How to Design an Effective Virtual Event: Pro Tips, Checklists & Planning Guide

Smartsheet Contributor Joe Weller on Dec 21, 2020 (Last modified on Aug 15, 2021)

To bring the energy of a live event to the desktop, you need creativity, but with foresight and organization, you can succeed. Event pros share lessons learned and best practices for engaging attendees at your virtual gatherings.

Included on this page, you will find a step-by-step guide on how to plan a virtual event and a planning checklist. Learn how to convert an in-person event to an online experience. Get advice from experts on how to plan a virtual event.


What Are Virtual Events?

Virtual events are interactive gatherings offered online, rather than at a physical location. Participants connect to the event via their desktop or mobile devices. These events take many forms, but still require hosts, thought leaders, and time limits.

Virtual events that customers experience through screens have become the norm at a time when public health concerns have sidelined large, live gatherings. These events encourage audience participation and use that effort in subtle or major ways to shape the event. While event presenters might “broadcast” or emcee from a physical space, it’s understood that the audience will consume or partake in the event content remotely. 

Virtual events have risen in popularity due to stay-at-home and social distancing requirements forced by the pandemic. In addition, advances in easy-to-use desktop software and cloud-based communication platforms, coupled with companies’ desire to reach the widest audience possible for the lowest cost, mean that virtual events are here to stay.

Types of Virtual Events

There are four main types of virtual events: webinars, conferences, hybrid events, and external hybrid events. Events include seminars, trade shows, workshops and educational sessions (one-time or recurring courses), storyboard-based storytelling, fundraisers, panels, Q&A sessions with experts, or forums.

Each type of virtual event requires different planning considerations based on the chosen format. 

  • Webinar: The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines a webinar as “a live online educational presentation during which participating viewers can submit questions and comments.” 
  • Virtual Conferences: These events occur entirely online. Registrants log into a virtual environment where, as with an offline conference, they can attend scheduled talks and panels, chat with other registrants in waiting rooms or breakout groups, and network, often over a multiday period.
  • Hybrid Events: Internal hybrid events are virtual gatherings for an existing private community (a workplace team or committee, for instance), where some participants meet face-to-face at a location and others participate online. At this type of event, employees at the company headquarters might gather onsite while far-flung teams in other communities logging in. As another example, a leader or emcee might report from the flagship office to provide a sense of place or setting while all other participants participate remotely.
  • External Hybrid Events: These combine a physical space or face-to-face meeting with virtual participation and events held for the public. For instance, a fundraiser for a museum might feature staffers leading virtual participants on a tour of an exhibit, taking turns speaking from a podium onsite, or showing and describing physical items available at an online auction. Additionally, a trade organization’s staff at association headquarters might host a virtual happy hour to nurture community among professional members of the organization.

The best virtual events mirror face-to-face events. A host or emcee shapes the experience for participants. Attendees can ask real-time questions or otherwise exit the event with new information from experts, form networks with one another around shared interests or professional goals, and attain timely information about a given area.


Elements of a Virtual Event

A successful virtual event requires a good digital footprint, engaging content, and behind-the-scenes looks at an industry or company. Participants should also have the opportunity to communicate and network with each other and event presenters.

Common elements of a virtual event include the following:

  • Event website 
  • Event social media handle that you encourage attendees to use 
  • Registration and ticketing for entry 
  • Online event guide and mobile map
  • Pre-event materials such as mail, email, or other relevant materials for ticket holders
  • Live presentation content
  • Live audio/video feed
  • Behind-the-scene tours of a company, cultural space, a manufacturing environment, a campaign trail
  • Interviews with experts
  • Live concerts and performances
  • Q&A with one or multiple subject matter experts, including moderator and audience input
  • Live polling of event attendees
  • Note-taking or the ability to “favorite” or save slides or decks
  • Interactive videoconferencing
  • Feedback surveys
  • Playback options for those who missed the event or logged in late

How to Plan a Virtual Event

Like live events, virtual events follow an agenda, require the planning and leadership of multiple participants, and guide guests through a series of activities on a tight schedule. Follow-up with sponsors and internal review are musts to determine efficacy.

Most virtual event planners recommend spending at least three months preparing for the event. However, planners who must pivot from a live to virtual platform must often work faster.

