by Jake Fabbri of Fonteva
The safety regulations of the pandemic required many of us to adapt to remote work and digital engagements, which included virtual meetings and conferences. After a year and a half of working from home, we have become more accustomed to virtual events—so much so that associations will keep them around even in a post-pandemic world.
For some associations, in-person conferences, large gatherings, or major events require a great deal of logistical coordination that could be lessened by going virtual. As a result, leaders could put more effort into planning compelling and effective content rather than organizing accommodations or venue planning.
Despite the benefits of virtual events, there is still the worry about keeping your members engaged. It’s true that we tend to be less focused when meeting through a screen, but there are strategies you can implement to improve engagement and take your virtual gatherings to the next level.
In this guide, we’ll review the benefits and challenges of virtual events, plus tips that can help you get the most out of your programs, even if they’re happening online. When you’re running your virtual event, be sure to do the following:
- Make your events interactive.
- Stay organized.
- Create independent opportunities for virtual events.
It’s likely that virtual is a key part of the future of events for many organizations and associations. Optimizing your engagement strategy now shows your members that just because you’re changing your processes doesn’t mean that quality will decrease. In fact, it might even improve.
Benefits of Virtual Events
Virtual events have tons of benefits for convenience and time efficiency. According to this Boardable guide to virtual meetings, meeting remotely can save up to 40 minutes of commute time. Those extra minutes mean more time for new ideas, problem-solving, and task completion.
Virtual events also create new opportunities that might not have been possible in-person. For example, you can record events to easily reference later. The wide array of tools available for virtual events can also increase productivity and help gatherings run smoothly. Here are some of the key benefits of virtual events:
- Convenience: When you meet virtually, your members can connect anywhere, at any time (as long as they have wifi). Your members will appreciate the flexibility that virtual meetings offer, and you might even see an increase in attendance because it’s much easier for members to log on than commute.
- More efficiency: Because virtual events tend to be shorter, they are also more productive. Although you might spend less time catching up with small talk, you can get down to business more quickly. This way, you truly maximize your time during events.
- Greater diversity: In the past, attendance at association events might have been limited by each member’s ability to travel, pay for accommodations, or take time off work. With virtual events, you can have greater geographical, financial, and social diversity. More diversity ensures a wider variety of ideas because everyone brings something different to the table.
Although we might not have anticipated the surprising increase of virtual events over the past year and a half, there are apparent benefits to this sudden pivot. For these reasons, making virtual events a standard in your association makes sense. However, there are also some drawbacks to virtual events that are worth considering.
Challenges of Virtual Events
Did you know that virtual attendees typically only watch 68 percent of an event that is 20 minutes or longer? Keeping your audience engaged is one of the largest overarching challenges of virtual events.
That’s because the lack of apparent body language, constantly having to look at ourselves, and the inability to move around all contribute to lower focus. If you do make a permanent pivot to virtual events, navigating reduced engagement will need to be one of your top priorities.
Here are some of the primary challenges of virtual events:
- Reliance on technology: How many times has someone started speaking in a meeting, only for their connection to freeze? This hiccup can make gathering online very frustrating. For virtual events to run smoothly, all your members need access to a reliable computer and wifi, and you need some tech-savvy team members. Prepare your staff members so they know how to troubleshoot if a technical issue does come up.
- Less rapport: Meeting virtually means that you lose the small talk that often contributes to strong working relationships between members. Because you won’t bump into colleagues in the hallway or have a chance to grab a meal together after a conference, it’s more difficult to build as much rapport with fellow members.
- Reduced focus: As we mentioned, meeting virtually can also negatively impact member engagement and focus. For this reason, virtual events might require a bit more planning to keep everyone involved.
3 Virtual Event Tips
Although you might be hesitant to continue virtual events post-COVID, there are several ways that you can overcome the challenges and reap the benefits of virtual events. Let’s look at three tips for making the most out of your virtual events.
1. Make Events Interactive
It’s clear that keeping your virtual member engagement high will pose a critical challenge to your association’s leadership. However, you can significantly increase your audience’s engagement by adding interactive elements to your virtual events.
