Here’s what works — and what doesn’t — in a world that’s not going back to normal.
By Keith Ferrazzi
Earlier this year, Chris Anderson, the head of TED speaker series, was moments away from starting an interview with a speaker when the Wi-Fi connection went down.
Technical difficulties are frustrating at any moment, but the timing for this one was particularly unfortunate. After the Covid-19 hit, the weeklong in-person event in Vancouver, Canada, turned into the eight-week virtual extravaganza rechristened as TED 2020 Uncharted. Anderson’s bad internet connection was certainly unexpected, but the head of conferences for TED, Kelly Stoetzel, had a backup plan in place: She ended up doing the interview.
With notes at hand and questions prepared, she was ready to step in. “There’s no time for ‘should we do this’ or ‘should we do that,’” she said. “This is what we have to do now. First lesson for any of us hosting virtual events: Be prepared to lose connection at any time.”
While virtual events aren’t new, their massive and sudden proliferation during the pandemic has provided a global laboratory for understanding and solving their challenges and flexing their unique advantages over traditional events.
This year also made everyone rethink how to run a successful event and how to engage their audience effectively. Going into 2021, these questions are not going away: How do we re-create the fun and serendipity of a live experience? How can the organizers engage participants when competing events are just a browser tab away? How do you facilitate interactions and ensure attendees are making great, new connections or generating sales leads?
A number of ambitious conference organizers have overcome these hurdles through force of will and creative agility, re-creating the good parts of live events while delivering a version that’s just as good with surprising new benefits. You can be far more inclusive and invite a more geographically and culturally diverse audience that experiences it on par with the rest of the world. With the ease of recording everything, you generate valuable assets for months to come.
The TED conference team’s “we-got-this” mindset, says Stoetzel, was to “imagine coming to this conference that you thought would be in-person and you’ve paid to be there, and instead it’s virtual.”
Several experts predict that virtual events will be a larger part of the mix even after gatherings become safe again. Early successes demonstrate the value of online engagement. A virtual print expo in Australia — print, of all things! — produced “a noticeable lift in inquiries immediately after launch” for Epson. Web infrastructure vendor NS1’s first-ever conference was a virtual event in June. TechTarget reported that it “came away from the one-day conference with some 3 million social media impressions and many valuable sales leads.”
Examining the future of online gatherings is one effort in a wide-ranging research project we’re leading in partnership with the Harvard Business School Press called Go Forward To Work.
Go Forward to Work is a community of leaders dedicated to improving organizations by sharing the best practices honed in this disruptive moment. We’re compiling insights from industry leaders across industries on topics of digital transformation, leadership, sales, remote work, well-being, and diversity and inclusion.
We’ve attended countless professional events, and we get the obvious benefits of virtual: safety, cost, convenience, wider reach, better carbon footprint.
Here’s the Go Forward approach to overcoming the hurdles to virtual events.
DIVERSITY, EQUITY AND SCALE
Before going into the problem-solving, we wanted to point out a huge social benefit to events going virtual: More people get to play.
Online allows you to broaden your community to people with more diverse backgrounds, especially those who might not have gotten the opportunity before due to budget or travel constraints. By going online, the fifth annual Black Girls Lead conference to empower young women of color could accept 20 times the previous number of participants, organizer Beverly Bond told Forbes. Developers who wanted to attend the annual Apple Worldwide Developers Conference used to enter a lottery for tickets. This year WWDC went online and garnered praise for its inclusivity. Videos had closed captioning available and interactive transcripts that let the viewer skip to precise points.
“In the past, a lot of the big conferences were very much top-down,” says Lara Stein, co-founder and CEO of Boma Global, a global network of local partners offering transformational learning experiences. Now she sees digital spaces becoming platforms for radical transformation, where we convene stakeholders openly and democratically around pressing issues.
The World Economic Forum could be headed that way. In January 2020, roughly 3,000 global elites gathered as usual in Davos, Switzerland. For 2021, the organizers are planning an all-virtual event called “Davos Dialogues” during the forum’s originally scheduled week, and pushing the annual meeting back to the summer. Their theme is the Great Reset, and includes a virtual hub network to connect governmental and business leaders with thousands of young people in more than 400 cities. Organizers want each hub to have an “open house policy.”
