7 Tips for How to Run Engaging Virtual Events

Learn How to Run Engaging Virtual Events From Our Event Professionals

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Lately, we’ve been all about virtual events and how social media can help make them successful. As part of that, we organised a virtual talk where we asked a handful of experts about how to run engaging virtual events.

For the first event in our Social Media Success Stories series, we invited three of our customers who have experience running virtual events and asked them to share their valuable input with us.

We talked to…

Nikki Cole

Director of Marketing and Media Relations at Showstopper

Showstopper organises dance competitions and pivoted to virtual competitions during the pandemic.

Kaylee Sullivan

Kaylee Sullivan

Digital Community Specialist at Champlain College

Champlain College was one of the many universities setting up virtual commencement ceremonies

Jörg Weiss

Jörg Weiss

Managing Director Project Development/Consulting at con gressa

con gressa is an event agency that organised a virtual event for the Humboldt Foundation.

If you want to watch the whole thing, check out the recording from our virtual event on YouTube. To get you started, here’s a recap of the most important takeaways from our talk with Nikki, Kaylee and Jörg.

Tip #1: Only fools rush in
Tip #2: Plan ahead
Tip #3: Create a virtual audience
Tip #4: Connect offline and online for more engagement
Tip #5: Break it up
Tip #6: Adapt to your audience
Tip #7: Virtual events are an opportunity

Tip #1: Only fools rush in

When something unexpected forces in-person events to shut down, it can feel like you have to be the first and fastest to pivot to virtual events. But our participants agreed that it’s better not to rush in and instead take your time to think through what you want to do.

Step back and figure out what you want from your event and what your participants need. What do you want to carry over from offline to online? What do you want to change? How do you plan to stand out from the crowd?

Chances are a lot of people in your industry will be rushing to get something (anything!) in front of their audiences. If you slow down instead of speeding up, you will probably be able to come up with something that sets you apart from the rest.

In Showstopper’s case, this meant that while everyone else in the industry was asking people to send in videos of old performances and competitions, Showstopper only accepted fresh routines, recorded specifically for the virtual competitions. This gave the dancers who had been sidelined by the pandemic something to focus on and look forward to.

Tip #2: Plan ahead

One thing all three of our guests agreed on was that you need a plan before you go live. Treat your virtual event very much like your in-person events, make a plan and practice it.

“It was very much a TV production,” said Jörg about the Humboldt Foundation event, “we had an opening ceremony that was about an hour long.” To stay on top of it, Jörg wrote a detailed script for the live event, planning out all the elements and scheduling time for interaction with the audience. The team also did a practice run before the live event.

Kaylee, who combined a live stream with various pre-recorded speeches for Champlain College, agreed: “It really was a full production.”

The good thing is that it gets easier over time. With quite a few virtual events under her belt now, Nikki confirmed that Showstopper has been improving their processes with each event they’ve done.

Photo showing the Showstopper stage setup, including sofas in front of the stage as well as the whole live show tech setup behind it.
Showstopper set up a proper stage for the live virtual dance competitions.

Tip #3: Create a virtual audience

Planning your side of a virtual event is important, but you shouldn’t forget about your audience either. Many online events severely lack engagement and interaction because the role the audience plays has not been translated well from offline to online.

Give your audience a way to become a part of the event, paving the way for a dialogue. One way to do this is to create a dedicated “virtual audience” component by weaving a social wall into your live virtual event.

Showstopper embedded the social wall under the live stream, so people could watch the routines and interact with the event and other viewers at the same time. According to Nikki, “it really engaged our audience on social media and encouraged them to post and share what they were doing.” Furthermore, a hashtag also helps spread the word about your event on social media.

Champlain College put the social wall front and centre to make it easy for the audience to discover and use it. The social wall was positioned in multiple places on the commencement microsite: “One was on the home page so that when people came to visit it was right there for them to see. And as soon as they saw it hopefully they wanted to post something themselves to see themselves on that wall,” said Kaylee.

The social wall was also featured at the beginning of the live-streamed event to encourage students and their families to share to social media while they waited for the ceremony to start. 

