• Diane Larusso Sharp

Considering Virtually-Everything Events

Updated: Aug 27, 2020

If your organization is accustomed to hosting events throughout the year—whether the purpose is to draw customers to a retail hub, convene community members for feedback, celebrate a milestone, or even raise money—you’re probably scrambling to come up with some new approaches. Given the ever-changing restrictions on public gatherings and the high likelihood that Coronavirus will keep us all on our toes for a good while—among many other liabilities events are facing right now—the topic certainly needs some attention.

After all, your organization still has important work to do, and you’ve got to find ways to get it done—live events, or not! The virtual event landscape is full of new opportunity, though, if you’re not afraid to navigate some new terrain.

Virtual live events can be as basic as streaming pre-recorded content to your organization’s YouTube or Twitch channel, but if that’s your approach, you’d better be selling a pretty fantastic experience. I mean, this kind of approach puts you in direct competition with Netflix, Hulu, Disney Plus… you get my point… and if you want streaming to work, you’ll have to convince people to choose your content over the entire world of streaming entertainment, at a minimum.

Virtual events can go well beyond a one-way viewer-only experience, though. They can be multi-dimensional, personal, interactive, and a lot of fun. There are plenty of new, slick, savvy apps that make using the technology relatively easy, and can be employed at reasonable costs—but to produce effective virtual events, you must put yourself in the shoes of a tv producer, and then alternately, the intended viewer-participant.

Does a virtual event need to be live, in real-time?

The first question to ask is, “do we have a compelling, time-bound activity to incorporate that will compel an audience to tune in at our specific date and time?” Knowing your audience is key, here, of course, and answering this will help you determine if a single, real-time live stream is worth the investment in preparation and production support required for a quality experience.

Big, exciting unveilings or announcements—so long as your target audience cares enough about whatever it is—might be a reason folks would tune in live on a date and time. You might also consider unique local assets you could leverage as “attractions” (like local celebrities, performances, voting (decision-making or data-gathering), prize drawings, games, or other stunts) that will entice folks to participate and keep them watching.

Virtual networking opportunities may also be a compelling reason for people to “show up” online at your live event. Similarly, large group meetings—even those that incorporate smaller breakout group sessions—can be managed through new and ever-emerging virtual platforms, allowing all sorts of business-as-usual at events, courtesy of internet connection and phone/computer. (These platforms can work for “galas” too, if you think about the virtual breakout groups as the “tables” your sponsors would have bought and hosted in past years.)

If, it turns out, that you don’t have a great reason to “force” folks to watch your event on a specific date and time, though—don’t worry! You can still make virtual events work “on-demand.” You’ll need to do a little more thinking about your promotions, and position them within a context of a release date, or range of dates that the content will be available. Consider leaning on best practices in campaign communication to craft your event marketing plan and drive viewers to your content. (More on this later.)

Focus on thoughtful, clear, quality content

Be sure to keep your brand, key message, and goals centered in focus as you develop your content plan. Define the general tone, and stick to it. Identify a handful of relevant stories that can be developed about your neighborhood, street or town that will hold viewers’ attention, keep them entertained, evoke emotions, and support a logical progression to the action or outcome that helps meet your goals.

The flow, timing and production quality of your virtual event must be considered carefully—too much “dead” time, long or flat speeches, or poor audio-video quality on a live broadcast is sure to lead to impatient or distracted viewers clicking away to something else, walking away from their computer, or just shutting it off altogether.

Continuity, layered repetition, and reinforcement of key messages woven throughout—by way of tone, visuals and physical elements—strengthens the overall experience, and will ultimately determine the degree to which your event achieves the outcomes you desire.

Establish a structure for your live event—if it’s going to be one hour long (more or less), start with a basic draft of how will that time be divided into a mix of inspirational stories, entertainment, instructional messages, sponsor or supporter recognition, and any other event “business” you need to accomplish to meet your goals. As you get into the details, you may find you need to shift the order of segments, record additional b-roll or a voice-over to ease a transition, or even edit simply to meet time constraints. The important advice here is to be flexible as the creative production plan comes together.

A note about content, copyright and CYA:

I’m not a lawyer, so this isn’t legal advice—and, if you’re working with production professionals, you shouldn’t have to worry about this. However, it’s worth reminding ourselves that anyone’s copyrighted work—visual, music or otherwise—may only be used with permission. Using copyrighted material without permission lands all your hard work and those digital assets right in the virtual trash can. To feature local public art, or use original music by local musicians—it’s only reasonable and fair to ensure that credit for their work is properly displayed. But if you dare run “Paradise City” as the intro before your Exec takes the “presentation screen,” don’t say I didn’t warn you.

Recruit the right partners, and allow enough production time

Recruit production partners who already understand your organization and its goals, if you can—the more familiar your team is with your organization at the start, the less explaining and directing you’ll have to do. Good production partners are more than just fantastic to work with—they can often offer solutions that’ll help you stay on or under budget throughout the process, from b-roll to in-studio rehearsals, voice-overs to graphics, bringing it all together in the final editing process.

That’s speaking, of course, just for your pre-recorded content.

If you’re aiming to livestream action in real time, whether it’s a full, hourlong broadcast or whether you’re streaming pre-recorded segments interspersed with live, real-time action, things get a bit more complicated. Live-streaming requires additional infrastructure, including access to sufficient internet bandwidth from your location, technical equipment and personnel. You’d also better have someone on your own staff who’s prepared to wear a headset and assist in calling the show as it happens.