Live-streamed performances, webinars, and other virtual gatherings can be made fully accessible to people with disabilities, according to a guide from the National Endowment for the Arts. Recommendations include live captioning, leaving room on slides and videos for captions, providing visual or audio descriptions, using a large legible font, and offering transcripts afterward.
Virtual events also level the playing field by eliminating power dynamics and creating openings for a more welcoming atmosphere.
Mike Clementi, EVP of human resources at Unilever, said that he and his team have organized many virtual corporate events since the pandemic started.
“When you’re in a meeting setting, we’ve all experienced the two or three dominant voices that take over,” Clementi said. “But in a remote setting, the facilitator can more easily say, ‘Okay, I’m going through the hand-raising feature,’ for example or in alphabetical order. People are expecting and accepting it.”
HOW TO GENERATE ATTENTION AND ENERGY
In a virtual setting, you’re no longer tethered to a tightly packed onsite schedule, so a lot of events have stretched out over a longer period of time to prevent participant overload. Amazon Web Services (where Chadburn works) is lengthening its AWS re:Invent cloud computing conference from one live week to a virtual three weeks. NVIDIA’s five-day flagship event in March, the GPU Technology Conference (GTC), usually brings 10,000 people to San Jose. For 2020, GTC turned into a multi-week digital event with on-demand content available afterward. Registrations more than quadrupled over the old in-person total.
TED went from a one-week event to a two-month program with a week-long “prequel” event that helped them iron out their technical and logistical kinks. The original agenda was then spread across eight weeks with hour-long Q&A sessions on Mondays, Tuesdays, and Wednesdays with prominent experts such as Bill Gates. Thursdays had more traditional TED talks in the evenings in the United States, and Fridays were Community Days with workshops.
Any business executive talking on screen for 45 minutes runs a high risk of boring people to tears. Workfront, a maker of productivity software, drew more than 2,000 people last year to Dallas for its Leap conference. This year was entirely virtual. To avoid having speakers bomb, Workfront hired a consultant with experience helping executives speak to a camera instead of a live audience. They set up a live TV studio with three separate areas where speakers could sit.
“We ended up having ‘scene changes’ every few minutes in the form of visuals that would show when the speaker was talking — different b-roll video,” says Gary Clinger, VP of marketing for Workfront.
Their strategy paid off. Workfront’s statistics showed that the average watcher stayed online longer compared to benchmarks from other places, Clinger noted.
Unilever’s Clementi says that smaller, more digestible online presentations and discussions are more suitable to the way many of us learn.
“The output hasn’t gone down, from what we can tell, and the engagement seems to be high,” he said.
Red Hat limited keynotes to around 20 minutes for its online summit. Forrester’s annual SiriusDecisions Summit for B2B leaders shrank sessions from 45 minutes to 20 this year during their live virtual experience. Breaking up content makes messages tighter and allows people to attend more sessions across different time zones. As for what time zone is optimal for a global audience, Clementi suggests a window of two or three hours on either side of Greenwich Mean Time.
You can also survey participants about what kind of program structure they want to see so you can adjust if needed. If you’ve made accessibility accommodations, communicate them well during registration. With a bigger virtual crowd, communicate a clear code of conduct to set expectations for event participation.
HOW TO RE-CREATE NETWORKING
Veteran conference-goers readily admit that content is less important than the kibitzing you do in the hallway and networking opportunities that arise in the coffee queue. An entire chapter in my book on networking, Never Eat Alone, is called “Conference Commando'' and is fully devoted to the topic. Doing that in a virtual or blended context is possible, but it requires a bit more intention and resourcefulness.
TED initiated a feature this year called Idea Speed Dates that paired two participants for five minutes of online conversation. Attendees got to choose their match based on a question prompt or could opt to talk about anything. New friends have the TEDConnect app to continue the conversation. TED also organized a meetup for first-timers that turned into a group chat on the app, whose members became close and continued chatting.
Some organizers are drawing inspiration from gamers. Having participants create personalized avatars that interact in virtual replicas of actual spaces is an option. Take the Midwest Solar Expo, a B2B conference for solar business leaders. In June it became a fully-immersive 3D virtual event. Each exhibitor, speaker, sponsor, and attendee could control a digital avatar inside an online venue that had indoor and outdoor areas. A few professional gatherings have even migrated to online games such as Minecraft and Animal Crossing.
