Oct 26

Virtual events are here to stay: Are you ready?

A woman takes notes during a virtual event.

In a time when so much remains uncertain, one aspect of our lives we can count on: virtual events and meetings are here to stay – at least for a while.

No matter what field you’re in, you’ve likely been adapting to new technologies and ways of working as the global pandemic continues to alter our lives. If you haven’t had the opportunity to learn the ins and outs of hosting a virtual activity, it’s only a matter of time before you’ll need to hop on board.

I’ve been immersed in the world of planning, promoting and hosting a webinar in my role with the West Michigan Public Relations Society of America, or WMPRSA. We’ve recently launched fall programming online rather than host traditional luncheon events. Today, I’m sharing what I learned while planning my first webinar. I hope this advice helps you on your next virtual event endeavor:

Do your research 

Anyone familiar with the public relations process knows that research is a crucial first step in any project. There are times when we have similar experiences to draw from and anecdotal evidence to guide us in a direction, but that should always be supplemented with research.

  • Google deep dive:

    When I realized I would be leading the efforts for WMPRSA’s first webinar, I relied on online resources first. I discovered many great articles, blogs and step-by-step webpages outlining best practices and troubleshooting tips. Trust me when I say there is a lot of helpful information at our fingertips.

  • Tap your network:

    I also sought input from many people and organizations throughout the planning process. Virtual events are still a pretty new world many of us are exploring and refining. I learned of different factors to take into consideration from others’ experiences going virtual. They helped me narrow options regarding the program cost, what platform to use, accessibility considerations and more. If you have the time for it, be open with your network about your ideas to gauge reactions from diverse perspectives.

Stay calm and plan for tech troubles

The potential for technology mishaps comes with the territory of hosting a virtual event. Don’t get caught off guard if tech problems arise. Plan ahead for ways to troubleshoot or adapt when they inevitably do. Arm your webinar participants with resources on ways to improve internet speed/connection, troubleshoot video/audio delay, rejoin from a different device or handle other oddities.

  • Practice, practice, practice:

    A neat feature provided by most webinar platforms is the ability to host “practice sessions.” This enables you to get familiar with the webinar layout and features as well as test your participants’ audio and video. Take advantage of this feature to smoothly manage your live webinar.

  • Early is on time, on time is late:

    Come event day, ask your webinar participants, including interpreters or translators, to join 10 to 15 minutes early. This will allow you to run final tests before you open the floodgates for your attendees to join. Check out everyone’s audio and video, ensure the host has screenshare ability and get your assigned participant roles in order before it goes live. If your webinar platform allows for it, add a co-host as soon as you can. Co-hosts can take over host controls and keep the webinar going if your own internet goes down.

  • Be mindful of default settings:

    I’d recommend thoroughly exploring setting options as you’re setting up your webinar. If using Zoom, you’ll see there are a lot of options. Some settings you may want to check: whether you want to be able to assign a closed captioner, automatically record the webinar, whether you record locally or to the cloud, what permissions you want attendees to have vs. panelists and so on. Also keep in mind that different packages will allow for different features and number of attendees. If you’re expecting a large attendance, make sure your setup has proper capacity.

  • Breathe in, breathe out:

    Remind yourself and your participants to stay calm and carry on the best you can if technology does go awry. Given the totally bizarre year 2020 has been so far, I’ve found people have learned to be quite understanding.

Recognize the world in which we’re living

In some ways, you’re going to want to keep in mind the basics when it comes to garnering interest in any event. You want a strong speaker(s), captivating content and an accessible venue (or in this case, online platform). When planning virtual events in our current world environment, be sure to meet your audience where it is at.

  • Let’s get real:

    We are still battling a raging global pandemic. We’re still reeling from racial injustice. We’re facing natural disasters. And we’re counting down the days to a hotly contested election. Some people have lost their jobs and are really struggling financially. Keep these realities in mind when you’re choosing your topics, dates/times, ticket prices, etc.

  • Listen and learn:

    Extremely important in any strategic planning is evaluation. As the world continues to pivot to modified events and as new technologies become available, it’s critical to gather qualitative and quantitative data to determine what worked and what didn’t, what resonates and what doesn’t. Consider the number of registrants, level of attendee engagement during the event and post-survey results regarding the overall experience. Be sensitive to the feedback you receive so you can improve future efforts.

I’m sure there are plenty more tips and tricks to be shared about organizing virtual activities in this day and age. Please feel free to share with us your own takeaways from this heavily digital approach to the world.

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