From in-person to exclusively online: How to run an online event successfully

Startup for Startup

2020-04-07

17 min read

By the time COVID-19 erupted in Israel, we had already closed the location, design, giveaways, lightning, and schedule of our second “Unplugged” event. At that point we still didn’t know that for this event we would not need to rent a venue, meet the crowd in person, or even… wear shoes. Eventually, this event was held exclusively online with over 300 guests and a ranking of 4.4 out of 5. So how do you turn a physical event into an online, successful one?

Unplugged for Designers – Make it Simple, online

We hosted our first-ever live podcast ״Unplugged: Leading by KPIs״ back in December of 2019 in Tel Aviv and it was a huge success – with 280 attendees we earned a ranking of 4.2 out of 5 according to the feedback form we sent our guests. 

We learned a lot of lessons along the way and we were well on our way to implementing them. What we didn’t know yet was that in the next event we would not need to rent a venue or even meet our crowd in person. That’s because the next Unplugged event was required to be held online.

The event was titled “Unplugged for Designers: Make it Simple” and since we were targeting designers, it was clear to us that we need to invest a lot of thought and effort in the look and feel of the event. By the time COVID-19 arrived, we had already closed the location, design, giveaways, lightning and agenda, which included 4 different sessions and 6 speakers. In the end, we managed to increase our attendance to over 300 people all while increasing our quality score from 4.2 to 4.4. We learned a lot about how to conduct a true online event (not a webinar), and we’re here to share those insights with you.

Let’s start by laying the groundwork you can use for your team. As we always do, we made each person in our team the “owner” of a certain field. In our case the responsibilities were divided as follows:

  1. Content
  2. Audience reach & engagement 
  3. Operations & logistics 
  4. Design (all design was under the responsibility of our design team, and was done in coordination with our team all along)

When we detail our actions to prepare for the event we will address the first three areas of responsibility and share the designs we made along the way.

Before the event

The most important action we took was deciding to continue the event. After closing all the details for a physical event, our first thought was to postpone the whole thing for a few months and wait until we can physically be with our audience again. We decided to explain how we are going to do this in context instead of why we couldn’t or shouldn’t do it.

Choosing the best platform to suit the culture of your event. We used the Zoom Webinar system. It probably sounds obvious to even mention it, but this decision was an important one. We weren’t sure if Zoom was the right tool for us or if we should look elsewhere. In the end, we found a lot of advantages in using the webinar version of Zoom:

  • Ability to chat with the audience
  • Q&A that are revealed only to the panelists for professional questions
  • Ability to control who is speaking – just like a regular conference where the host is the moderator
  • Create polls & publish results live
  • Present slides while still showing all of the speakers

One main downside we found was that we were not able to actually see the participants – only the other panelists. This was a price we were willing to pay for the convenience this tool provided us in other aspects.

With a good platform in mind, it’s time to focus on the content. In an online event, the rules change a bit – the need for interaction with the audience rises, and the length of the event shortens. We had to be creative and rethink which content is truly relevant and concise enough to not lose the audience’s attention, and we gained this insight by talking to our audience.

We can guess what they would like to hear from us, or we can craft our content around what their challenges are. In the event registration form, we added the question “What would you like to ask the speakers?” which gave us a good idea of what value our participants were looking for.

Audience Communication

Consider keeping it as an event, not a webinar. Taking framing into consideration, we wanted the audience to feel as though they are attending an event, not an online seminar. We ensured we used ‘event’ in every banner, email or social media post prior to the day of. This is why we also did the following actions:

  • Send participants a calendar invite.
  • Create an RSVP to increase the feeling they have relevant, exciting content waiting for them. 
  • Prepare beautiful visuals. 
    • If people had attended a physical event, they would have enjoyed watching motion videos about the topic of the conference. So we started and finished the online event with these videos.
Opening motion video for the event
  • Offer the option for technical support. 
    • We wanted to make people feel comfortable using Zoom, so at the day of the event we sent them an email with instructions about how to enter the meeting, how to use the chat during the event and who to talk to if something isn’t working. This was made possible because we also had an IT professional from our team available throughout the event.
    • Ensure your audience can report on technical issues live. We also sent the participants an email address they can contact if something doesn’t work, and also had team members watching the chat & social media to check for messages about IT issues.
A part of the email we sent to participants
  • Send swag, physical gifts or other benefits to attending when possible. 
    • Instead of branding the venue, we sent our participants the ability to brand their home. Each person who signed up received a link to a free online store, where they could order a poster which was designed in the theme of “make it simple” by our design team. The morning of the event they received it directly to their homes, which began the journey of the event much earlier in the day. The reception was incredible and confirmed to us this was the right thing to do.

Operations & Logistics

Prepare for all possible scenarios, equipment failures and run tests before an event. In the week prior to Unplugged, every Zoom meeting we had we decided to conduct in the form of a webinar instead of the traditional meeting room. Each time we tried something new so we could learn what the experience was like for our audience whether connecting from a mobile device, connecting a lot of people simultaneously, muting everyone but one speaker and which control features are enhanced on the webinar version of the platform.

We wanted to know that we are ready for any scenario on the day of the event and this helped us prepare our speakers as well. We assumed that one bug we can’t fully prevent from happening is network connectivity issues. So we told our speakers how to prepare for it by making sure they are connected wirelessly, hardwired and also with their cell network. With these connection backups we felt confident we’d be prepared for any outcome.

