Dana Larson is a strategy lead consultant at Jack Morton. This story was originally published on LinkedIn.
Like most of the world, I’ve anxiously watched the effects of the coronavirus ripple through the world and, especially, the events industry over the last month. It got “real” for me personally when the call came in during the second week of February to let me know that the large corporate event (6,000+ attendees) I was working on would be canceled due to the virus.
But there was no time to wallow in sadness or fear, because, despite cancelling the live event slated for the second week of March, the client still wanted to share the content virtually…in the same timeframe. That meant we needed to figure out a whole host of logistics and pull together a virtual show in three weeks. No doubt, it was challenging, but the client was fantastic, collaborating all along the way. And now that content is in the can and being released to glowing review.
With scads of events having been cancelled and more being cancelled each week, I thought others might benefit from some of the early learnings my team and I were able to glean in this fast and furious process. So, I’ve outlined the 5 key steps to follow when taking your event from live to virtual.
1. Be decisive, make big decisions.
For many, time may be the biggest enemy. It takes a tremendous amount of time to plan an event and making the pivot from live to virtual in a few weeks is like turning a cruise ship on a dime. To keep things moving, you’ll need to be decisive. Analysis paralysis is not going to be your friend at a time like this, nor are decisions by committee.
Identify the key decision makers from the client side and the vendor side and set up a regular cadence of communications. Keep roles and responsibilities well defined to enable a clear path forward and then begin to make the big decisions:
- Determine what content is most important to deliver, what non-essential content can be cut or postponed to a later date—what do you need to say?
- Determine where and how you will capture content (you may need multiple locations)
- Identify what speakers are still available to travel, if necessary, based on where you will capture content (primary and remote capture locations may apply)
- Determine how you will deliver content and what technology is needed to support that
- Reassess your KPIs and decide what is most important to track now—a different medium is going to drive different results
2. Build a team.
You are going to need a slightly different (and most likely, expanded) team to deliver a virtual event than a live event. While there is definitely some crossover, there are some unique roles too. Here are some of the people you might need:
3. Consider your audience needs.
To ensure you can provide the best possible experience for your audience, you first need to know if you’ll be creating a virtual live or on-demand experience, or some combination of the two. The following are some pros and cons of both options.
Identify barriers you need to work around
You’ll also need to determine how people will consume content, and whether or not they will need special software. If they do need software, is it easy to obtain and install? Having a plan that creates the least number of barriers will drive higher engagement numbers.
Speaking of barriers, if you’ll be delivering content across time zones it’s important to consider how easy it is to consume for all of your audiences. For example, if you have a live keynote in Chicago at 1:00pm but also need to reach an audience in Asia Pacific, it will be 2:00am for them…not the best time to engage with a business message.
Design content for on-demand vs. live
More importantly, you’ll need to think about how consuming your content is different on a screen than it is live. Live events and on-demand viewing on a computer are very different experiences demanding differing content and formats. While people might be able to sit and listen to a 30-minute or even 60-minute keynote live, they will likely not be interested in or able to sit and watch that same content on a computer unless it’s incredibly engaging. What’s more, you will not have the advantage of hosting them a in a room that you control, that was designed for just this purpose. The content you create has to be at least as engaging as a documentary, and preferably as engaging as what you’d find on network TV.
Viewers watching in their office are likely to be easily distracted by colleagues, phones, email and messaging. Or if they’re at home (which is a likely scenario in the “new normal” the COVID-19 outbreak), there’s a whole host of other potential distractions—from the stack of mail that needs sorting to deliveries at the door to children who might need their attention. In general, sessions likely need to be much shorter; formats need to be adapted and varied, and stage and sets may need to be redesigned — all of which will likely impact your programming and could impact your speaker lineup. Can your currently slated speaker deliver a dynamic on-location interview? Can he/she keep the energy high during a fireside chat? Do you have someone who can lead a product demo in a fun way?
Ensure engagement and interaction for a “solo” audience
Beyond that, you’ll need to think about what it will take to get your audience excited about engaging with a virtual event when they were planning to attend a live event. For internal events, you can look for ways to drive employee interaction, such as with office watch parties, contests, and discussion groups. For all audiences, you’ll want to think about how to drive conversations and discussions among viewers, increase engagement, and extend the impact. You may want to consider employing gamification through “buzzword bingo” or simple trivia contests. Encourage virtual attendees to share how they’re “attending” your event from their virtual location through social media posts.
Use all of these considerations to develop a content strategy that is appropriate for a virtual event. If time is a factor, you’ll probably need to lean in hard to social media as a channel that can provide high return in a short timeframe.
4. Design a virtual show.
Once you’ve got roles and responsibilities defined and a plan in place, it’s time to start designing. First, you’ll need to determine if your original show theme (if you had one) is still appropriate or if you might need to pivot to something different. You may find that the new format demands a new theme, and potentially a new look and feel.
