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Together apart: Learnings from managing an event in the age of social distancing

Posted by Charlie O'Toole on 29th July 2020

Recently, I experienced something that I’m sure many in my industry have experienced over the last few months. That being an event I’d poured blood, sweat and maybe even a tear or two into being scrapped and reformatted as a virtual event.

It was far from the easiest thing in the world to pull off, but if nothing else I did learn a thing or two about taking a physical event and making it virtual. If you’re in a similar situation, or better yet think you may be in future and want to be prepared, then you may find some use in my experience. Here’s how I’d tackle this very specific problem, if I had to do it all over again.

Ask yourself what you want to get out of the event

This is the big question when it comes to making your event digital, and the first you should ask. Does your client want sales leads? Do they want to network with their peers? Or are they organising a briefing to show off the capabilities of their new product to journalists?

Once you’ve answered this, keep it in mind moving forward and after every step, ask yourself “does what we’re proposing help our client achieve this?” When you know what the event needs to do, you can start thinking about what it looks like.

Rethink the structure

While it is very convenient to say “let’s take the event as it was and just replicate it, but with everyone at home” that doesn’t always translate into the real world. Say you were originally hosting a panel with a live audience; you could move it online and just do a webinar, but does that achieve what it was intended for?

Maybe traditionally at the event the sales team brings in warm leads to a talk shop, maybe it’s an annual event where your customers come and discuss topics that are hot in the market. A webinar with a live audience may not be the best thing to replace these.

Instead of looking for a like-for-like virtual substitute for your event, think about how you can get what you need, even if this means changing the structure.

Something else to be wary of at this point is to not be afraid of splitting out a large event into smaller, more targeted events. In the real world you can schedule talks, have different tracks for different audiences and manoeuvre people into the places that are most relevant to them.

Planning a digital event works in exactly the same way. You wouldn’t brief a journalist on a product or an initiative in the same way that you’d brief a prospective customer, so why lump them into the same group just because the event is now online? Knowing what the audience wants is half the battle when it comes to getting what you want.

Rethink the presentation

I won’t labour this point, as it’s part and parcel of the structure, but take some time to think about the delivery of your event. I can’t count the amount of times I’ve deleted emails telling me about some all-singing, all-dancing webinar because it’s just lazy, generic and ultimately pointless marketing.

If, however, I was invited to a masterclass or a fireside chat or something that felt less “let’s get as many signups as is humanly possible” I may potentially be enticed. This also factors into whether you stream the event live or pre-record it and offer it on-demand. Some audiences will very much prefer one over the other. Know what your audience wants.

The techy bits

This bit is probably the easiest step to go over. Do you have what you need to make the event happen? If it’s going to be a live panel event you need every panellist to have good video and more importantly good audio. This is the easiest step in that there’s a bevy of plug-and-play USB options out there.

The Blue Yeti has been a favourite of streamers for over 10 years for a reason; it’s easy to use and it works well. There are other considerations to make based on the structure of your event. Is it going to be pre-recorded and edited down? Then your panellists should record video and audio separately from whatever video conferencing tool you use so the editors have the best source material to work with.

As long as your panellists can see and hear each other, they can live with subpar quality if it means your audience gets a high-quality product.

Also, a brief aside here, don’t record straight from Zoom and try to push that out. It’s going to look terrible — it’ll sound dreadful and with about 10% more thought put into presentation you can get a product that’s 100% better. Use Zoom so conversations can happen as and when they need to but record separate audio and video if you’re using the content in any scenario that’s not live.

Putting it all together

Once you’ve thought it all through and know what you’re going to do, how you’re going to do it and what you’ll get out of it, then the real work starts. Execution is arguably as if not more valuable than planning, and technology has a habit of letting you down when you need it most. Have a backup plan, be prepared to think on your feet and try not to take it too seriously. It’s only a webinar.

Charlie O'Toole

Charlie brings an unorthodox background of Music, Art, Marketing, Design and Social Media Management together to help bring a fresh perspective to any PR campaign. An ardent believer in the Stanford design thinking process, Charlie prefers to leave no stone unturned in the planning stages to ensure effective and creative results. In his spare time Charlie is a gigging musician, experimenting with different instruments, tech and playing styles to bring his music to life.