While Zoom’s feature set can be simple to use, there are still a lot of things that can go wrong for the unprepared user. If you’re not aware of how to use the tool there could be adverse effects, such as attendee noise or inability to see the screen share. We rehearsed with every speaker to make sure they feel comfortable and ensure nothing awkward happened during the live event just like we could have done in a real venue. This is how Zoom became our venue in a sense. 

During the event

Having only Lior Krengel (Head of the Startup for Startup Initiative), our host, be the one in charge of the presentation during each session greatly enhanced our quality. This allowed her to make sure all topics are covered on time and lead the speakers to talk about what’s important. This in turn allowed the speakers to focus only on delivering the content well. We also coached our team on how to dress and find matching backgrounds in their spaces so that the look and feel of the event were all in sync.

Lior, getting ready to host our first online event

Other than Lior, we had every person who took part in the event in charge of something else: from playing to motion videos on time, to monitoring the email for IT issues or sending engaging questions to the participants. This made things work as smoothly as possible, start to finish.

Audience Engagement

Every event starts with a gathering of some sort where people get to walk around, network and scope out the venue. It sounds impossible to do online, but we made it work by encouraging the traditional mingling phase of an event. Once the event started, we wrote 3 questions in the chat box to “break the ice” a bit:

”Hi everyone, we’re happy to have you here 🙂 Unfortunately we can’t see you (one of a webinar’s disadvantages) but we’d really like to know who is here with us. We’d love for you to share:

  1. Who are you and where are you working from?
  2. Where are you watching this event from?
  3. What’s the coolest thing within 100 meters of you?”

We also invited the participants to upload a photo of them watching the event and upload it using the Story feature on Instagram which would display the chosen content to their connections.

It was difficult on us knowing we couldn’t see the crowd. At one point there were no questions being asked so our host Lior encouraged the audience to raise their hands using the Zoom feature. It allows a viewer to virtually signal they are ‘raising their hands’ for the presenters to see. After engaging with the audience personally the screen then was filled with hands which offered everyone great encouragement. Polling an audience can help them feel engaged with the content which helped us understand what topics we should focus on. By taking the time to ask in the moment we learned significantly more about our audience.

  • What type of designer are you (Product/Marketing/Motion/UX expert etc.)?
  • Are you using an in-house development team or outsourcing your development activities?

By engaging live we got wonderful feedback and opportunities for conversation that never would have risen with just our presenters. One of our attendees even mentioned that it was as if we could read their minds. This turned out to be a huge advantage of this medium and garnered a few key takeaways:

  1. We could immediately understand what information is missing in real time
  2. We could answer accordingly in context 
  3. We utilized this to easily include them in our discussion and it drove our decision making process throughout the event
The actual event – slides, speakers and chat

After the event

We aligned with our team in a debrief sync (on Zoom of course) so that we could write down all the insights and lessons learned during the course of our second Unplugged event. This internal retrospective then is easily translated into the story you’re reading right now. Even if you don’t wish to share publicly, sharing with the teams involved will ensure a higher quality experience for next time.

We wanted to make sure that people who weren’t able to make it could still participate. Recording the session – including the chat conversation – allowed us to make sure no question is left unanswered, even after the event is over.

It was important for us to understand how the participants experienced the event and learn for next time. This led us to choosing feedback forms as a way to collect those insights we wanted to use for our improvement. These insights gained externally will continue to help us raise the bar of quality for future Unplugged events.

The feedback form we sent participants after the event

After reflecting with our teams we were left with additional commentary on these insights.

  • To make an online event succeed, you need good content. While a physical event has many distractions – motion videos, crazy lightning, interesting sounds, and many times charismatic hosts & speakers, in an online event there’s nowhere to hide. It’s just you, the audience and nothing else. So in order for them to leave everything and focus on you, the content has to be enthralling.
  • Prepare hardest for the first 3-4 minutes. Since this is a format we are not used to doing lectures in, it might be a bit confusing for the speakers. In retrospect, we would have practiced harder on the first minutes of the event with the speakers and go over exactly what needs to be said at the beginning of each session so there won’t be any room for confusion.
  • Timing is a difficult thing to follow and this is also true in an online event. It might be even harder, given that the host wasn’t even in the same room with the speakers. Giving as much thought as possible to the schedule of the event is our key takeaway.
  • Engaging with the attendees and making them part of the event is something we can always take to the next level. We look forward to doing it even better next time around.
Here’s a piece of advice we’re planning to implement next time!

Appendix: Live Operations Breakdown

Our staff included:

  • IT person
  • Quality control person (making sure sound and video are working correctly)
  • Host
  • 4 speakers – each in a separate room

The equipment we used:

  • Mics
  • Headsets
  • Black shirts – host and speaker were dressed the same, which gave a feeling of cohesiveness.
  • Background – all speakers had the same background, which was easy on the eyes for the participants and also gave the feeling of a professional set. 
    • We ensured no details or artificial/virtual backgrounds to help our audience stay focused. We wanted to create an intimate and real conversation, seeing where our speakers actually are helps create that authenticity. 
  • Water for everyone
    • We even coached our speakers how to drink away from the microphone for quality assurance 🙂
There were a lot of requests, so we opened the poster store after the event for another 24 hours.

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