The data is in and it’s irrefutable—virtual events are here to stay! McKinsey reports that 90% of B2B decision makers expect the remote and digital event model to stick around. Of course, virtual events aren’t just for B2B businesses. A recent survey published by MarketingDive revealed that 71% of marketers expect virtual events to continue in 2021.

Virtual events have been a staple throughout the pandemic. Now that we’re ten months along, we’re all much savvier when it comes to attending and scheduling virtual events. That poses an interesting challenge as we move into 2021, a year that will continue to be dominated by the pandemic. How can we make virtual events more engaging and effective?

We may be ready to experience virtual events in ways that go beyond talking heads in a Zoom room, but what does that look like? In short, the sky’s the limit. From hybrid events that feature live-streaming for virtual attendees to audio-only conferences, to event gamification, there’s a lot you can do from behind a screen (or phone).

The challenges of virtual events

First, let’s look at the kinds of challenges virtual event planners (which is basically every business) are facing as we head into the second month of 2021:

Zoom fatigue is a real thing. Virtual meeting burnout on platforms like Zoom was a problem as early as July 2020 when a poll of 4600 users found that only 20% of people actively participated in virtual meetings. In November, another poll by HR Executive revealed that nearly 40% of professionals had experienced video call fatigue since the start of the pandemic. At that point, either the novelty had worn off or they found the calls inefficient and exhausting. This doesn’t mean we think you should abandon Zoom (or your favorite conferencing app). It’s just a way to quantify the problem. There must be more to virtual events than video calls.

Technical problems or lack of expertise. When planning a virtual event, businesses need to consider infrastructure, tools, technology, and the skillset of their available talent.There are some emerging (and exciting) new tools on the market to help address the demand for virtual events, but this doesn’t necessarily solve the problem of bandwidth, content flow, and management that a skilled event coordinator can tackle.

The poor engagement dilemma. A survey by Bizzabo, an event tech platform, found that networking and engagement are the biggest challenges that organizers face when hosting virtual events. 70% of respondents in their recent report listed networking and engagement as the top two issues, followed by differentiation (creating unique, memorable experiences), and logistics (the skills and technology needed to create and host the event).

Source: Bizzabo

So now that you know some of the key challenges with virtual events, let’s discuss how you can tackle them head on and create an experience your attendees will not only love, but continue to discuss for years to come:

Turning virtual events into virtual experiences

The first step in creating an effective virtual event is to set aside expectations that it should look anything like an in-person event. Virtual events do not need to act as replacements or placeholders–they are their own experiences and have their own strengths.

EventMB, an online publication for event professionals, published a list of 100 event trends for 2021. They compiled the list using feedback they received from over 4000 event professionals. Many of the trends point to virtual events as compelling social experiences with benefits reaching far beyond the pandemic or associated restrictions.

Social engagement gets people involved in ways that mimic (but aren’t identical) to in-person events. For example, you might present a video for all your remote attendees and allow them to comment on the video collaboratively. You may even wish to take polls and provide data to attendees in real time.

Breakout sessions, musical entertainment, and using audio versus video are also ways you can maintain interest and engagement in a virtual event setting. Audio can be approached the same way you might approach a podcast, enabling attendees to listen in on the device of their choice without having to sit in front of a screen.

Another key trend, as reported by EventMB, is virtual chat, a feature that is listed as one of the top three features that attendees want from virtual events. An IDC survey found that less than half of virtual events offer live chat functionality that enables participants to ask questions to speakers or interact with each other. Offering this feature can help improve the event experience for your attendees while keeping people engaged with each other and with the event itself.

A virtual knitting event for the record book

At Ashworth Creative put our virtual event hats on (big time) at the start of the pandemic with a virtual event called Knit + Escape which garnered over 500 participants who attended nearly 80 virtual sessions. Knit + Escape pushed the limits of our own expectations for a virtual event, and it was so successful, we decided to launch our second virtual knitting event: Virtual Galentine’s Day, with further events planned in April 2021!

The challenge: We were excited to plan an in-person knitting and experiences retreat with renowned knitting influencer Kristy Glass in February 2020, when the virus hit and the retreat was pushed back to late 2021. This led to many disappointed knitters.

The solution: Instead of rescheduling the event (indefinitely), we turned it into a virtual knitting, crocheting, and fiber conference, complete with vendors, demonstrations, and world-class instructors from across the globe. We used a raft of virtual event technology from Zoom to Swoogo (an event registration app) to social media platforms (for promoting the event). We created an agenda that focused on making Knit + Escape a complete experience—something that went beyond passive knitting demonstrations and knit-along sessions. Additionally, the conference included featured charity events, trivia giveaways (hello, gamification!) and even a virtual tour of the intended in-person venue which we hope to revisit later this year.

The outcome: We had over 600 signups. 537 people ultimately attended the 78-session event. We filled the event with rich content and ensured that technical issues were addressed by including a moderator and floating tech expert in each session, ready and waiting to handle any complication that arose with expertise, no matter how small. Questions were answered in real-time using a chat widget. Attendees hailed from the USA, Australia, France, and Canada–defying time zones and language barriers.

Knit + Escape was our inaugural event. It gave us the experience we needed to create and facilitate more events for ourselves and for our clients. It also proved that virtual events can be engaging and effective all on their own, and the planning of them is not limited to pandemic conditions or social restrictions. With a combination of new technology, creative expertise, and an open mind, virtual events can rival (and even surpass) traditional in-person events in 2021!

Interested in seeing what your business or brand could accomplish with a virtual event or conference? Let Ashworth Creative help you hammer out the details. We apply our best talent to every project, ensuring your message is honed to perfection. Work with our team, and see what we can do for you.