How to Plan a Virtual Event

12 weeks

Establish virtual event goals and objectives

Develop virtual event concept: Theme and title of event

Choose event format: Webinar, conference, hybrid event

Choose event platform

Create event budget and timeline

Choose a time and date

Create content/speaker and entertainer wish list and B list, with budget limits for each

Create sponsor wish list and benefit levels and initiate sponsor outreach

Identify team and contractor roles

Understand and define target audience

Initial marketing: Save the date, direct marketing to existing lists (or email newsletters)

Set registration pricing and ticketing

8 weeks

Solidify physical venues necessary for hybrid events

Determine AV/production and technology needs associated with venues or individuals presenting

Solidify speakers, MCs, and staffers who will moderate

Develop attendee engagement strategy

Collect completed contracts and agreements from sponsors, presenters, and paid contractors

Collect logos, speaker photos, and other collateral for event promotion and day-of usage

Widen marketing to new populations beyond those typical at face-to-face event

Market the event with teases: Speaker reveals, panel topics, registrant benefits

Market registration deadlines (especially when there are early-bird prices or benefits)

Final 4 weeks

Test sound and video with speakers and staffers

Test the event within your chosen event platform, adjusting capacity as needed

Become familiar with your event platform’s streaming features and/or additional streaming options you plan to deploy

Develop internal communications flow for issues during the event (routing questions or attendee inputs to moderators, for instance)

Communicate to registrants how the event will function — how to register and participate

Continue marketing the event in short-turnaround outlets (social media), reinforce event hashtag

Test attendee engagement tools and features (polls, surveys, etc.)

Plan attendee data collection strategies and post-mortem questions

Step-by-Step Guide to Planning a Virtual Event

You can anticipate handling these activities before, during, and after the virtual event.

Before the Event

1. Establish virtual event goals and objectives.
Define why you’re putting the event together and what you’re hoping to achieve. What will your brand or attendees get out of the experience? What are your marketing goals? What are your financial goals? Is the event a marketing expense or a form of income? 

2. Develop a virtual event concept.
Identify a theme and title for the event. Decide what type of event you’ll host (webinar, virtual conference, or hybrid event). If the event has multiple sessions or spans days, then identify sub-themes that contribute to the overall mission of the event. Conduct market research on competing or peer events to see how others engage their audiences. Create a vision board to brainstorm ideas, speakers, or desired outcomes.

3. Identify team and contractor roles.
To run an effective event, identify the right talent for the right job — or, in project management terms, identify your “resources.” As you iterate the event and its components, keep in mind which team member (or potential contractor) will oversee which aspects of the event. Be sure to consider the related tasks and deadlines that need to be completed before, during, and after the event.

4. Understand and define your target audience.
To create an effective event, you need to understand your audience(s). You’ll want to develop attendee personas, or profiles of your prospective audience. Use these templates to help craft personas. Be sure to include descriptors such as gender identity, age, geographic region, industry, and job title or management role.

  • Learn or model personas’ motivations: What are the problems or pain points your event could help attendees solve through further education or exposure to new products, hacks, or programs? Talk to support or sales teams, and gather input on customers’ questions and issues that you can address at the event. What types of solutions or offers have historically garnered the best response from the different personas? If catering to a new persona, what does research suggest about their motivations?
  • Consider attendees’ technology proficiency: How familiar and active are prospective attendees on social media? Which social media platforms are they most likely to use? What are attendees’ technical skill levels? Will they have sufficient know-how to access or enjoy all aspects of your event on your organization’s chosen virtual platform? 

5. Create a budget and a timeline.
When building a timeline for the event, you need to know when it will take place. Determine how many weeks or months are left before the event date and work backward. You can use an event timeline template to map out what needs to be done and when. 

As you develop the budget for the event, look at its primary sources of income and expenses. Consider how you will ticket the event. Is it free or paid? Will you offer multiple ticket types (pre-sales and regular registration, tiered access)? Will you sell merchandise, products, or services referenced during the event?

When considering expenses for the event, be sure to include technology cost based on estimated participant volumes. Decide on a budget for speaking fees and contract event technologists enlisted to support your full-time event staff. Will you use videography or event recording? What will you need to allot for marketing the event? Don’t forget that even virtual events may incur venue expenses — such as utility, A/V, insurance, or costs associated with skilled personnel required to run or oversee these systems. An event budget template can help simplify the process. 

