Tips (and Templates) for Your Next Online Event
If there is one key thing I’ve learned from building events for engineers over the last five years, it’s that your content is only as powerful as your most actionable takeaways. So when we sat down to write our top five tips for virtual events, we tried to focus on the advice that you likely haven’t heard already, but that we wish we had known before running Gremlin‘s Failover Conf.
For what it’s worth, there are plenty of existing articles with great tips and high-level guidance around virtual programs. This compilation of expert tips by Tom May on the Creative Bloq is one of my faves. If a high-level approach is what you’re looking for, I recommend starting there.
If you know you’re going virtual, you have a solid go-to-market plan, and you’ve already nailed audience fit, this list is for you. Every image we’ve shared is from our own planning docs, and every link is to a template to actually get you started.
1. Practice Your Incident Response Plan
The single most important element of a virtual event is not going down. It’s not about your fancy Zoom background, or your snazzy suit, or even your slick DIY haircut that your spouse gave you (although — 👏). If your Attendees lose your audio or video, at best — they will click that “X” and will never be seen again or at worst, they will be heard loud and clear on Twitter.
This is much easier said than done when not a single member of the production team is in the same room. Here is how we did it.
- Prepare for the best: To prepare our production team in advance, we defined a precise Run of Show doc that broke down the full flow of the day for every team member. We trained two individuals for each function to break up the day into shifts and to provide redundancy in case anything went awry. The week leading up to the event, we executed a dry run with every speaker following that defined flow on every call. This allowed us to properly onboard speakers to the tool, walk-thru every step to address questions and practice multiple times as production staff. Spoiler alert — we didn’t get it right the first time. If we identified an opportunity to improve the flow on one of those dry-runs, we updated our process accordingly for the next. By event day, our team was trained, our speakers were prepared, our tools had been tested, and our processes had been refined to a T.
- Prepare for the worst: We knew that the worst thing that could happen to an event called Failover Conf, was to not have our own failover plan. We built out a prescriptive Crash Plan in case our webinar platform went down. It included who would make the call to pivot, how we’d communicate to attendees, how we’d communicate internally and to speakers, and how we’d know we were fully back up and running. We practiced this as a team, and while I am grateful we were fully prepared, I am proud to share we never needed to use it.
- Execute the plan: During the event, every staff member was on a dedicated private Slack channel so that we were constantly connected to flag and address issues. The mission-critical production staff were also on a day-long Zoom audio call on our phones to effectively and efficiently address any platform or connection issues with Speakers and our staff. Everyone knew where to go to raise issues and every issue’s resolution status. Hot tip — these channels also work great for flagging when you need a bio break, celebrating when things go right and raising a glass as a team when the day finally wraps.
2. Less Is More
We’re all at home with our pets and kids and plant babies. Getting work done during this time is a unique challenge. So, while it’s nice to have the distraction of an online event, it’s also very easy to get distracted. Do everything you can to help your attendees focus. They’ll be grateful for easy to follow instructions, familiar tools they don’t need to relearn, and having their handheld throughout the process.
The easiest way to gut check if you’re asking your attendees to do too much is by asking, “If we were all together in the same room, would I be asking them to do this?” If you’re in a physical theater — you’d never encourage them to meander out in the hall while your speaker is on stage. Treat the virtual stage the same way. When a talk is live, the talk is the focus. We helped our attendees focus by giving them clear actions and updates only when they were needed by carefully seeding the #announcements channel on Slack. Attendees knew to watch the talk while it was live, and go to that channel for what to do between talks.
3. Teach Them How to Laugh (Engage)
In a previous life, I was a professional theater performer. When you’re performing in a comedy, one of the most important goals at the top of the show is to “teach the audience how to laugh.” If you let them laugh as long as they want, and wait until they’re quiet, your show will be an extra two hours long. If you move on too fast and try to speak over their laughter, they won’t hear the top of the next joke and you’ll kill your next laugh. The key is to set the pace at the top of the show and teach them the rhythm by carefully crafting the first big laughs. If you’re successful, they’ll latch on, stay with you for the whole show, and have a great time doing it.
