Most of us think a meaningful event needs to be in person. But in-person meetings are just one way to realize the shared outcomes of gatherings. Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, many organizations were moving away from in-person meetings. Reasons included ecological sustainability, a desire for increased total attendance, the challenges and costs of travel logistics, disruption to regular work, and life/work balance.
In-person events are more than just meetings. They are platforms for connection that help organizations realize network effects necessary for exponential change. Salesforce, arguably one of the most digital companies in the world, hosts a massive, 170,000 person event every year. Called Dreamforce, it’s proven to be the best way to accelerate connections in their ecosystem. Furthermore, it has another 16 million viewers online.
Yet most presenters and facilitators don’t have much experience with digital ‘telepresence,’ or replicating the richness of in-person experiences. So what can we do to make online events more than just watching ‘conference tv’ or ‘dialing in?’
There’s good news whether you are scaling back to a ‘hybrid’ half-online event or canceling in-person events altogether. In the last few years, we’ve seen a slew of new thinking and new tools to make online events more closely replicate the richness of in-person experiences and even offer value found only in remote events.
Remote events are only as good as the lowest common denominator of an organization’s mental models and technology. In other words, a company with advanced technologies for telepresence but with teams who still think of remote meetings as phone calls won’t get far. Neither will a company with advanced thinking about collaboration but technology limited only to phone lines.
To successfully run a remote event, we have to have both the right thinking as well as the right technologies.
One of the biggest mental model challenges for events of all kinds, but especially online events, is how to break the frame of ‘presenter to audience’. Instead of audience members, the best events have participants, which is why leading events like the RSA Conference combine stage presentations with working sessions and other formats. But when online, we often switch into ‘lean back’ mode like we’re watching television, rather than being an integral part of what’s happening in the event.
Here are best-in-class strategies from in-person events, translated into parallel — or even superior — online experiences. The key to all of these best practices is to foster participation, peer connection and co-creation. Let’s go through key intentions of events to link in-person and online approaches.
In-person events often are designed with a clear narrative arc intended to bring a group through a number of ‘aha’ moments and shared experiences. The best events help people understand how the summit, conference or meeting connects to the larger world before and after the ‘live’ session.
Online strategies: Like in-person sessions, the quality of shared experiences online varies a bit. Without some of the emotional and social bandwidth of seeing others, it can be hard to have shared ‘aha’ moments. Wise online event planners focus on making the narrative arc of the event as explicit as possible through clear agendas and the option for people to ‘step out’ gracefully from sessions. This allows not just for breaks but also peer-to-peer connections just like they would in an in-person setting. But just like a live event, you still need people who go to check in with participants to invite them back in for subsequent sessions.
Notifications be they through a Slack channel, Twitter feed or app pushes, can really help to keep the rhythm of the event visible and strong. Additionally, people can ‘catch up’ on anything they missed by scrolling back through social feeds or a livestream to stay connected with others.
Great events allow for break from ‘business as usual’ that allows for focus, new thinking and synchronization. One of the most valuable parts of in-person events is the (hope for a) respite from the constant ringing of phones and inboxes. Changing the time, place and style of our work makes room for committee meetings, design sessions and other forms of work which might be hard to create space for in everyday work.
Online strategies: Online events may struggle to feel like a break from business-as-usual if people are staring at the computer all day anyway. But well-planned agendas with sessions that tap diverse kinds of thinking can help greatly. One part of live events that signals a break from business-as-usual is the ability to ‘zoom out’ and see the big picture. Another is the explicit permission to focus and/or learn.
Social outcomes: serendipitous connections and conversations with colleagues they haven’t met before or don’t see often. In-person events often have a lot of activities around the edges, like cocktail hours, lunches, exposition halls and networking sessions. The best events integrate opportunities for connection and play during sessions, too.
Online event organizers may find it challenging to realize social outcomes. Tools like online ‘breakout rooms,’ chat and polls or quizzes can help. The best online events integrate virtual avatars (like a Sims character). They also offer event-specific spaces on social networks, virtual icebreakers and other game-like play that hold participants’ attention. But just launching the tool isn’t enough; you’ll need team members to spark conversation, distribute ‘materials,’ and sort through questions posed to presenters — just like a live event.
Unplanned connections online require the ability to discover other people. Second Life and other online worlds allow for this; event emcees, agenda planners and presenters can all plan space and prompts for people to 'discover' others.
Emotional outcomes are vital part of great events. Participants need space to communicate about relationships, in addition to intellectual or functional topics. In-person events often have opportunities for participants to engage and bond with one another over the presented content, the business, or their own experiences, creating deeper relationships and a sense of belonging.
Online events may have difficulty fostering emotional connections between participants. Unless space is specifically made for discussions, most online formats are focused on viewing or perhaps dialogue with a presenter, not peers. And just like in-person events, loud voices can drown out or discourage quieter ones.
Modern tools can help. Real-time chat and commenting through tools like Slack or even WhatsApp provides connection as people experience the event together. Often these touchpoints are then carried on during breaks or even after the event ends for the day. It’s particularly important that participants are invited to channels like this and encouraged to use them. An event our company presented at had a digital parallel with the simple addition of WhatsApp group linking all participants. Conversations from months ago are still going.
For organizers who want to go to the next level (and have a relatively savvy group of attendees), virtual reality environments can be used. A good tool can emulate the kind of interactivity of people occupying a common space, and improvements in VR tech are making these interactions more realistic. Such an experience can promote a sense of oneness with others attending, much like a well-laid-out in-person venue can. VirBELA and other virtual reality ‘event platforms’ offer up, well, ‘virtual real estate’ wherein you can make the perfect venue for your event.
Live events allow for intellectual learning (transfer of knowledge). Perhaps even more importantly, they also allow for observation: learning by watching others and ‘reading the room.’ That’s why a presentation or workshop can sometimes be better than reading a book or article about the same content. In-person events often provide two-way interactions between speakers and participants, both verbally and non-verbally. Everyone can ‘read the room’ and have an improved experience by observing others. And they allow participants to see and interact with other participants. They also suffer from participants only being able to be in one place at a time.
Online events present people and spaces typically as fixed windows on a screen. Remedy this with cameras that pan in-person spaces and/or having participants livestream from their own devices. Paired with online, collaborative whiteboarding and visual notes, like Miro, such tools allow those in front of a computer to potentially have an even richer experience than those who aren’t. One way or another, participants need to be able to both express their sentiments and observe others.
Novel formats and content help organizers create engaging experiences (sometimes using AV) that help people think newly. In-person events often incorporate exciting video, performance or interactive elements that support the larger intentions of the event, provides a deeper emotional connection and sets the tone of a break from business as usual.
Online events need to work harder sometimes to provide the ‘splash’ factor of an in-person event. Video doesn’t always stream well on a webcast, and tinny laptop speakers rarely provide the same impact of kicking off with a thumping bass track. But online events can leverage ‘watch together’ technology and engagement tools which might be harder to do in person. For even more impact, use new tools for live, automated transcription. Some are available at low cost, like Otter.ai. This means people can watch and read the content at the same time.
No matter which strategies you plan to employ, it’s critical to set the tone for online events. Start first with the shift from audiences to participants. And then change the way the event is planned to focus on each section’s intent rather than its logistics before you start trying to create online parallels. That will help you and your teams raise expectations for what’s possible online — and even exceed what was possible in hotel ballrooms and expo centers.
Did this guidebook get you thinking? Let's talk about how to bring new mental models into your organization for exponential results.