Interactive elements can help your audience feel like they are contributing to your event or have more of a say in discussions. Some interactive elements you could incorporate into your virtual events include the following:
- Breakout rooms: Putting members into smaller discussion groups can encourage deeper conversation and more active speakers. While some members might feel intimidated to share their ideas in a large group, intimate breakout rooms can help to get the conversation flowing.
- Chat function: Encouraging members to share their thoughts through your virtual conferencing platform’s chat function is a great way to stimulate conversation and allow for a continuous flow of ideas.
- Acknowledgement of specific members: In smaller member meetings, the discussion leader should call on specific members. It’s likely that they have something on their minds. Calling on a member demonstrates that you value their input, and it has the added benefit of encouraging participation from everyone.
- Polls: Many virtual conferencing tools have poll capabilities so you can quickly vote on a decision. Sending out a poll is a fun and easy way for members to contribute and settle on decisions quickly.
Incorporating these interactive elements can be especially helpful if you’re organizing a large, multi-day event such as a virtual conference. Because a conference requires much more focus, frequent opportunities for interaction can help sustain your members’ level of engagement throughout the day. Interactive engagement can go a long way in keeping your members involved during virtual events. Brainstorm some ideas with your team for how you can get your members to participate.
2. Stay Organized
One of the best ways to ensure a seamless virtual experience is through ample planning and organization. Whether you’re planning a small meet-and-greet or a major conference, being intentional about staying organized can help events of all sizes run more smoothly.
With virtual events, it can be harder for members to get a sense of how the event will go or what exactly they should expect. Setting clear expectations before an event can help your members go into it feeling prepared and excited.
Here are some tips for keeping your virtual events organized:
- Create an agenda. Outline how the event will go, what you plan to cover, and what sort of activities you have in store for your members. Send out your agenda before the event begins so that members have a chance to review it.
- Test any technology in advance. If you’re going to be adding interactive elements to your event, it’s a good idea to do a test run before the actual event. This way, you won’t have to troubleshoot while your audience waits.
- Send relevant information ahead of time. Just as you want to send your agenda ahead of time, you should also attach any relevant materials you’ll be referencing so your members can adequately prepare.
If you’re managing a large association, keeping track of all the necessary details might seem overwhelming. Investing in software specifically designed to manage your members and upcoming events can be an excellent tool to streamline time-consuming administrative tasks. This Fonteva guide about association management software can help you get started.
3. Create Independent Opportunities for Virtual Events
To encourage more participation among your members, consider creating independent opportunities for virtual events. If you have a large association, it might be less feasible for you to meet regularly, so give your members the opportunity to keep in touch with your association.
Your members might even prefer these independent events so that they can engage on their own time and to the extent that they wish. Not sure what these independent opportunities might look like? Here are some examples:
- E-learning courses: Give your members access to relevant e-learning courses that could supplement future events.
- Webinars: Offer to send recordings of Webinars or meetings to your members so they can watch even if they couldn’t make it to the live event.
- Podcast or book recommendations: Have your members suggest podcasts or books that might be of interest to others.
- Community involvement: Encourage your members to involve their personal networks with your association, whether it’s through applying to your organization, joining a volunteer program, or simply spreading the word.
Even if you aren’t directly communicating with your members, these types of activities can keep them engaged with your organization. Plus, working independently might even help them come up with new ideas to share at the next event.
Although virtual events do have some extra logistical and engagement challenges, they can be a great option to bring together community members from far and wide. With the right tools and an emphasis on keeping everyone focused, you can ensure that you get the all of the benefits of virtual events.
- Virtual Conferences & Events Resources
- The Essential Guide to Virtual Conference Platforms
- How to Host a Virtual Conference – 10 Tips for Success (Learning Revolution)
About the Author
With over two decades of experience marketing association technology, Fonteva CMO Jake Fabbri has developed a deep understanding of the unique needs of associations and the challenges technology can solve. Jake’s marketing expertise has been honed by demonstrated excellence in the areas of lead generation, content marketing, marketing automation, and events.