By: Amber Winter, Director of Sales & Marketing at Web Courseworks.
In recent months, nonprofits, for-profits, and associations alike have all had to quickly pivot operations for greater virtual accessibility and communications.
As you’re likely already aware, this was due to the emergence of the COVID-19 pandemic. Fundraising efforts had to be rescheduled and working from home became the new normal. All events had to be canceled, postponed, or altered— something that represented a huge challenge for organizations large and small.
Thankfully, there is another solution that allows your organization to continue hosting events scheduled for 2020 in a safe and engaging manner: virtual events. While virtual events are a worthy replacement for in-person events, especially during a global pandemic, that doesn’t mean that these experiences are without challenges!
At Web Courseworks, we coordinate virtual conference experiences for associations. We’ve seen a few common issues arise and believe the greater virtual events industry may be facing these challenges as well.
We’re going to discuss the following challenges that accompany virtual events and the solutions we’ve found to overcome them:
- A general disconnect among attendees.
- Wide variation in attendee knowledge of technology.
- Sponsor resistance toward the transition to virtual.
Ready to overcome your biggest virtual event challenges? Let’s get started.
Challenge: General disconnect among attendees.
Whether you’re a nonprofit hosting a virtual fundraising event or a company holding an employee bonding event, these events are only successful if attendees genuinely interact with the experience.
During an in-person event, attendees gather together in a single space. They attend sessions and activities as a group and network together naturally. After all, if you’ve traveled to a venue for an experience, the last thing you’re going to do is have sub-par participation by ignoring the peers surrounding you.
Unfortunately, this phenomenon doesn’t carry over to virtual events. Now, event attendees are joining from the comfort of their own homes and tuning in from their personal technology sources. The appeal of comfortable house clothes, video streaming services, and even family members and friends can be incredibly distracting.
Virtual events run the risk of attendees “logging on,” and then leaving their screens unattended. While they may appear to be tuning in, the reality can be far from truly engaged attendance.
So, how do you keep attendees connected and engaged with your virtual event?
Solution: Be creative and aware when creating content.
With a bit of creativity and awareness of busy work-from-home lifestyles, you can create virtual events that are just as inclusive and enticing as in-person iterations. For example, consider prioritizing the following practices when planning your virtual event:
- Create engaging content. This almost goes without saying, but if your content isn’t interesting, there’s a high chance your attendees will tune it out. In addition to choosing relevant, intriguing topics, consider using a variety of media types to generate interest. Video, animations, images, and simulated experiences can all go a long way!
- Encourage attendees to respond to content. Consider empowering attendees with live chat during the event, allowing them to respond in real-time to speakers and activities. Further, set up topical breakout sessions so attendees can continue conversations after sessions end. You could even consider including gamification elements, such as is suggested in this Handbid guide.
- Include networking sessions. In addition to speakers, panels, educational content, and demonstrations, empower attendees to connect with one another by using networking resources. Equip attendees with in-platform chat functionality and host virtual networking sessions (such as video-conferenced coffee hours).
- Schedule sessions in an accommodating manner. Schedule sessions during normal business hours and with a few-minute buffer between each activity. This gives attendees time to switch between sessions and step away from their desks as needed, preventing the chance that they do so during the content itself.
With some careful scheduling and content creation, you’ll host an event that members won’t want to miss. For more attendee engagement-inspiration, check out this Web Courseworks guide to virtual events.
Challenge: Wide variation in attendee technology knowledge.
Even if your attendees are eager to engage with your virtual event, that doesn’t mean that they’ll all inherently understand how to do so from the start. Technology has boomed in the past thirty years or so, and, in the scope of things, virtual event technology is fairly new!
Your virtual event may be the first that your attendees and staff members encounter. At the same time, this type of event is entirely dependent on the ability of all users to access it via technology— something that may be easier said than done.
For your staff, they’re suddenly tasked with managing multiple moving— virtual— parts. In addition to managing digital event registration, they need to collect (or produce) live and pre-recorded session content, graphic design elements, and a platform to host all of it. Whether video conferencing software, a member portal, live chatting software, or all of the above (and more!), your staff members may find themselves with their hands full of new technology that they now need to manage.