6. Define the event format.
Decide which event format (seminar, trade show, class, webinar, etc.) makes the most sense for your goals. Use that information to determine the pricing structure. Will you offer premium content for a higher price, or enhanced information and networking?

Be sure to consider attendee engagement: Will the event offer waiting rooms, message or chat functions, breakout rooms, and the ability to move from virtual “room to room”?

7. Craft the content.
Your event’s content is its sole differentiator from rivals’ events. Without a physical venue, face-to-face connection, or food and drink to keep wandering minds interested, quality content is the main route to attendees’ engagement and loyalty.

Will your virtual event offer multiple concurrent activities or talks, or will it hold a master talk followed by smaller breakout sessions divided by special interests? Will your event allow attendee-submitted questions? How long will sessions last, and how much flexibility do you have if a session within an event is popular or attendees have extensive questions? Will there be breaks between sessions so participants can check on work or other matters, or will breaks interrupt the flow? Will the event rely on personal delivery of content, or will speakers also support the event with handouts, downloads, links, or collateral so that delivery is top-level? 

8. Choose a platform.
If you already have a virtual event platform and plan to use it for the new event, troubleshoot the solution’s capacity. Determine if the tool offers the event features you wish to share with participants. 

If you’re choosing a new or first-time virtual event platform, evaluate how well it integrates with programs your company uses, cybersecurity concerns, features, IT staff skill level, event apps for audience engagement or data gathering, chatbots, and more. Options may include programs such as Periscope, Facebook Live, Livestream, YouTube Live, Zoom, GoTo Webinar, and more.

9. Choose a host/emcee and additional entertainment.
Content is king and content consists of a royal court of speakers. You may need a lead emcee who kicks off and concludes the event, professional speakers who appear during different event segments, subject matter experts (who may need an interviewer or moderator to tease wisdom from their lips), staff members with domain expertise, moderators for panels, entertainment (DJ, band, artist), or more. 

You may want to showcase prepared content, such as a slide deck (for webinars), a pre-recorded video or storyboard, testimonials, or ad campaigns or how-to videos. Decide which content is best to present live versus a pre-recording. If using both types of content, emphasize live content as the event’s focus and recorded content as supporting or background material, or media that extends the participant’s knowledge of the live experience.

10. Choose an event venue.
For hybrid events, where you present a portion of the content from a specific physical location, you’ll need to choose the place carefully. Whether the event is held in an office space, an auditorium, or a home office, consider how natural lighting and acoustics influence live presentations at different times of day. Think about whether you’ll need lighting or sound enhancements. 

Consider whether the speaker(s) will require a stage, podium, microphone, or video camera (in addition to video capabilities offered on a home computer). If presenters move around the venue, will they need a cordless microphone? Will an event tech need to mark spots on the floor where presenters can stand in ideal lighting or where it’s best to view sets on display?

11. Determine your AV/production and technology needs.
Think through all technical considerations beforehand, such as how to record sessions, how registrants can attend live sessions, and if or how they can replay the event later. Decide if all speakers will present live, or whether there will be a mix of pre-recorded video and audio and live speaking (perhaps via a host or emcee).

12. Choose a time and date.
The event’s goals and audience influence which day (or days) of the week and times are ideal. A nonprofit fundraiser, typically held face-to-face after work hours or on a weekend night, could be transitioned into a virtual event that occupies the same timeframe. An online course that attendees take for professional advancement might make sense after work or during dinner hours on a weeknight. Corporate events and conferences are most commonly held midweek. Wednesdays are the most popular day, followed by Tuesday, according to data from Promoleaf

When planning your event, consider your target audiences’ time zones and time differences. Additionally, think about the overall length of the event. Some guidance suggests that 90 minutes is the maximum amount of time a participant wants to spend online. Among event attendees surveyed by Markletic, nearly two-thirds (63 percent) prefer online events that run from 60 to 90 minutes.

Mona Cotton

 Mona Cotton, Chief Business Officer at Professional Convention Management Association (PCMA), says that some conference organizers are spreading the normally compressed schedules of a face-to-face conference over a multiweek period. This way, event participants can continue with their regular work lives but turn to event content for a portion of the day. Conference organizers may want to program no more than four hours per day of event content, according to data from Bizbash.

