Over the last few weeks I’ve been having a lot of client conversations that I’ll call second-order virtual event discussions. Some of these brands initially shunned the idea of virtual events and just cancelled or rescheduled in-person events. Some tried replacing events with just video calls. And some took a more ambitious approach but made some misstep or other that resulted in a feeling that their virtual event had been a failure. 

But as overall conditions have made it clear that we’re going to be in for a long, slow plateau of a recovery, these clients have all decided to take a step back and re-evaluate their virtual event strategy. We could easily be facing another year or more of online-only events, and once in-person gatherings do come back, digital-first tactics will likely continue to be an element of event planning. 

So it seemed like a good time to distill some of what we’ve seen work well for our clients since the start of the pandemic. If you’re newly evaluating or re-evaluating your digital event strategy, adhering to these best practices can help to guard against some common pitfalls. 

First, make sure to focus your digital event around the original purpose of your in-person event. Don’t get caught up in the “how” before thinking through the “why” and understanding how that can translate to a virtual experience. 

Next, ground the experience in a narrative that’s clear and compelling for your audience, and that drives them towards the event’s intended purpose. If you’re communicating a sophisticated narrative (as you should be) then you’ll need multiple different elements to constitute the full event. Craft a thoughtful digital-first program that ties each of these individual elements together into the overall narrative. 

Choose elements that make sense for your event narrative and that can play to the strengths of your brand and your presenters. Platform up from broadcast elements like keynote sessions, breakout sessions, fireside chats, expert panels, interviews, etc. Add in more conversational and participatory exercises if that makes sense for your objectives. Layer on digital content (preferably video or animation) and forms of engagement like virtual demos, minigames, AR or VR to get participants more involved. 

Digital fatigue and short attention spans dictate that online experiences need to be brief. For each individual element, less than 20 minutes is ideal. An hour is the absolute max. And you’ll need to ensure that the elements are sufficiently varied across the schedule. Even then you’ll want to build in breaks for your attendees and make sure that they’re sufficiently motivated to re-engage and participate in each step along the way.  

Focus on content as the driving engagement tool. Create purpose-built digital assets for event engagement, don’t try to shoehorn the experience into your existing website or content you’ve created for a different audience. 

Use the right platform for each element of your event experience. Capable webinar platforms can likely handle most of the core elements of your event, and should be flexible enough to be customized with your branding. But know its limitations and when it needs to serve as the hub and where you need to create spokes that extend beyond the platform. Those might be as complex as a mobile VR experience or as simple as follow up phone call to an attendee.     

Consolidate around a single agency partner who understands virtual events well and can manage platform vendors, content creation, sponsorship, etc. Most events have many stakeholders, and most brands have many agency relationships. But make sure you delegate a single entity to drive the bus. Your audience will thank you for a more cohesive experience. 

Look for every opportunity to get attendees more engaged throughout the event. Gamification and other interactive experiences are great ways to engage. But don’t forget the basics either, like enabling robust Q&A after keynotes, encouraging conversations and empowering social media engagement. 

Creating successful virtual events and engagements might be a new skill for your organization, but it’s likely to be an ongoing requirement. So the sooner you get comfortable with digital engagement strategies, the more successful your transition back to in-person events is going to be.