In this new normal where everything is moving online — from morning meetings to afterwork happy hours — it’s more important than ever to find interesting and unique ways to keep event attendees engaged. Gone are the days of a captive audience in a conference center. Now, events must compete with not just the usual distractions of email and social media, but also kids, spouses, pets, and that pile of dirty dishes sitting within eyesight.

Like many of you reading this, the DoubleShot Creative team has attended more than our fair share of virtual events over the last few months. From workshops to webinars to customer conferences, we’ve been inspired, bored, engaged, and enraged (bad internet connections will do that to you). So today, we’re highlighting the best and worst of what we’ve seen to help inspire your next virtual event.

Setting a good foundation

One of the first impressions an attendee has during a virtual event is the platform experience, and let me tell you, we’ve seen some doozies. Confusing interfaces, superfluous features, clunky navigations — and then there was the time we couldn’t even get in for the first hour of the event.

Since the platform you use can make or break your attendee experience, it’s important to keep it simple and intuitive. Think about the tools your attendees are already familiar with and limit any additional features to only those that are absolutely necessary.

We liked the simplicity of the custom tool Salesforce used for their Work.com event, with just a video stream and simple attendee chat window side-by-side. It had everything you needed to watch and engage with the content, without a lot of distracting bells and whistles.

We also thought that Lesbians Who Tech had a great website for their (Not IRL) Pride Summit with a nice layout that was easy to navigate. All the sessions were easy to access, making it clear which were live and which were recorded, so attendees could prioritize on the day of the event.

For networking, we like how Create & Cultivate have been setting up dedicated Slack workspaces for virtual events like their Digital Summer Camp, allowing attendees a space to network and connect both during the event and in the week following. Using a tool like Slack, that many of their attendees are already familiar with, lowers the barrier to entry, while keeping it live for the week after offers attendees some added flexibility and extends their engagement.

Let’s talk schedule

The usual all-day or multi-day event schedule can be draining when it gets shifted to a virtual space. Compared to an action-packed day of moving from room to room and mingling with other attendees, sitting alone at your desk staring at a screen gets old quickly. And that hour-long keynote session? Forget it — your virtual attendees are likely to lose interest after the 30 minute mark, if not sooner.

Our favorite virtual events have been those that rethink the typical conference schedule. Consider reimagining a day-long live event as shorter virtual sessions over multiple days, like the Watermark Innovation Conference, which consisted of two 3-hour sessions on back-to-back afternoons. Or turn everything on its head and spread out your sessions over multiple months, like TED2020.

While 20–30 minutes has become the sweet spot for most virtual sessions, mixing up session lengths by interspersing shorter, more entertaining sessions with longer, more informative ones can help keep attendees engaged. It’s also important to consider the day of the week and time of day for your conference, now that most of your attendees are 100% remote. The “Zoom fatigue” is real, and no one wants to be logging into another video stream at 4pm on a Friday.

Whatever schedule you decide on, make sure you provide a clear agenda up front, detailing which sessions are happening when, what will be happening live vs. pre-recorded, and what content (if any) will be available after the event. We’ve loved how many events are making their content available to attendees for extended periods, since it offers more flexibility for those in different time-zones, or who might be juggling childcare and homeschooling responsibilities with their typical workday.

It’s all about the content

Being a virtual event producer is a lot like being a television producer. Your content needs to be engaging, interesting, and fast-paced to hold people’s attention.

In the same way we talked about mixing up session length, it’s also helpful to mix up session content. Intersperse informational panels, fireside chats, and workshops with lighter, more entertaining sessions like yoga, meditation, recipe demonstrations, or dance breaks. We really liked how Sprout Social accomplished this by tapping into their customer base for user-led yoga and meditation breaks during Sprout Sessions Digital 2020: Agency Day, their half-day, interactive virtual workshop for agencies. We also liked how Adobe used pre-recorded content like podcasts and videos to keep attendees engaged between sessions during the virtual version of their Experience Makers Live event.

To help keep attendees engaged, we prefer virtual content where two or more people are engaging together on screen, like panels or fireside chats. As with live sessions, it’s important that the presenters have a good rapport and that a panel is led by a skilled moderator who can keep the conversation flowing. In situations with a solo presenter, consider mixing in some graphics or imagery, as you would with a live presentation. Not only will this help tell the story, but it will also keep the audience more engaged as you avoid a constant shot of a talking head. A more dynamic approach we saw at both the Adobe Experience Makers Live event and the Watermark Innovation Conference was digital live scribing. We felt that in both cases, it added a great visual element to the sessions, while also offering a nice recap of the session for use on social media.

Unfortunately, even the best content can’t overcome a poor presentation. Without the professional crew of a live event, bad lighting, poor audio quality, and distracting backgrounds have popped up in a lot of the virtual events we’ve attended, along with more than one hot mic. To avoid some of these issues, always make sure to build in time to rehearse and prepare with your virtual presenters ahead of time, whether you are going live or pre-recording a session. This will give you an opportunity to run through some best practices, test out their connection, make sure their clothing or background isn’t too distracting, offer feedback on framing and camera angle, and check that their audio is clear and the lighting looks good.

For as many virtual events as we’ve had the pleasure of attending this year, we know it’s just the tip of the iceberg. We’ve touched on some of the things we’ve liked here, but now we want to hear from you. What’s been your favorite virtual event so far? What do you think made it so great? Let us know in the comments below.