Virtual events such as multi-location corporate employee meetings, town hall gatherings, and professional conferences shatter barriers imposed by distance and travel. They offer a professional and effective way to engage even widely dispersed attendees … if they’re done right. These seven 7 steps provide a roadmap to a successful virtual event. In subsequent posts I’ll consider each in more detail.
1. Know your requirements
When Alice asked of the Cheshire cat, “Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?” the Cheshire cat replied, “That depends a good deal on where you want to get to.” And so it is with virtual events. Begin by roughing out “where you want to get to.” Questions help.
What’s the goal of the event? Is it to disseminate information, engage attendees in a collaborative discussion, brainstorm solutions to a problem, inspire trust?
Is the event primarily content-focused, activities-focused or speaker-focused meeting?
How much and what sort of interactivity is required and what’s the preferred medium for interaction (e.g., via text chat, audio, onscreen video presence, real time polls)?
Who’s the audience? Will it include a live local audience, groups at regional sites, individual virtual attendees or all of the above? How many attendees will there be?
Who will present and lead discussions?
What kind of content will be included in the event? Will the content include slides, images, web sites, video clips or audio clips? How important is absolute fidelity to the original layout, font and quality of the original content?
How much content will be shared during the event? How long are the video clips? Will you need to share applications as well as content?
Aside from answering the Cheshire cat’s question, your responses will help you select the appropriate technology for your event.
2. Choose your technology
Virtual event technology varies significantly in cost and functionality. Make sure you select an approach that’s suited to your requirements. In general, web conferencing technology (such as Adobe Connect) is best for events that require a high degree of interaction among attendees. Live streaming (or “webcasting”) may be a better choice for “webinar” style meetings in which a presenter speaks and others listen. There are inevitable trade offs between interactivity, fidelity, latency and cost. Let your requirements drive your technology selection. Unless those requirements are flexible, trying to force existing technology to accommodate the specific needs of your event can be a frustrating exercise.
3. Create a project plan
Think of a virtual event as a project. It contains many moving parts that need to be carefully managed. Basic project management rules apply. Identify your team and make sure everyone understands his or her responsibilities, deliverables and deadlines. This is particularly important for a multi-location event for which different sites manage their own contributions. Create a simple project plan that allows team members and stakeholders to view and update their tasks. A collaborative online tool such as SmartSheet or Google Docs is ideal for this. Create a project repository containing the most recent version of all project documents. Box, DropBox, GoogleDocs or even a shared network drive work well.
4. Prepare a contingency plan … and make sure people read it
Something will go wrong. Be prepared. Draft a plan that considers every possible level of failure – from individual audio problems for a particular attendee to loss of Internet connectivity at the presentation site to a meeting platform server crash. Detail the decisions to be made, the people responsible for making those decisions and the specific steps to be taken. The more imaginative you are in considering potential problems and the more detailed your proposed responses, the more you increase the likelihood of a successful event. Your contingency plan is your “Event Insurance Plan.” Invest in it.
Of course, no matter how comprehensive your contingency plan, it’s worthless unless your team reads it, understands it and is ready to execute it.
5. Test and rehearse
Test all the technology thoroughly well in advance of the event. To the degree possible try to duplicate the actual event conditions. Then test everything again.
Make sure the equipment you test will be used during the event itself. This sounds obvious, but if you’re working with a large organization the equipment you use for the test may not be entirely within your control. Build a relationship with the IT staff in the organization. Make sure the personnel who test and understand the technology will be present at the event.
Finally, conduct a complete rehearsal shortly before the event is scheduled. In addition to providing a final technology test, the rehearsal will highlight potential problems in coordination, staging, content delivery and audio and video quality.
6. After the event … continue the conversation
If the event is successful, attendees will leave with ideas and questions. Consider ways in which to capitalize on this enthusiasm by continuing the conversation. In addition to a link to the event recording, an online discussion board, an attendee survey or even a series of follow-up web conferences can be valuable complements to the event.
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