Next, use the new parameters to create a run of show and design the programming for your event. We found it was helpful to approach this more like a TV producer than an event producer, creating blocks of programming based on common shows with unique episodes. For example:
The TV approach to programming and titling enables you to:
- Align graphics styles to a common show format and location (e.g., a fireside chat in a studio or a remote interview)
- Create efficiencies in development of graphics elements (e.g., tops, tails, lower thirds) across all presenters while keeping episodes unique
- Ensure consistency in look and feel across graphical elements
Think about how you’ll promote and present your content, especially if you have a multi-part, multi-day event. In addition to presenter graphics (including background, overlays, cutaways, picture-in-picture, etc.) you’ll likely need a whole range of digital graphic assets that you wouldn’t have needed for a live event, including:
- Teasers (e.g., commercials; coming up next promo bugs)
- Segment animations (e.g., tops and tails) and transitions
- Title cards
- Lower thirds (e.g., names and titles)
- Corner bugs (e.g., theme, channel, and up next)
Here is an example of a “Next up” transition:
Finally, before you begin execution, you’ll need to determine if you need new staging and/or set designs. These decisions will depend on your programming and what is needed to support the stories you’re trying to tell. For example, where you may have planned to have a single keynote stage for your live event, you may find that you need to support some speakers with a stage suitable for a stand-and-deliver speech and others with a talk show format or a news desk format.
5. Prepare to execute.
Execution is going to be more important than ever. You can’t just take a live format, transfer it to a recording and call it good. The production values for a virtual event must be even higher than they would be for a live event. As soon as you commit something to recording there will be a lot more scrutiny placed on it and expectations for quality will be much higher — it will be even more important to get it right.
In addition to the areas of focus previously mentioned, here are some other areas to focus on:
- Tell a story. Your entire virtual event should have a clear story arc with a beginning, middle and end, and should work to communicate your overall messaging. Similarly, each segment within your virtual event should tell a cohesive story, just as a show on TV would do. There’s never been a better time to be a storyteller in events!
- Create graphics to support your presenter on a small screen. When creating presenter graphics, think of how they will appear on a small screen. In events, we are used to designing for a large screen and a large audience, but a virtual event is delivered differently. If you’re creating for a live-to-tape situation where you need to design for both the large and small screen, you should create well-annotated storyboards to ensure you get the right framing on screen. This also enables you to indicate where potential graphic overlays, picture-in-pictures overlays, and cutaways will appear.
- Drive viewer engagement. Build in ways to engage the audience by including Q&As, polls, “Did You Know” facts, and trivia contests.
Video capture and production:
- Get an experienced stage/film director. You will need an experienced stage or film director who understands the overall vision that can direct presenters during filming. The presenters’ media training likely hasn’t prepared them to know where to look with a multi-camera set up nor will they understand what gestures and movements look good on camera. Presenters will also likely be nervous about being filmed, so having that encouragement and direction can be very helpful.
- Employ a multi-camera setup. Ensure you have a camera setup that will enable you to get the shots you want. Are the subjects looking at the audience/camera when appropriate? Is the prompter placed in the right location? Is there open space for overlays in the shot? Can you get the wide shot that shows the full context of your location? (You might need a drone.) Can you see the content of the screens/slides behind them? You’ll want to be sure you have enough shots to choose from once you get into the editing phase.
- Get ready for next-level editing. Don’t underestimate the effort required to properly edit, and then review and edit again, the large amount of video that will likely be generated through the process. To get the high-production value that will engage and enthrall your audience, each segment of your virtual event will require editing together multiple video files, finessing those edits, rendering in graphics, adding sound, generating preview files, and rinsing and repeating until final. If you have an event that is longer than a half day, this will be a significant undertaking to do properly.
Once you have each of your “shows” edited and approved, you will still need to caption them, string them together and render them. All of this takes time, especially if you have a number of shows to produce. So it’s important to factor that into your overall schedule.
A new paradigm
Although I have been advocating for content to take a more prominent role in events for a few years now, I think this may be the time it actually starts to stick. The magic of live events has always been the ability to be in the same room with other people. Now that the live element is being removed by government bans on meetings and events, we’re going to have to find new ways of getting our message out—at least in the short term. One thing I know for sure…we can’t just do the same thing we would have done in the ballroom on a recording. We must bring surprise and delight to the virtual format, and the only way to do that is through the content.
But there is a silver lining to all of this, and that is a virtual event causes a much smaller environmental impact than a live event. So, if we can do this well, it may be a good answer for some events in the future. We can never replace the benefit of being face-to-face with other humans, but maybe we can find a balance that is good for humans, businesses and the environment.
It would be difficult to include everything you need to know in a blog post, but these guidelines should serve as a good starting point for you. I wish I could share the work our team did, but alas, NDAs preclude me from doing so. I am beyond proud to say that the reviews were better than we could have ever dreamed, with people comparing the content to the VMAs and Oscars. My mom did always dream of me being in show business, so maybe this is as close as I’m going to get. 😉
I wish you all good luck in these crazy times and don’t hesitate to reach out if we can help!