3 Event Design Principles to Rely on for Your Virtual Event

By: Carrie Winton
virtual event video playing on laptop screen

As face-to-face meetings and events have been put on hold, virtual events are an immediate way forward.

However, the terrain is still quite unfamiliar to many, and the format presents new challenges. According to a report by EventMB, 64.3% of over 2,500 participants acknowledged at that time that they had never been involved in planning a virtual event.

Yes, virtual events are very different in many ways than in-person events. But don’t abandon everything you know and are already good at! It can be overwhelming to tackle something new, so take a moment of calm and remember that many things are the same: starting with your event objectives, understanding your participant needs and goals, mapping their experience pre-event to post. These strategies are still extremely helpful when planning a virtual event.

While we get to work figuring out what our future looks like, let’s not forget all the things we know as foundational to great event design.

connection graphic on iPad representing target audience

Know Your Goals & Objectives

There are lots of new considerations to keep in mind as you’re planning a virtual event: What platform will you use? How to incorporate video and live streaming? What happens to my planned agenda? Etcetera. Etcetera.

But before you dive into the details of your virtual event, remember to step back and identify your “why.” Why are you having this event and what do you hope to achieve? If you are transitioning an in-person event to virtual, you likely have already established your objectives and they should translate pretty easily to your virtual event. Common objectives are to build brand advocacy, improve product knowledge or generate sales leads.

Take a moment to evaluate how your objectives and measures of success may need to be revised:

  • Has your target audience changed since your planned live event?
  • Will the event now be open to more participants or will it be more targeted and invite only?
  • What level of engagement are you looking to create with your audience before, during and after the event?

One distinct benefit of virtual events is your access to an even more complete picture of participant engagement data. With one platform collecting all the data, participants leave a digital trail to follow, like the virtual breakouts they attend, content they download and likely more information than you would have otherwise. Adjust your measures to include virtual data collection components as it fits. The big ones could be session attendance and participation (chats, polls, surveys, etc.).

event message board

Know Your Audience & What Will Move Them to Action

Understanding your audience and what will make them engage (or disengage) is vital for a virtual event. In addition to data you have collected through registration or from your CRM, remember to think through participant personas. Ask yourself:

  • What are participants looking to achieve and experience by attending your event?
  • What do you want them to feel?
  • What feelings might you need to overcome?

Consider the current situation—how is this disruption potentially impacting your participants? They’re likely more distracted, experiencing anxiety or fear and also looking for deeper connections. According to the recent CMB sentiment survey, the majority of Americans now feel a negative impact from COVID-19 specifically. Perceptions of negative impact are tied directly to distress around finances, acquiring essentials, and working from home. The challenge for your virtual event will be to identify the right tone and message when delivering your content. The good news, according to the 2020 Edelman Trust Barometer – Brand Trust and the Coronavirus, 83% of respondents want brands to connect people and help them stay emotionally close.

We’re going to see a rise in engagement tactics being layered into virtual events. Gamification and incentives around attendance, engagement and bonuses for attending core sessions can help drive objectives

  • A game play (spin the wheel, pick a door) for people once they complete a session
  • Punch card style attendance goals where participants can earn a business builder or points towards a gift

Think through your personas and don’t forget to apply your segmentation and demographic information. Would your audience enjoy lottery style engagement tactics? Do they prefer polling? Are they into virtual networking?

event communications on desk

Align Experiences to Outcomes

Once you understand your audience, you can begin mapping out the virtual participant journey. This is where innovation and new thinking will shine.

While you may have a solid strategy for your in-person event, the delivery format has changed—assuming you can simply transplant an in-person event to a virtual event in many cases will miss the mark with attendees.

Instead, use the participant journey as a road map to overhaul your in-person event into a compelling virtual experience. Your goals and objectives can act as guidepost. As you map your virtual participant journey, remember:

Pre-Event: Grab Attention & Set Expectations

Set expectations about your virtual event and be transparent about how it will not be the same as the live event. But that doesn’t mean it’s any less useful. Communicate up front how you will deliver on objectives in a different way. Update the event website and communicate to attendees that the event is going virtual, the reason for the change and how you will deliver on objectives in a different way. It’s also a good idea to provide attendees with a guide on how to attend the event virtually—it’s a flip of the coin as to who has attended a virtual event (though that number is likely going up).

Pre-event communications, theming and messaging are more important than ever to grab your audience’s attention and get them to attend your event over others.

Plan your communications like you would a marketing campaign: How will you stand out from the competition? What is the one thing you need to communicate to get your participants to register and attend?

Take your virtual event to the next level, by sending them physical items and communications that immerse attendees in your brand and reinforce your key messages as well as connect your attendees and get them talking—to each other and online.

Event Launch: Know What You Need & How to Use It

Think about how you interact with digital content: Facebook Live, YouTube, Netflix and, more recently, conferencing platforms like Webex and Zoom as many of us work from home. How can your virtual event capitalize on these expected experiences? How can you use tools like polls, surveys and gamification to increase engagement?

When choosing technology, think about your event objectives and what platform features and production capabilities you will need.

Ultimately, be informed about the basics needed to guide your event decision making and turn to technical experts to help you produce and deliver a flawless virtual event. (There are many more technical aspects to virtual events, but this should give you a glimpse of what technical capabilities to consider.)

Post-Event Engagement & Success: Leverage Data Meaningfully

After the event, continue the conversation with your audience—whether it’s with a post-event survey, a link to recorded content or even an exclusive invite to your next event. It’s important to keep them engaged even after your event is finished.

Virtual events provide a wealth of data about your participants: what content they interacted with, questions they asked, speakers they commented on, polls and surveys they took, etc. Use this information to inform where they are in the buying cycle and provide highly personalized follow up.

Making the connection back to your CRM can be even more important to capture and capitalize on the rich data you’re creating with your event. Many virtual technologies will sync up through integrations, which can help you more quickly and easily follow up with your participants.

Focus on meaningful data to understand engagement and how you can improve for future events.

This is also an opportunity for you to cross-compare some of your event tactics with a sales-free environment. Likely at any live event you’ve hosted your sales team was present and in the thick of it. Virtual events make it more difficult to coordinate those less formal touch points. Did it work better? Worse? Consider conducting A/B tests that you can pull insights from.

Shift to a Virtual Event With Confidence

While we know that virtual events do not hold the same power of face-face interactions, circumstances may necessitate going virtual, sometimes on very short notice. Fortunately, some of the same truths of event design can be applied to virtual events allowing you to pivot to digital and trust you’ll be able to deliver the engaging, informative experiences to attendees that you worked so hard to make happen.

As your event strategy evolves, demonstrating the success of your event is more important than ever. Whether it is face to face, virtual or a mix of both, don’t lose sight of these key items when planning your next event

Carrie Winton
Carrie Winton

Carrie received her M.A. in Communication and Research from Saint Louis University (Go Billikens!). Her passion for the meetings and events industry and bringing people together to educate and inspire started over 15 years ago in corporate marketing. More recently, she’s expanded her expertise to global marketing and thought leadership research. Outside of work, Carrie is still likely to be found planning vacations and adventures with her own family—her husband and two young kiddos. She loves to explore unfamiliar places and recently crossed two destinations off her bucket list: Rome and Prague.