How to successfully navigate virtual events

Written by

Kate Devlin

Snack carts filled with ice cream bars and doughy soft pretzels. Open-bar happy hours with signature cocktails. Mainstage keynotes, big name entertainment, live music, and—if you’re lucky—fireworks!

Companies pull out all the stops to create event experiences that are energetic, engaging, and most of all memorable.

But if this blog post was a soundtrack, then this is when the record would scratch to a halt. Because—at least, for now—your favorite memories of annual corporate events are just that: memories.

In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, companies across the globe were unexpectedly faced with the decision of whether to cancel their eagerly awaited annual events. But instead of cancelling completely, many are now bravely choosing to navigate the events world in new virtual ways.

Over the last several months, our favorite customers have created competitive differentiation through their innovative and impressive approach to virtual events. Companies like ServiceNow, Cisco, and Salesforce have showed up strong and wowed audiences with clear messages, riveting high-end production, and exciting incorporation of interactive technology.

But we’ve also witnessed some real, authentic, and down-to-earth presentations. CEOs have invited us into their homes, offered us a glimpse into their vulnerable side, and warmed us using only their words and genuine delivery.

This variety is proof that organizations have choices when it comes to virtual events strategy. Regardless of the methods and medium you choose, a successful virtual event must start with a shift in mindset.

The goal is not to simply replicate what was done “in the room” and move it online. To pull off a successful virtual event, you must think of it as a new opportunity to help your brand shine.

An unforgettable in-person event is developed with empathy, authenticity, and ingenuity. While the same principles hold for virtual events, what’s changed is how they’re applied.

Empathy: Get to Know Your Virtual Audience

At Duarte, empathy is the foundation for everything we do, and it always has been. Creating an unforgettable event starts with exercising empathy for that specific audience.

Build your foundation of empathy by asking a new set of questions:

  • Which of your target audiences are most likely to attend? Will any of them be new to the event?
  • What does a typical day-in-the-life look like for that audience? How has that changed in the past few months?
  • How do typical attendees prefer to connect with each other? How can you reimagine that connection to make it feel more meaningful, even if it’s not face-to-face?
  • Which elements of your past events have audiences enjoyed most? What is truly ‘essential’ to their experience? What isn’t?
  • How will audiences be most likely to view this event: on a laptop or a mobile device?
  • How long can your attendees realistically stay engaged?

Right now, this last question is one of the most important to keep in mind.

While an 8-hour day of content and programming might have worked for your in-person event, virtual audiences are bombarded with distractions and don’t have the patience (or endurance) to stay glued to their screen, or to their seat! For many attendees, participating might mean watching your event from home during their regular workday.

Shorter events and more focused sessions have been key to helping many of our clients host successful virtual gatherings.

When transitioning their annual in-person events to virtual, both Cisco and ServiceNow shortened sessions from the typical 60 to 90 minutes to no more than 30 minutes. This meant either boiling down their content to its most essential messages or deciding to break down longer content into segments of 5-10 minutes each.

It’s challenging to trim down an hour-long presentation into a tight 10 minutes, but the resulting messages are more focused and therefore easier for an audience to comprehend and remember.

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Authenticity: Balance Spectacle with Sincerity

While sitting together in a packed auditorium, watching the lights dim down on a keynote speaker standing center stage, audiences begin to feel a sense of excitement, wonder, and awe at the sheer spectacle of it all.

They marvel at massive LED screens, choreographed lighting, immersive video, and even holograms.

Experiencing a virtual event alone, at home and on your tiny mobile screen, however, feels very different.

So if your budget doesn’t allow for flashy, expensive mainstage-like virtual production, consider using the low-tech circumstances to your advantage. Try swapping spectacle for genuine human connection. Aim for warmth and intimacy. Encourage presenters to lean into their not-so-perfectly-polished virtual environments and embrace their authenticity.

Just think about how your favorite late-night, live shows like SNL and The Tonight Show, have found their footing in this new virtual world. Tom Hanks read cue cards in his kitchen, Kristen Wiig leaped out from under the covers of her bed, and Jimmy Fallon pleaded for his kids, off-camera, to just go play.

As the audience, we’ve been delighted by this rare chance to peek behind the curtain and to see our favorite celebrities as people before performers.

The boundary between work and life has all but disappeared, and that has virtual audiences craving something more grounded. Less theatrics, more human connection.

This means that speakers need to work a little harder to make an audience feel as if they’re speaking with them, not reading to them. Strong eye contact, a conversational tone, and vulnerability go a long way in creating that connection.

Back in March, the CEO of Marriott International, Arne Sorenson, made headlines after delivering a 6-minute video message to his associates across the world. Members of his team were initially concerned about Sorenson going on camera; his appearance had changed distinctly since undergoing cancer treatment. But it was the willingness to be vulnerable in this moment that demonstrated Sorenson’s strength as a leader. In the final moments of the message, he visibly chokes back tears while discussing the direct impact of COVID-19 on his associates.

When a speaker, especially an executive like Sorenson, drops their veil of uber-professionalism and shares a story about their lived experience, we feel the same sense of connection that we would in-person.

Well-told, personal stories transport us to another place and time. While we’re listening, it doesn’t matter whether we’re “in the room” or not – we get to be somewhere else entirely.

Ingenuity: Take Risks When You Can

Some innovative brands have budgets that enable them to take bigger risks and make bigger bets with their virtual events. They put in the work that’s required to delight an audience with an experience that feels entirely new and often receive more memorable and buzzworthy results.

Take Snap, for instance. Snap turned this challenge into an opportunity and created buzz when its executives delivered their annual Partner Summit entirely virtual. The event used green screens to place keynote speakers in augmented reality environments. They created stunning visuals that showcased AR technology and reinforced their place as an industry leader. They dazzled the audience in a way they didn’t expect while still maintaining brand authenticity.

To pull off events like the one Snap delivered requires investments in time, money, resources and production partnerships. While costly, these investments are worth considering if your company wants to advance your image as innovators through events that dazzle. While live events will likely return in some form, virtual events will also be here to stay.

If you don’t have the production budget to offer your audience something so visually striking, ingenuity can shine in other ways.

Consider adjusting your virtual content or approach to interactions in ways that surprise and delight your audience. At the moment, the Duarte team is playing with a few new virtual presenting toys, including a novel app under development now called Mmhmm that brings broadcast-quality visual effects to everyday video and even plain old Zoom meetings.

You can also keep virtual attendees engaged by introducing variety. Within even a single keynote, you can have some content delivered by a speaker while other content takes the form of a short video or demonstration. This variety in content creates contrast that keeps your audience on their toes.

Apple has always been skilled at incorporating this type of contrast into its keynotes, ever since Steve Job’s keynote that introduced the iPhone at MacWorld 2007. The keynote at this year’s virtual-only WWDC was no exception; it incorporated high-energy videos, seamless product demos, and more than a dozen different speakers.

The most unforgettable events will balance empathy, authenticity, and vulnerability appropriately. But how do you determine the right balance—especially when taking on a virtual event for the very first time?

The answer, as always, comes down to your audience. If you first focus on their needs, you can use both your brand identity and budget constraints to decide whether your virtual event should lean more heavily into authenticity or ingenuity.

We’re confident that the days of soft pretzels and strobe lights will return, and we can’t wait for that day. But until then, we can all work hard to develop virtual events that both stretch our imaginations and exercise our empathy muscles.

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Illustrated by Trami Truong