Beyond Breakout Rooms: Inspiration for Perfecting Your Online Events Now

A virtual event attendee plays an online game, unphased by online meeting-fatigue.

How soon can we return to in-person business events? The question has been occupying sales and marketing people’s minds since the pandemic began. But, as event planners who have started down that path are finding, attendees, decision makers and the event industry itself are still not ready

There is widespread agreement that even when pandemic-related challenges come to an end, most events will be in-person/online hybrids. Mastery of virtual will be a prerequisite for making those a success. So, rather than spinning your wheels trying to overcome the current tactical challenges of in person events, why not take the next few months to give your undivided attention to perfecting online events?

Cracking the engagement code

Engagement and ROI are the top two measures of success for any event, no matter how it’s delivered, and though we’ve seen some standout virtual events, most marketers still haven’t cracked that code. We’ve learned a lot, but there’s plenty of room to improve.  

The time is ripe for experimentation. As Yiren Lu writes in the New York Times, “The societal conditioning that currently tells us that meeting in person is superior, somehow more ‘real’ than meeting online, is already fading.” Audiences are receptive to virtual, but breakout rooms, polls and Zoom mixology parties are now old hat. Here’s how to get inspired to take your online game to the next level:

1. Demo new platforms

Some of the early movers in the virtual events space have received new rounds of investment since COVID hit, so even if you checked them out before, it’s worth looking again. Investors have also funded a brand new crop of startups dedicated to defeating the limitations of online meetings. 

These seem to fall into two main categories: Platforms such as Teamflow and Branch that create an environment for events, and those such as Gathertown, Kumospace and Pluto that focus more on creating virtual opportunities for personal connection. The market is beginning to differentiate, with platforms for every purpose, so go out and kick the tires on a few and see what’s possible.

2. Play some online games

Many virtual meeting platforms are drawing ideas from online games such as Fortnite and World of Warcraft. As the Event Leadership Institute’s Howard Givner writes, “Those magically immersive environments and addictively interactive formats will influence virtual event tech vendors’ platform designs.” 

According to the Times article, the chief executive of Kumospace was a gamer who wondered why it was that he could spend hours and hours playing online with his friends and not want to stop, while Zoom meetings engendered only fatigue. Dipping into online games through the lens of event planning could spark some ideas for engagement on virtual meeting platforms. 

3. Attend some iconic virtual events

One of the reasons companies plan to continue with virtual events is that they can draw audience members from anywhere. This is an advantage for event planners too. In the past you might not have had the time to travel or money to attend a leading in-person event just out of professional curiosity. Now it’s much easier to dip into iconic, big budget events such as the Consumer Electronics Show, which this year charged 50% of the in-person registration fee, in search of new ideas.

4. Check out new vendors

With in person restraints gone, event planners can have access to a much wider range of agencies, production firms, and other support vendors. Searching the market and talking to new vendors may well turn up some innovative new partners that can help you make your virtual event special. Bizzabo has compiled a great list of firms you may want to check out. Another resource: The Virtual Events Institute’s new virtual events marketplace.

5. Skill up

Most of the major industry associations--PCMA, MPI, VEI--are offering courses and certificates in virtual meetings. These cover everything from selecting technology to pricing models. Some platform vendors are also getting into the training game. 

Of course, one of the best ways to learn is by doing. Two sometimes overlooked ways to accelerate your hands-on learning: Rehearse and get feedback, and collect feedback from participants after the event. At the very least, view the recording of the event and critique it yourself, making notes for improvement.

6. Dig into your data

Executives love virtual events because they provide dramatically better data, even engagement data. You can gauge viewer interest during a session by tracking their activity in the Chat and Q&A windows, or seeing when they put the virtual platform window in the background. 

Virtual brings events more into the realm of digital marketing, so start digging into the different metrics to see what’s valuable for you to report out on and to learn from. Consider partnering up with your digital marketing team to make sure you’re collecting the right data, and how event data can be incorporated into the marketing funnel.

New appreciation for virtual

Virtual meeting platforms have been around for a decade and a half but have never gained widespread adoption, perhaps due to a perception that online events were a poor substitute for meeting in person. It took a global pandemic to create mass appreciation for the medium in its own right, and there’s no turning back now.

The value equation for events has fundamentally shifted. Virtual is an exciting opportunity to reach more people and build larger communities, make events more scalable in an environmentally sound way, and gain valuable insights from data. In person events will eventually make a comeback, but most will likely incorporate a virtual component. The expectation will be for the virtual component to be just as compelling as the in person version. The time to prepare for that is now.