This article first appeared on Contently, written by Senior Content Strategist, Jess Black.
For almost a decade, webinars have been the go-to choice for digital events. Marketers slap together a deck and say their piece in front of a small audience.
Over the last few months, though, the bar has been raised. Webinars are still a marketing staple, but we’ve also seen some incredibly creative storytelling in the virtual space. Sites like HouseParty and Netflix party have changed the way we socialize. Fortnight is the new music festival. And Disney has brought audiences to tears with live sing-a-longs.
All of this cements the fact that experience design will continue to shift, technologies will evolve, and audiences will have higher expectations for remote events.
As Senior Content Strategist at Imagination, I’ve been examining the way people gather together over the internet. To help those trying to adapt marketing programs to a remote world, my former coworker Whitney Browne and I put together a pyramid that shows the hierarchy of needs for virtual events.
This framework allows marketers to build from the ground up by considering the key elements of event design: logistics, environment, storytelling, and connection. Whether you have a million dollar budget or just want your team’s virtual happy hours to suck less, this pyramid provides a blueprint for developing successful virtual events.
First, let’s talk logistics
Let him who has never sent an invite email sans link cast the first stone. The logistical details of event management have never been more important. At the same time, people have never been more stoked to talk about fancy new platforms before thinking through their event strategy.
For in-person events, logistics are crucial but straightforward: comfortable seating, good audio, and reliable tech for videos and other visual elements. Virtual events demand an even higher level of meticulousness because audiences can instantly drop off to do something else.
Here’s how to start thinking through logistics:
Setup: Who are we inviting? How are we inviting them? Is our marketing automation platform linked with our web conferencing account?
Production: How do we test lighting, sound, and run of show? Do interactive elements work? How do we troubleshoot in case there are issues? What can our tech partners and platforms offer?
Follow-up: What does our follow up strategy look like? How are we going to build on the momentum from this event?
Once you’re able to think through some of these key elements you can make some decisions about the types of technology you want to incorporate.
Setting a group environment
The immediacy of in-person events is often what makes them fun. We’re all devoting our time to this collective moment. Translating that type of connection into a virtual world requires thoughtful creativity.
This is the moment where it’s common to jump to complicated setups or mixed reality formats, but the reality is that no matter the scale or the budget, you can create a shared experience. Giving your virtual event immediacy can be achieved through something as simple as using music to set a tone or even a group meditation to level set the energy.
One great example that resonated with me is when Netflix created a “binge candle” to promote the new season of Gilmore Girls. The candle has a different smell during each episode. The four 90-minute episodes each represent a different season—Winter, Spring, Summer, and Fall—as do the layers of the candle, “So you can smell along in real time.”
It’s a little different than a digital conference, but I think it illustrates how a little bit of creativity goes a long way toward creating a shared experience.
Storytelling that stands out
When was the last time you listened to a commencement address that wasn’t your own?
May I suggest this 15-minute doozie from Apple founder and noted turtleneck owner Steve Jobs. This video is blurry, Jobs barely looks up from his notes, and frankly everyone looks silly in graduation robes. However, the storytelling is so compelling that you can’t look away. (Other people have agreed over 11 million times.)
You can invest every cent you have in a fancy virtual event platform, but without powerful storytelling, your event will fall flat.
Presenting a story virtually has two major components: what you are saying and how you are saying it. Many smart people have written about best practices for presenting: Smile while you speak, make sure you use inflections to emphasize your point, etc. All of the experts are getting at one overarching rule: Don’t be boring.
Even if you can’t walk on stage in front of a captive audience, hosting a virtual event does open up some new storytelling possibilities.
Element of choice: Additional screens and modules can enhance your story by giving users a chance to customize their experience.
Interactive video: Players like Eko provide interactive video editing tools, which makes it easier than ever for brands to get the audience involved.
Whiteboarding: Zoom has a simple whiteboard feature you can share with participants. For a more robust whiteboard, check out Mural.
Small groups: Split the audience into breakout rooms. On Zoom, the host can work with you to split the participants into different parallel video calls, then bring everyone back together when the time is right.
Making a connection
Once at a dinner party, I met the world’s foremost expert on using snake venom to cure cancer. I did not leave my house expecting to meet this person, and he definitely did not plan to meet me, the world’s foremost expert on overwrought virtual event strategies. But it made the evening much more interesting.
The ability to create and nurture relationships is an essential element of an in-person event. Although these connections aren’t quite as organic online, virtual event planners can facilitate interpersonal connection through a strategic use of the available tools:
Matchmaking Virtual VIP: Setting up a private Slack channel is one way to generate conversation and set up exclusivity.
Group Chats: The most powerful takeaway from a live conference is often the networking. Incorporating a virtual chat room in your digital event is a simple and smart way to encourage organic connections.
Participation: Getting people to participate online is harding with the awkward silences and wandering attention spans. You use competition and incentives if you set up interactive trivia and quizzes (followed by a prize).
If these elements work in concert, audiences will leave your event feeling a sense of wonder. They will have enjoyed a seamless event, made new connections, learned through storytelling, and enjoyed a powerful shared experience.