Many hoped the social distancing required by COVID-19 would be something we could look back on as a temporary inconvenience of the past by now. But in the United States, the news each day reinforces concerns that we’ll likely be spending a lot of time at home for months to come.
For businesses and organizations that want to maintain a connection with their audience, online events are poised to be a big part of our immediate future.
If in-person events were a regular part of your business model in the pre-pandemic days, then transitioning to online events makes sense. Even if events weren’t part of your business before, virtual gatherings can be a way to connect with and engage your audience at a time when they’re struggling. In this guide, we’ll teach you how to host an online event or a virtual conference for your business.
10 Steps to Hosting Online Events
Hosting online events is an entirely different beast than in-person events. Even if you have ample experience with event planning, shifting to an online environment will come with a learning curve.
In some ways, online event planning is easier. You aren’t limited geographically, and don’t have to try to find an event space that’s just the right size and cost for your needs.
But in others, it’s more difficult. You face the challenge of figuring out how to make sure the event is engaging enough not to lose your audience to the distractions around them—from kids and pets to the vast internet just a tab’s click away. And you have to worry about the technical side of things, where a lot can go wrong.
But online events can be successful. By following these ten steps, you’ll increase your chances of planning and holding a virtual event that goes off without a hitch, and achieves all your goals.
1. Clarify your why.
If you start hosting virtual events out of some sense it’s what you’re supposed to do, your events won’t have a clear purpose. And they’re unlikely to accomplish anything worthwhile for either your brand or your audience. For an online event to be worth the investment in time, work, and money you put into it, you need to understand what it’s for.
Start by thinking through what your goals are. Do you want to help establish a community within your industry? Are you hoping to build some goodwill with your audience by providing something genuinely valuable? Or is this directly a way to generate new leads to pass over to your sales team afterward?
Understanding what you want to get out of your event, and what you want your audience to get from it, will guide you in every other step on this list.
2. Figure out your online event format.
Online events can take many forms. Whether your event is meant to be educational, entertaining, promotional, community building, or some combination of those things will determine which format to go with.
Some online event ideas to consider include:
Thinking about planning a live webinar? This is a great way to do a video conferencing, especially if you have a guest speaker or presenter. Webinars are a fairly standard format for any event that will center on a presentation. They’re a good choice if your goal is to provide educational content, or promotional content that touches on what your product provides.
Panels include several experts in discussion. Because of their back-and-forth nature, they can often keep an audience’s attention more effectively than one speaker. And by bringing multiple experts in, you increase the appeal to your audience and gain several partners in promotion.
Discussion-based online events can be good for both education and community building. For these, make sure you have something to get the conversation going—whether that’s a list of questions or prompts, a specific discussion topic, or a book all the attendees know to read in advance.
Online Classes and Tutorials
Online classes and tutorials are great options if you want to provide educational content to your audience in a live, interactive format.
Virtual Happy Hours or Coffees
The old standard for networking gatherings—happy hours and coffee meetups—can’t happen in person for the remainder of the pandemic. But you can still host them virtually. Have attendees BYOC (bring your own coffee or cocktail, depending on the time of day) and have discussion topics at the ready in case the conversation lags.
Online Trivia and Game Nights
An entertaining take on online events, hosting a trivia night or finding online games for your community to play can be a fun way to bring people together virtually.
An interview with a relevant industry expert or influencer popular with your audience can be a good way to garner interest in an online event.
With concerts and plays no longer safe, sponsoring or hosting an online performance can be a good way to bring value to your audience and generate a lot of interest in an online event. Many performers have shifted to providing online performances to help people pass the time while stuck at home.
Online conferences are often a hybrid of a few of these types of events. They usually last longer than other types of events, and try to pack more value in as a result. They may include time in the schedule for networking, educational talks and panels, and performances or games to add some fun to the experience.
3. Decide on the audience for your online event.
When you’re planning an online event, your audience should always be top of mind. An important early step in the process is therefore deciding who the intended audience is. Is the event for current customers only? For prospects likely to buy your products? For anybody that fits into your target audience?
Also consider how large you want your event to be. Should it be open to everybody, the more the merrier? Or will it work better with a contained audience? Decide if you want to set up an online event registration, which allows you to limit the number of attendees, track who decides to join, and give you the option to charge; or if you want to promote the event widely, and let anyone drop in that’s interested.
If you decide to charge for the event, then you need to choose technology that lets you set up an online event registration that includes payment processing at the same time. And you need to make sure you’re prepared to provide plenty of value to your audience, so they feel they get enough back from the experience to make what they paid worth it.
4. Pick your online event platform.
While you can skip scouting for physical event space, putting on a virtual event requires picking the right technology. You’ll find a long list of online event platforms and webinar software products available to consider. The decisions you made in steps one through three will help you determine which features to prioritize.
While you can find free video conferencing services, they tend to have limitations. For businesses or organizations hosting events to instill community or generate leads, investing in a paid product is worth it. Consider how best to balance your budget with your needs, and select the best product for your events.
5. Prepare an agenda for your online event.
Even the simplest of online events will benefit from having an agenda to guide you. An online happy hour will produce more discussion if the host comes with a set of discussion questions in mind, or activities to complete together.
