Digital Innovation Digital Publishing
11 mins read

Publishers’ guide to planning online events

In October 2019, we published a report, “Events in Magazine Media: How to Convert Them Into a Revenue Source”. It concerns all the ways in which magazine media can – and should – embrace live events as part of their overall strategies for the future.

Then along came COVID-19. The pandemic and the responses to it have left our world unrecognisable in many ways. Live events – a trillion dollar industry – were one of the first casualties of lockdown and social distancing measures, and they’ll likely be the last to return.

Businesses and individuals alike have rapidly integrated videoconferencing software into their daily lives. Remote-working, once the preserve of freelancers and a small percentage of flexible workers, has become the norm – and looks set to stay that way for the time being.

Here are some of the main things you should consider as you prepare your online event.

Free or paid-for?

One of the first things to consider is whether you will charge for your event. Many publishers have made their initial virtual event offerings free to attend in the first few months of the pandemic, treating them as an experiment. As time goes by, what people are willing to pay for will become clearer.

“A bit of friction in the registration process is good, as it ensures the right people show up,” Xiaoyin Qu, the co-founder of a new virtual conference start-up called Run the World, told Wired. And the audience is potentially limitless: “We can sell infinite tickets to a global audience. That is pretty powerful. Revolutionary, even,” Orson Francescone, managing director of FT Live, told the Drum.

Part of the problem with charging for online occasions is that people are used to getting things for free on the internet. A blog post for INXPO, a video platform and virtual events solutions company, recommends that hosts think about two key things – attendance and sponsorship – and try to weigh them up against each other. “We’ve seen customers doing different blends of each side of the equation,” it says. “Free attendance but heavy sponsorship, paid attendance and light sponsorship, paid attendance and heavy sponsorship, etc.”

Tortoise Media – the British crowdfunded start-up that pioneered “slow news” – has circumvented the question somewhat by focusing on getting new subscribers and establishing a pathway for future interactions. As Tortoise’s co-founder Katie Vanneck-Smith told FIPP: “You have to be a member to attend a Tortoise ThinkIn – so if you see a guest you want to meet, or a conversation you want to be part of – you need to join up to attend. You can start with a 30-day free trial.”

Katie Vanneck-Smith

With a business model built around paid membership, they’re treating attendees as potential new members. “ThinkIns are also the key to engagement and therefore retention,” Katie added. “We are seeing our current new members come to 3+ ThinkIns on average in their first month. We have anything from 200 to 2000+ attending – the maximum capacity in our [physical] newsroom was around 120 (if everyone squeezed in…).”

Nonetheless, virtual events cannot replace physical ones, because being able to connect in person is such an important feature of membership. “ThinkIns are at the heart of what we do at Tortoise,” Katie added. “They are now digital-first – but we will return to hosting ThinkIns in person as well – when the rules allow. As a membership organisation, meeting up in person is part of what makes membership special.”

Other things to mull over are the costs of setting up the event (eg. speaker fees, studio lighting, technology), demand for your content (is this an event that people are independently excited about, or have they been told to attend by their employer?), and whether revenue or engagement is more important to your brand at this moment (of course, ideally you want both!).

Research platforms

One thing that experienced online event organisers know is that the platform really matters. While Zoom’s intuitive simplicity and the familiarity of Microsoft Teams and Google Meet make them popular options, other platforms offer different services. SwapCard is an app and desktop site designed specifically to facilitate online networking; Cisco’s Webex has a user-friendly look and feel; and vMix is popular for its green room function.

Internet security should be actively considered, too. Zoom, for instance, has been troubled by security breaches, while Webex’s end-to-end encryption option must be manually enabled by call administrators. Microsoft’s Skype, meanwhile, recently launched a new feature called Meet Now that allows any user to initiate or join a group video call without creating an account. But since anyone with the link can access a meeting (and the links don’t expire), there are security issues there, too.

None of this is prohibitive – it all depends on the type of event you are hosting, and how much security matters to your users. Book clubs likely won’t have the same privacy requirements as, say, a conference on internet safety for children.

