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Meeting Profs Asked; We Answered: Top Concerns for Planning a Virtual Meeting

By October 1, 2020 Projection

I recently participated in a webinar to discuss everything that went into making CESSE’s annual virtual conference a success. Like so many meetings now, this was the first time the organization delivered a fully virtual experience to its members; the team behind it wanted to share what we learned, best practices and key considerations.

Throughout the webinar, we took questions from meeting professionals, which mirror many we consistently hear from clients and prospects:

There’s no reason for us keeping those questions – and the answers to them – secret, so we pulled them together here.

How can we provide value to exhibitor/sponsors in a virtual setting?

It’s important to remember the obvious point: Virtual meetings are not the same as physical, and should be treated as such. When it comes to delivering value to your sponsors, it’s critical to understand that doing so requires new and creatives ways in virtual environments.

Cvent offers some insightful tips for creating valuable sponsorship packages:

  • Start by asking the question: What’s in it for them? Sponsors choose events based on leads they can gather, connections they can make, and brand recognition they can build. So, offerings should center around connecting your audience and your sponsors.
  • Align with sponsor goals and objectives. If you’re not sure what those are, take the time to ask, and consider working together to build a sponsorship package that meets their goals as well as yours.
  • Leverage time. In virtual events, content can be available on-demand and shared out after the event, further extending the value and reach of your sponsors’ brands.

In the same post, Cvent offers 11 ideas to help you and your team get started down the path of designing opportunities and packages that will deliver value to your unique sponsor partners. For example: Home screen logo placement, hosting a happy hour, virtual trade show booths and branded swag.

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How can we facilitate engagement?

When it comes to attendee engagement, while we can’t replicate the physical experience, we can design opportunities that really draw them in and facilitate interaction.

  • Take the fun up a notch. In a virtual setting, we don’t have the built-in benefit of a person’s three-dimensional attention. We can’t observe their reactions and react accordingly. Therefore, it’s important to remember that by infusing fun into the experience, you increase the likelihood that you’ll grab – and hold – attendees’ attention.
  • Build entertainment around content. For example, rather than having empty space before your plenary session kicks off, find creative ways to entertain attendees. Clients have had interactive dueling pianos where the audience can request and vote on songs or cooking tutorials with celebrity chefs that answer questions from attendees.
  • Think beyond subject-matter content. Like many physical events do, give attendees the option to try, experience and interact with something new.
  • Design games and experiences that facilitate participation. Create a trivia game where everyone viewing can participate. (Hint: You can pull those sponsors in here with prizes.)
  • Create interactive breakout sessions. Allow attendees to interact with presenters through chat, audio and video. Doing so enhances both engagement and value to participants.

Keep in mind as it relates to engagement in breakouts: Size matters more in a virtual setting than physical. The smaller the group, the better. Based on our experience, five is the ideal number; it gives everyone the ability to interact. Twenty-five should be the absolute max in a virtual breakout.

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What about networking? How can I facilitate networking opportunities virtually?

We’ve found using breakouts to facilitate virtual receptions is particularly valuable.

Everyone is struggling to deliver a networking experience virtually; this model addresses that need quite well. Let’s say you have a reception for 250 people. You can start the event by breaking the larger group into smaller groups of 10. You give them an ice-breaker and 10 minutes to network with the nine others in the group. Then, you bring the larger group back together and do it again, with new groups. You repeat this a few times, so everyone is able to meet and network with a significant number of attendees.

Ironically, attendees often end up networking with more people in that virtual reception than they would in the physical world.

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How should I go about choosing a platform?

One of the things that has almost become a mantra for us here at Projection is: “Design your meeting/experience first; choose the platform second.” We have seen time and time again when an organization likes a particular platform – whether it’s because of a partnership or experience attending another virtual event – and ends up running into barrier after barrier as the realization hits that the platform doesn’t support their desired experience.

Every platform has pros and cons. The infrastructure and user experience are dramatically different from one to the other. That’s why it’s critical – we cannot say this loud enough – to design the meeting before choosing the platform you are going to use to execute it.

How to get started: Define what your end goal is. Do you want attendees to be educated? Inspired? For example, there are great platforms for sales meetings and for scientific meetings, but they deliver very different experiences.

Once you have the goal and experience you want to deliver defined, you can get started on identifying the right platform. Here are some questions to ask:

  • What is the largest number of attendees that you’ve had on the platform at one time?
  • How many events have you had run concurrently on the platform?
  • How many events are happening over the dates of my event?
  • What tech integrations are included in your platform? For example, does your platform have its own video delivery mechanism?

For more, check out our recent blog post on this topic.

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How can we maintain interaction with the audience?

