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Whether we prefer them to in-person events or not, virtual events are here to stay. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, virtual events have quickly become the norm.
Virtual events have many benefits. They open the doors to new ways of connecting online, from live Q&As to virtual tours. Furthermore, virtual events are often more accessible than in-person events and can reduce costs and carbon footprints. And as a nonprofit, you’re likely concerned about both!
However, it’s not all rainbows and butterflies with virtual events. For example, many nonprofit organizations struggle to adopt new technologies. However, it’s really the attendee engagement that might be one of the toughest cookies to crack within virtual event management. Even if an event is planned and executed perfectly, if attendees are disengaged, it’s likely you won’t achieve your goals.
That makes virtual attendee engagement an important skill for nonprofit professionals to master.
Research published in The Virtual Event Tech Guide found that 21% of event professionals consider lack of tech knowledge to be their biggest challenge when pivoting to virtual, while 31% — more than for any other challenge — cited engagement. Almost 50% of planners say that their biggest frustration when sourcing virtual event tech is its inability to match live engagement.
This is especially the case nowadays when so many of us are experiencing virtual event fatigue over countless virtual events, meetings, training programs, and more.
Therefore, to ensure your nonprofit’s success, it's key to keep things fresh and interesting.
In this article, we share tips and best practices for engaging your audience during virtual events.
What is Audience Engagement?
Audience engagement, simply put, is the degree to which attendees are fully participating in and captivated by your event.
You can use different metrics to measure your audience engagement. For example, you can measure sessions attended, connections made, poll participation, chat room activity, social media activity, and more.
Generally speaking, an engaged attendee is a satisfied attendee.
Here are 14 tips to create the best virtual event attendee experience:
1. Take care of pre-event communication
You should start engaging your event participants well before your event even starts, in the weeks before the event.
For example, you can poll your audience before the event asking what topics they’re most interested in, or which event format they would prefer.
Pre-event polling ensures you can create the content that your audience wants and needs. This also means you will provide more value to your attendees. Finally, pre-event polling also makes it more likely the audience will engage with the content. This is, of course, only if you actually tailor the content based on the results. If you poll your attendees and then include none of their suggestions, you might even achieve the opposite effect.
A pre-event survey can also find out their T-shirt size and other giveaway preferences, such as their favorite snacks under $10.
In addition to polling them, if there’s a learning curve to the platform you will be using, make sure you share information about it beforehand.. Send out the pre-recorded sessions, as well as any materials to download. You can also send teasers to build some excitement about your event!
Building an agenda that responds to your audience';s needs and preferences is the single most important thing you can do to increase your virtual event engagement.
2. Pay attention to delivery
Delivery always matters, but especially at virtual events. The delivery needs to be top notch, especially if your event is very content heavy.
Pay attention to the selection of hosts, moderators, and speakers. Choose those that are confident in the virtual setting and can encourage interaction and energize the audience.
If they aren’t, make sure you give them the necessary training, tools, and time to be so.
Whatever the format of your virtual event, the beginning should pack a punch. How you start your event matters. Build excitement and interest so your event attendees stay for the rest.
Pro tip: Have an event moderator. Moderators help put the information presented throughout the conference in context. while also facilitating the interactions. They can also be in charge of keeping the energy up!
3. Prepare your speakers
Your speakers might be experts in their field, but if they can’t find their way around speaking online (which isn’t the same as speaking in-person), your audience will disengage.
Prepare your speakers by conducting sessions with each event speaker to make sure they’re fully comfortable with the tech platforms and tools you’ll be using. Test-run each speakers' setups to ensure the process is as hassle-free as possible.
Coach your speakers, if needed, on best tips and practices for engaging attendees virtually during their sessions.
Pro tip: Prepare your event attendees. Many are used to speaking to friends and family online, but chatting to strangers via video call might still feel unnatural.
4. Keep the sessions short
Don’t forget to pay attention to the format also. Keep the session short and ensure the content is broken down into digestible and understandable pieces. At a face-to-face event, sessions are usually 60-minutes long. At a virtual event, it is far more difficult to hold attention. Attendees are fatigued after a year of doing everything online, and other distractions (such as checking emails or grabbing a snack) are easily available.