The most important thing is that everyone involved knows how to navigate the technology and deal with any issues that arise. That’s really the mark of a good event, says Edie Lush, podcast host, communications trainer, and Executive Editor at innovation-led social networking service Hub Culture, who MCs dozens of events per year. “All the usual rules about good speakers apply – they need to be saying something that’s different and interesting and arrests the audience,” Edie told FIPP. “But they also need an ability to navigate the digital platform, and some people just aren’t good at it or think it doesn’t matter. The ones who take the time to figure it out with speakers in advance – those are the best online conferences.”

Edie Lush

Online networking capabilities

For many people, going to a conference is about networking much more than it is about listening to speakers. So, can Zoom breakout rooms really replace the serendipity of face-to-face networking? Unlikely. It’s probably the biggest plus of physical events, as even the very best video-conferencing technology cannot capture the energy of a full room of excited people.

Nevertheless, there is still value to be gleaned. As mentioned above, apps like SwapCard have been designed specifically to imitate event matchmaking, in this case by algorithmically analysing the profiles of attendees and exhibitors and then suggesting the most relevant people to “meet”. Other handy features include a business card scanner, real-time analytics, and the possibility for sponsors and exhibitors to record interactions and sync data with their CRM system.

Deal Room is a similar platform, specialising in online networking and offering a fast setup (create an event in less than 10 minutes) and features like one-on-one meetings, multi-speaker streaming, online round tables, and visibility for sponsors and exhibitors. Attendees can add information under “Offer” and “Seek”, similar to how an “Ask me about …” lanyard works in person.

And there are perks to online networking. Edie Lush says that because during the pandemic people have been more open and willing to take part in online events, she has connected with a lot of people that she otherwise wouldn’t have. “I’ve been more brazen with my requests on LinkedIn, for example,” she says.

In the same way, while it won’t be accessible for everyone, technology such as VR can help to facilitate networking. It levels the playing field between star speakers and regular attendees – when everyone is using an avatar, speakers are more approachable and less intimidating.

How to keep people engaged

What can you do to make your speech more three dimensional? Award winning communications consultant Andy Bounds had some tips during a FIPP Insider webinar.

Andy Bounds

“When delivering a presentation, you want people to be excited, energised, and happy they attended,” he said. Adding energy and humour where appropriate is one way of doing this, and Andy also recommends signposting: “you want people to recall the information you’re giving them, so remind them regularly why they are here, what you are going to show them, and what they will get out of it by the end.”

As Anne Quito writes for Quartz, the German language has the perfect term for this situation: sitzfleisch. To have sitzfleisch (“sitting flesh”) means the skill of having enough mental and physical stamina to endure sitting still without getting fidgety. At a time when many of us are spending lengthy periods of time at home, sitzfleisch comes at a premium, and capturing someone’s attention enough to get them to tune in, listen, and engage is the real challenge.

Andy Bounds prescribes direct eye contact, even if that can feel a little strange. “Eye contact means people have to look at their camera, so their audience feels they’re being looked at in the eye,” he told FIPP. “You’ll know this from watching TV. The presenter always seems to be looking at you.”

Edie Lush agrees. “You are trying to create live broadcast television,” she told FIPP. “Think about live TV and all the things that can go wrong – the feed fails; the person’s audio is wrong; there’s some crazy background noise; they can’t hear you. That is what we are expecting people managing these online events to cope with. But the good news is we can all learn these skills – we’ll all become live TV directors.”

In Zoom meetings for instance, both Edie and Andy agree: many presenters make the mistake of looking at their audience on their computer screen, instead of at their camera at the top of the laptop. “But this means that, to their audience, they’re looking below their eye line”, which is ineffective, says Andy.

Plan for awkward moments

Whether it’s technological glitches or audio lag, there are always going to be awkward moments. And with online events, you won’t have the usual tools at your disposal to smooth them out, so there’s plenty to worry about: what if the software gets overwhelmed? How will you deal with a frozen screen or audio sputter? What if the platform you’ve chosen for connecting simply isn’t up to the task?

And what if children or loud noises keep interrupting the flow? As with many issues, it’s the way you deal with them that your audience will remember. Make sure to have a plan for every fail that can reasonably be expected, and practise appropriate responses in advance. Most audiences will be understanding of the occasional wrinkle, but people’s patience will wear thin, and they will expect higher quality if they are paying.

“The cardinal rule is have a plan A, a plan B, and a plan C,” says Edie Lush. “And tell everyone what the plan is.”