Don’t forget to vet conflicting events during your preferred event times. Election night, Black Friday, major sports tournaments, awards shows, bank holidays, or other unofficial or lesser-mainstream holidays may influence turnout or event interest. Choose a backup date, and check that necessary resources are available. Additionally, set a registration cut-off time or date so that you can gather a solid attendee list and scale technology based on anticipated turnout.

13. Market your event.
Finalize speaker bios, blogs, and vlogs, and consider releasing the lineup one or a few at a time, or making an announcement of the featured guests as part of promotions. Plan social media marketing (Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat), and use your knowledge of attendee personas to inform paid marketing efforts. Send newsletters or email campaigns to promote the event. It also helps to offer a tutorial video or landing page clarifying how to register for a live stream of the event. Finally, create an event hashtag and use it often in communications.

Keep track of all these aspects by using Smartsheet as an event management and planning platform.

During the Event

1. Organize attendees in pairs or small groups for a more interactive experience.
Consider having attendees respond or take action every five to seven minutes to maintain their engagement. Harvard Business Review reports that using a “5-minute rule” around engagement prevents meeting attendees from retreating to mere observer status. When participants engage, acknowledge them.

2. Check in with vendors and team members.
Reach out to vendors and teammates during the event to make sure their equipment is working correctly and they have everything they need. At this point, they might also be able to provide feedback about what attendees find beneficial about the event. 

3. Check the event hashtag for immediate feedback (and repost as much as possible).
The event team may want to assign a staffer or volunteer to monitor the event hashtag during the event. 

4. Check the channels (chat, IM, social media) where meeting attendees can post live questions or responses.
Depending on the nature of the event, these inputs can shift the course of panels or a subject matter expert’s Q&A session. 

5. Troubleshoot any issues as they arise.
Behind the scenes, event organizers should maintain communication about sound, streaming, or other issues that interfere with success. Make sure organizers can inform participants that support staff are working to resolve issues. A brief message, such as “We’re adjusting sound” or “We’re working on the slideshow,” can minimize disruption and loss of attention.

6. Stream your event as it happens.
Some event platforms include pre-arranged streaming options. You may opt to broadcast to additional social media accounts to collect questions, feedback, requests, or other input that you can share with presenters mid-event. Some of these platforms include: 

  • Facebook Live
  • Instagram Live
  • Reddit
  • Slack
  • Snapchat

After the Event

1. Consolidate feedback from attendees.
Event platforms offer apps for gathering data. You can also use online surveys to ask participants about their favorite aspects, as well as what caught their interest and what left them wanting more. Which speakers motivated or engaged them? Which activities within a multifaceted event got the most interest, online traffic, or questions?

2. Conduct a post-mortem.
Debrief with the team and contractors to determine what went well and what didn’t with respect to audience engagement, technology platform and capacity, event team communication and coordination, moderation or audience management, and so forth. Review event goals and determine whether you achieved some, all, or none of them. Read our post-mortem guide to learn more about the practice, as well as find useful tools and advice.

3. Collect data or feedback from the event.
Before, during, and after the event, collect the following information:

  • Final number of attendees (as well as how close to the event date or registration deadline they enrolled, and how many registrants didn’t show up)
  • Attendee demographics (age, gender, ethnicity, management level, geography)
  • Individual session registration or participation
  • The bounce, open, and click-through rates for email
  • Post-event survey results
  • Engagement touch points, such as how many leads, sales, mailing list sign-ups, or other engagements resulted from event or event follow-up
  • Registrants’ interest in purchasing products or services, special offers available to event participants, etc.
  • Session ratings and feedback
  • Social media engagement and reach

4. Balance the budget.
Compare actual budget results against the planned budget and look for efficiencies and overruns. Calculate the event’s return on investment (ROI), considering direct revenue, attributed revenue, attributed sales pipeline, branding benefits, knowledge exchange, and other metrics pertinent to your organization. Did the event come in on, above, or below budget, and which aspects of the event led to its financial success or failure?

5. Share event data with sponsors.
In keeping with your sponsorship agreements, provide data about attendees’ engagement level, interest in sessions, and, if asked in research, engagement with sponsored content or the sponsor’s brand.

6. Thank people.
Thank sponsors, donors, participants, media partners, presenters, and vendors who contributed to the event. Use this opportunity to collect stakeholder feedback.

