Since the outbreak of the coronavirus, corporate event calendars have been upended as companies have converted their regularly scheduled in-person meetings, conferences and networking mixers into virtual events.
Organizations have been forced to navigate new virtual event platforms as they work to capture the value of face-to-face connections in an online format, while also combatting work-from-home screen fatigue among those tuning in.
Booking top-notch speakers, providing relevant content for a targeted audience and being mindful of time are keys to hosting an engaging online event, said Suzanne Kelley, president of the Waukesha County Business Alliance.[caption id="attachment_510358" align="alignright" width="300"] Suzanne Kelley[/caption]
“I know people say there is webinar fatigue,” she said. “But I think it’s more fatigue with the content and not with the format. As long as you find great speakers and great topics, people will be more than happy to join in.”
WCBA, like many other organizations, has gone virtual with nearly all of its regular programming for the rest of the calendar year and added special programs to help its members navigate the evolving business landscape during the pandemic. The organization quickly learned that hosting a successful webcast requires the same amount of planning and staff resources as its in-person equivalent, Kelley said.
“I think a lot of the pre-work in many ways is the same as it would be for an in-person program: being very thoughtful about the topic, listening to what your audience would be interested in, having high-caliber speakers and then preparing them in advance,” she said. “One other thing we learned was you (should not use) fewer staff to deploy a virtual event or webinar. You need just as many as you would for (an in-person event).”
It’s important to communicate clearly beforehand what the webinar will offer its audience members and then follow through, said Tracy Johnson, president and CEO of the Commercial Association of Realtors Wisconsin (CARW).[caption id="attachment_510359" align="alignright" width="300"] Tracy Johnson[/caption]
“Have very clear expectations,” Johnson said. “When you’re marketing the event, get people a good feel for what you’re going to get. ‘Here are the takeaways.’ If you set it up right and you know your speakers, you can control it 100% of the way.”
A common mistake is spending too much time at the beginning of the event with introductions and not getting to the “meat” of the presentation soon enough, said Richie Burke, founder and chief executive officer of GoGeddit Marketing and Media (GGMM).
“Even though people are on for about an hour, they’re only going to walk away with two to four ideas,” he said. “How can you hammer home value? ... Take time to build credibility but then move into the good stuff.”
Hosts can keep the audience engaged throughout the presentation by fielding audience questions in real time via their platform’s Q&A and survey functions, Kelley said. After experimenting with different formats, Johnson said a moderated panel has been the most engaging for CARW audience members.
“We’ll have 10 to 15 minutes of the keynote talking and then we’ll do planned questions and answers to give people exactly what I said I was going to give them,” Johnson said.
CARW finds scheduling its virtual events at a consistent time – 1 p.m. on Wednesdays – helps capture higher attendance among its members, Johnson said.
“You really have to know who you’re trying to get to attend and make sure (you’re) consistent,” she said. “… Know your audience and what their preference is.”
Capping events at 45 minutes has been the “sweet spot” for CARW’s webinars, Johnson said.
“One hour can get to be too much and 30 minutes, you sometimes leave them hanging,” she said.
Having sponsors provide pre-recorded remarks is a good way to stay on schedule, she added.
As many organizations try their hand at the new medium, there is plenty of room to refine their virtual events and get better with each try, Burke said.[caption id="attachment_510357" align="alignnone" width="1280"] Richie Burke[/caption]
“A lot of people put something out there and hope to see big results right away,” Burke said. “I think it’s important to get something out, and the first time you do something is typically your worst performance. … The first step is getting something out. No. 2 is making sure that it’s actually valuable. … I wouldn’t throw in the towel if you’re not getting results after a few times of a webinar.”
It may be a challenge to recreate the experience of connecting face to face, but Jeremy Fojut, chief idea officer of NEWaukee, offers several tips for designing a meaningful virtual networking event.