The same is true for virtual events. If you make options available, but don’t intentionally foster those interactions, they won’t know how to engage. Teach the audience how to interact with you and with each other by providing an example (“This is what a poll looks like”), illustrating how to do it (“Here is how you answer”), and giving them plenty of opportunities to practice (“Now you try!”).
We did this by running silly sample polls at the top of the show to teach attendees how to engage with the poll function. We prompted them to drop a sample question into Q&A so we could show them how questions could be upvoted by fellow attendees. We showed them how we’d migrate unanswered questions to dedicated #q&a channels after each session where they could continue the conversations with speakers during the breaks. We also encouraged discussion in some of our #topic channels by seeding questions to start conversations and having dedicated team members on call to keep the conversations lively and interesting. Once we taught our attendees how to interact, our hard work paid off! Those carefully crafted polls kept attendees engaged with the onstage content and guided them easily towards how to continue interacting with each other after each talk wrapped. Of the 3,426 attendees who joined us live, 1,966 of them engaged on Slack. 9,769 poll answers were submitted, and over 100 questions were submitted through the webinar tool.
4. Be a Good Partner
While you can do an event without partners, it’s certainly less fun and your reach won’t extend as far. The more thoughtful and helpful you are, the easier you’ll make it for them to succeed. We sent Partners a call-to-action (CTA) every Tuesday to help them drive towards their goals and prepare their team for the big day. We kept those CTA’s simple, and we never sent more than one per week so that the asks were manageable. If it included a social post, or even an internal email to their team, we included sample copy that they could personalize. This meant the CTA’s were incredibly easy to execute, and partners were consistently responding to our requests.
We also stayed on top of sending partners updates on their progress. They knew we’d send them an update every Friday and no one was ever unclear about where they stood in terms of tracking towards their goals. The result was that 29 of our 39 vendor partners over-delivered on their contributions to making our event a success. It is only through their efforts that we all achieved the monumental success that we did.
5. ‘Aces in Their Places’
Some close friends of mine taught me the phrase “Aces in their places” a few years back, which they learned from Chipotle. It has been a favorite of mine ever since. The idea is that in order to achieve the best results — like a super-fast burrito line during the dinner rush — you need to put everyone in the station where they’re the expert. You’ll deliver a better product, faster and with minimal mistakes (or broken tortillas).
I cannot emphasize how important this is for online events. Problem-solving for virtual events is vastly different from problem-solving for a physical event.
Let your experts be the experts. Trust their input and follow their direction. Slowing them down by overanalyzing or asking them to over-explain loses critical time. There are an infinite number of choices to make, so trust them when they identify the most critical ones. If you’ve aligned on high-level goals, and you trust your team of experts, then enable them, unblock them when necessary, and otherwise stay out of their way.
For outstanding staff roles on the big day, leverage the people on your team whose skill set solves for what you need. The needs of an online event are fundamentally different, so the people from your team that get involved should reflect that. Need someone to manage support for attendees having issues? Leverage your existing support team to field those questions! They’re the experts in handling those kinds of issues already, so if you simply onboard them to the specific problems they’ll be helping you solve that day, they’ll thrive in that role. The training you’ll need to execute will be minimal, they’ll up-level your plans (since they’re the experts) and attendees will be well taken care of.
Running an event is complex. Doing it well is even more so. So while running a virtual event provides new challenges, it also creates new opportunities to improve your brand, your reputation, and to continue the positive momentum that in-person events provide. If I can provide one final tip, it’s to give yourself some grace. You won’t get everything right, but achieving a modicum of success during an actual worldwide crisis is worth celebrating. Plan well, be empathetic to your team and your audience, consider the potential failures, and if you plan for those too, you’ll be just fine.