7. Flag relevant data points.
Pull important or surprising data from event polls or surveys to use in future communications or with event attendees as value-added content from the event.

8. Follow up.
Pursue sales and other customer interactions and queries immediately after the event. Whether closing sales, signing membership or enrollment, marketing subscriptions, collecting donations, or simply qualifying early-stage leads, strike while the memory of the event is near.


Virtual Event Planning Checklist

This checklist provides time-based guidance on tasks you’ll need to complete in 12, eight, or four weeks prior to your event. Use it to ensure nothing slips through the cracks and that you covered everything before the big virtual day.

Virtual Event Planning Checklist

Download Virtual Event Planning Checklist


Reasons to Host a Virtual Event

Virtual events make sense when they replace highly anticipated live events that have become impossible. They are also useful when organizers are striving to reach a wide audience with a targeted message while functioning on a tight budget.

  • Accessibility: Virtual events are generally accessible to anyone with an internet connection, so travel and lodging expenses no longer prohibit those on a smaller budget from participating. Participants with accessibility challenges may have greater access to the virtual platform, too. 
  • Budget: An organization may need to cut costs or, in the case of a fundraiser, amass assets. 
  • Virtual Events Are Gentle on the Environment: Since travel isn’t necessary, virtual events carry a low carbon footprint.
  • Virtual Events Are Still Possible in Times of Emergency: These scenarios include extreme weather, travel bans, a public health crisis, or natural disasters.
  • You Can Replay Virtual Events Later: This depends on the platform, but it’s not always possible with offline events. Organizers will need to record or film portions of its program to even offer this capability. 
  • Virtual Events Are Extremely Measurable: It’s easy to calculate ROI and success rate and to attract sponsors who demand this data.
  • Virtual Events Widen Potential Audience Size: Virtual event platforms invite global participation and allow for participants at all management and budget levels.
  • Virtual Events Are a Growing Field: According to Meetings Professional International, “Meetings and events contribute more to the GDP than air transportations, motion pictures, sound recording, performing arts and spectator sports industries.” 
  • Online Education Is a Growing Field: According to MarketWatch, ed tech spend is expected to reach $252 billion by 2020.

What Is a Virtual Event Planner?

A virtual event planner focuses entirely on strategy, design, marketing, execution, and ROI analysis for virtual-only events or virtual aspects of hybrid or multichannel events.

Virtual event planning is now a subspecialty within the event planning industry. The virtual events industry is projected to grow tenfold between 2020 and 2030, from a $78 billion market to a $774 billion, according to data from Grand View Research.

Not surprising, event and marketing professionals are learning virtual event capabilities (or how to hire those who offer them on contract). Those in the business must flex their technical muscles while also tapping their creative side to craft effective functions that meet client goals. Search popular job boards like Indeed.com or Glassdoor.com for “virtual event planner” and you’ll find a growing number of roles melding traditional event planning skills with technical and production acumen. Duties may include design services; marketing and event promotion; social media engagement; client, vendor, and sponsor coordination; invoicing; task assignment; contract creation; helping to choose a web-based event platform; and more.

For 10 years, the PCMA has offered a Digital Event Strategist certification to teach professionals how to design and manage effective virtual events. Course demand has grown nearly 20-fold over the course of 2020, with the pandemic forcing many companies, organizations, and live-event producers to translate their traditional gatherings onto screens, says PCMA’s Cotton. Event organizers, as well as suppliers to the event industry, are enrolling, and their main interests involve planning and production of virtual events, monetizing the events, and evaluating and choosing the right technology platforms. 

“The pandemic accelerated the trends that already existed,” Cotton notes. “In the past, many event organizers offered a virtual component to their face-to-face programs, so those not attending in person could get a taste of the real thing. Historically, about 30-40 percent of first-timers at face-to-face events come through virtual doors.”

Now, virtual events are distinct and complete experiences. Some virtual event planners work as contractors, on an hourly or contract basis, while others work in-house on salary.

Since virtual event registrants participate from home or personal space, virtual event planners can shed complex decision-making about physical spaces, like conference center site selection, hotel room block reservations, catering contracts or whole-restaurant bookings, printing and signage, and contracts for onsite vendors for tasks such as registration, charter buses, and more. In place of those decisions, virtual event planners focus on how technology delivers or informs participants’ experiences and wider marketing efforts.