The average virtual attendee only watches 68% of a virtual session that is 20 minutes or longer. (Source: The Bizzabo Blog)
Consider keeping your virtual event to one day and see if you can shorten your sessions and make them more interactive. For example, your session could be 45 or 30 minutes long instead of 60.
Alternatively, instead of cramming everything into a one-day event 8 hours, consider delivering it over a few days for only 2-3 hours a day to combat the virtual event fatigue.
While some suggest keeping cameras on is the key to more personal interactions and increasing engagement, some believe that can be taxing for many and that recorded sessions and camera off/podcast-style is the way to go.
Ultimately, there’s no right answer here. It’s your audience that you need to listen to, which is why pre-event polling is key (see point 1).
Pro tip: In addition to sessions being short, avoid filling them with slides and presentations. That’s the one thing that was boring even before the pandemic hit! Instruct all your speakers to keep the slides to a minimum.
5. Have a theme
It’s very easy to create a virtual event where you just string together a bunch of webinars and talks and call it a day.
However, this brings little learning and value to your event attendees. For the best virtual event attendee experience, it’s important that your event has a theme. Set a goal, a focus, and clearly define your key takeaways.
Pro tip: Consider starting and ending the day (or each day if you’re organizing a multi-day event) with an introductory and a closing session. In the morning you could highlight one of the major themes or ideas of the event. At the end of the day, the moderator could comment on some of the ways the sessions linked.
6. Incorporate fun add-on items
Just because the event is virtual, participants don’t have to miss out on all the fun, such as participant packages!
Consider shipping your participants’ packages directly to attendees’ doors before the event. In addition to increasing your attendee engagement, this can also help your bottom line and drive ticket sales.
Naturally, you can send gift cards and vouchers, and items like snacks or water bottles, but you can also get creative.
For example, in your participants’ packages, you can include earphones, blue light glasses, a T-shirt, coffee mug, notebook or you can make it wellness-themed (see the image below).
This would really elevate the overall attendee experience, heightening engagement with your event.
Integrating an in-person experience helps participants feel like they’re part of the action while adding value to your event.
If you have too little time or money, you can also send a digital gift bag to your audience.
Pro tip: Give your corporate sponsors the opportunity to decide what goes into participants’ packages as a way to strengthen your nonprofit-corporate partnerships.
7. Ramp up the production value
We have all become accustomed to polished and highly professional content online, especially when it comes to learning, so production should not be underestimated, even if you’re a nonprofit organization.
And audio is key here. If your speakers don’t have great lighting or great video, the event can still work. But if audio is bad, it’s very likely your audience will log off or disengage.
Just like with YouTube videos, sound quality is non-negotiable.
Whatever event software provider you’re using, make sure there's no lag. The platforms should be accessible on browsers. Ideally, you shouldn’t have to walk attendees through a complex installation process just to attend your event. And don’t forget to make it accessible from mobile!
Pro tip: Budget allowing, consider purchasing headsets for all speakers and sending them out to them before the event.
8. Include real-time polling and gamification
Another great way to increase attendee engagement is to engage your audience with real-time polling during your virtual event.
You can also gamify the experience of your audience. For example, for each virtual session that attendees visit, they receive some points. Prepare a prize for those with most points!
Rewards and competition are the main ingredients of virtual event gamification.
An example of virtual event gamification is organizing an in-event trivia/quiz. There are many tools out there you can use to host quizzes.
You could also organize a virtual Bingo for some words bound to be mentioned during a virtual event. “Can you hear me?” or “You’re on mute!” could be a funny one!
Pro tip: Use push notifications to make your virtual event even more engaging. Push notifications can, for example, warn attendees that the next session is starting in ten minutes, or you can use them to share interesting facts.
9. Have break-out sessions/rooms
Creating opportunities for interactive learning is one of the most sure ways to increase attendee engagement. Create break-out rooms or sessions to allow attendees to meet and interact.
These sessions can be on any topic that makes sense for your event. Each break-out room can be facilitated by a volunteer moderator, and can also include speakers.
