GALA VIRTUAL EVENT BEST PRACTICES
1. Shorten Session Lengths
A 60-minute keynote or breakout session at a face-to-face event is pretty standard and doesn’t usually feel like a slog.
But that’s partial because attendees have other stimuli and the ability to experience presentations in a three-dimensional environment.
It is FAR more difficult to hold audience attention in a virtual event, compared to an in-person conference.
In fact, Jay and his team pioneered the concept of a “Webinine” – a Webinar that lasts just nine minutes. The audience show-up rate is much higher for sessions of that length (versus 60 minutes), as is the replay rate.
We’re not suggesting that every session in your virtual event be just nine minutes long, but do consider shortening the time slots you would use for a physical event by 15 or 30 minutes.
For example, a 60-minute breakout face-to-face should be 45 or 30 minutes when delivered online.
2. Sharpen Your Titles and Descriptions
When presented with multiple, simultaneous options for sessions to choose from in a physical event setting, attendees will often rely on word-of-mouth, asking other participants which breakout they are attending, and why.
Most virtual conferences lack this dynamic.
Further, many online events rely on emails, social media posts, and other tactics to inform attendees of what information will be presented (there is no written conference guide or dedicated mobile app in most cases).
Thus, participants in your virtual event have less information when deciding what sessions to tune in for, and which to skip.
Consequently, it is even more important than the session titles and descriptions for your virtual conference programming are descriptive and compelling.
3. Use a Moderator or Emcee
In a face-to-face event, the moderator or emcee helps contextualize the information presented throughout the conference, while also helping to keep the energy up and deliver important housekeeping notes.
Many organizations moving to virtual events believe that since the programming is now delivered over the Internet, that this emcee role is no longer necessary.
The opposite is true.
Having a consistent face and voice that “stitches together” the virtual sessions for participants adds much-needed familiarity and helps alleviate the isolated feeling that online events can sometimes produce for attendees.
The best way to implement is to have the event moderator open up the conference online – just like a regular event – and then moderate questions for speakers and pop back online between sessions to chat with attendees.
(Jay has played this role many, many times for major online events)
4. Use Attendee Chat Early and Often
The networking component of face-to-face events is almost always cited as the best part of the conference.
While it is, of course, more difficult to deliver rich networking online, you can assist attendees in interacting amongst themselves and with presenters by making liberal use of the chat/Q&A function in your chosen virtual events platform.
The emcee/moderator should ask attendees questions at the beginning of the day to get participants used to the functionality, and also between sessions to facilitate networking.
Every presenter at your virtual event should be taking questions from the audience using the Chat/Q&A tool.
Further, one of the built-in advantages of online conferences is the ability to use the polling function of the software to ask questions of the audience and get instant, mathematical results.
You should train your presenters on how to use this polling feature to make sessions more interesting and interactive.
5. Require Presenter Run-Throughs
Speaking of training presenters, you really should make it mandatory that each of them participates in a run-through of their material a week or so before your virtual event.
Of course, it is likely that your presenters have attended some sort of online event, and may have even delivered a program at some point.
But, EVERY online event software platform is different, and presenters need to understand those nuances.
For example, some online conference software packages “hide” presenter notes when in presentation mode. A speaker accustomed to using presenter notes will be mightily surprised when they all of a sudden disappear once the session begins. (TIP: for online events, have all presenters print out their slides and notes)
Further, once presenters are clear on the different interactive elements of the software, and the inherently altered “feel” of a virtual presentation from the audience's perspective, they should make changes to their content accordingly.
Let’s put this plainly: for maximum success, you cannot just take your offline presentation slides and deliver them online.
6. Use Cameras
To make the virtual conference feel more similar to the face-to-face experience, you should require presenters to use their Webcam while presenting.
This allows the audience to see the speaker during the presentation, which adds another layer of information such as non-verbal cues, etc.
However, this requires each presenter to not only have a decent camera (ideally, better than their onboard laptop cam) as well as suitable lighting.
This isn’t necessarily a huge challenge but is another wrinkle that presenters don’t have to contend with in a face-to-face event (and is another reason you need run-throughs).
7. Sound Matters a Lot
If the speakers at your online conference don’t have fantastic lighting or great cameras, the event can still work if the content is outstanding.
But if the presenter audio isn’t solid, your audience will log off IMMEDIATELY.
Just like with podcasts, sound quality for a virtual event is non-negotiable.
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.
When you do presenter run-throughs make certain they are conducted in the same room and with the same setup as will occur during the actual broadcast.
Also, consider purchasing USB headset microphones for all presenters, and sending them out two weeks before the event, with a link to a video illustrating how to use them.
Lastly, if the speaker cannot be in a circumstance that is acceptable for audio when their live presentation is scheduled, pre-record that session and then have the speaker log-in at the end of the recorded portion to answer questions.
(This robs the speaker of the opportunity to use audience polls or take questions via chat during the session, but is better than bad audio)
In some ways, virtual events are easier than in-person events because you don’t have to worry about massive audio-visual infrastructure, meals, hotel rooms, food allergies, and other obstacles.
But in other ways, online conferences are more difficult because there isn’t one “set up” for the room with speakers just getting a microphone and delivering their info, back-to-back.
The time needed to work with each speaker in a virtual event to ensure excellence and consistency is significant.
But, that time will pay off, and a good emcee/moderator will help you turn your event into a huge success.
Virtual Event Checklist:
At Least 3 Months Before the Event High-level planning:
☐ Establish virtual event format (e.g., Will you need live-streaming capabilities?)
☐ Set goals and objectives (e.g., Are you hoping to gain new members? Do you have a fundraising target?)
☐ Select date
☐ Create a budget
☐ Develop a master plan and schedule Roles:
☐ Recruit event committee, event manager or chair
☐ Recruit staff/volunteers and assign roles (e.g., panel host, chat moderator) Communications:
☐ Create a marketing and publicity plan
☐ Create branded assets (e.g., Logos, slogans, ads, templates, e-invitations, etc.) Sponsorship:
☐ Identify sponsorship levels and benefits
☐ Create a sponsorship package
☐ Secure sponsors
☐ Request logos for promotional materials Speakers:
☐ Identify and confirm speakers/presenters/entertainers
☐ Confirm presentation/speech topics
☐ Request bio and headshot
2 Months Before the Event Logistics:
☐ Set up online registration and/or donation platform
☐ Set up peer-to-peer fundraising platform, if applicable
☐ Investigate the need for any special permits, licenses, etc. (e.g., You may need a permit if your event includes games of chance, raffles or auctions)
☐ Determine and arrange all technical needs (e.g., Live-streaming platform, virtual silent auction software, race software, etc.)
☐ Determine what location(s) you’ll be using to record your live-streamed videos (e.g., you’ll likely need a neutral background such as a blank wall) Marketing & Publicity:
☐ Create an event page on your website
☐ Send e-invitations via email
☐ Enable/create email event notifications
☐ Create a Facebook event page
☐ Schedule social media posts
☐ Create a promotional video and share it on social media
☐ Register your event on a variety of online event calendars
☐ Create some buzz on your blog or member forums
☐ Develop publicity pieces (e.g., newsletter articles and/or ads, radio spots, blog posts articles for submission to other publications and/or ads, etc.)
☐ Prepare a news release, media advisory, backgrounder, and all media kit materials (e.g., speaker info, photos, etc.)
☐ If your event relies on peer-to-peer fundraising, develop a toolkit for registrants that includes messaging, information about your organization and helpful tips on how to reach out to their networks
☐ If applicable, order swag items to mail to your event registrants to use on the day of the event (e.g., branded t-shirts, hats, event props, etc.)
1 Month Before the Event
☐ Send regular emails to keep promoting registration and encouraging existing registrants to continue fundraising
☐ Start mailing out swag items
2 Weeks Before the Event Publicity:
☐ Release press announcements
☐ Post your initial event news release on your website and circulate to all partners, affiliated organizations, etc. Communications:
☐ Request a copy of speeches and/or presentations from speakers/presenters/entertainers and finalize edits
☐ Finalize event script (e.g., MC, speaker introductions, thanks, closing, etc.)
1 Week Before the Event:
☐ Have the event committee meet virtually and confirm all details against the master plan
☐ Ensure back-up plans are developed for any situation
☐ Brief staff and volunteers about their event duties and timelines
☐ Test live-streaming technology 1 Day Before the Event
☐ Send a reminder email to registrants, including login instructions to access your live-streamed portion and a schedule/program for the event
☐ Run another live-stream test
☐ Send another email to registrants with login instructions and schedule
☐ Be sure to record your live-stream so you can share this with registrants later
☐ Continue to post on social media during your event to keep raising awareness and encourage donations After the Event Finances:
☐ Gather all receipts, documentation, final registration data, donations, etc. and update budget and revenue Communications:
☐ Send an email to all registrants to thank them for attending, announce the total number of participants, amount raised and the impact it will have on your organization. Include a link to the live-stream recording.
☐ Send a separate email to people who registered but did not attend, including a link to the recording.
☐ If you have the contact information of people who donated in support of a registrant but did not register for your event, send them a thank you email as well.
☐ Update your website and event page with a thank you message and final numbers
☐ Post on social media about the event’s conclusion and outcome
☐ If you choose to extend your fundraising deadline until some time after the event, include this in the above communications and encourage people to keep donating and fundraising
☐ Send thank you emails to everyone involved: sponsors, speakers/presenters, volunteers, staff, event committee, media, etc.
☐ Conduct a post-event survey (e.g. Did participants enjoy the event? What could have been done differently?)
☐ Meet with your event committee virtually to discuss what went well and what can be improved for the next time you organize a virtual event