Attendees also need to navigate registering for your event and accessing content from afar, with no in-person event attendants to lead the way. Something as simple as internet challenges or browser incompatibility can derail the attendee’s experience entirely, and if they’re unfamiliar with technology, this may be a difficult challenge to overcome alone!
So, how do you ensure staff and attendees make the most of your event despite ranging technology awareness?
Solution: Use one comprehensive virtual event platform.
Ensuring everyone involved can access and gain value from your event involves two parts: simplifying the event infrastructure and providing support when confusion arises. The easiest way to do this is to use one comprehensive virtual event platform to host the experience.
Let’s explore a few benefits of using a virtual event platform, rather than a variety of disparate solutions:
- All virtual event logistics are consolidated into one platform. This simplifies the planning process for your team, who can coordinate content, sessions, user profiles, and trade show elements within a single platform.
- Attendees can access the event through one platform. Rather than accessing and understanding a variety of software solutions, attendees can log into one intuitive platform to register for sessions, attend those sessions, and communicate openly with peers.
- It provides an area for attendees to ask questions. With chat functionality, attendees can contact your organization directly with any technical challenges they face. After the event, be sure to also send a survey so that your attendees can provide feedback about their experience with the virtual event.
Using virtual event software to coordinate your event drastically reduces the chances of technical difficulties, on behalf of your staff and attendees alike. Plus, according to this guide, there’s a decent chance many of your attendees are juggling a variety of work from home software solutions already. Avoid adding multiple solutions to their plate by using one comprehensive events platform.
Challenge: Sponsor resistance toward the transition to virtual.
The biggest selling point when recruiting sponsors for your event is the exposure the event affords. Sponsors provide funding and in-kind donations toward events and, in return, are given a platform to share their product and/or service to the event’s attendees.
There are a wide variety of ways event planners create opportunities for sponsors to interact with attendees, including:
- Physical tradeshow presence. Sponsors can set up booths, conduct product demos, provide pamphlets, and speak directly with your event’s attendees.
- Poster hall presence. Some events make use of a physical poster hall, in which they feature branded informational posters featuring each sponsor. Often, these are used as a networking aspect as well, such as hosting a coffee hour inside the poster hall and encouraging attendees to network and peruse.
- Event branding. Many event planners feature the logos of sponsors on marketing materials, decoration around the event space, and even in any physical materials handed out to attendees during the event.
Each of these aspects is directly tied to the physical space of the event itself— something that disappears in the transition to virtual events. Companies may feel apprehensive about sponsoring your event in response, confused about where the value on their end lies.
How do you provide value for event sponsors through the virtual sphere?
Solution: Transition sponsor value to the virtual sphere.
First-time virtual event planners may feel enticed to hold simpler events to begin, easing into the world of digital event planning to start. While you shouldn’t take on more than you're capable of, that doesn’t mean you need to forego necessary sponsor funding!
There are a variety of ways you can provide value to sponsors without assigning many additional “action items” to your event planning team:
- Include the logos of your sponsors in any digital marketing materials (check out this blog post for tools to help you do so). From email updates leading up to the event to downloadable flyers on social media, provide a shout-out to sponsors.
- Consider including sponsor logos across digital decorating elements across your virtual event platform. For example, any banner images on the “homepage” of your event would be a great place to start!
- Offer sponsors the opportunity to participate in the content itself, such as hosting specific educational sessions and activities. Then, name the activity in a manner that acknowledges the sponsor (ex: “Keynote Session, Sponsored by X”) and include a spoken advertisement at the top of the content.
Finally, consider hosting a virtual tradeshow and/or virtual poster hall. In the association software world, we’ve seen virtual event platforms that are built with this functionality— allowing you to create virtual “booths,” share downloadable content, and empower sponsors to chat with attendees.
Organizations are faced with quite a few challenges when the COVID-19 pandemic emerged, and event planning posed one of the largest hurdles. While virtual events are growing in popularity as a strong replacement for in-person events, there are certainly a few challenges associated with hosting a successful virtual experience!
With the above solutions, your organization can tackle the biggest challenges associated with virtual events. Good luck!
About the Author
Amber Winter is the Director of Sales & Marketing at Web Courseworks. She’s committed to helping association executives realize the potential of their education programs and turn them into high performing revenue generators. Amber was named one of Madison, Wisconsin’s 40 under 40 and the number 1 LMS salesperson by Talented Learning.