Tip #4: Connect offline and online for more engagement

Something that worked really well for all three of our customers was providing merch or some other form of interactive kit ahead of their virtual event.

Showstopper usually provides swag bags at in-person events, so they set up an online store where dancers could buy merch and have it sent to them in advance. 

Champlain College provided lawn signs with the Champlain logo, mailed out caps and gowns and encouraged students to share photos of themselves wearing them. “We also mailed them a #ChampGrad celebration kit,” said Kaylee, “this included balloons, some posters that had the hashtag #ChampGrad and [Champlain’s school motto] ‘Let us dare’ on it.” The Champlain kit also included instructions on a postcard, encouraging social media sharing and guiding people to the graduation microsite.

Contents of the Champlain College mail-out kit, including a “Let Us Dare” poster, a sticker, a postcard, balloons, a fill-in poster with the hashtag and a mortarboard.
The Champlain Grad Kit, sent out to students before the virtual graduation ceremonies.

Meanwhile, the Humboldt Foundation and con gressa mailed out t-shirts and packages that got the whole family involved. There was popcorn, a puzzle for kids, guides to activities, science games, DIY projects, and so on. Everything was focused on family participation, “because that’s important at the in-person events,” explained Jörg. “People would come with their family, and we’d put up huge bouncy castles. We needed an equivalent for the bouncy castle.”

Sending out merch or kits before the event encourages your audience to dress up and get in the mood for the event, to post pictures on social media and create buzz for your event. If you offer something fun for people to engage in both before and during the event, you’ll be rewarded with more engagement during your live-stream.

Tip #5: Break it up

It’s really hard for humans to pay attention to an event on a screen for a long time in one go. So when you plan virtual events, consider the length of your programme and find ways to break it up into smaller chunks.

Champlain College solved this by setting up two different ceremonies, one for the on-campus students and on for the online-learning students. The students had a shared part at the beginning that tied it all together. After that, they split off into smaller audiences. That meant there were fewer students per ceremony, keeping the length of each ceremony shorter.

But that’s not all! Kaylee also said: “We wanted to make sure we had a few comical moments in there as well.” Adding some humour and fun interactions goes a long way towards breaking up an event and creating a more relaxed atmosphere.

Tip #6: Adapt to your audience

As with all other events, virtual events also require you to think about your audience and how you can make it easy for people to participate.

For example, if you have multiple audiences, they might use different social channels. Showstopper noticed that the main three target groups for the event were not necessarily showing up on the same networks. Dance studios and dance teachers were particularly active on Facebook, while dancers (a much younger demographic) were more likely to post on Instagram.

To deal with that, Showstopper catered to them using different videos with different lengths and content. They created shorter and more teaser-like content for Instagram and longer, in-depth videos for Facebook.

Meanwhile, Champlain College had to consider a demographic that can potentially be less digitally literate. “We found in the past that when we would use a social wall for events, our parent demographic was a little confused on how to get their photos featured,” explained Kaylee.

Champlain College microsite featuring various articles that explain more about the virtual graduation event and how to prepare for it.
Champlain College’s Commencement microsite

So the team made onboarding easy by posting an article that explained how to get featured on the social wall, giving examples of what to post, and even creating options for people who have their accounts set to private or didn’t have social media at all. People could simply send their photo and quote via direct message or email, and Champlain College then manually uploaded the message directly to the social wall.

Tip #7: Virtual events are an opportunity

It’s high time we start seeing virtual events less as a current necessity and more as an opportunity. “Online events are a great way to try out new things,” said Jörg, “you can experiment a bit and try out new things.”

Furthermore, virtual events let you expand your audience because you’re not reliant on physical proximity to the event location. Showstopper is usually a US-only competition. The virtual dance competition, however, allowed the company to feature dancers from all over the world, as well as dancers of varying skill levels who wouldn’t usually have come to the in-person events.

Virtual events are a disruptor and give us a chance to reconsider what we’re doing and innovate. At the very least, we’ll end up with events that are more accessible, regardless of location or ability. And that’s not a bad thing at all.

But you don’t have to take my word for it:

Watch the full recording from our virtual event on virtual events 😉