Virtual Meetings are Here to Stay: 8 Tips to Make Yours Stronger.

Phone call overload. Zoom fatigue. Isolation exhaustion. It feels relentless – but fortunately, at some point, it will be safe to meet in-person again. That said, working through a pandemic has taught us a lot. Some of those virtual meetings really could have been emails. And, when you add up the costs of in-person meetings and conferences – from air travel and lodging to conference venues, food and drink, entertainment, swag and more – it’s a lot of money. Some of those large conferences in the past didn’t deliver enough ROI to make them worthwhile. So, even when it’s safe to reconvene together, it’s also safe to assume that businesses will choose to be more judicious about what conferences they host and attend in person. Some events will remain as virtual conferences. Others may blend a live format with videoconferencing and online meeting capabilities to broaden their audience.

In short: virtual conferences and online meetings are here to stay. But does that mean you’re doomed to a future of never-ending, mind-numbing videoconferences? Absolutely not.

The trick is to raise your online meetings (or the online components of hybrid meetings) to a higher standard that can improve your reach, fight inertia, reduce distraction and increase engagement. It’s a tall order, but we’ve pulled together eight fundamental ways to do it.

Know When to Go Big and When to Go Small. Both Have Advantages.

We all know that it’s easier to engage a small audience than a giant one. But we also know that if you restrict access to your virtual meeting, fewer people can attend. Think about what makes the most sense for any given online event – or session within an event. If you want to increase engagement among a curated cohort, keep sessions small while providing networking, collaboration and conversation opportunities. To get more people connected with your content, consider raising your attendance caps – either for the entire meeting or just for, say, the daily keynote sessions.

Define the Capabilities You’ll Need in Advance.

Match your online platform and conferencing technology to the needs of your meeting or conference, not the other way around. For instance, do you need your platform to:

  • Sync invitations and registration confirmations with online calendars? It can save time and keep people from accidentally scheduling over your event.
  • Record meetings and offer transcripts? These options can provide opportunities for “Encore Playbacks” and “Highlight Reels,” which can deepen engagement with attendees and enable connection with people who couldn’t make it.
  • Offer real-time chat? This is critical for networking and other forms of audience participation.
  • Customize meeting rooms? People may be more inclined to go to a place called “The Collaboration Station” than “Meeting Room #27.”
  • Brand the conference with names and logos? That may be essential if you want people to remember the conference and its host more than its platform.
  • Include a mobile app? Especially if they include secure admission credentials, scheduling capabilities and possibly even quizzes and games, apps can reinforce how connected attendees feel to your event.
  • Provide on-screen collaboration capabilities for participants? Tools like real-time document editing and annotation can help you achieve meaningful, productive connections between session participants.
  • Support multiple session styles (e.g., webinars, collaborative workrooms, entertainment and breaks?) Even highly engaging content will become monotonous if every session has the same structure.

Whatever capabilities your online conferencing platform provides, you must do more than simply enable them. Encourage your speakers to design their sessions with cues for audience interaction. For instance, if you can do real-time polling during a presentation, your presenters should use that capability, telling attendees how to respond to questions and providing aggregate results before the session is over. Likewise, if you’re offering a panel discussion, look for ways to also provide an easily organized, live Q&A with the audience.

Encourage Audience Participation Beyond Technology.

While it’s important to leverage technology to make your presentations look and sound better, no amount of conferencing technology will overcome a dull, uninspired lecture. Help your presenters raise their presentation game. Encourage them to lean into the elements of a great story to immerse audiences in their presentations, using music and graphics to set – and change – the mood. Consider the possibilities of “choose your own adventure” style choices so that participants feel like they’re helping to drive that story. Seed Q&A sessions with questions that staff members can ask so that no participant needs to risk being the first to raise a hand with an inquiry. Finally, consider bringing in industry greats or celebrities to act as M.C.s for key sessions or to pop in as “surprise guest-stars.”  Whatever you do, your aim should be to keep people from sliding into feelings of sameness from one moment to the next, which can drive distraction.

Think Collaboration over Presentation.

Even the most powerful speech is unlikely to give audiences a transformative experience. Let those powerful, TED Talk-style presentations tee up opportunities for audience members to discuss, interact and collaborate on related ideas. Keep breakout groups small enough to facilitate real conversation. And while random groupings of people can yield unexpected connections, you may be able to generate more compelling results with deliberate groups organized around specific breakout tasks. Above all, provide collaborative groups with opportunities to present what they come up with and build on the engagement they forge in these sessions.

Don’t Wait for the Event to Build Engagement.

Remember that your participants’ enthusiasm for your event should start long before the conference or meeting begins. Map the critical digital experience touchpoints in your attendees’ journey from registration or ticket purchase through the event itself to post-conference follow-up and feedback. Then, make sure that those milestones enable positive and even unexpectedly delightful interactions. These interactions can entertain – for instance, by providing a quick, animated celebration of inclusion with ticket purchase confirmation. They can also be functional – say, by accompanying registration confirmation with a secure, easy-to-access place where attendees can return for session entry codes and passwords. Consider sending people the same swag that they might pick up at an in-person meeting. Likewise, if a live meeting would have included a free lunch, send people an Uber Eats or Doordash gift card. Don’t let up when the conference is over, either. Encourage continued engagement via follow-up content or rewards for participation and attendance.

Reinforce In-meeting Processes.

Not everyone will be as familiar with how you want people to behave and interact in your virtual environment. So be sure to publish and reinforce your expectations for:

  • General online etiquette (such as when to mute mics and turn cameras on or off)
  • When and how people should ask questions. Will you have a moderator? Is there a way to virtually raise a hand?
  • How people can make appointments to meet key leaders – or each other
  • Which sessions are pre-recorded and which will allow for live interaction
  • When and how you will provide time and space for informal conversations, entertainment, facilitated networking, breaks, etc.
  • When and how people should follow up after the meeting

Then, couple this information with technical support staff on hand to help people with these processes and procedures. That way, attendees can focus on the conference, not their technology.

Encourage Networking.

Part of why people attend events is to connect with others they’ve seen online or with whom they share perspectives and experiences. Consider ways to support this form of engagement beyond opening an online “networking lounge.” Place yourself, your staff (and even any event sponsors) in the role of “business matchmaker.” Issue a questionnaire in advance so that you can plan to introduce people with shared interests and backgrounds who might otherwise not ever work with each other. Ideally, every online event participant should get to enjoy one of these introduction opportunities.

Allow for Some Fun!

We all know the adage about all work and no play. So, don’t pretend that your attendees are work machines – especially if they’re all attending remotely. Consider a short session when people can introduce their pets. Or maybe you could include a session where people can follow along with a chef to make a fun snack together. Host a virtual background contest with prizes for the most creative, most on-brand, most effective, and so on. These fun additions can help people let down their guard and bring their most authentic selves to the meeting.

Even when you are finally able to hold in-person events, our current times have opened the door to many advantages that you can gain from providing rich, meaningful online experiences. Work some virtual meeting expertise into your meeting planning and execution toolbox, and you’ll benefit from the best of both worlds.