How to…take your events online

Author(s): Liberty York

May 20, 2020

The Resolution Foundation has a busy events programme, running a speech, book launch or panel discussion at least once a week. When it became clear that lockdown wasn’t for the short term, I was asked to adapt our events to a digital format. And boy, did I have a lot to learn.

While we’d streamed all our previous events online, this was admittedly a nice add on rather than a priority. My own experience of running virtual events had largely involved panellists saying “Is this thing on?” and positioning a webcam to magnify their chins.

Two months on and with several webinars under our belt, I can now say that we better understand how to set up and run an online event. I wouldn’t say it’s been easy – far from it – but it has been surprisingly collegiate. I’ve learnt a huge amount from event managers in other organisations (a particular shout out to MySociety for their epic debrief on transferring their annual conference to virtual events). 

In the spirit of paying it forward, this is what I’ve learned, and the top tips I would give to anyone starting up a virtual events programme.

Learn from others – and steal what you like

Our team had all sat through some kind of webinar, virtual training or online meeting before going into lockdown but we quickly realised this basic experience wouldn’t be enough to produce great online events in the long-term – we’d have to become web-event junkies first.

We spent two weeks researching by signing up to every event we stumbled across – any industry, any format. Who was doing things really well? What were the common features of a bad event, and how could we avoid them? 

With each event we joined, it became easier to articulate what a ‘good’ online experience would look like for us. Slick, smooth handovers between presenters – yes. Asking the audience to turn on webcams – not for us. Random crisp-munching from a viewer’s mic  – erm, hard no.

Build your toolkit

From Adobe Connect to Zoom – what’s the best webinar platform? I spent several days trying out various different tools and the hands down best is… nope, I still don’t know. 

Truthfully, the best webinar platforms are the ones that come with the full-package – from registration and branding to audience interaction tools and super-powered analytics. But, as you would expect, these come with a price tag that we found hard to justify. Ultimately, you could have an all-singing, all-dancing tool and your event could still fall down if your speaker’s rural wifi is not up to the job. Better to identify your priority features and work from there.

Ease of access was the critical factor for us – we did not want our audience to have to install new software or register for new services just to watch our event. Secondly, whatever tool we used should connect easily with YouTube. We were already live-streaming when we ran events in our auditorium, and directing viewers elsewhere seemed like a wasted opportunity to build on what we’d started.

We ended up choosing Zoom Meeting (Pro accounts) to host the discussion between Chair and panelists. Speakers would need to download software, but it was quick to set up and speakers were familiar with it. But, sticking to our rule that we wanted a fairly frictionless process for viewers, instead of inviting participants to join us in Zoom, we live-streamed the meeting room to YouTube. We miss out on all the interactive features that Zoom offers, but this set up greatly reduces the hassle for anyone trying to watch – you get a video link and press start.

But – why bother running a live event if you’re not going to allow viewers to join you? Well, quite. When we started we ideally thought we wanted to have our audience in the same room (virtually-speaking) as the panellists but with experience, we realised there were other ways we could make our events genuinely interactive while keeping it easy to access. 

Audience polling and Q&A tools like Slido and Poll Everywhere are easy to use, relatively inexpensive, and were already widely used so most people know what to expect. Just direct your audience to a link or a hashtag and encourage the questions to come in. This setup requires a little more administration before and during the event, but it does give a real opportunity to inform and shape your discussion. And, as the person running the event, has the added benefit of me not having to madly mute participants as they enter a Zoom room!

In the end, our toolkit is as follows: Eventbrite for audience registration, Eventable for calendar reminders, Zoom Meeting for the panel discussion, YouTube for the live broadcast, MailChimp for automatic email reminders and dedicated events information page, Slido for audience Q&A and polling, and Google Analytics does what it says on the tin. Many of these platforms offer big non-profit discounts, so do look out for these if you’re eligible.

Rethink your format

Your agenda may be perfectly crafted for your 60-seater debate, but it’s likely to fall flat online without a few tweaks. In the physical world you can limit the distractions, but online you’ll have to work much harder to keep your audience engaged.

When we reviewed our standard format (ten minute presentation followed by similar-length responses from panellists) we realised that it would take a speaker of a truly exceptional calibre to sustain attention unbroken for ten minutes when twitter, breaking news and inboxes are just a few clicks away. 

Asking the basic questions of ‘why are we running this event?’ ‘who is it for?’ ‘what’s the desired outcome?’ will help you establish the most suitable format for your events. 

We want our events to form a resource that features genuine discussion from relevant experts on our work. To do this, we’ve cut the time for initial speaker comments so we can arrive sooner at the audience submitted questions and the meat of the discussion. We’ve also chosen to use interactive polls where suitable to help segment the event into more manageable, distraction-proof periods.

We’re tracking each event’s average watch time and timeline of viewer drop-in/drop-outs to see how successful these adaptations have been. There’s still work to be done, but overall it has been a great opportunity to review our approach and experiment with some new ways of running things.

