By now, the audience for your virtual conference is probably experiencing Zoom fatigue. Although they want to hear your speakers and chat with other attendees, the idea of sitting through a bunch of virtual webcasts or sessions has absolutely no appeal. How do you convince them that your event will be different? But, wait, is it?
The dimming luster of virtual events
Contrary to popular belief, attendees have a limited amount of time to spend at virtual events. Work goes on as usual for many of them. Or, their workload may have increased because their company laid off or furloughed employees. People who lost jobs are not sitting around, they’re looking for new jobs or dealing with kids at home.
Things were different for events scheduled in March, April, and May. Back in those earlier pandemic days, virtual events were still a novelty. Attendees were excited to “see” their peers. As attendees, we all tried to convince ourselves it was a decent substitution for the real thing.
But now? Let’s be frank. Many virtual conferences were simply a replication of the in-person program. But who wants to pay hundreds of dollars to sit through a day or two of webinar after webinar? The challenge now is not just turning an in-person event into a virtual one but designing a virtual event that’s worth the investment of someone’s time and money.
What we’re hearing about virtual event attendance
The virtual event audience is more value conscious now. They expect more—more interaction, more conversations, more entertainment, and, most of all, more variety and delight.
In the CREO (Corona Response for Event Organisers) online community, participants have been talking about a decline in virtual event attendance. One person said, “As we went into lockdown at the end of March and early April, you could expect 70%+ attendance rate from register > attend. However, now in June, that seems to have slid a lot to more like 30%-50%.”
Community members speculate that digital event fatigue is the cause. They’re hearing feedback that people don’t want to spend a full day in front of the computer.
Virtual event strategies that minimize digital or Zoom fatigue
When marketing your virtual conference or event, describe how yours will be more enjoyable than others thanks to these nine virtual event strategies that minimize digital or Zoom fatigue.
#1: Create continuity
Your virtual event needs a place and a person who ties everything together. Your LMS serves as the conference hub or lobby—a place where attendees are welcomed and oriented, and where they return in between sessions to check on the schedule, and get the latest news and announcements.
A host or two co-hosts provide a sense of community to a virtual event. They welcome attendees, make introductions, and give updates.
With a conference hub and host, attendees know where to go to explore. They see a familiar face every day. The virtual conference doesn’t feel like a disjointed experience.
#2: Focus intensely on content
When it comes to content, short is sweet—short sessions and short program blocks. To prevent digital fatigue and wandering attention, limit lectures to 20 minutes. If sessions go any longer, presenters must build in discussion breaks or exercises. If you take this modular approach to sessions, they will be easier to repurpose later.
Limit the number of consecutive hours that attendees will spend in front of their screens. Schedule two hours of sessions at most then take a substantial break. This approach is better for attendees from multiple time zones too.
Variety is the spice of life and learning. Follow the news shows model. They keep a viewer’s attention by breaking up the anchor’s reports with interviews and videos.
A participatory element in each session should be required. Give attendees the opportunity to ask questions, provide feedback, and discuss information. Breakout rooms are popular and essential. Provide a small group setting where attendees can interact and not just be forced to listen passively.
#3: Play around with unconference and other session formats
Leave space in the schedule for crowdsourced session ideas. Let attendees post ideas for sessions they’d like to give. The crowd votes or answers a poll on submitted ideas, and the top-ranking choices get a spot in the schedule.
Crowdsourced sessions are a good option in times of change since you can quickly schedule a relevant topic. Allow attendees to suggest networking or discussion group topics too You could also provide “space” for mastermind, hackathon, and ask-me-anything sessions.
#4: Get ruthless with speakers and moderators
Don’t tolerate mediocre presentations. Virtual is a different medium so don’t be afraid to get picky when choosing speakers.
Review presentations well before the event so speakers have time to adjust them per your instructions. Leave time to review their final presentations again to make sure they complied. Help them understand why you’re asking them to break up a lecture into segments so attendees have time to discuss and apply what they’re learning.
Every panel must have a skilled moderator who keeps the conversation moving. They must feel empowered to interrupt microphone hogs. They’re the audience surrogate who asks (and relays) follow-up questions or challenges assertions.