When an event is virtual, it has the potential for wider (even global) reach than its live counterpart. Thus, marketing approaches may need to adjust and assume further-flung geographic reach, given that the nature of an online event means anyone anywhere can enroll. With a wider audience, there are more eyes to market to and engage — and more individuals to track — during the event. 

The business model may change, too, Cotton says. Pivoting from a face-to-face to a virtual event may require repricing for registrants (who may pay less due to stripped-down travel costs, a lack of hosted meals or happy hours, etc.) and sponsors (who may pay more for a larger, wider audience and the potential to capture more customer data). 

Finally, technical knowledge of how to drive and sustain audience engagement during the virtual event is more important than for a live event. Since virtual event participants no longer comprise a “captive audience” milling about a single facility, virtual event leaders need to work harder to keep event participants engaged and deliver opportunities for networking, expertise-sharing, or audience enjoyment that otherwise occur organically at live events. This may mean virtual events are shorter than their offline counterparts, and event teams will need extra virtual bouncers and observers to intervene and steer conversations, Q&A sessions, or other event activities as audiences show signs of flagging interest or as they log off.

For companies looking to hire a virtual event planner, Cotton advises them to ask candidates about overall digital strategy for an event, how they’d business model the event, and how they imagine corporate teams working cross-functionally in service of the event. Ideally, candidates can articulate what type of data they plan to collect before and during the event, and how to analyze that data when the event is over.

“Technical acumen and a digital mindset are more broadly important than specific knowledge of the individual technology platforms,” she says. “Start with the experience the event is to deliver, then walk back to how that’s possible on a given platform, rather than the other way around.”


Virtual Event Technology Considerations

Virtual event organizers need to choose an event platform that serves their event’s purposes, assign technical roles to specialists or trained staff, and consider disability and privacy concerns linked to online event delivery.

As virtual event technologies evolve, ease of use for event participants and event organizers differentiates virtual event platforms from one another. The Digital Marketing Institute (DMI) categorizes digital event software options in terms of their ease of use. DMI ranks Facebook Live, Instagram Live, and YouTube Live among the easiest choices. Zoom and Google Meet constitute intermediate choices. GoTo Webinar, Whova, and a combination of Zoom and Slido require advanced skills in exchange for advanced features. Among virtual event platforms, recording and replay features, pricing, and technology support provided by the platform company also vary. 

Virtual event operators face several emerging considerations, PCMA’s Cotton says, including Americans with Disabilities Act compliance for event participants with vision, hearing, or mobility challenges and how well (or not) platforms accommodate their needs. Event planners need to assess whether a platform features (or can be adapted) with enhanced audio, a screen for a sign language interpreter, or subtitles to assist participants.

“Audience privacy is also a topic organizations need to review,” Cotton says. “This issue is nascent but important.” 

Since virtual events open the doors to global participation, event organizers may want to study consumer privacy rules pertinent to the event’s geographic reach. Cotton says organizers would be wise to review the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) provisions. GDPR regulations protect EU residents from information exploitation and levy steep fines on companies and event organizers that violate its standards. Event software company Aventri offers a review of the issues that apply to event planners. Whether or not an event caters to European audiences, understanding GDPR standards on information collection and setting parameters on the data collected, stored, or purged can help organizers prepare for questions from event registrants about how they plan on handling professional or personal information.

New Virtual Event Roles

Trade publication Event Manager outlined four new job roles that will likely emerge in tandem with the uptick in virtual event production, and hiring or contracting a professional in one of these positions may further color a company’s virtual event platform choices or capacities. These roles include:

  • Event Tech: A professional who helps choose suppliers and an event platform, as well as determines whether it can deliver on event goals.
  • Virtual Event Tech Support: A professional employed in-house or on hand remotely via a virtual event platform company to aid in real-time event troubleshooting.
  • Virtual Event Production Specialist and/or Technical Producer: Manages planning for event capacity, run-of-show testing, and other capacity issues.
  • Virtual Emcee or Moderator: The event presenter who can manage inputs on the event’s main stage, as well as through additional channels such as social media or event platform chat spaces, or from event organizers fielding real-time input.

Virtual Events Ideas

Virtual events gather people who might’ve otherwise congregated in person for common professional, educational, social, or philanthropic goals. Whether hosting a fundraiser or a book launch or a training session for middle management, they take many forms.

