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  • Danita Jo Talbot

The year of the Virtual Event.

Nonprofits, trade associations, community groups, and honestly every other type of organization are unable to host their event as planned this year. The health and safety issues of a global pandemic has completely changed the landscape for all events in 2020, and beyond. As organizations begin to rethink their events, hosting them virtually instead seems to be the solution. Virtual events are not new--we've been doing them for years. But what a virtual event looks like remains a mystery to many. Here is a what it means to host a virtual event.

Let me start by saying that virtual events come in all shapes and sizes. There are 100% virtual events, where everything is online, accessed via phone, computer, and/or tablet. And their are hybrid virtual events, where some elements are in-person and some are virtual. (Think a small group of VIPs in a room which is live streamed.) This is not an either or choice to be made. Going virtual with an event can be in part or in whole.

The key idea not to loose site of is that virtual events are built on same basic concepts as in-person events. Remain focused on the event purpose, the excitement, the fun, and the engagement of the attendees and this simply becomes an exercise is switching up the logistics of the event.

There are several aspects of taking an event virtual that you will want to consider:

1. Technology

Let's just tackle this first. It's where everyone's mind turns to right away. The most common myth is that going virtual is solved simply by finding the right platform for delivering the event. Spoiler alert, this quite possibly is the last thing you may need to decide upon, despite it being the first thing you'll want to check off your list.

It's good to keep it top of mind, but how to decide which platform is write for your event is much like finding the right venue. Depending on what your event entails, the technology needs are going to be different. Focus on the features and functionality that matches your needs and your budget. You wouldn't host a panel discussion at a bowling alley. Nor would you host a live auction fundraiser on a webinar. This is not a one solution fits all option. While GiveSmart may be great for a fundraiser, Socio may be better for a conference, Facebook Live for streaming performance, or Zoom for a panel discussion. Keep it simple or use more than one, ideally connected to each other, for more complex events. Before you decide which to use, think through some of the other elements of your event suggested below.

Look for a platform you can customize in look and feel specific to your event or organization.

  • Branding: Branding your platform helps make it an extension of your online presence--seeing your logo, your brand/event colors and style let's your audience know they are in the right spot.

  • Automation: Customizing your platform in some instances allows you to automate parts of the experience, like a welcome message or event intro--automation can help give each attendee a personal experience without being labor intensive for you.

  • Integration: Connecting with your registration process for example will make it a smoother and seamless experience for attendees.

  • Communications: Some technology includes custom email templates, branded web (break out) rooms, and even integration with social media.

  • Analytics: Reporting is a huge advantage to virtual events. You'll want to understand any customization available to create reports to slice and dice info about which parts of your event were most attended, received the most engagement and other insights about your attendees that is valuable to help you continue communicating with them year round.

Customizing the technology platform is a major consideration for immersing your attendees in the event.

2. Content Hub

No matter what technology platform you choose, you'll need to create an event Home. This is the central place where everything about your event lives or is linked from. It serves as a content hub for the event attendees. It can be as simple as building out a website or even just a single page on your existing website. Because your attendees may be on their computer and others on their phone or tablet, be sure your event Home is available and looks good on all of these devices. (It needs to a responsive design.)

The platform you choose may provide an event home. No matter if you build it yourself, or use one incorporated into the platform you choose, you'll want to consider including information like:

  • Event overview

  • Agenda or schedule of activities

  • Speaker profiles

  • Sponsor space: links, highlights, ads, virtual exhibit halls, live demos

  • Communications: a recap of all communications (email and otherwise)

  • Social media integration: feeds from your social media, links to channels, sharing links, hashtags

  • Info about your organization

  • Rooms: designated places for break out sessions, networking, keynote speakers or maybe even some that are gated or accessible only to VIPs through a password

3. Engagement

This is the single most important part of delivering a good attendee experience. Turning a one way conversation interactive keeps your audience engaged, interested, and getting the most out of your event. Encourage your speakers to incorporate a poll early into their presentation. Explain how to use the Q&A feature and take frequent breaks to answer a few questions live. Virtual engagement comes in the form of

  • Surveys

  • Q&As

  • Polls

  • Push notifications

  • Networking (chats rooms, opt-in profile directories)

4. Sponsor Visibility/Recognition

For anyone who has hosted an in-person event, this is an essential part of the plan for affording how to pay for the event. And for sponsors, this is a very targeted way to get your brand and expertise in front of your ideal audience. There are so many ways to get sponsors the visibility they're willing to pay for. You just may need to creatively think about how to take it virtual.

  • Sponsor introductions

  • video breaks

  • live demo /chat rooms

  • overlay on screen (show the logo in the lower third of the screen)

  • keynote sponsors

  • Q&As: be the first to ask a question of a panel or speaker

  • home delivery of surprise gift (to VIPs)

5. Ticketing/Registration

One of the big benefits of hosting an online event is that you can create tiers of tickets at lower prices, opening up attendance to a wider audience. Sure those lower tiers of tickets will give attendees access to fewer items, but you'll reach a broader audience. And with a year-round communication plan, this can really help you grow quickly.

You will want to consider software that allows you to set permissions level ticketing (so that your registration only allows you entrance to certain parts of the online event). This is also called creating gated content--content, sessions, speakers who are only available to people with specific registration levels. It can be as easy as giving them a code, a special link or more sophisticated like coding their profile they set up during registration.

With online tools, you have more tracking and therefore control over knowing who is where (online) and when--you'll also have more controls over it.

6. The remaining 5 items are considerations specific to nonprofit fundraisers.

  • Online giving: Making it easy to donate via online is essential to a virtual fundraiser. You'll want to be sure you make it easy to give at pre-determined suggested giving levels. Also consider making it easy to choose to give to a variety of campaigns/funds, designated for specific parts of your cause. And lastly, be sure to use the automated features to provide tax receipts at the time of donation--it will save you so much administrative follow up.

  • Mobile Giving (text to give): Offering text to give options is almost a given for a virtual event. Many people will be accessing your event from their phone, or at the very least, have their phone handy. Take advantage of that and make it easy for them to use their phone to donate. It's simple to use. But set it up ahead of time, as the process for getting started can be complicated. It so much better to set up text to give before you need it, then in the moment.

  • Online Bidding (Auction): Whether you're hosting a silent, live or online auction you'll want to make sure you have specialty software to help manage this. You'll thank yourself later for doing this. From bidding, to closing out and payment processing, online auction software is an investment well worth the manual alternative.

  • Peer to Peer Fundraising: This is basically a concept that uses all of your biggest supporters to go out there and fundraise on your behalf. Individuals create personal give pages that raise dollars for your single cause. You should provide them with everything they need to fundraise for you, from email templates, page language and suggested giving levels, to personal support they need from your fundraising team to help when they need it. The individuals share their page with their personal networks, and ask for donations. By the way, if you're not convinced, know that people are more likely to give to people, rather than organizations. Matter of fact just shy of 50% of Millennials and Gen Zs said they're most likely to give to people they know, regardless of the nonprofit. (source: Kindful)

  • Employee Giving Campaign: Companies can provide you with an opportunity to fundraise from it's employees. You can use your online event to reach employees at a partner company more directly. Your cause is highlighted, the message is delivered directly using online resources, and the company endorsement of your cause can help reach employees who are already aligned with the corporate social values.

No matter which of these ways you choose to turn your in-person event virtual, the options are plentiful. Going virtual opens up new opportunity.

As the entire landscape of events change, I'm proud to be working as part of team who are helping businesses re-define events, moving them skillfully online, not missing a beat in engaging with attendees. I am part of #ProjectPivot.

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