How do you run a virtual program that has personality, joy, heart, humor, character, spirit, soul, magic?
Can a virtual event be better than a physical, in-person event?
Last Tuesday, I would have answered… I hope so (to the first question). And no (to the second)—not really, anyway.
Maybe I was just exhausted. (Aren’t we all.)
Maybe I was just uninspired. (Same.)
Maybe it’s just been *A WEEK*.
Then last Wednesday and Thursday we at MarketingProfs hosted our annual B2B Forum, for the first time ever online, using the virtual event platform BigMarker. And we realized a few things about how virtual events can be better than in-person. At least… in some ways.
Here are some thoughts inspired by last week’s B2B Forum. My colleague Jen Smith is publishing a piece that echoes some of these ideas and introduces others. Even if you don’t run full-blown events, our advice applies to any online meeting, training, or other program you might be running in these Covid times.
Your virtual event is a play, not a movie.
The biggest mistake I see a lot of us making is that we try to control the virtual event attendee experience a little too tightly.
We prerecord all the sessions, the intros, the outros, even the Q&A.
We obsess over the tech.
We forget that events are fundamentally about creating a shared experience with others.
We forget that ultimately we are creating a sense of you-had-to-be-there, a tension that something unexpected could happen.
It’s the difference between a live performance and a Netflix special.
I get it. Tech is iffy sometimes. Platforms can fail. No one wants tech to whiff, ruin the experience for everyone, damage the brand. Prerecording isn’t bad. But when we don’t leave room for magic to happen… it won’t.
The solution is to build in unexpected moments and triggers to action… and then get out of the way.
▶️ Create a trigger to action. Prerecorded on-demand sessions are awesome, because everyone can watch what they want! Whenever they want! On their own time!
But guess what? No one will.
They mean to, sure. But we’re all pulled into meetings and Zoomschooling kids and house-training new puppies…
And then, come night, if it’s a choice between The Queen’s Gambit and your prerecorded session on ABM? Well, I love you, Marketing. But CHECK. MATE.
C.C. Chapman and I wrote in Content Rules about how any content needs a trigger to inspire action. So it is for virtual events, too.
What’s that mean for live events? Run prerecorded sessions as live Watch Parties with Live Chat, with the speaker in attendance, chatting along with the audience, and turning on the camera at the start to say hello and the end to answer questions.
And whatever you do, please please please don’t pretend a prerecorded session is live.
Benefits to this approach: It creates a trigger to watch the session live. It helps the audience form a connection to (and with) the speaker. And it helps the speaker see what resonates, what doesn’t, what needs more explanation… based on real-time audience feedback.
▶️ Think one-to-one, not one-to-audience. At a live event with a live audience, you’re delivering an experience to an entire group of people at one time.
In a virtual program, that “audience” is one single person in front of one single screen. The distance between the speaker and the viewer is literally a few feet of holy ground; the experience more intimate.
What’s that mean for live events? As a speaker or an event producer, don’t just pick up your offline program and plop it into a virtual platform. No, no, no, friend. Instead, use that intimacy to your advantage!*
*In my first draft of this post I wrote “leverage the intimacy” which just goes to show you how even my own writing easily drifts into that high-speed highway lane of soulless writing and corporate-speak LOL
Communicate in more subtle, indirect, nonexaggerated ways that viewers might miss from the stage.
Technology can help here: Speakers Brian Fanzo and Carla Johnson used Prezi Video to place themselves right into their deck, Matrix-style. Brian even turned himself into a bitmoji for part of his talk:
Alternatively, go anti-tech/full analog. I drew all my “PowerPoint slides” with Sharpies. (I later got a wicked Sharpies headache from fumes.)
Here I am introducing keynote speaker Ty Heath. My drawing of Ty looked so much like her, that she decided to use it as her passport photo. Here’s my introduction of David Meerman Scott.
Keynote speaker Kevin Carroll used actual books as his “slides,” weaving together the titles into his closing message as he held them up one by one.
▶️ Leave room for shenanigans. Don’t list everything on the agenda. Leave room for the unexpected.
In our case, that included:
- a virtual flashmob (Flashmob For One!) kickoff
- a photo “walk” with our regular photowalk host Steve Garfield (hi, Steve!)
- paper wieners roasting on a Sharpie fire during a fireside chat
- a birthday shoutout to an attendee whose husband messaged me that day on Instagram (heyo, Stacey!)
- a surprisingly soulful wrap-up pandemic-inspired rendition of Tom Petty’s Free Fallin by MarketingProfs Community Director Matt Snodgrass
▶️ Show the seams. Not everything will run smoothly. Speakers will forget to turn off their cameras. Someone will flub an intro. An attendee will be a little unruly in chat and will need to be taken aside and spoken to.
You know what? That’s OK! That’s part of the experience. It won’t damage your brand as much as make you relatably human.
I’m a firm believer in showing the seams a little bit: Give people a feeling that something could happen at any moment. That’s the thrill of it, isn’t it?
▶️ Put the right people in the room. Listen, none of this works without trust in your colleagues who always bring their A-game. The talented speakers who put the audience first. The audience you have a relationship with. The world’s best event virtual producer in Kelley Whetsell.
And most important: trust in yourself—and the process.
Give everyone room to show up with their full selves, their whole heart. Put the right people in the room. And then get out of the way.
After his closing keynote at the B2B Forum this year (I cried—it was that good), Kevin Carroll called my cell. He asked me the first question every speaker everywhere always asks: “Was that OK?”
I was still choked up at that point, so I couldn’t really answer. I croaked out something pedantic like “AWESOME.”
My answer was in part about Kevin. He and I barely talked prior to his appearance at the B2B Forum. Yet he somehow magically echoed thoughts, ideas, and themes that I and so many other speakers (Michael Barber, Mark Schaefer, Kevin Hamilton, Ty Heath) had laid down over the previous two days.
But my answer was in part also about the event itself. Which leads us back to the beginning: I realized that, in many ways, it doesn’t matter whether you meet in-person or online.
Get the right people in the room.
Let alchemy bubble.
Get out of the way.
When you do that, you don’t have to control it. It just happens. That’s the magic.
A version of this story appeared in Total Annarchy, my fortnightly newsletter that helps you be a better writer, storyteller, marketer. Get it in your inbox; you’ll love it.
Sam S says
Love this article. As the owner of a virtual events business, I’ve definitely seen first hand how hard it can be to get online events right.
To give an example that I think reinforces your point about letting alchemy bubble: as an experiment, we added a feature to our platform where users have a palette of emojis. When they click on an emoji, that emoji bubbles up on everyone’s screen. We weren’t sure if people would use this, but it’s turned into one of our most beloved features. Users smash those emojis all throughout our events to show how they’re feeling and react to different questions/comments/ideas.
It’s little touches like that which can turn just another Zoom meeting into a fun, even magical gathering that brings everyone closer together, even though we’re all apart.