There are a lot of similarities and best practices that translate from the physical world, such as the need for a moderator or group lead. Having that role is imperative because it helps keep the group on track with the task they have been assigned. That person also helps involve others who might be a little more introverted or shy. If you don’t have someone to lead, the more social and extroverted members tend to take over.

A best practice to deliver a seamless experience for moderators and attendees: Create a way outside of the virtual meeting platform that all breakout moderators can communicate. If you have 20 breakouts with a moderator in each one, there are likely issues that will arise that require attention or consensus. Without a channel – like WebEx, Teams or Slack – where moderators can connect outside of the breakout (with attendees watching), they are left out in the breakout wilderness. That can lead to a poor experience for both moderators and attendees.

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Should sessions be recorded or live?

It depends… and both. We recommend asking: Do I want to facilitate interaction in this session? If the answer is yes, the content should be live (or at least live for a portion – see below). If the answer is no, and the presenter is delivering a talk/content without audience interaction or participation, we recommend pre-recording the session.

As event professionals, we all know there’s no guarantee something won’t go sideways. But when doing a virtual event, we get to come as close as possible – by pre-recording some of the “live” content. Do you have 100 breakout session presenters? Consider having them record their presentations in advance. They get to deliver a flawless presentation and avoid any tech or connection issues. Following the recording – if you want that interaction piece – they can go live for Q&As with attendees. (We recommend they wear the same outfit as the recording; to attendees, the entire experience feels live.)

With pre-recorded content, imagination is the only limit. There is no reason to use the content only for the live event. It can be used in advance to build anticipation or after to continue driving views and engagement.

Remember that idea of a cooking tutorial or dueling pianos? Of course, for audience participation, experiences like that need to be delivered live.

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In terms of program length, what works best?

The reality is, people only have a certain capacity to stay tuned in. (The same is true in physical meetings; attendees just happen to be there, so you can count them as attentive.) Our recommendation is to keep the daily length to 2-3 hours. If you need to spread the event over a few days or even a few weeks, you can design an agenda that appeals to certain audiences for each section, so people are actively engaged for the content about which they care most.

One of the pros of virtual events is that content lasts forever. As humans, we often learn better when we can go back and re-consume information, which means you could continue to drive engagement with your content for days/weeks/months after the event.

For more on this topic, check out Claire Hoffman’s BizBash article.

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How can we support and prepare speakers?

As always with any event, planning is key. At Projection, we offer clients a speaker-ready room – just like we do for physical meetings – to ensure speakers are prepared and comfortable with the platform.

When we set up that virtual speaker-ready room, we offer each presenter one-on-one assistance with a technician to ensure they are comfortable and prepared. Whether or not you have a speaker-ready room, it’s important to get presenters familiar with the environment in which they’re going to present.

Provide a roadmap. Make sure they have every logistic and direction that they will need – from how they are entering the platform (will they need to register in advance?) to how early they will be arriving and whether there is a green room.

Be generous with the best practices. Make sure presenters have best practices covered.

  • Lighting: Make sure the main light source is in front of you, not behind.
  • Sound: A headset microphone is best, as you have headphones and microphone all in one.
  • Ideally, hardwire your computer. If you need to use Wi-Fi (which we do not recommend), make sure you are as close as possible to the router.
  • Camera: Position it at eye level or just below.

For more best practices, check out our team’s Remote Presenter Best Practices.

Rehearse. We recommend hosting a rehearsal the day before the event so it’s fresh in everyone’s minds. Human interaction is key, whether a meeting, speaker-ready room, or rehearsal, it’s important that presenters don’t feel like they’re left out in the virtual cold.

The way presenters are prepared and deliver their content will have a direct impact on the attendee experience, so it’s important to ensure they receive the time and attention needed in this new environment. While we all got used to delivering presentations in person, we have to remember this is a completely different medium, and uncomfortable to many, so the more we can communicate, engage and advise, the better the overall experience will be for everyone.

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What is the best way to handle poster sessions?

The inaugural Photonics Online Meetup (POM) that took place in January 2020 presents how they successfully executed a virtual poster session in a paper titled “How to organize an online conference.”

We provided a four-slide poster template that was optimized for display on Twitter. We asked the presenters to create a personal or group Twitter account (if they didn’t already have one), post their poster, and add a short description. We also encouraged the use of the conference hashtag (#POM20) to allow researchers to easily join the poster session. For those without an account, such as researchers in locations where access to Twitter is restricted, the organizers posted the posters via the POM twitter account and relayed the questions to the presenters directly. Comments and answers could be followed by all as a thread below each poster.

As compared to conventional conferences, the poster on twitter had a much wider reach, with some reaching 4000 views. While this is not a typical “wine and cheese” poster viewing, the posters were viewable for days, and one can still go back to see them by looking up the hashtag. This method also allowed researchers to create threads, directly linking relevant papers to their posters, further improving research dissemination.

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