For more complex events, an agenda is even more important to put together in advance. If you plan to have speakers, you want to determine who to ask and get them lined up well in advance. If you’re hosting an event with games, make sure you know what type of games and have worked out your scheduling so they go off without a hitch.
No matter your event type, this is a crucial planning step. Think through exactly what your event will look like. Figure out the timing. How long will it last, what specific activities will it include, and when will each part of the event begin and end? Even if your event doesn’t match the agenda exactly, having a structure in mind will help you keep things organized and ensure you provide attendees value.
6. Consider interactive elements.
Knowledge workers are already spending a lot of their time in front of screens every day. Getting people to focus and engage with an event happening on the same screen they’re already spending hours in front of daily is admittedly a challenge. To keep people’s attention and make your online event more memorable, make it interactive.
Most online event platforms provide features that let you slip interactive elements into your online event. Some possibilities include:
- Centering your event on an active discussion – For a discussion-based online event, keeping it interactive is easy, since the nature of the event encourages everyone to participate. Consider having prompts that encourage each person to contribute to the conversation during your online event.
- Including a Q&A portion – For presentations or panels, give participants the chance to share questions they have with the host, and leave time for speakers to answer those questions before you wrap things up.
- Hosting polls – Polls are a quick and easy way to include attendees in an event, and to collect information on what they’re dealing with, thinking, or feeling.
- Enabling chat – Many event platforms include a text chat component. Attendees can send messages or questions to other individual attendees or to the whole group, without interrupting the person speaking.
- Having quizzes – Quizzes are a fun way to test your attendees’ knowledge, and give them a reason to pay attention during your online meeting.
- Including offline rewards – Send offline merchandise or goodies to attendees to reward them for showing up or participating. While shipping costs mean this kind of giveaway is more costly than it would have been back in the days of in-person events, it’s a good way to make your event more memorable and valuable to attendees, and to build goodwill with those who make time to show up.
7. Test out your tech.
Everyone that’s had a Skype call drop or watched a colleague get blurry and freeze during a Zoom online meeting knows that technology is the biggest wild card in throwing a successful online event.
You can’t test out the internet quality of all your attendees, or accurately predict the likelihood of electrical outages on the day of your online event—some things will always be up to chance. But you can test out how well your webinar platform and its relevant features work in advance. Find a few people within your organization willing to join you on your test run. And if your event includes speakers, bring them in as well.
Go through your agenda and test out everything that will come into play on the big day. If you plan to use the poll feature, have your test group provide their answers. If your speakers will be sharing their screen to go through a PowerPoint, check and see if there are any issues getting that set up.
Your technology may not work exactly the same on the day of your event as it did during the test run, but by going through all the steps of your event in advance, you can vastly reduce the likelihood of embarrassing technological mishaps once your attendees are present.
8. Promote your online event.
Even if you do everything else right, your online event can only be successful if people show up. So make sure they know about it!
Promote it to your email list, on your social channels, and on your website. If it’s an event open to everyone and you really want to drive attendance, consider investing in paid promotion channels like pay-per-click (PPC) ads to get in front of a bigger audience.
If you took the time to put together an awesome event, all that work will be wasted if you don’t also invest in promotion. Give your audience a chance to learn your event is happening, pitch them on why it’s worth their time, and make it easy for them to complete the online event registration.
9. Have a backup plan.
Technology is unpredictable. Even if you carefully chose the platform with the best reputation and tested everything out in advance—your speaker could have an internet outage at the exact wrong moment, or the webinar platform could be overloaded that day and slow down. Have a plan in place for what you’ll do if the event isn’t able to go as planned.
That could mean moving your online event to another platform you have set up as backup, having someone else step in to present, or a plan for rescheduling. If the latter, be prepared to offer refunds if relevant and to lose some of your attendees if the new time doesn’t work for them.
10. Follow up.
No matter what your event goals are, you’ll get more out of it if you follow up with attendees. If the event included a panel, guest speaker, or presentation, share the recording or try live streaming the event. If it was a discussion group, send a brief recap to remind people what you talked about. If it was about community building, tell people where they can find each other and keep the conversation going throughout your digital event.
For example, at HostGator, we publish a blog post after every webinar that recaps the highlights:
An online event may only last a set period of time, but its benefits can extend beyond that moment if you make a point of continuing the relationship after it ends.
Making the Most of Your Online Event
Online events aren’t the same as in person ones. But while you may lose something in translation, you also gain something. They provide more accessibility to people around the world, in all physical and financial situations—meaning you may be able to connect with people you never would have with an in-person event.
In-person events will inevitably come back in full force when it’s safe for them to do so. But as we all get more accustomed to online events in the meantime—and organizers get better at making them genuinely valuable—they may maintain their popularity even when gathering becomes possible again.
Ready to host your online event? Check out these top WordPress plugins for events.
Kristen Hicks is an Austin-based freelance content writer and lifelong learner with an ongoing curiosity to learn new things. She uses that curiosity, combined with her experience as a freelance business owner, to write about subjects valuable to small business owners on the HostGator blog. You can find her on Twitter at @atxcopywriter.