different kinds of events and it is key to know what style suits your content best. 

"For companies that need to move their smaller events, the seminars that they were doing in hotel ballrooms, those lunch and learns, those small training sessions, webinar technologies are really great for that," Bornstein said. Some platforms allow you to have keynote presentations, break out sessions and networking amongst attendees all within the same platform, he added. 

"You can have multiple presenters, you can get your audience really engaged and active and involved. You can still get collateral in their hands. You can still give away schwag if you want."

Botbol said the type of platform used depends largely on a company's budget for the event. Larger conferences may require content portals that can handle more users and multimedia.

"Some solutions to manage virtual summits or webinars are Zoom, Bizzabo, ON24 depending on the resources you have in-house you can use any of them for a successful event. Some have out of the box tools, some you need to make those tools, but they are great tools to run summits," Botbol said.

"It depends on your budget and how much money you can spend. The simplest is Zoom but there are other tools that are very robust. For our latest virtual summit we used Zoom and we were pretty happy with the results of it and I think Zoom has good features. The important thing is that the experience is seamless for the participants."

Botbol added that some companies may prefer to spend more on content or speakers instead of the platform itself. 

4. Understand the differences between digital and in-person events

The differences between in-person events and digital ones are too numerous to count, but one upside of digital events is the data you can glean from attendees. Enterprises can learn more about what keeps attendees engaged, what keeps them watching and their likes or dislikes. 

Through polls and questions companies can get a better sense of what people are thinking more than in-person events, where all you really know is that a person signed up to attend. 

"You have the ability to really capture so much more data about them and to learn about them so you can generate more leads, but frankly, you can also generate better leads. With digital events you know more people will be able to come and you'll be able to learn more about those who do show up," Bornstein said. 

"I believe that what we'll see in the future is that increasingly, many physical events will have a hybrid virtual component, so they'll be a physical version and a digital version of an event, which will increase the reach of the event. As more companies are forced in some cases to move their events to the digital space, I think that they're going to like what they experience. There is space and room for both."


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