Large virtual events as drivers of change

Important aspects of digital events in the era of COVID-19.

Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, many companies and organizations have reduced their business travel and office presence to a minimum. On the other hand, the number of virtual events has exploded, particularly during the last few months. This trend is likely to continue for the next few months. The number of virtual conferences has increased six-fold, while travel costs have declined by 80 percent. This considerable savings potential is prompting many companies to continue using these instruments in the future (Spiegel Online). Virtual events offer many advantages: They increase accessibility to a larger audience, contents can be re-used and organization costs can be reduced, not to mention the improvement in the CO2 balance sheet.

From physical to virtual large events

Virtual events range from small Q&A sessions at the team level to company-wide large events such as virtual town halls, conferences, keynote addresses and others.  

Challenges when planning and implementing large virtual events 

Compared to on-site events, large virtual events create a number of new challenges for organizers, such as the time required by employees to adjust and get used to the new “digital” formats. Therefore organizers must plan for and take into account different individual and cultural preferences. 

When it comes to virtual events, employees do not feel the same obligation to attend as would be the case for in-person events, as evidenced by a much higher “no-show rate” for previously registered participants. Therefore it is all the more important that digital events are able to set themselves apart with the appropriate and imaginative marketing. Another prerequisite is a secure Internet connection so that participants can partake the full event experience. 

Successful planning of large virtual events

Adequate time for preparation and organization is required so that the challenges associated with organizing large events can be managed. Coordination loops with the relevant stakeholders take time - an aspect that is often underestimated by the participants. The coordination requirements also increase if the event is supposed to be held in multiple languages. Clear responsibilities within the event planning process should be assigned from the start. Based on experience, it makes sense to separate the aspects “Coordination & Organization”, “Marketing and Communication” and “Event Contents” from each other, and to define individual teams as the units in charge. Collaboration technologies such as Microsoft Teams are recommended to ensure a structured and transparent organization. In this way, the organizers can discuss the date for the event or the relevant agenda and keep each other up to date.  

Four components for a full digital event experience
Using the right technology to create the full experience

It is essential that a digital event platform that offers the full “event experience journey” for participants is selected at an early stage. The experience journey already begins at the time of registration and ends when participants access the materials after the event. An online platform (e.g. on the basis of SharePoint) can be used as the central “pivotal point for everything” - information, registration, attendance and the provision of materials. Technologies such as Microsoft Teams Live Events can be used to transport many speakers onto the screen live on the event day. Based on experience, preliminary audio and transmission quality checks should be carried out an early stage (and not during the dress rehearsal), so that technical problems can be avoided and organizers can respond quickly and flexibly on the event day. 

Winning over the audience

Probably the biggest challenge is to organize the right speakers and provide contents that are both innovative and interesting. External keynote speakers lend an air of exclusivity and increase relevance, but internal events are particularly well suited to improve the attendance of corporate departments. The use of internal speakers increases credibility and improves transparency. The design of the slots should be based on the following principle: short, to the point, inspiring. What matters is not the quantity, but rather the ability to elicit interest with key statements, and to maintain participant engagement. To win over the audience, event topics should be tailored to the needs of the employees, without losing sight of the event's objective. Based on the motto “Engage the Audience”, unusual methods such as live games, contents or quizzes can also be included - the possibilities are virtually limitless in this regard. Finally, it is recommended that the event ends with a virtual wrap-up including special highlights.  

Acting as a well-coordinated team

On the day of the event, it is important that the team acts as a well-coordinated group that is able to support its colleagues if challenges arise. At the same time, in a digital environment devoid of personal contact, it takes a lot of work to maintain cohesion in the event team. Therefore regular onboarding meetings, briefing calls, joint coordination rounds and rehearsals with all speakers, moderators and other participants should be held in preparation for the event. Because the event will only be successful if everything runs smoothly behind the scenes. 

Increasing sustainability, coverage and effectiveness

In the time of the home office, it is not possible to reach all employees using conventional communication channels such as posters, flyers, banners or trade fair booths. Therefore new digital methods should be used for advertising an event - and the options are virtually limitless in this regard. Communities in particular offer a powerful communication instrument, especially in multinational corporations. In their role as multipliers, they help to carry the message into the company. Short videos on the Intranet, or on social enterprise platforms such as Yammer, are another popular format for announcing events. Companies can also use a motto or event hashtag to create additional momentum or increase the coverage of the event. In this way, an event remains dynamic and offers opportunities for interaction. 

The content of the message is another essential factor in addition to the appropriate communication methods. The added value delivered by the event must be evident. The right timing is another important factor. As a rule, communication should take place as early as possible, and outside of vacation periods. 

Follow-up after the event

The follow-up after a virtual event is the most frequently neglected element. Based on experience, participant feedback is a valuable source for the successful planning of future events. In addition, all presentations, videos and materials should be gathered and made available to the audience online. Finally, it is also recommended that the event is subsequently analyzed from different viewpoints. How successful was the event? What did we learn? What worked well; what were some of the more challenging aspects?