Virtual events still sound a little futuristic, but they’ve been happening since 1993 when the world’s first livestream brought us nail-biting webcam footage of a coffee maker in mid drip. The streaming pot brewed up millions of views.
In some ways little has changed in 2020. On TikTok, teenagers have gone viral with sleep feeds, raking in crypto coin as they catch some zzz’s. But tech and social media upgrades have opened the door to new ways to connect online, from virtual museum tours to live Q&As with astronauts in space.
Even some of the largest conferences have gone partially or completely digital. Moving events like this online can reduce costs and carbon footprints, and make attendance accessible to a wider audience. In 2018, Coachella’s YouTube livestream brought Beyoncé’s Homecoming to more than 41 million people in more than 232 countries, rather than just the hundreds of thousands in attendance in person.
From live-tweeting to livestreaming, businesses and organizations are staging virtual events across the web. So, is your company ready to get digital?
Whether you have an event already in mind or you’re looking for ideas, this article is your all-access pass.
What is a virtual event?
A virtual event is any organized meet-up that takes place online rather than in a physical location. These events can range from small question-and-answer sessions to large-scale conferences with thousands of attendees. Even a livestreamed feed of a solo cup pyramid can be a virtual event, apparently.
Here’s a rundown of the different kinds of online business events your company can host.
How-to’s, tutorials, and classes
Have a product or service that needs some explaining? A how-to or tutorial is a good way to provide tips, tricks, and instructions.
This type of event can be used to launch a new product, answer frequently-asked questions, or reveal different use cases. Kick things up a notch with a full-on class. For instance, yoga instructors or chefs can share exercise and cooking classes online.
Training and courses
For more complex topics, webinars, workshops, and courses might be a better fit. This format can offer deep dives around specific themes, skill sets, tools, and more. For example, some of Hootsuite’s webinars include Best Practices for Using Search and Social Advertising Together and How to Build an Audience Driven Social Marketing Plan.
Give your followers a peek behind-the-scenes. Places like museums, galleries, theatres, airports, and even national parks, can offer viewers glimpses at what it’s like to visit. Or what it’s like to work somewhere.
Your business doesn’t have to be an attraction to make it happen. Tour your lab, factory, office, workshop, tradeshow or test kitchen. Show your customers how the “sausage” gets made.
Interviews and performances
Tap your in-house experts to share their knowledge in a live question-and-answer session. Host a laidback Ask Me Anything (AMA) on social media. Or invite speakers or artists to give a talk or performance.
Everything from TED-style talks to stand-up comedy shows or intimate interviews is fair game. Interactive trivia games and contests can also keep things engaging.
Conferences and shows
Even large-scale events can have a virtual component. From Coachella to SXSW, live concerts and summits have been streamed online so that people who can’t attend in person can still get in on the action. But there are also many conferences that take place entirely online, with networking and meetings integrated, too.
How to host a virtual event (and tools that can help)
There are a variety of ways to host a virtual event. Here’s a round-up of the different formats along with some of the best virtual events platforms you can use.
Start an online discussion by live tweeting an event, asking a question, or hosting an Ask Me Anything. Use a hashtag to help people find and follow the conversation.
Other online discussion tools include:
- Discord: Free voice and text chat mostly used by gamers.
- Reddit: A discussion forum popular for AMAs.
- Slack: An instant-messaging platform good for organizing chats.
Stories are a great platform to share videos and visuals of tutorials, interviews, and more. Add filters, special effects, and stickers to take questions, conduct polls, host an influencer takeover, and more. On Instagram, you can add them to a highlight for future viewers.
The ephemeral approach to live events works with:
A typical webinar is an online presentation held in real-time. But they can be shared and viewed afterwards as well. Most of the time, a presenter will share their screen to go through slides or demos, while narrating. Participants can ask questions by voice or through a chat feed if the platform and presenter allows.
It’s like a one-off workshop or class that happens in real-time.
Webinar platform options include:
- 6connex: Available on any browser or device, with no download required. Features include flexible registration, social media integration, and real-time analytics.
- Crowdcast: Can be joined through a single URL. Tools include built-in registration forms, analytics, replays, and more.
- Demio: Allows for pre-recorded or live webinars—or a mix of both. Includes private chat, interactive polls, call-to-action buttons, and other features.
- Livestorm: On-demand webinars from Livestorm include integrations with Google Analytics, Slack, and various engagement tools.
- WebinarNinja: No need to download software for this platform, which offers paid and free events, 1,000+ app integrations, and even Facebook Pixel ad tracking.
- Zoom: Can have one host, group chat—and even offers breakout rooms. Plans cover from 100 to 10,000 view-only attendees.
- YouTube Livestream: A free and easy option for streaming live webinars.
Right now there’s an alcohol company trying to figure out how they can sponsor all these @zoom_us happy hours
— Matthew Kobach (but mostly staying home) (@mkobach) March 21, 2020
Just about every social media platform has a live video feature. Livestreams are known for driving engagement. According to Facebook, live video averages six times more engagement than regular video.
Social livestream platforms include:
Most livestreams show comments and attendees in real time. And some, like Instagram, make it possible for you to go live with a friend—a good option for a Q&A or co-presentation.
