3 best practices that will maximize the value of your online events

Jonathan Greechan

Around the world, the COVID-19 pandemic is disrupting calendars — along with travel budgets and marketing plans — by canceling events ranging to major league sports to tech conferences. This has impacted the startup and tech industries on all levels; by early March, economic losses from tech event cancellations alone amounted to more than $1.1 billion.

In response, many businesses have taken events online. Teleconferencing tools are being used more than ever, and Zoom registered 200 million daily users in March, up from a record of 10 million. Business figures and organizations can harness these online tools to minimize the blow of the worldwide shutdown, reach their target audiences and position themselves as thought leaders, but moving events online has its own problems.

The more meetups are generated, the more likely it is that yours will get lost in a sea of options. It’s also significantly easier for people to “attend” an event — and ignore it or exit early. There are plenty of studies demonstrating that internet users have shorter attention spans.

So you have to stand out and keep people engaged while speaking to people through a screen thousands of miles away. Over the past decade I have run more than 100 webinars with over 100,000 live attendees, and am one of the largest Meetup organizers in the world. Through trial and error I have developed a set of best practices that will keep people engaged in online events.

Transmitting real value by computer is certainly more challenging than face-to-face, but following these three pointers will help you get there.

1. Prepare for all eventualities

We all know what a badly prepared organized meeting looks like: frozen screens, buffering videos and broken audio.

The smart thing to do is to create a customized checklist of all the steps you'll need to take before any virtual event. The most important non-human elements you should be checking are: internet connection, software (the program hosting the call and other tools), hardware (microphones and camera) and visual aids.

You know what that means: double-check your internet connection, microphones, and cameras (if possible, include the speakers in your test calls). Avoid shared internet and never allow the organizers to use the same network. There are applications for testing internet speed, which pretty much needs to be above 10 mbps upload and 20mbps download. In the long term, always consider spending more on a better internet package. Declutter your desktop before the meeting starts.

If you’re relocating an in-person event to a virtual setting, you’ll have to completely rebuild the program: while a physical event should last around two hours, a virtual one can’t be more than 1.25 hours long (drop-offs tend to peak after 45-60 minutes). Normally you’d also want plenty of speakers to improve networking afterwards, but online you’ll want a maximum of four to reduce the risk of technical issues and limit the duration.

In terms of organizers, designate an event host — just one — to coordinate the meeting and an event producer who'll keep things running in the background. Decide on the best way for them to communicate during the talk; we usually rely on a live Google doc that is continually updated by the producer with selected audience questions. It means the host isn’t distracted by private chat notifications. A reliable host will involve the audience, protect the time designated to Q&As and keep the conversation moving.

Communicate constantly with your speakers beforehand, as they’re much more likely to cancel at the last minute for a virtual event. Run through the content they’ll be using days in advance — if they’re putting effort in ahead of time, they probably won’t be a no-show. Ask them to join the meeting 30 minutes before it begins to iron out any problems (get them to use headphones and ask them to reduce the number of people using their Wi-Fi if the connection is shaky).

To give a Power Point presentation, you or the speaker must make sure to set up your Slideshow to be “Browsed by an Individual (Window)." If not, the deck will take up the presenter’s entire screen and be very disorienting.

2. Create the right types of content for "at home" audiences

Ensuring you have solid content is not the same over Zoom as it is in-person.

First, make sure the discussion dives straight into the topic at hand and hook the audience immediately. Think of their attention span as that of someone trying out a new Netflix series: if attendees feel like the event is slow or overly promotional, they will exit faster. So keep the welcomes and thank-yous short and sweet and open with your most stimulating questions.

Tailor your content to the times and address realities that will strike a chord with participants’ daily lives. Research similar events so your angle stands out from any other conferences that are happening around the same time.

This is especially important now that everything is gravitating around COVID-19. What’s different in what your organization has to say, or in the speakers you have lined up? What are they more likely to agree on or, more importantly, disagree on? A good host will help keep debates alive and bring in those opposing views while avoiding unproductive conflicts.

Another note relating to COVID-19: don’t be insensitive to the moment. We’re trying to adapt through a period of true hardship, not exploit it to gain advantage.

Always keep your content moving. Conference attendees are more likely to pay attention to 5-10 minute discussions than 50 minutes devoted to a single drawn-out topic. And they won’t want to hear monologues when several speakers are on hand to provide stimulating counterarguments. Again, this is the host’s job during the event.

When possible, break up your presentation with visual aids like graphs and images (but please avoid any streaming content and videos). Our brains can process images 60,000 times faster than they process text. Participants will also appreciate being able to take away screen grabs that summarize what they heard for later use.

3. Include attendees in the event

Engaging people is more valuable than promoting your company during an online conference, especially in the current climate. Attendees will probably be coming in with questions they want answered or problem they need a solution to, rather than the desire to buy a product. If you can give them what they need, they’ll remember you.

Start involving participants before the event begins by asking them to submit questions for the speakers or describe a challenge they are facing. During the event, encourage guests to ask questions or contribute to the chat (but try not to limit interactions to the group chat, which everyone knows is often ignored). Ask for participants’ opinions when a speaker presents a new idea and thank people who do participate. You can also ask rhetorical questions that, even if they don’t lead to a two-way discussion, will keep people focused.

If you can, and it’s appropriate, integrate tools that require your guests’ input, like instant surveys. You might need to put a timer on them to keep people sharp and curious.

Video conferencing platforms like Zoom and Skype allow you to record calls, including video, and you should always do so in public events so that you can share the recording on social media afterwards. Even if your event has few attendees at the time, its reach can become far greater with time.

If you can, always get feedback from attendees after an event. Send follow-up emails with links to the presentations and the speakers’ webpages, as well as a calendar of your upcoming events.

In the age of digitization, we are lucky enough to be able to reach our audiences and co-workers despite worldwide lockdowns. But people will still be selective about how they spend their time. Your organization has to add something valuable to the discussion, and whatever you do, make sure you have good Wi-Fi.