The COVID-19 pandemic has now persisted for the larger part of 2020 and while businesses initially canceled thousands of events, the need to adapt has forced many of them to go online. Through various digital platforms like Zoom and Google Hangouts, individuals and businesses alike have found new ways to comply with social distancing while still hosting events.
The Milken Institute, a financial think tank that thrives on bringing people and ideas together through large events, has moved to hosting virtual summits. They had to postpone their flagship annual event, the Global Conference, which convenes more than 4,000 executives and thought leaders from around the world. In place of the Institute’s smaller local gatherings that happen multiple times a year is now a live webinar series called the COVID-19 Conference Call Series.
“People have gotten creative with what they can now do online,” says Ira L. Rosen, director of new business development at the International Festival and Events Association. “But people are discovering that hosting events online isn’t necessarily easier than in-person events. If you’ve never held a digital event before, there are a few things you have to consider.”
Hosting online events is completely different from hosting offline events, in that there are set ups imperative to the event’s success. “Risk management is a proactive strategy when it comes to doing things online. The ball’s pretty much all in your court,” says Rosen. Here are the things you need to have ready prior to launch.
Building a dedicated event website allows audiences to find all the information they need in one central location. Hosts can also better track digital traffic sources and audience behavior when they visit the site. Be sure to have the following information available:
“The event registration site has to be front and center on your event website, and it has to be intuitive,” says Rosen. “Make sure it’s easy for people to register. The last thing you’d want is for them to try and register, only to find that they have to input a ton of personal information that might turn them off.”
For Shauna Hoffman, a mother of three who regularly hosts paint nights as a side gig, Google Hangouts was her platform of choice. “At first, I was really worried that no one would show up to a virtual wine and paint night,” she says. “But there was a great turnout because at the end of the day, you can still sip wine and create art. Even if you don’t have all the supplies, you can improvise.”
She chose Google Hangouts for its wide reach, easy access and playful in-app tools that made her paint nights feel more casual and personable. “Most, if not all, paint night attendees would pay me in advance of the class through Venmo, and honestly, it’s been working pretty well,” she says.
Zoom, which is undeniably the leader in the video-conferencing post-COVID world, has a seamless cloud and communications platform. Used for anything from online meetings, chats and calls, Zoom is the platform of choice for many businesses because of its simple interface.The numbers show this trend: The platform jumped from 10 million to 200 million users in just three months when the pandemic began. Zoom also has an add-on webinar format for companies that want to hold large-scale events.
Cvent’s virtual event platform and event management software have been designed with larger organizations in mind to host larger digital events. From venue-sourcing to post-event surveys, Cvent’s cloud-based software program is well equipped. Anyone looking for a comprehensive event experience for their users and want to have access to detailed measurements throughout the event should consider this platform.
According to a report by ON24, an events technology company that hosts webinars and virtual summits, audiences have also adapted to the new digital landscape, as the average person consumed 295% more webinar content than in 2019. April 2020 also saw a 167% increase in webinars that were run on ON24’s platform when compared to the 2019 average.
“Picking the right platform really depends on the objective of your event,” says Rosen. “Some video streaming platforms like Facebook Live are better for small networking events or interactive virtual workshops, while others like Cvent are better for larger audience capacities.”
Most platforms are equipped to track audience engagement and live-record. Using this data post-event can help hosts identify ways to move forward with presenting information, retaining audience interests and fine-tuning any technical hiccups.
Being confined behind a screen can make it harder for speakers to engage with the audience during the event, but there are ways speakers can encourage interaction.
“View the screen as an opportunity to engage with your audience rather than an obstacle,” says Rosen. “Take the time to conduct a poll, ask questions, or even switch it up by playing a video in the middle of your talk or presentation.”
Live captions, sharing insights from polls conducted during the event, and Q&A discussions all ensure an exchange of dialogue that can lead to meaningful touchpoints for the event. “I understand that having an open discussion or live caption can be risky,” says Rosen. “So, if necessary, have someone on your team curate the questions or captions coming in. Have them decide which ones the speaker should engage with.”
Rosen recommends that businesses and event planners have a strategy in place for when events can restart. “Take the time to learn and educate yourself with local regulations,” he says. “Because when that magic governmental restriction goes away, you don’t want to find yourself thinking about your strategy then. You want to be ready to go with a plan and safety protocols already in place.”
In addition to complying with the new rules of the U.S. Health Department with stringent safety guidelines and social distancing measures, Rosen also suggests that businesses revise their event insurance policies.
“Do you have event cancellation insurance if cases start to rise again? You have to think ahead and find ways to protect yourself,” he says. “Even things like making sure you have enough contactless infrared thermometers, so you can measure all attendees coming into your venue, or…having enough alcohol wipes for all event staff to adequately clean the venue, are all things that you have to prepare.”