Expect Facebook to roll out live selling features soon, too.
Conferences and networking
For more formal virtual events, there are platforms that offer suites of tools that include livestreaming, chatrooms, and more.
- 6connex: Exhibitors can create virtual booths, compete for leaderboard positions, livestream, and chat with this virtual trade show platform.
- Brella: Speakers, multitrack agendas, sponsors, individual streams, and more are taken care of with this hub for virtual conferences.
- HeySummit: Build a landing page, onboard speakers, register attendees, and more. Note that this solution helps package virtual events, but you’ll need to integrate with tools for livestreaming.
- Hop In: This all-in-one live events platform covers everything from networking events, meetings, trade shows, webinars, live broadcasts, and more.
- Run the World: Everything from cocktail parties to fireside chats are an option with this remote conference platform. Built-in templates are available for different use-cases to minimize event-planning hassles.
- Vfairs: A virtual expo platform with everything from booths to webinar and conversations starter tools.
Tips for hosting virtual events
All events come with logistical challenges. Here’s how to avoid hiccups during your virtual event.
1. Create a game plan
Whether big or small, offline or online, every event should have a strategy. Start with a key goal and concept, then take it from there. The earlier you can get planning, the better.
Before hosting a virtual event, answer the following questions:
- What kind of experience do you hope to deliver?
- Will the event be live, on-demand, or both?
- Where do I want the content to be seen?
- Will access be gated or free?
- When is the best time for the event?
- Will you require event registration?
- How will you promote the event?
- Do you plan to work with an advertiser or other partner?
- Will people still have access to the event once it’s over?
- What KPIs and data do you plan to track?
2. Choose the right time
Picking the right date and time for your event is important, regardless of size or platform. Before sending out “save the dates” to your network, do a little research. Make sure there are no competing events or holidays that would interfere with attendance.
Take time zones into consideration, too. If you plan to go global, try your best to pick a time that works for as many of your customers and followers as possible. If that doesn’t seem possible, make sure content is accessible after live presentations for those who couldn’t make it. It may also be worthwhile to plan multiple networking sessions and different virtual events for different time zones.
Check analytics to see when your community is typically online. And for a firmer consensus, consider sending out or posting a poll for preferred dates. Emily Schuman, founder of Cupcakes and Cashmere, used an Instagram Story sticker to set the time for an Instagram live session.
By the way, these are the best times to post on social media.
3. Promote the event
“Build it and they will come” may be a fallacy, but “promote it and they will come,” isn’t. Especially when you offer a good incentive.
Determine the key selling points your event has to offer attendees. It could be a noteworthy speaker, skill sharing, an opportunity to network, and more.
Whatever you choose, make sure the value proposition is clear in your marketing.
Share the event details by email and on social media. If you plan to run ads, target them strategically and choose the right format. For example, LinkedIn’s InMail ads may be a better way to extend invitations than impersonal sponsored posts.
According to Adobe, registrations tend to spike two-to-three weeks before an event. So it’s a good idea to ramp up around this time.
Take advantage of the social media tools available. Create an event countdown in Instagram Stories. Create a Facebook event with all the necessary information. Consider listing your event on sites like Eventbrite and in other places your audience will come across them.
Speakers often double as influencers—so provide them with the details they need to become event ambassadors. Always include who, what, where, and how. That means no virtual event marketing should be without a link. Whether it’s a link to registration form or your Instagram profile, show people where they need to go.
Don’t forget to share an event hashtag. This will help people promote the event and drive conversations online.
Check out our complete guide to social media event promotion.
4. Prepare for tech troubles
If physical events have hitches, virtual events have glitches.
Before kicking things off, test your Internet connection—and have your speakers do the same. Prepare backups of visuals and presentations in case a file goes wonky or awol. If possible, run a rehearsal. The sooner you identify problems, the sooner you can identify solutions.
Remember that not all of your guests are tech savvy. Anticipate the troubles people may have by preparing easy to follow guides or FAQs. If you have the resources to provide support, even better. Make sure it’s easy to find where and how to ask for help.
5. Make it inclusive
Just like in-person events, virtual events should be as inclusive and accessible as possible.
Make sure clear language, large fonts, and high colour contrast is used at all touch points—including presentations. Provide captions and visuals where possible for audio, and provide descriptions where possible for visuals. Sites like Vfairs also include page narrations and allow text character sizes to be adjusted.
And this probably goes without saying by now, but if your event includes a panel of experts, try to avoid choosing exclusively cis white males. Unless you want your event to trend for the wrong reasons, make sure your virtual event showcases a diverse range of voices.
Learn more about inclusive design for social media.
6. Encourage engagement
It’s simple: If you create opportunities for engagement, your audience will be more engaged. Why? It’s fun to see the outcomes of your engagement.
Here’s a simple example: Ask viewers to submit questions in comments or through a chat tool. Chances are the people who ask questions are going to stick around to see if they get answered. Pro tip: If you do this, make sure to have a moderator assigned to the task of fielding questions.
