What makes a memorable and engaging virtual event?

Studio with three men

Photo credit: Nathan Riley

Since the beginning of 2020, I’ve attended over 25 events online. I created a list with the ones that I remembered vividly like a positivity workshop, calls with vendors, a live course on habits, team meetings, and more — all to find out “what worked well” with each of them. Then I looked for patterns that made each of them memorable. Not all of the virtual events were engaging, so I focused on the ones that were.

In this article, I’ll distill my experiences into actionable advice to help make your next virtual event memorable and engaging. We’ll start by talking about visualization.

Carol Dweck, in her book Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, introduces us to the concept of a concrete plan, which is created through thinking about what you want to do in vivid detail. Dweck says, “These concrete plans — plans you can visualize — about when, where, and how you are going to do something lead to really high levels of follow-through, which, of course, ups the chances of success.”

What Dweck is suggesting, in other words, is that doing some planning in advance can skyrocket your chances of following through.

Prepare ahead of time for your virtual event

What is the #1 thing that you need before you can host your online event? There are multiple correct answers, and a group of attendees is one of them. You can’t host an event all by yourself — you need attendees to engage with. It is safe to say that most of us are busy, and our lives can be a bit complicated. If we keep in mind that we have limited time and so do our attendees, then it’s a smart choice to create an easy registration process.

Here are the essential parts of an event registration system:

  • Event Page: this is an overview of what your event is about and what a registrant should expect when they attend.
  • Registration Form: collects contact info from attendees like a name and email through a short form.
  • Online Payments: accept credit or debit cards securely and transfer the funds to your organization’s bank account.
  • Registration Confirmation Email: sent automatically after a registration to let an attendee know they are confirmed for the event.

We are an international non-governmental organisation, and we used Event Espresso for processing registrations to our international congress. We had a very positive experience with Event Espresso, and we particularly appreciated that it was easy to set up as well as much cheaper compared to other platforms. The interface is also really user-friendly, which enabled our members to experience a really smooth registration process. Finally, it was great to benefit from such quick and reliable customer support! –Elena Carson

With a virtual event, you also need a tool like Zoom, Join.me, or Google Hangouts. These services let you host a video chat from your computer. A flexible event registration system can sell tickets or registrations to your virtual event and then deliver access to the online event ahead of time. This will save you time and money, so you can focus your energy on getting ready for your upcoming online event.

Imagine you are organizing a virtual class on a topic that you are passionate about. You’ve invested a lot of energy into prepping for the upcoming class, and you’ve sold out your class with 30 confirmed students. You are feeling confident and start the call a couple of minutes early to check your video and audio. You see that a couple of students have joined already, and you say, “hello, how are you?” A few minutes pass, and one more student joins. You are ready to start your online class on time, but you are left wondering where the other 27 students are…

Don’t let this happen to you!

Earlier, I shared the assumption that we have busy lives. Help your attendees remember to show up to your virtual event by sending out a reminder through email. Similar to an airline sending a courtesy email reminder a day before a flight to nudge you to check-in — sending a reminder a day or two before your event is a good practice. You can also help your attendees feel welcomed when they arrive.

Engage your audience throughout your online event

An interesting technique that I’ve seen hosts use for their virtual events is to start the call a couple of minutes early. Doing so gives the host a little time to check their tech like the video stream and audio. Plus, they can use this time to build rapport with attendees by engaging with them. Here is a question that you can use with your attendees:

Where are you joining us from?

As attendees share, do a shout out to attendees in various locations. To go a little further, if you’ve traveled to a city (or are connected in some way), then share a quick tidbit of information and keep going. This brief engagement will instill a sense of connection between you and your attendees. The energy and excitement will also flow well into kicking off your online event.

In your introduction, share a roadmap by highlighting the topics that you’ll cover. Then let attendees know you’ll share valuable resources (e.g., a presentation, checklists, cheat sheets, etc.) shortly after the event ends. This will help your attendees know what to expect so they can focus on what you are sharing rather than trying to write down everything that you say anxiously.

As the authors, Dan Heath and Chip Heath write in their book, The Power of Moments, “When people assess an experience, they tend to forget or ignore its length — a phenomenon called “duration neglect.” Instead, they seem to rate the experience based on two key moments: 1) the best or worst moment, known as the “peak”; and 2) the ending. Psychologists call it the “peak-end rule.”

It may take some experimentation to discover your natural “peaks” in your virtual events, and I have some advice to help. From attending over seven types of online events, I’ve noticed peak moments usually happen 1) near the end of an event when you are summarizing what you’ve shared or 2) during a question and answer (Q&A) session.

As you approach the end of your event, remember to allow some time to circle back to remind your attendees about the topics that you’ve talked about. Now is also an excellent time to tell attendees that you’ll share more resources after the call. Announce a short break (e.g., one minute) to catch your breath, have a drink of water, and get ready for Q&A.

Ask for feedback to discover insights and ways to improve

A question and answer session can be a goldmine for uncovering powerful insights. I’m a fan of finding out what works and doing much more of it. Before, you dive into Q&A, prime your attendees by asking them this question:

What has surprised you the most?

Use a similar approach as the start of the call where you asked, “Where are you joining us from?” by bringing attention to some of the responses. Call out interesting replies and patterns that you see. Then transition into question and answer. Wrap your call by thanking attendees for participating.

When you send a follow-up email to share additional resources, ask for feedback so you can get better. Use this opportunity to ask this question:

What was your biggest takeaway?

You’ll now have multiple sources of feedback to explore:

  • The chat transcript, which includes replies to “What has surprised you the most?”
  • The Q&A session
  • Email replies to your follow up email that answers the question, “What was your biggest takeaway?”

Approach the feedback with the eyes of a scientist to find common patterns. Then do less of what isn’t working and do much more of what is working. In doing so, you’ll get better and more confident over time. Plus, you will develop a unique style for hosting your online events.

Three keys for making a memorable and engaging virtual event are:

1. Prepare ahead of time for your virtual event
2. Engage your audience throughout your online event
3. Ask for feedback to discover insights and ways to improve

What is your best piece of advice for making a virtual event memorable and engaging?

2 thoughts on “What makes a memorable and engaging virtual event?

  1. When you are editing the registration approval email, and you remove the event info, the next time you have an in person event, the event venue info will not be there. Shouldn’t we create a new custom event approval form for virtual events only? I tried to do that the other day and was not clear on how to use that form only for the virtual events. It would be great to have step by step instructions for a creating a virtual only acknowledgement. This leads me to the question also what if someone registers for an in person and virtual on the same invoice? How would that be handled?

    • Hi Laurie, thanks for sharing feedback. I’m revisiting the guide to include a recommendation on custom notification emails.

      If you’ve already set one up, then go to the event editor and scroll down to the Notifications area. Select the custom notification from the dropdown for the registration approved message. Then save changes to update the event.

      An event can handle different types of registration options or tickets. However, they’ll share a single notification.

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