Chat windows are an important, and often underexploited, vector for interaction. The American Physical Society’s virtual April conference platform displayed a chat window next to the speaker’s video so participants could ask questions and share info in real time, Nature reported.
TED 2020 was designed as a two-screen experience so attendees could watch on one and interact on another through a community chat. This setup allowed participants to connect with speakers in a way that was unthinkable under the strict theater rules before.
“Someone made a comment in the chat about a talk, and then the speaker reached out to them via the app,” Stoetzel recalled. Chat also stayed available after sessions ended, giving context to programming for participants who might have missed it live.
Workfront’s Clinger said that when he tried opening its virtual events with standard client questions, the conversation kept returning to how everyone was navigating these uncertain times. The company changed their approach and started every event off with this personal check-in. Setting a vulnerable tone in a virtual conference session can be a powerful way to break through the screen to the people on the other side.
In the “sweet and sour” exercise we do in team coaching sessions at Ferrazzi Greenlight, participants take turns sharing one thing they’re grateful for and one that’s causing struggle. It inevitably opens up the conversation in unexpected ways, bonds the participants and creates psychological safety for the session at hand.
Depending on the platform you’re using, you can add tools for audience interaction and encourage speakers to incorporate audience engagement into their sessions. This allows participants to keep the conversation going after the session is over.
RE-CREATING THE WOW MOMENTS
Event organizers are also finding creative ways to quash Zoom fatigue, excite and engage their audiences. Sherry Pagoto, University of Connecticut professor who directs the UConn Center for Health and Social Media, told UConn Today that the center’s online conference in May invited presenters to make brief YouTube videos in place of technical presentations.
The center gave out awards for the most viewed video. Additional helpful approaches we’re seeing: organizing contests, giving out participation prizes and adding quizzes.
Some events opt to generate spontaneity and inject energy by scheduling live sessions into the mix. The accounting industry trade group AICPA broke up part of the agenda at its big firmwide conference in June by inviting attendees to watch a live online tour of a goat rehab farm called Goats of Anarchy.
A Salesforce conference organized online in the middle of the pandemic had a live conversation with singer Sheryl Crow and the company’s chief marketing officer Stephanie Buscemi.
“You could tell it was live because, guess what, I know Stephanie and she was nervous,” says Workfront’s chief marketing officer Heidi Melin. “That had an impact on me in such a positive way because of the authenticity.”
TED 2020 tested out a high-definition 3D sound product from the San Francisco virtual reality firm High Fidelity. Its technology creates a virtual space with stereophonic sound that mimics the way conversation volumes get louder or softer depending on how close you are to others in their virtual space. High Fidelity replicated TED’s convention center floor plan and let a bunch of us TEDsters wander around the beta space, walking up to real people having conversations and joining in.
Organizers of expos, trade shows, and food fairs that relied on physical interactions have been especially hard-pressed to find new ways to engage the senses. One thought leader we know whose client is a large food retailer came up with an advent calendar-style delivery, where each day comes with a package that has a story around it and has tasty samples inside.
Dessert Goals, the annual sweets-focused food festival that used to take place in New York and LA, turned to web-based interactive programming. This year, the vendor marketplace offered discounted treats for home delivery, and all ticket-holders received virtual goody bags.
Previously Workfront held marketing events at upscale restaurants that were intimate and led to great conversation, Clinger said.
“We decided to port one of those from live to virtual in the course of about four days. We sent everyone a Grubhub gift certificate — we’ll meet you at noon.”
Melin described a separate event for about 25 customers, where Workfront brought in a pro chef and sent ingredients ahead of time for making paella together from their respective kitchens. Sharing this experience drew the participants closer.
“When you take your camera and go into your kitchen, all of a sudden it becomes really personal,” Melin said.
Going forward into 2021, think about your program through the lens of the receiver. Rehearse sessions so speakers feel comfortable at a faster pace. Let your imagination run wild when considering experiences that energize participants. If you’re doing it live, use general prompts instead of a script to make delivery more natural. Include a gift with event signup.
If you’re a business leader with experience producing a virtual professional event, we invite you to share what you’re learning with us at Go Forward To Work. We’re compiling best practices to feature on our website, and in a book planned for publication in 2021.
Keith Ferrazzi, chairman and founder of Ferrazzi Greenlight, has counseled the world’s top enterprises on how to dramatically accelerate the development of business relationships to drive sales, spark innovation, and create team cohesion.