At the start, you can have a speaker panel frame an issue (this can even be pre-recorded). Attendees can then break into virtual rooms for discussions, and then come back for a live recap.
Breakout rooms can be random or curated. If they will be curated, you can curate them by attendees’ goals, geographic location, role, or more.
Pro tip: Incorporate sufficient breaks into your agenda. People need to get away from the computer occasionally, get a coffee, or go for a walk to get the blood pumping. However, to make sure your event attendees come back afterwards, entice them with an exciting announcement right before the break.
10. Organize Q&A sessions
Q&A sessions essentially allow the attendees to pose questions to the speakers.
This is key to driving engagement, and it might even create more discussion than an in-person event, as it’s often easier to ask questions virtually.
You can collect questions from your event attendees in advance or have them ask them live (or both).
Pro tip: Some experts suggest taking a “flipped learning approach”. Instead of having the attendees sit through hours of presentation, they watch or read the material ahead of time so that when they meet up at the virtual event, they can dedicate the time to discussion and other interactive exercises.
11. Provide in-app messaging
Use a mobile event app to connect and engage your attendees. These apps can typically be used on the phone or in a web browser.
Event apps usually allow the attendees to book one-on-one meetings with each other, speakers, or sponsors.
These apps can also use the registration data to set up group chats and breakouts based on your attendees’ interests.
For best virtual attendee experience, it’s important that your attendees can connect directly with each other. The virtual event app you choose should also let your attendees see which participants are offline and which are online.
Pro tip: AI-generated connection recommendations that prompt event attendees to connect with each other based on common experiences or interests can be a very useful feature, seeing that event attendees can’t just bump into each other like they could at an in-person event.
12. Engage on social media
Social media can boost your virtual event attendee experience. And there are many ways in which you can use social media platforms to engage your event attendees! For example, you can create private Facebook and LinkedIn groups for your event.
You can come up with a fun challenge that aligns with the event theme. The more creative you get, the better!
Don’t forget to create an event hashtag your audience can use when posting something related to your event. Of course, this can later help with event reporting as you can track this hashtag.
Invite your audience to get creative when posting to social media. For example, you can ask the event attendees to post a picture of where they’re attending your event from (e.g. the pool, right with the kids doing homework, from a garden). The person with the most creative or unique setup can win a prize.
13. Bring in wellbeing activities
It’s no secret that we’re in a mental health crisis, whose intensity has only been ramped up by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Many of us are staring at our screens from the early morning until late at night, and it can be hard for many of us to create spaces dedicated to our own well-being.
To help your attendees feel more balanced, you could organize a short workout, yoga class or meditation break in the morning or in between sessions, delivering value to your attendees and breaking up the monotony.
Pro tip: You can also add entertainment like music or magic shows between sessions.
14. Create opportunities for informal connection
Informal connection might be that aspect of in-person events that is the hardest to recreate virtually. Spontaneous encounters in the lobby or over coffee aren’t easily translated into a virtual environment.
But this doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try!
For example, you can use the break rooms for informal networking also, maybe during snack and lunch breaks. You can let these be very informal. However, since these interactions can be a bit unnatural for some, maybe you can gently guide the participants with a prompt (e.g. “What was your “aha” moment?”)
Pro tip: You can also consider organizing a virtual happy hour. Bonus points if your participants’ package included some drinks (whichever are aligned to your values and brand)!
When attendees enter your virtual event, they develop the first impression of your nonprofit, and this impression will then solidify as the event goes on.
When thinking of virtual event attendee experience, remember to think of your event as an experience, and not just a collection of calls or livestreams.
Remember to consider:
- What tone or atmosphere do you want to create?
- What do you want your attendees to feel as they start and end the event?
- How can you make the experience fun, creative, and engaging?
- How can you provide opportunities for connection?
- How can you deliver the most value to your attendees in a virtual environment?
GiveForms can help you raise funds during your virtual events by letting you seamlessly accept donations online. Your supporters can donate using a credit card, PayPal, Google Pay, or bank transfers. With a focus on intuitive, human-centered design, GiveForms goal is to help you increase your online donations.
If you’re looking for more information about virtual events or fundraising in general, check out the additional resources below: