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virtual event tips, online event planning adviceAs more organizations postpone or cancel events to contain the spread of the coronavirus, officially called Covid-19, many organizations are moving their events entirely online. On March 15, the CDC recommended cancelling or postponing events of more than 50 people for the next two months. The White House has urged people to avoid social gatherings of more than 10 people. Organizers can still hold events by bringing them online.

Virtual may be more affordable and simpler. They lack the hassles caused by travel, hotels and dining. However, virtual events present their own set of challenges. Don’t expect that cobbling together a few webinars or posting slide charts online will produce success.

Recommendations from Virtual Event Planning Experts

Here’s what online event planning specialists have to say.

Test your platforms. In addition to webinar platforms, social media networks like Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn and YouTube, offer video and live streaming services. They offer many of the same basic features. Selection is a matter of personal preference, says Dan McCarthy at Social Tables. Most services offer a free trial allowing you perform dry runs before the event. This allows you to familiarize yourself with their basic functionality and test their services, such as the timeliness and helpfulness of live technical support.

Shorten your sessions. Holding the audience attention is far more difficult at online events, says virtual event expert Jay Baer. Many – maybe most – people multi-task during online meetings. A 60-minute keynote or breakout session, standard fare at face-to-face events, won’t work for a virtual event. Shorten time slots by 15 or 30 minutes. Try a “webinine,” a webinar that lasts just nine minutes.

Do presenter run-throughs. A dry run can spot faulty equipment links and other issues. Even veteran presenters may not understand the nuances of various online event software platforms. Be sure to test the audio. Visitors will leave if they can’t hear, he warns. Do presenter run-throughs in the same room and with the same computer that will be used for the event. Consider sending USB headset microphones to presenters.

“It is shocking how often presenters at online events just figure they can talk into their laptop, with no regard for room acoustics, background noise, dogs barking, people walking by, the neighbor’s cockatoo, and more,” Baer says.

Many presenters who are animated at in-person events are flat in their online delivery. Record the run-through and let them see themselves as the viewers see them. Urge them to punch up their delivery. Often this can be achieved by simply having them stand for their delivery as they would in an in-person meeting, instead of sitting at their computer.

Publicize the event. Publicize the online event through blogging, social media posts, email blasts and earned media mentions. Encourage social media followers to share news of the event with a branded hashtag. If your budget allows, paid advertising is an option. Make sure session titles and descriptions for your virtual conference programming are fully descriptive and compelling. Tell the target audience what they will learn and how they will benefit from the virtual conference.

Stand out with a specific topic. The term “riches are in the niches” applies to online events. Instead of a “Fitness Summit” or a “Strength Summit,” narrow the focus to a niche topic such as strength training for women by women. “Your marketing efforts will be more effective and you’ll be able to communicate more clearly once you have defined your niche,” advises virtual summit strategist Navid Moazzea. “A virtual event for everyone is really for nobody.”

Irresistible offers. Create irresistible offers to attract attendees.

You could include:

  • Audio files of sessions,
  • Transcripts of sessions,
  • PDF action guides.
  • Special offers from sponsors or partners.

“Don’t just include bonuses for the sake of including more bonuses if they are not related to content on the summit itself, Moazzea cautions. “You don’t have to go overboard and include everything you possibly can think of.”

Make it social. Virtual events may lack the networking and social benefits of face-to-face events. But organizers can still replicate at least some social aspects with abundant use of webinar platform’s chat and Q&A features. To spark exchanges, ask relevant, provocative questions when sessions begin and while they continue.

After sessions conclude, participants can continue interactions in private Facebook or LinkedIn groups. The Boss Theme from BuddyBoss integrates a discussion board and social networking features into WordPress. To encourage continued discussions, you might need to send regular reminders

Monitor internet chatter. Social media listening can reveal what attendees talk about during and after the event. Their comments can provide ideas for new online sessions and other ideas on how to improve your virtual event. Sift through trending Twitter hashtags and keywords to “see what your audience is passionate about,” Alyssa Velazquez, director of MTV’s social media and fan engagement at ViacomCBS, advised at a Ragan social media conference.

Consider experienced help. Employ pros who have assembled successful streaming events, even if they are from a sector that differs from yours, Laura Goldberg, founder and principal at LBG Public Relations, told PR Daily. You can tap into their insights on what works best across a variety of platforms. While virtual events require additional expertise, “there are lots of ways to make the experience interactive and ensure that it resonates,” Goldberg says.

Bottom Line: Virtual conferences and other online events offer an option for organizations postponing or canceling in-person gatherings to stem the spread of Covid-19. But organizing virtual events presents unique challenges. Thorough technical, speaker and content preparation along with strong publicity will make most virtual meetings successful.

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