  • Open Houses: Hybrid events that show real-time or recorded footage of a space, narrated by a subject matter expert. Examples: Real estate open house, virtual college tour or visit.
  • Virtual Classes: Fitness and yoga instructors can offer live workouts from a studio; educators (for-credit and otherwise) can offer virtual classes.
  • Arts and Cultural Events: Arts and media organizations can present live (from home) or hybrid recorded events (performances, literary readings, book launches).
  • Online Happy Hours: Hosted social hours led by an organization and enjoyed by participants from their homes, typically held for social networking after work hours.
  • Virtual Career Fair: An opportunity for a population of job seekers and job recruiters to locate one another and exchange basic information with an eye toward future placements.
  • Virtual Fundraisers: Organizations that fundraise can show donors samples of the work achieved, or they can introduce beneficiaries of the work, honor key staff, and run online auctions, trivia contests, raffles, and other common fundraising activities.
  • Corporate Webinars: Large enterprises can use webinars to deliver the same information to a broad population of employees at one time.

How to Keep Event Attendees Engaged

Vanessa Richardson

Vanessa Richardson, Director of Events for nonprofit journalism network Cal Matters in Sacramento, California, stepped into her role in late January 2020, just weeks before governors in her state and beyond banned public gatherings due to public health risks associated with the pandemic. Since then, she’s taken a crash course in how to pivot from live to virtual events — in some cases translating offline events for virtual platforms, and in others creating new digital events from scratch.

Cal Matters events are free and designed to motivate civic education and engagement, informing citizens about issues they might vote on or discuss in letters to lawmakers or their paper’s letters to the editor, or that they might hash out at the dinner table or political rallies. Making sure the events, some of which are grant-supported, attract and engage a sizable audience is important, she says.

“As things were changing, one funding organization supporting a panel on the future of work asked us for a revised proposal for events,” she shares. “But they weren’t all that concerned about whether the event was live and in-person versus virtual.”

She knew that at live events, participants may linger afterward over drinks and learn more about the brand’s programs. Finding other, virtual ways to bring people together around their particular affinities became important. 

“We want to make sure engagement lasts after the event is over,” she explains, noting that her organization has reached out to partners, including community foundations and community service organizations, to help attract audiences from specific local communities.

One way that Cal Matters keeps audiences engaged is to move quickly to their questions for panelists or subject matter experts. “We try to turn to audience questions right off the bat,” Richardson says, noting that for a one-hour event this means audience questions begin 20 minutes or no more than 30 minutes into the session.

The organization’s audience engagement manager curates questions for the event’s moderator to share with panelists, sometimes discussing them quickly with a private, internal Slack channel, she adds. This way, staff backstage can respond to audience concerns and present succinct questions to panelists.

Richardson says events do sometimes go over, especially if an audience is engaged, but she tells presenters to plan for 60 minutes, maybe up to 15 more if engagement is going well. Cal Matters is looking at adding 15-minute breakout room options at the close of events, resembling the post-event mingling that might happen offline.

“If the audience starts dropping from our platform, we know they’re done,” she adds. “Zoom fatigue is a real thing. We’re looking at using more tools like polls or letting people submit questions in advance to keep our audience engaged.”

In addition to the measures that CalMatters is using during events and by retaining an audience engagement lead on staff, many event organizers implement gamification to support engagement. Markletic, a business-to-business marketer, notes that subject matter trivia, bingo, or scavenger hunts within an event platform can boost engagement.

After the event, engagement can continue. Visit Dallas encourages event leaders — regardless of whether an event was held virtually or in-person — to send a thank-you email, post-event survey, or post-event Q&A on key topics of interest that emerged at the event, as well as provide a landing page or other accessible trove of resources for event participants.

 


How to Pivot from a Live Event to a Virtual Event

Both large-scale and small events must pivot from face-to-face to virtual for many reasons. Public health crises, transit or infrastructure issues, venue emergencies, natural disasters, and other issues can all thwart the best-laid live event plans. 

Virtual events share some commonalities (a time-constrained gathering in which it’s important to deliver content) and some differences (less “rubbing elbows,” eventual desire for participants to “log off’) from live events. But as limitations on public gatherings persist, more companies — as well as educational and arts and cultural organizations — are holding such events.


