20 Things We Learned From Our Virtual Events That Drew 50,000 Attendees

Skift Take

In March 2020, EventMB embarked on a monthly journey to support the event industry through a series of online events. It turned out to be quite an eventful journey, and here are the learnings.

‘What if we do an online event?’ That was the talk among the EventMB team while we were asking ourselves how to make sense of the destruction happening in the event industry.

While we could sense the industry moving to virtual as soon as February, we could have not anticipated the length and depth of the pandemic impact:

At EventMB, we have been running webinars for years. We were familiar with what was needed to make them successful. We had been using Zoom for two years. Little did we know what was ahead of us.

This article is a short account of some of the learnings of our event program. Of course, these are just our experiences and are by no means meant to be the prescription for everybody.

Yet sharing out loud some of the lessons we learned is sure to help some of you still trying to make sense of the virtual event revolution.

Design for Simplicity

When designing our events, we have been in the very comfortable position of having a number of technology partners and platforms available. The hardest choice was to make sense of all the tools available while preserving the experience for attendees. Understanding what our attendees wanted was a complicated riddle.

  1. Be Ready for Tech to Not Work

One of our events had technical difficulties when 5,000 attendees were trying to join the platform at the same time. It’s fair to say that we were not as prepared as we needed to be for that to happen. Subsequent events had three backup plans and extensive testing of the platform. The team spent more time on the backup plan than on the actual event plan. It gave us the confidence to be ready for anything.

  1. Know Your Numbers

When scoping out the technology for your event, have a very clear idea about how many people will attend. Have the best possible guess, spend a lot of time forecasting. Discuss the requirements with your tech partner. In our case, both our team and the platform were caught off guard by unexpected numbers.

  1. Don’t Feel the Need to Use All Features

The natural inclination for the first events we ran was to use all of the tools available on a platform. We quickly moved away from that in favor of the experience. For example, there is  a 20 second delay when streaming via RTMP to an event platform. If you plan to use polls, they will be out of sync. We decided to get rid of them in favor of other engagement activities.

  1. Share the Audience Voice

We stimulated conversation continuously during our events on social media and via the virtual event platform’s Q&A. We used templates to share the top tweets. All sessions were designed in a way that would allow for questions from the audience to be discussed. Initially, we had a format of 15-minute sessions plus one minute for Q&A. By the last event, we had 15 minutes plus five minutes for Q&A, shifting the conversation to more of a town hall format.

  1. Incentivise Live Attendance

Live attendance should be prioritized if we are planning live events as opposed to recorded videos. To make the audience feel like they are attending an event, use direct communications to increase the perception that showing up to the live broadcast is important. Get them to activate their account, pick times that are convenient at different time zones, and if necessary, make asynchronous attendance available at a premium.

  1. Consider Live Youtube Videos

Many have looked at virtual events as TV show experiences, yet very few watch in studio TV experiences. Live Youtube videos are more what we had in mind for our events. We put a lot of effort in scripting events in the same fashion you would prepare a recorded video with high engagement moments to involve the audience. We passed on the opportunity to have a live studio as we thought the priority was content, not green screens.

  1. Change the Format

Virtual events gave us the opportunity to innovate the event design in a much more agile fashion than in-person could ever do. The risk has been fairly low to try new things. There was no excuse to repeat the same tired in-person models, which were already in need of a brush up.

  • We introduced 15 minute sessions to respect the attention spans of attendees.
  • We pioneered bullet point sessions: four speakers, three minutes each, three slides, one minute per slide.
  • We broke down panels in the most straightforward way: one question per speaker, three minutes max.
  • We featured creative breaks with music and workouts.
  1. Streamyard Is a Killer

I insisted on using Streamyard very early on after our sister team at Skift implemented it for their events. This platform was instrumental to deliver a more streamlined experience to the audience than Zoom or OBS.

  1. Graphic Recording Is a Must Have

Partnering with Chris Shipton was a power move that gave us the ability to visually aid our audience to consume large amounts of content. Blessed to have him.

  1. Splitting Moderation

Moderation is one of the single most important items to keep the audience engaged. I moderated chunks of up to four hours during our first events. I was drained by hour two, With new events, I counted on the help of Sabrina Meyers to help out. This was instrumental on the lead up to the event.

  1. OCD Run of Show

Our run of show has been accurate to the second. That helped us to know exactly what was coming and communicate it clearly to the speakers. The run of show comes first, opinions come second.

  1. Respecting the ROS

I made it my personal goal to be as punctual as possible, learning how to cut speakers gently and stay on time. This was key to giving the audience a sense that we knew what was going on, and to making speakers performing later during the show feel that their time was precious.

  1. Briefing Speakers

The consistent feedback from all of those who participated in our events was that we did a good job at letting speakers know what was expected of them. We spent a lot of time running test calls where we clearly communicated expectations and addressed FAQs. We also refined emails to share only the information that counted.

This is my list of items to cover with speakers:

  • Quiet room, notifications off
  • Check connection
  • Use mmhmm app if you want virtual background on Streamyard
  • Register to our event platform
  • Streamayard is not good at managing the muting
  • Keep tabs closed
  • We will share a link to the green room

    Recorded Bios

      Reading bios out loud during the event is a needed moment that exposes moderators to mistakes and challenges. Recording bios helped us to ensure that we pronounced names correctly and got all the details right. We also enjoyed a few seconds of pause while we were live.

      Control the Slides

      We’ve been very strict on slide usage during our events. We limited slides to a maximum of three and we insisted on designing them. We wanted to avoid small fonts and information overload. Whenever we had to compromise and allow the speaker to control their own slides, the audience complained. Control the narrative as much as you can with clear, consistent design. One picture or one statement would do.

      Decide Whether You Are a Trade Show or a Conference

      Simplifying things, conferences rely on ticket sales more than or equal to sponsorships. Trade shows rely mostly on sponsorships. We made the decision to be a trade show with conference-level content.

      Organize Content After the Event

      Most of our events had a follow-up report that summarized the learnings. This proved to be a very successful strategy to help attendees home in on the takeaways. We did not invent anything; conference proceedings were the norm. This helped to set in stone what was said and allowed us to organize large amounts of content.

      Rely on Solid Tech Partners

      In selecting our tech partner, we put a lot of weight on the importance of having a strong support team. This proved to be instrumental to tackling tech difficulties and guaranteeing a strong performance. Tech platforms with poor response times or loose SLAs should be avoided at all costs.

      Accept That Nobody Knows What’s Best

      As soon as the pandemic hit, many went on to announce that they had been doing virtual events for years. The reality was and is that nobody had the experience of what happened since March. The new normal, as many like to refer to it, is new. The rules are new, and the tools have changed more in the past nine months than in the past nine years. We have to accept that most of what we are doing now is a new journey.