In many ways, social distancing is proving that people are hardwired to connect. Although the current environment will likely have a longer-term impact on people’s appetites to attend in-person conferences, it has also created an unprecedented learning laboratory for people such as me, who bring people together for a living.
In the first several weeks after major U.S. companies began asking their employees to work from home, my team at Microsoft was evaluating our participation in and execution of upcoming events on a case-by-case basis. But realizing we needed to make friends with ambiguity, in late March, we made the decision to move more than 30 internal and external events to digital through June 2021.
This shift in approach has led us to reconsider how we reach our audiences at scale and the experiences we’ll deliver to them through events. Since our decision, we’ve already conducted more than 15 large-scale virtual events, including a partner summit for over 4,000 attendees and a Microsoft employee town hall with our CEO, Satya Nadella, and the senior leadership team.
Here’s what I’ve learned so far from those experiences.
1. Think cinematic rather than theatrical
Online or in person, people show up to events to learn, network, and discover. That won’t change. But to enable those things on a digital platform requires a few key strategic shifts.
It starts with production. Whereas in-person events are more theatrical in nature, virtual events require a cinematic approach. An on-site conference does not translate to a chatroom.
When producing virtual events, I like to think in “episodes.” Audiences aren’t captivated by an hourlong stream of a single camera pointed at a person on a stage. Instead, plan that hour in segments. Use multiple cameras and frames to change angles. You can create a dynamic experience for a “fireside chat,” even if your hosts are sitting six feet apart.
2. Get clear on size, scope, and tech needs
As you plan a digital-first event, it’s important to consider how your setup can best accommodate your audience. Scaling is critical—not just in terms of technical capabilities but also in terms of content. It may not make sense to host 10,000 people at once; it may work better to split your event into small group sessions focused on niche subjects. Or, if you do anticipate a large audience tuning in to a single session, is there an opportunity to make the content available for replay so you can reach more people at their convenience?
Ensuring people feel safe and secure while gathering is important—and that doesn’t change in the digital realm. To retain the live interaction and authenticity associated with in-person events, you have to start with a secure virtual stage, which means selecting technology and tools that can accommodate your needs.
Whether you’re hosting small-group training for teams or large, all-employee broadcasts, thinking strategically about what content you’re providing and why will go a long way in helping you decide how.
3. Have presenters adapt to the format
Just as you need to adjust your production strategy, presenters should adapt their style to the camera versus the stage. This one will take practice. Many experienced presenters are theatrical—we’ve trained ourselves to project and fill the room with our presence when we’re on stage.
But now, we need to retrain ourselves to fill the computer screen. There is no PowerPoint projected as our backdrop. There is no crowd, so we need to tone it down and tune in. We need to learn to have an engaging conversation with our audience directly via the camera—a lesson even the late-night talk show hosts are learning firsthand right now.
4. Make it a conversation
There are a variety of ways to enable event attendees to engage with presenters and each other throughout a virtual conference. Again, the best results will come from planning ahead. For example, connecting via your social communities where your customers are already engaged can help build conversation leading up to the event and get people in the mindset to learn and ask questions. Enabling attendees to engage with each other and ask questions ahead of time can also help presenters prepare to address what’s top of mind for their audience. For internal events, employee-centered communities are ideal platforms to generate dialogue—including sharing questions and crowdsourcing information—before, during, and after an event.
In any case, moderators play an important role in building conversation. More than just virtual chatroom monitors, they should work in tandem with presenters to engage the live audience. Instead of a 45-minute presentation followed by 15 minutes of Q&A, for example, encourage real-time participation. Use your moderator to help foster conversation and build a dynamic experience in the moment.
5. Cater to a global audience
Virtual events break down geographic barriers to attendance. Stretch your event across time zones so participants can experience it live wherever they are. Leverage digital conferencing platforms such as Microsoft Teams that enable live captioning and translation for speaker remarks so audience members can view subtitles in their local language.
Consider how you can make the sessions and conversations viewable after the fact. At Microsoft, we publish event recordings to Stream and Yammer for people to watch when it works for them.
6. Be mindful of the audience journey
Events serve as important, intensive checkpoints in an ongoing customer-relationship journey. Just as there is a clear cadence of attendee engagement for in-person events—from pre-event communications to on-site engagement to post-event wrap-ups—digital events require different methods of engagement before, during, and after.
For example, the virtual medium is fantastic for self-directed learning. Attendees might be encouraged to complete “homework” before the event begins, with an opportunity for additional online learning or the ability to pursue a certification afterward.
7. Adapt your success metrics
It’s equally important to customize success metrics for digital events. A blend of standard live-event metrics and digital key performance indicators—such as dwell time, page views, and downloads—plays a role. So does customer feedback. To be honest, even a few months ago, I was skeptical that large events could succeed online. But as we’ve been forced to adapt, we’re discovering that customer appetite for these events is strong.
For example, to accommodate the more than 4,000 attendees at a virtual partner summit in March, we broke the conference into 810 sessions on Teams. The sessions ranged in size from small 20-person breakouts to large sessions for all attendees and included casual breakouts such as cocktail and social hours. The insights gleaned from those sessions have transformed our thinking around not only what is possible in a digital space, but how we can succeed at engaging our attendees in creative new ways.
8. Employ a growth mindset
Although the road ahead is uncertain, it is unlikely that demand for large in-person conferences will return to their previous norms any time soon. Event organizers, producers, and marketing professionals will need to find new ways to engage our audiences.
From planning to production to showtime, we need to appreciate the differences between on-site and virtual events—and maximize each platform for the benefit of customers. Even in light of the challenges many are facing, this time of significant change can help bring clarity to why we’re asking our audiences to spend their time with us.
On a human level, the value of live, person-to-person connection remains. Our new reality is an opportunity to redefine how and why we engage with people. That’s a good thing, for organizations and their audiences alike.
Bob Bejan is corporate vice president of global events, production studios, and marketing community at Microsoft.