How to Pivot to a Virtual Event Checklist

Event planners increasingly fold virtual elements into live events, but need to also make contingency plans (or a plan B) as a “pivot plan.” If you’ve already started with plans for a live event, but need to pivot, use this checklist.

Notify Stakeholders

  • Notify existing registrants of change in event delivery.
  • Notify sponsors of change in event delivery and discuss ways to deliver sponsors’ desired outcomes (such as adjusted metrics for measuring audience engagement or gathering audience data).
  • Adjust sponsors’ expectations about visibility or customer lists with the event and gather sponsors’ feedback or input.
  • Leverage sponsors and partners for special pre-event gifts or treats. Some live events (especially fundraisers) partner with a catering company or restaurant on food and wine baskets, which event attendees can purchase, with a portion of sales going toward the nonprofit’s cause. For other event types, sponsors that planned to offer merchandise or coupon codes for trials may be able to re-version their offers online or via snail mail. 

Remodel Pricing and Business Model

  • What sunk costs are refundable? Which costs are irretrievable (paid signage, facility rental fees, deposits on catering, A/V, pre-scheduled advertising, etc.)? 
  • Will you give face-to-face event attendees a full or partial refund option? 
  • How many registrations or tickets must you sell to make the event profitable?
  • With a virtual event, what new attendee personas and which geographies can you target with event marketing? 
  • How can expanded audience contribute to a different revenue mix?

Communicate

  • Update or change all existing communications (social media, website landing page, emails) regarding the virtual nature of the event.
  • Launch new marketing regarding the virtual event.
  • Create a new ticketing structure for the virtual event and update the ticketing platform.
  • Launch new communications efforts (PR, social media) about switching to virtual status.
  • Develop communications plan for updating registrants about the event platform and how it works, as well as when and how they engage with the platform.
  • Develop tutorials or a landing page about how the online event will replicate offline aspects of the event (breakout rooms versus a happy hour, for instance).
  • Provide a thorough guide on how people can attend the event virtually. Will they need to complete certain purchases, requests, or selections in advance? Is it recommended they log on 10 or 30 minutes before the event start time to familiarize themselves with the platform? What’s the run of show? 

Import Your Brand

  • Regardless of the platform you use, you’ll want to bring your and your sponsor companies’ logos and colors into the environment using accurate fonts, colors, and designs. Consult marketing departments on proper branding style.
  • Consider the look and feel of the event or your company, and find clever ways for speakers or graphics to reinforce it — such as staffers wearing garments or accessories in company colors or with company logos, or using a downloadable backdrop of the company’s campus or city’s skyline.

Logistics Check

  • Check with moderators, panelists, presenters, and staff about availability online.
  • Choose an online event platform.
  • Appoint an online engagement staffer or contractor to help develop engagement strategies pre-event and during the event: Will people receive materials or food/drink or other swag at home to use during the event? Will attendees be able to network?

Tech Check

  • Create a simple set design in the office or using virtual backgrounds for speakers.
  • Test each presenter’s broadcast environment (home office, work office) to make sure that light, sound, and other visual cues work in the virtual event platform and the presenter knows how to deliver their talk, slides, etc., in the platform.
  • Stage a test-run of the event with presenters and staff to make sure sound, lighting, event flow, and other aspects of the event translate to the online medium.
  • Make sure to view the test-run event from a variety of devices — desktop, laptop, mobile device — and check that content translates for all media.
  • Develop an internal communications flow (chat or messaging apps, etc.) among event staff for real-time event input, such as audience questions that will be funneled through a moderator to a speaker for their answers.

Data Gathering

  • Clarify what event information is private and what you will share with sponsors.
  • Check with legal regarding music and other rights, which may operate under different laws in a virtual environment (versus a live event).
  • Invite audience members to contribute data (opinions, experiences, contact information).
  • Clarify for registrants, sponsors, and speakers whether some or all of the event will be recorded for future use.
  • Design polls, surveys, and interactive engagement tools to keep the audience involved in event content. During and after the event, share results with sponsors, audience, and speakers.

Use Smartsheet to Seamlessly Track, Manage, and Plan a Virtual Event

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When teams have clarity into the work getting done, there’s no telling how much more they can accomplish in the same amount of time. Try Smartsheet for free, today.

 

 

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