#5: Build in time for conversations
Design a program that provides opportunities for both structured and unscripted interactions between attendees and speakers. We’re hearing people say they want to connect with other attendees before, during, and after sessions. Schedule attendee social hours in the weeks and days leading up to the conference—they’ll add to the marketing buzz. Open up chats and breakout rooms before sessions begin and keep them open after sessions end.
During the conference, chat side bars during sessions are fine but they can be chaotic. Breakout rooms are popular for session discussions because attendees can see faces and actually talk to each other. Some conferences use a backchannel tool throughout the event to keep conversations going, such as an online community, Slack, or mobile app. We’ve also seen the increasing popularity of apps that match attendees for quick video chats randomly or based on mutual interests.
Give people options. Assign networking breakout rooms or lounges to specific topics, positions, and hobbies. Talk to members to see what categories would work with your group. You can adjust these categories day by day based on what works and what attendees tell you via polls and surveys each night.
#6: Design hallway experiences
Everyone talks about their hallway experience at in-person events—the place where they run into old friends and acquaintances and meet new ones. Give virtual attendees the same opportunity in virtual hallways, lounges, and tables that are open throughout the conference—before, during, and after sessions and during breaks—so they can “run into” each other and talk.
In recent years, sponsors have come up with creative ideas for hallway experiences, some of which you could replicate for your virtual event, like a mindfulness room with a yoga instructor and chillaxing music, or demonstrations by chefs and bartenders. We’re still waiting to hear about the first virtual karaoke booth.
#7: Extend the lifespan of your event
You’ll attract attendees from all time zones if you can provide immediate access to session recordings. And here’s a biggie: provide attendees access to those recordings forever, not just a week or 30 days. They paid for that content, don’t put an expiration date on it. This is more feasible when hosting in your LMS, as session recordings can be easily curated, repurposed, and bundled with other education offerings through your catalog.
People want to be confident they’ll have the time to get the expected value from your event. Don’t rush them. You can incentivize them to watch the recordings by holding discussion groups about some of the more popular sessions in the months following an event. These volunteer-run groups are a great way to provide extra value and networking to attendees. Plus, they’re more likely to retain what they learn when they have a chance to apply it at work and then report back to others.
Use recordings as a lead generator by opening up free access to a few of them. This could entice people to buy a post-event recording package by track, with or without the discussion group benefit.
#8: Spread learning out over time
Some associations schedule their virtual event over several weeks. This approach might be better for attendees since it can be tough to dedicate several days in a row to an event when you’re home. However, you have to keep the momentum going so their interest doesn’t flag.
The organizers of the L&D Conference wanted to “overcome some of the limitations of a conference.” They believe conferences attendees only get a taste for a subject and then the memory of what they learn fades. So, they’re offering “learning in the flow of work.”
The L&D Conference runs over six weeks with a mix of on-demand viewing and live participation sessions. Their hope is that attendees watch a 45-60 minute on-demand session and then take the new information back to work to try out. Later, they attend a live session with that same speaker and discuss what they did with other attendees.
#9: Surprise and delight
It’s tough to get excited about a series of webcasts. But if you design and promote a virtual event program that includes some of the eight strategies above, you’ll have an eager audience awaiting your event. However, let attendees know you’ve got some surprises planned.
For example, send something tangible (and Instagram-friendly) to keep the conference on their desk. Mail them a swag bag with a conference badge, printed program (a reminder to tune in), snacks, and a branded beverage glass or mug.
You could send them digital gift cards for lunch, dinner, or drinks, or e-books related to a conference theme, session, or speaker.
Celebrity cameos are a big hit right now. It’s a more budget-friendly option than ever before since you don’t have to fly them in and put them up. Or schedule other entertainment like music, magic, or comedy. Raffles, trivia, and game breaks are always a crowd-pleaser.
Schedule a live fitness session for conference mornings—just give attendees time to shower and get presentable before sessions start. Consider time zones too, you may want to schedule a few.
Think about video tours. Who can film from cool places? Perhaps a look behind the scenes or moments of zen at beautiful places. Give attendees a break by letting them feast their eyes on something different, either natural or manmade, that’s not a PowerPoint or gallery view of a panel.
Remember, when designing these social and extracurricular elements of your program, think about sponsorship opportunities.
We’re in an exciting era right now. Granted, we’re dealing with a lot of serious issues, but associations are becoming more experimental and effective with virtual events and educational experiences. Much of what we’re learning can be applied to in-person events when they return.