Prepare, prepare, prepare – and prepare some more

Virtual events are more work than in-person events. No question. Yes, there are technical hazards (I’ll come to these in a minute), but there’s just a lot more prep; from polls to sifting written questions. 

The Chair is also under more pressure. In an in-person event, they can decide on the fly how to steer a discussion. However, it becomes far harder to curate a slick, tight and informative discussion with panelists separated by distance and connection lag. So the Chair also needs to plan much more than they might normally.

For each event we run, we hold at least three prep sessions. One to review the content and structure for the event; a second for tech tests a few hours before the event; and a third just before the event with all external speakers to set-up and discuss any final amends.

Before any event, we need to know what topics we’re aiming to cover, what speakers will want to focus on, what their answers will illustrate, what areas we should probe, and what the audience will find most useful to dwell on (the pre-event questions can give you a good indication of this). 

Our team has a schedule broken down into five minute chunks for each person involved. This tells us what the order of speakers will be, but also when to be ready with poll results, for example. 

Communicating with your team during the event is not impossible but figuring things out as you go is going to lead to mistakes. Far better that you all are following the same pre-agreed plan. 

Have a plan for technical difficulties

Something will go wrong. Maybe not in this event, but at some point, for someone, something will fall over.

I learnt this early on, luckily in a dummy run. The test failed so spectacularly it’s become something of a legend for those lucky/unfortunate enough to have been my trial audience.

There are simple things you can do to avoid or moderate hiccups. Encourage your speakers to use an ethernet cable to get the highest internet speeds they can. Make sure they know that you might briefly turn their video camera off if their audio is dropping in and out, as it may improve the connection. Accept that not everyone will be tech savvy. Give one person the responsibility for muting and unmuting speakers to avoid a game of “can you hear me?” tennis.

Inevitably something will go wrong at some point. The Chair should have a couple of “oops, that wasn’t quite right” lines up their sleeve that they can pull out when required. Ideally these will steer the discussion onwards while the event manager can (frantically) work on any necessary changes in the background.

For the big failures, such as a speaker dropping out mid presentation, it’s worth making contingency plans for what should happen. Or, to put it simply, decide at what point you should close the event. Better to close early than let it limp on if something’s just not working.

Needless to say you can take things too far. For one mad moment in planning, we were discussing appointing a “designated survivor” to take over in the event of catastrophic tech failure (yes, we decided this was probably overkill). 

The likelihood of your chairperson, event host and backup event host all going down in isolation of a wider internet wobble is slim to none. But as anyone who deals with contingency planning will tell you, it’s always too much – until it’s not. Just decide what’s your unsalvageable point, your plan for communicating with speakers and the audience, and then move on. Hopefully you’ll never need to use it.

Think about supporting content

We’ve never been keen on handouts for environmental reasons, but it’s a shame not to share relevant research with attendees before the discussion. By moving online, it’s much easier to share this kind of supporting information. 

Which is why we opted to use MailChimp’s landing page tool to spin up mini-webpages for each event. Any time we’re running an event, it allows us to quickly curate a webpage that has anything that might be useful for the audience. The live stream video is embedded into the page, key information like Q&A joining instructions and speaker bios are set out, and a link to a PDF of the slides is provided in case the viewer’s video quality affects their ability to see the presentation.

It’s also worth thinking about your post-event content – particularly if you have feedback that something would be useful. At the moment, we’re trialling posting a blog after the event, with a speaker providing a written response to some of the best, most representative unanswered questions submitted to the panel. This is in response to audience feedback that showed people were disappointed that so many questions went unanswered by the panel. It is just not possible to answer 50+ questions each time, but this goes some way to covering any big unaddressed topics.

Prime your speakers

No matter how experienced our speakers are, we ask them all to meet before the event in a “green room” so we can run through what they can expect and what they’d like to say (this is just the Zoom meeting before we broadcast live). 

Before the day we send a simple email that has anything they’ll need to lay their hands on. For us, that’s the Zoom meeting link, viewing or registration link if they’re circulating to their own contacts, related reports or slides that will be presented, contact details for the events manager, joining instructions (just in case they’ve never used Zoom before – though it hasn’t happened yet…) and a brief timetable for the event.

We’re also starting to make more recommendations about webcam setup (trying to avoid the dreaded chin close-up). Webcams are often wide-angled and vary considerably in terms of quality meaning you can look great in the mirror, but ghastly on screen. A few small adjustments (we’ve laid them out here) are all that’s needed to elevate the look of your event.

Keep learning and improving

You can’t improve what you don’t measure and a big bonus of moving your events online is the deeper insight it affords you into your audience.

Some things are the same as before: we still ask people to register their details before sending the access link since this helps us evaluate our reach and effectiveness as a charitable organisation.

But some things are new. Rather than periodically asking attendees how our events were, we activate a post-event survey on Slido at the end of each event. This means that we’re learning about audience preferences immediately as the event ends, when niggles are fresh in the mind.

Finally, the research process never ends. I still register for at least two online events a week and make a note of anything I’d like us to incorporate into our operations – if they can do it, we can learn how.