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Business management

How to: run an engaging online event

From working out what you’re trying to achieve to following up for feedback afterwards, here’s our guide to running a successful virtual event.

With coronavirus continuing to limit our ability to meet in person and mass gatherings suspended for the foreseeable future, businesses have had to find creative ways to engage with customers and colleagues via virtual events. As recent innovations in this space look set to influence our approach to events long after the pandemic passes, what do you need to know about running a successful online event? We speak to industry insiders to find out their top tips.

Planning and preparation

Articulate your aims. What do you want to do: sell, educate or discuss? Having a clear idea will guide you in choosing your approach, duration and tone. Don’t rush online. “Take time to design your event for digital,” says William Thomson, managing director of Gallus Events. “Do not replicate a physical event; find the value and replicate that. Once you have designed the event, then select your platform.”

Pick a platform. Do your research and check out other people’s events. Holly Jones, marketing and campaigns manager at small business support network Enterprise Nation, says: “If you want to get a group of people together for a conversation, Zoom is great. You can share your screen to present and attendees can mute themselves if they don’t want to be seen or heard. You can also add break-out rooms to divide attendees into smaller groups for activities. 

“If a small business owner simply wants to speak to an audience, they could also do something simple and free like hosting a Facebook Live. You can get people to sign up to Facebook Lives on Eventbrite, for example, and then send out the link to join.” 

Free apps or browsers are fine for a basic webinar, though they may not have the best call quality and may impose time limits. Some have fairly low limits on attendees (Skype allows 50, Mikogo just 25). The alternative is to buy a bespoke service from a specialist firm such as Adobe Connect, Blackboard or Cisco Webex. 

Use gizmos and graphics where appropriate. Decide on any additional technology you might need, from headsets to webcams. An event might include videos, graphics displays, even MR – ‘mixed reality’, the shorthand term for VR (virtual reality), AR (augmented reality) and anything that mixes digital and physical objects in real time. Fancy 3D displays are especially suited to architectural presentations or training simulations, but if you’re a complete novice you may want to seek support from an agency specialising in ‘digital storytelling’.

Get the word out. People still need to show up on time, just as they would for a physical event. Schedule emails and use text messages to send reminders. Consider how much information you want to gather at registration – it might be the first opportunity for attendees to share their own aims and ambitions. Registration forms can also be a good place to encourage attendees to opt in, in a GDPR-compliant way, to future updates from your business, helping you to grow your audience.

Do a dry run. Virtual platforms are relatively new technology, and broadband reliability varies hugely across the UK, so test your equipment. Holding briefing sessions with speakers and moderators before the event will also ensure that everyone involved is clear on how the event will unfold. Scheduling a dry run of the complete event before the real thing is a good way to limit surprises, says Sabeha Mohamed, Eventbrite’s UK & Ireland marketing manager. 

“Make sure the equipment is working properly, the slides are in order, and the speakers know what they’re doing, so you don’t run into any surprises on the day. This is also a great time to assess for noise. Check out your space to see if there are any potential distracting sounds, mute notifications for apps running on your computer, and make sure kids and pets can’t access your space while you’re hosting.” 

Your dry run should also extend to testing out the full experience as if you were a customer, from signing up through to attending the event. Testing the user experience is an often overlooked step, but one that can make all the difference to the success of the event.

Take care how you present yourself. The angle of your camera is important, says Timo Elliott, vice president at enterprise application software company SAP. “Put your computer on top of a pile of books so that the webcam is horizontal at your eye level, at least for the length of the call.”

The event

Value your virtual brand. “It’s important to align your online event’s materials with your brand’s aesthetic,” says Mohamed. “You might be thinking of your online events as separate from everything else you do — don’t make that mistake. Use the same logo, colours, fonts, and other graphics or elements that match your brand’s overall style. You’ll create a consistent experience for your attendees, and you’ll make your brand more recognisable, too.”

Keep it lean. Heavy Zoom users have reported ‘digital eye strain’. Concentrating on a screened image is tiring, not least because we are being asked not to look away. As a general rule, keep the event as short and dynamic and allow for a coffee break if going over an hour. 

Keep it real. Natural conversation makes an event feel more human. “Allow for chat with members of the audience, to make comments or questions to panellists,” suggests Annabelle Gawer, professor in digital economy at the University of Surrey. “The event organiser would do well to allocate to someone besides the speaker the job of reading these comments and feeding them through to the speakers or panellists.” 

Make it special. You want your event to be memorable as well as useful. Providing a clear summary of key points at the end of your event will help reinforce your purpose for the audience. Colours, sounds and graphics can also linger longer than talk. 

“Keep interventions focused,” says Gawer. “Inject some diversity in visual formats, with, say, a short set of visuals such as PowerPoint slides that privilege graphs and images rather than text and bullet points”. Timo Elliott adds that, in the virtual realm, “real-world stories from the people doing the actual implementing and/or using are more important than ever”.

Afterwards

Follow up. Post-event engagement is vital. You might schedule a follow-up event with a selection of the attendees to identify strengths and weaknesses, or invite written feedback, perhaps through a questionnaire. Sending attendees a post-event email outlining the key information presented can also be a great way to reinforce the value of the event. And if you have further events in the pipeline, this is a good opportunity to shout about them.

Key takeaways: How to run an engaging online event

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