5 Tips for Planning Online Events

By Carissa Chang Cress

From small conference calls to large summits, online gatherings are here to stay. The ticket management platform Eventbrite announced a massive 2,000 percent increase in online events during April 2020, compared to last April. With uncertainty for when large gatherings will open up, event planners continue to rethink and transform how we meet virtually and in person.

Despite the learning curve for holding digital events, our desire to gather remains. Researchers have studied event motivation for decades, with attendance factors ranging from socialization to cultural exploration to learning and discovery. We have many reasons to host and attend events, and COVID-19 has made us even more aware of how important those gatherings can be. Here are five ways events have shifted — and opportunities to make the most of their digital transition.


  1. Take advantage of interactive (and potentially shorter) features


Sitting together in a conference center, sharing a meal or seeing a speaker address the crowd, may not happen for a while. Instead, our attention has become even more divided across domains: schooling at home, caring for family members, attending many meetings on Zoom. Online event attendees could benefit from flexible formats to accommodate the changes we’ve all made. 

Consider options like polling, comment moderation, and shorter session times to engage viewers. Asynchronous incentives, such as pre-event surveys that ask for audience input, raffles, and hashtags can also boost participation. With any added activity, put yourself in the attendee’s shoes. How does the new activity create a memorable or informative encounter for them?


  1. Get to know your technology as much as possible


Physical gatherings tend to offer all-encompassing experiences, with each element — location, meals, WiFi, swag, and more  — contributing to our overall impression. With pared-down digital events, costs may go down, but scrutiny of the technology goes up. Increasing familiarity with your chosen platform could save some anxiety for the live show. When possible, organize a full rehearsal that closely reflects when and how the actual event will run. Test mics. Practice looking into the camera. Have a backup plan if the event goes down. Refer to the COVID-19 Consultancy’s Resource Library for more specific tips on running a successful event. Once you’ve gone live, the programming will happen fast!


  1. Dig into digital communication


Similar to communication efforts before COVID-19, digital outreach remains crucial to engaging stakeholders and audiences in events before, during, and after production. Assess your event’s communication activities: Do they continue to be promoted across channels, such as social media, newsletters, websites, calendars, and through local news partners? Has your team followed up with important guests through personal calls and emails? Will files like flyers, social media images, fact sheets, and sponsor information be ready to go when needed? PCMA’s Digital Experience Institute has a helpful summary on customer engagement for digital events. While it focuses on business events, the principles apply to multiple scenarios. Mapping out a plan for how you’ll make use of each digital platform is key.


  1. Revisit your objectives


With such major adjustments in how we’re currently communing, this is a good time to think about if your events remain viable in a digital-only format. Consider these questions:

  • Does the effort to put on a one-time or recurring online event overshadow the benefits that your organization will receive? 
  • How important are the events in supporting your organization’s strategic goals? 
  • Should a hybrid physical-digital approach be considered for next year’s event plans? 
  • Could posting some pre-recorded sessions help lift the load when it comes to producing a live event?

Taking a bird’s-eye view of how events — whether meetings, retreats, or social hours — are being affected can help illuminate which ones to prioritize.


  1. Staff appropriately


Just like hosting in-person events, planning for online events is a team project. In the online space, it’s important to have technical expertise (see tip 2) in the off-chance that an event doesn’t run as expected. Ask for help during the event, as well, with at least one other person who can focus on items like comment moderation, Q&A responses, technical questions from viewers, and cueing presenters if you have multiple people scheduled to speak. 

When in doubt about what to do or how to assign roles, don’t forget to check out the variety of blog posts, templates, and guides that exist online for free. They’re a good reminder for how to stay the course as a team and that none of us are alone in our efforts.

Learn more about virtual events in the Consultancy’s Virtual Event Guide or attend one of our events to learn more about effective communication in the time of COVID.


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About the Author


Carissa Chang Cress is a co-event producer for the UW’s Center for an Informed Public. In this role, she oversees strategic communication and event efforts, particularly on issues of access and equity. She also works for the Office of Diversity and Engagement at the University of California Office of the President. Carissa is pursuing her Master’s of Communication in Digital Media in UW’s Communication Leadership program.

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