I’ve been connecting with a lot of people in the event planning industry over the last few weeks. Most of us are having to make major adjustments to programs – cancelling in-person gatherings, scrambling to reschedule, or like so many are doing, going virtual.

Most of us have probably been a part of some sort of virtual event before in one way or another, especially in the current COVID-19 world where we’re watching an interactive webinar or panel discussion, or maybe we’re online for a happy hour over Zoom with co-workers or friends. But what really makes a virtual event a success?

Over the last eight years, my primary job has been to plan in-person conferences for thousands of people. A few years ago, my company also added a virtual conference option. Since then, we’ve added virtual user groups and peer group meetings into our repertoire. So if you are considering planning a virtual event, I’ve compiled some helpful information to get you started.

Building an agenda

When you get into the details of exactly what your virtual event will look like, you will start to notice differences. For one, not all of your attendees are in the same time zone as they are when you meet in-person. We are based on the east coast, so we start our virtual days later to accommodate our west coast customers. We also schedule our keynotes for later in the afternoon rather than the morning so we can be sure we will have the greatest number of attendees watching live.

When building your agenda, make sure to factor in plenty of breaks and gaps for people to eat, check in with work, and — these days — take care of their kids. Studies show that 90 minutes is about the maximum amount of time someone can participate virtually without a break. Another key factor to consider when building your virtual agenda is whether or not your content will all be livestreamed or be pre-recorded and played later. We’ve found that a mixture of both is most ideal for us. We livestream our keynotes and our sessions that we anticipate having the most conversation around, and we pre-record other content, playing it either at a dedicated time with live Q&A in the chat room, or making it available strictly on-demand.

These are the options you’ll want to talk through with your event technology partners if you can. It typically costs more to livestream than to upload something for on-demand consumption, so you’ll have to weigh the pros and cons of each option. All these factors lead me to my next point: choosing a technology platform.

Find the tools that work for you

As with live events, technology is one of the most important aspects of a virtual event. There are a lot of options out there, from easy and free to sophisticated and costing hundreds of thousands of dollars. For day-long livestreamed content with one track and a few presenters, my team has been very happy with GoToWebinar. The platform works well and includes all the features that transform your broadcast from just a webinar into a virtual event with features like chat, Q&A, live polls, and the ability to upload slides or additional content.

For our multi-day conferences that have a mixture of live and pre-recorded content, multiple breakout sessions running concurrently, and a space for event sponsors to showcase their products and services, we use a solution from Freeman called OnlineEvent. In addition to being a solid platform that just works, we like the ability to brand the user interface to match our in-person conference look and feel with the ability to offer a variety of options to our event sponsors for branding, placement, and materials. Plus, it ties in with the platform that we’ve used for years for our hybrid in-person and online event that gates the content and allows attendees to access it for a year after the event. The ability to go back to the content and consume it on-demand after the event passes is a huge value-add for customers.

You’ll want to make sure to have a technical resource available on-hand for the duration of your event. The worst thing that can happen is attendees having technical issues and not knowing who to ask for help.

Keep it engaging

The distractions you are competing with in a virtual event environment are unlike anything typical event planners are used to dealing with. Sure, we may have to deal with work distractions, the inviting hotel pool out the window, or the occasional hungover attendee, but when someone is spending the day with you from home, there is no limit to what might drag them away from your content, whether it’s phone calls and emails, social media, kids, laundry — you name it. That’s why it’s absolutely crucial to design engagement points throughout each session. Speakers should be coached before going live to make sure they’ve built in audience polling, places for Q&A with the virtual audience, and even short quizzes. Another option is to have audience members do a worksheet or create something during the session.

Presentation design is key here, too. What may work in-person from a stage may not translate well to the small screen. A great rule of thumb is to have a small audience engagement activity every 10 minutes. Another piece of advice is to always have a moderator or host who can interact with the speaker and draw the audience into the session through conversation and Q&A. For large-scale productions, a professional moderator is a must. We use someone that has a history in broadcast TV because he is used to the technical and public-facing side.

Another key piece of engagement is the ability to allow attendees to connect not only to the speakers but also to each other. The Online EventPro platform offers some amazing virtual networking options that use AI to match attendees who might have common interests. If in doubt, always go back to the beginning and ask yourself, “Why am I hosting this event? What do I want my viewers to take away?” This will help you design the virtual event that works for your audience.

Will virtual events replace in-person gatherings? The short answer is no. Humans are naturally tribal creatures, and nothing in the virtual world will replace shaking hands, chatting to a speaker after a session, or even that late night bar conversation that opens our eyes to new ideas. However, we will see the rise of the hybrid event or supplemental virtual content. So it’s important for event organizers to learn how to engage virtually.

Corie Leaman is Director of IT Nation Events at ConnectWise.

VentureBeat's mission is to be a digital town square for technical decision-makers to gain knowledge about transformative enterprise technology and transact. Discover our Briefings.