How to achieve virtual experience success

A successful virtual experience requires more than just pointing a video camera at a presenter

With so many physical events now being cancelled, many organisations are turning to virtual platforms to retain at least a semblance of presence and engagement. But as anyone who has ever attended a virtual event knows, a successful experience requires more than just pointing a video camera at a presenter and pressing record.

While virtual events might be new for many organisations, the concept has been in existence for more than a decade, enabling a significant body of knowledge to build up regarding how to run them successfully.

Reconsider your content

What works well on stage won’t always translate to a screen on someone’s phone or laptop, and certainly won’t hold their attention in the way a full day physical conference program might.

According to Peter Vasey, head of marketing for LogMeIn Asia Pacific (makers or GoToMeeting and GoToWebinar), the best option might be to break event sessions down into bite-sized offerings.

“I don’t think it’s smart to try and replicate that daylong conference,” Vasey says. “No one is going to sit there for hours on end, no matter how compelling the content is, because if they are working in the office or even from home, there are going to be distractions.”

Offer interaction

Longer sessions are possible however, provided you think about how to hold an audience member’s attention.

The director of demand generation at the digital experience platform provider ON24, Tim Johnston, says changing formats from single-person presentations to panel sessions or chat show formats can improve the experience, as the interplay between two or more speakers can prove more engaging for audience members and also allow a greater range of topics to be covered in a shorter period of time.

Most webinar platforms include a variety of engagement tools, from live polls to Q&A workflows, which can drive up engagement and provide useful real-time feedback to presenters and organisers.

Johnston says events that focus on the audience experience using interactive formats will drive higher levels of engagement.

“Where webinars have typically fallen over previously is where they have just been a one-way push to a mass audience,” Johnston says. “The real winning engagement experiences are the ones that are more conversational rather than presentations and find ways to bring the audience into the conversation and have questions asked and answered throughout the experience.”

Johnston says ON24’s benchmark reports have found live sessions that are designed with audience engagement in mind can maintain average viewing times of up to 55 minutes.

“When content is done right, and you have an engaging medium and it is done with the focus on the experience, people are willing to spend time with a brand,” Johnston says. “You need the content with the hook that is going to solve people’s problems. You have got to have an engaging speaker. But third is really focusing on the experience.”

For events with large audiences, it is also worth engaging a dedicated producer to manage the interaction, and to queue up questions for the presenter or panellists to allow them to focus on their content and response.

Chapter-ise

Attendees at a physical conference have little choice other than to sit through the introductions and preambles (at least until the invention of time travel). In an online world however, they are less likely to be patient.

According to Johnston, the average viewing time of on-demand content will fall to around 40 minutes, compared to 55 minutes for live content.

“It is largely because people want to fast forward to the good bits,” he says. “So what we encourage is this idea of chapter-ising your content. You don’t lose attention to the degree you would think, you are just cutting out some of the fat.”

Audio matters

Conference producers spend a lot of time ensuring that presenters can be heard, but when the odd drop-out from a mic happens, it is not the end of the world. However, in a virtual event audio is critical, with providers reporting that distorted, muffled or delayed audio will kill engagement almost immediately.

For presenters, it is also worth considering the needs and behaviours of the audience, as there is a good chance that virtual attendees will be multitasking or otherwise looking away from the content.

So unless visuals are crucial to the message delivery, the best presentations will be those that can also be appreciated in an audio-only format. This also means sessions can be reconstituted as podcasts, giving them an additional means of distribution.

Don’t just create an event, create a channel

Whereas most physical events are over and done with in a couple of days, virtual events can live on forever. It is worth keeping this in mind not just when the event is being designed, but after it has concluded also.

The experience of companies like Salesforce and the response to its digital World Tour is showing that follow-on marketing and even word-of-mouth promotion can significantly boost virtual attendance at conference sessions long after the chairs have been folded and put away.

Pulling all content together into a curated destination can go a long way towards ensuring that viewers are able to discover related topics, and the use of recommendation engines can help them explore new areas of interest.

However, if the goal of the content is to live on well after the event has concluded, it is important to dedicate resources to monitoring how users are engaging with it. On-demand content will generally lack the interaction options that were available during the live session, but the content itself is still likely to raise questions. Ensure that the opportunity to post questions remains open, and that resources are dedicated to monitoring and answering these queries as they arrive.

Just like the live event, the on-demand version should be a lively and dynamic space, not a stale and dusty content museum.

Use the data

Like all digital tools, online conference platforms offer a range of possibilities for measuring user behaviour. And unlike a conference evaluation form, they can take these readings in real time. When matched up against the log-in details of attendees they can therefor create an accurate representation of their behaviour and interests.

The number of minutes a person watches, sessions they attend, the questions they ask and the comments they leave in the social stream can all provide strong indicators of engagement and interest, and can prove especially helpful for lead-scoring and other follow-up actions.

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