Of course, sometimes it’s appropriate to use cellphone or computer video for less formal moments, but to put forth any kind of professional image, be sure to pay extra attention to how and where the camera is positioned relative to the subjects being filmed, the lighting, background and sound quality. These are all things professional photographers and filmmakers automatically do—and often, it’ll be easier to have them coach your Executive or Board Chair to get the best take, rather than try to provide that support, yourself. Some companies offer drop-ship kits for executive audio-video “pop-up studios” that folks can set up themselves with simple instructions for higher-quality live-streaming from any location (again, with sufficient internet signal and bandwidth).

Rehearse, rehearse, rehearse.

Speaking of cost-effectiveness—you’re paying your production partner for the equipment and people who are hanging around on production days, so you best run a tight ship to keep things on budget. Require rehearsals from everyone who’ll have screen time and a responsibility to the program—emcees, Executive Directors, Board Chairs, featured volunteers. Begin checking in with your “talent” (they’ll usually like being called that, but use your own judgement) several weeks in advance, to ensure they’ve received (or written) their talking points, or have a script prepared. Ask to watch them rehearse, so you can get a sense of what coaching (and by whom) might be needed. If multiple people will be interacting on camera, get them on a conference call to discuss the plan, at a minimum.

The more you can coach the talent to rehearse ahead of time—and keep them accountable to their preparation—the less frustrated you’ll be when it’s time for the recording action.

SWAG for virtual events

First, understand that “SWAG” is an acronym: Stuff We All Get. For a virtual event, think about the digital assets your supporters might use, if you provide them, on social media or in email signatures to indicate their support or involvement. Going beyond just setting an event hashtag (which you should do, no matter what), SWAG for virtual events might be social media badges, backgrounds, profile picture “frames,” or even GIFs. Your friendly local graphic designer can probably help you out again here.

That said, virtual event SWAG doesn’t have to be digital-only. Think about physical enhancements to the virtual experience, and how those might be mailed or shipped—or even available for pickup—to your entire audience, or to VIPs only, in advance or afterwards, to add an extra special touch, reinforce the relationship, and put something into your constituents’ hands in real life. Stickers, coupons, tchotchkes, samples of local products, printed materials, promotional items might all work, but I’d encourage you to curate your kit here—you don’t want it to come off as a box of junk. Packaging, too, will play a role in how your SWAG is received, and is especially important if you plan to ship something that won’t fit into standard mailboxes.

As SWAG goes, this layer of event experience probably falls much lower on the priority list of things you might be worried about right now, but the time to make a decision to move forward with something like this is early in the planning process.

If you will be including some tangible aspect to enhance your virtual event, consider what it is, how and when it will be mailed, shipped, or delivered. Is the packaging flat or bulky? Are any contents temperature- or weather- sensitive? What kinds of packaging are needed, and what is the budget for distribution? If you will orchestrate some sort of pick-up option, assign responsibility to whom will manage the process, for what communications must be developed to support it and ensure that communication is clear and effective.

Event marketing is a campaign

When you’re producing something in the virtual world of the internet, there’s no guarantee it’ll ever be found. But after you put in all the hard work to assess, and plan, and write and rehearse and write and re-write and rehearse again… whew. Well, wouldn’t it suck if no one bothers to click the link and watch it?

Remember there’s a lot of noise online and a lot to distract your audience, so if you have a longstanding event—one that people anticipate highly every year—you might want to keep some or all of your printed and traditional media event marketing tools in play. A physical invitation to an event folks will recognize is a way to grab their attention offline—even if you’re asking them to participate online at a later date and time.

It’s not enough just to post a few times on your organization’s Facebook page. And we all know that no one goes looking for events on our websites much anymore… although the announcements should be there, too. Think about using edited snippets of b-roll or select “previews” of your recorded segments to post :15 or :30 videos to your social media channels, along with “save the date” or calls to “opt in” to help gain traction. If you’re selling tickets or charging a participation fee of any sort, include the URL to the purchase site or menu of options. Plan on announcing your date 4-6 months in advance for large signature events, if you can, with the most aggressive presence of invitations and promotions over the 6 weeks leading up to your live broadcast or “release” date.

Layer the types of media you use to promote the event, and be sure you’re frequently visible. Spend a little money to boost your posts about a month out, and measure your interactions with various tools or posts if you can. This will help you understand which platforms are working best for your audience. Then, do more of that.

Finally, don’t forget the value of a peer-to-peer invitation. If you’re worried that you won’t be able to attract the folks you want in your virtual audience, consider reaching out to some of them more personally, preferably by having someone they know and respect do the inviting on your organization’s behalf.

Do your best, take notes, learn lessons

The truth is, when it comes to place-based events going virtual, no one really has done a whole ton of this. We’re all sort of making it up as we navigate a new and exciting opportunity. We’d be short-sighted to rest on our laurels here, though, as virtual event platforms will teach us all kinds of new things about how we can celebrate and engage with our places and the people in them.

Post-event debrief meetings are important, but documenting the content is more important than the meeting itself—so gather the input in whatever ways work best for your team. Be sure when it’s all over to dust off those original goals, and report the metrics that you actually achieved, showing comparison. Take detailed notes (and save them where they can be found!) about what worked best, who was a great partner (or not), who was really great on audio—or video—or both. Document the production schedules and the outcomes. Include the communications calendar, along with the numbers of interactions in every outreach area that can be counted.

In the end, you may find that there are elements of the virtual experience you’ll want to carry forward next year—even if we are all happily gathering again in person by then. Either way, you won’t have missed a beat in connecting your community to your organization, and hopefully, you’ll have met the goals that are most important to your mission, despite everything 2020 has thrown at us (so far). Good luck. I’m rooting for you!

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