Visuals

Will there be a consistent background for every guest? Will you even have a background? Will the names of sponsors be in full view? What should you and guests wear?

“In the evolution of good video conferencing behaviour, what I’m seeing is that the most professional people are moving to a blank wall behind them,” says Edie Lush. “No bookshelf, nothing. Or really bright lights in front of them, and a black background.” She also recommends that speakers always stand up: “It increases attentiveness and can make you feel better equipped to handle difficult situations if they arise.”

When hosting webinars, says FIPP CEO James Hewes, “you want a professional look and feel, which means that seeing your home office in the background is a no-no. We experimented with green screens and virtual backgrounds but on home set-ups the quality is poor, and the experience is unreliable.”

How long it will be?

As mentioned before, screen time should be strictly monitored. Online presentations should be snappy and to the point. Andy Bounds recommends 20 or 40 minute speaking slots, which are more digestible (and less predictable) than a full hour or 30 minutes. “If it can be shorter, do it!” he says. “Natural rapport-building can’t occur in the same way, and it’s OK to accept that.”

“I don’t know anyone who would want to sit through speaker after speaker for hours on end,” says FIPP’s chief content officer Cobus Heyl. “In the way consumption of most news happens at the atomic level (unit of content), we believe similar principles will apply here.” Break content into consumable “chunks”, he adds, and give people plenty of chances to take coffee breaks, use the bathroom – and stretch their legs.

For longer events, like Bloomberg Live’s first-ever multi-day virtual live event in June 2020, the pressure is less intense on audience members to participate in everything. This ability to drop in and out of sessions may go some way towards mimicking the physical feel of a multi-room conference centre with lots of interesting talks going on.

Measure success

Signing up with an email address is not the same as paying USD $1,500 for a ticket, booking flights and hotels, and taking time off work. The format has changed, so the metrics should too. How will you measure if your event has been a success? How much of a role will post-event content play? And how will you keep the relationship going with attendees afterwards?

“Key data to look out for are the number of registered delegates versus those actually attending; how long they stayed on; how much attention they were paying; and transcripts of questions asked and chat,” says James Hewes. You can also send out different URLs for your event as a way of tracking where your audience is coming from.

Planning ahead

  • Have a script

When real-life, face-to-face interactions and body language cues are off, the value of the spoken word is under the spotlight. Having a script is a must, says FIPP’s James Hewes. “Pauses and hesitation are even more apparent on video than they are in real life, so make sure your script helps you navigate your way through the event.” Zoom has a “practice” function, he adds, so make sure you make use of that.

  • Plan how it will end

What’s the best way to end a presentation? Consider whether you’ll opt for a straightforward goodbye from the host or presenter, an invitation to participants to click on hand-clapping emojis, verbal responses (if it’s an intimate event), typing thank you’s… or an applause track from YouTube, which is what the organisers of IAM Weekend – originally scheduled to be in Barcelona and later witched to Zoom – opted for.

End a presentation by outlining actionable points and your own corresponding reactions, says Andy Bounds: “If you as an audience do this, then I am going to do that.” One example might be eschewing the vague “get in touch with any questions” for “feel free to email me with a question about y, and I will then reply with x.”

  • Translations

Part of making an event more global is offering live translations, but with interpreters potentially on opposite sides of the globe with different internet speeds, it can get tangled very quickly. Glitches are common, and frustration can follow suit.

“Nobody has quite cracked the translation side of online conferences,” says Edie Lush. She instead suggests dividing breakout rooms by language, so that speakers of different languages can connect directly without interpreters.

  • Follow-ups

Follow-up emails are a great way to remind your audience of what they learned, to share links to topics discussed, and to invite them to your next event.

Be open about re-sharing presentations post-event, since people cannot be expected to make notes all day and you want to keep presentation slides free of words and clutter. “Offer to send a full script after,” says Andy Bounds.

There’s an added role for sponsors, too. In a nice touch, Kerry Diamond, cofounder and editorial director of Cherry Bombe, emailed participants a goodie bag after the day-long food-focused conference which unfolded across nine hours on Instagram Live. The goodie bag contained discount coupons and vouchers from the event’s sponsors – a memorable way to tie up the day and connect audiences with sponsors.

This article is an extract from the report “Virtual Events: How to thrive in the new normal“. Download here.

Sadie Hale

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