Virtually every online platform has interactive features. Ask people to participate in polls or quizzes. Encourage live tweeting. Take requests and suggestions. Or simply shoutout names as people tune in. And at the end of the event, ask for feedback.
Examples of virtual events hosted by businesses
Here are some examples of virtual events that businesses and influencers have hosted across social media and beyond.
The Microsoft founder’s seventh AMA event on Reddit got more than 110,000 upvotes.
This is Us behind-the-scenes set tour
Stars Mandy Moore and Milo Ventimiglia use Facebook Live to take fans on a tour of the set of This is Us.
A behind-the-scenes tour of This Is Us brought to you by myself and Milo Ventimiglia! ????????????????????????????????????
Posted by Mandy Moore on Tuesday, December 6, 2016
Benefit Cosmetics’ makeup tutorials on Facebook Live
More than 2.4K viewers tuned in to learn how to create a brow-mazing glow-up.
This Halloween, we’re serving up some major brow INSPO! ???????? We’re here with the BOO-tiful @SabrinaXMakeup today, and she’s going to show us how to create a brow-mazing glow-up.
Posted by Benefit Cosmetics on Thursday, October 25, 2018
The Earful Tower Podcast’s live Pub Quiz
Oliver Gee, host of The Earful Tower podcast, hosts Parisian-themed trivia events from his YouTube channel—and even offers prizes for the winners.
Garth Brooks and Trisha Yearwood’s Facebook Live concert
The country superstars held a jam session on Facebook Live, taking requests from fans head of time and during the broadcast.
Monday night at 7pm ET the Queen and I are playing your requests during #StudioG! Post your song requests below and…
The Sunday Service Comedy Show live on YouTube
Vancouver comedy troupe, The Sunday Service, brings viewers the The Sunday Cyber Digital Service on YouTube live from their apartments.
Antron Brown’s behind-the-scenes tour on Twitter
The NHRA driver showed Twitter viewers around his shop, which houses dragsters and trophies, among other gearhead treasures.
— #NHRA (@NHRA) March 23, 2020
Live baking lessons from LinkedIn’s executive pastry chef
LinkedIn’s pastry chef shows members how to make croissants and bread pudding.
Purple Mattress’ sleepy Facebook Live
More than 295K people watched this 45-minute video of a woman yawning and brushing her wig.
Dear Sleepless, we’re here to help. We present A Woman Who Can’t Stop Yawning and Brushing Her Hair. Happy slumber.
Posted by Purple on Monday, May 1, 2017
Lunch Doodles by Mo Willems
Every day at lunchtime the Kennedy Center Education artist-in-residence hosts doodle sessions for kids on YouTube.
Lululemon’s Yoga livestreams
The yoga brand’s global ambassadors are leading workout, meditation, and yoga classes on Instagram live.
Online exhibitions by VanGogh Museum
The VanGogh Museum in Amsterdam lets followers take tours of gallery from the comfort of their couch.
Our tour continues! Today we dive into the bright and vivid paintings that Vincent made in Paris: https://t.co/Yz3FpjxphC Which is your favourite artwork from this part of the museum? #museumathome pic.twitter.com/k8b79qraCX
— Van Gogh Museum (@vangoghmuseum) March 24, 2020
British Museum opens its doors to Google Street View
More than 60 galleries of the British Museum can be visited from Google Street View.
???? Did you know the Museum is the largest indoor space on Google Street View?
— British Museum (@britishmuseum) March 23, 2020
Fire Drill Fridays goes virtual
Jane Fonda’s organization takes climate activism online with virtual rallies every Friday.
— Fire Drill Fridays (@FireDrillFriday) March 24, 2020
Girlboss Rally goes digital
Girlboss founder Sophia Amoruso plans to host her brand’s annual conference entirely online this year.
View this post on Instagram
In a time when connection and collaboration are needed most, we’ve decided to change things up. Across the world, the news of COVID-19 has prompted us to reconsider the ways in which we gather. In light of this, @girlboss has decided to make a shift—albeit an exciting one. The Girlboss Rally is going GLOBAL. This spring, we’re hosting our first-ever, live-streamed women’s conference—and it’s going to be absolutely FREE. All current attendees will be refunded (check your inbox for more details!), and we’re opening the gates for millions more women from across the globe to tune into the same intimate conversations and engaging workshops led by the women we admire most, from the safety of your local community or homes. The exact date will be announced soon. Programming will include timely topics such as virtual networking, digital collaboration, entrepreneurship, leadership, marketing, financial literacy, fundraising, wellness, and more, but instead of only accessing conversations from one Journey, you’ll get access to them *all*. We’ll also still provide ways for you to network virtually—because we know meaningful connections are essential to the magic of the Girlboss Rally. Here’s the truth: At our core, Girlboss is an identity. It’s a community. It’s a feeling. We’ve built it—together—over the course of the last 6 years, emerging as a hashtag (19 million #Girlboss tags, to be exact) and becoming an entire movement. A force to be reckoned with. There’s nothing that could stop us from uniting the most ambitious generation of women in the world—so we hope you’ll continue to be a part of our brilliant community at this spring’s first #GlobalGirlbossRally. Tag a #Girlboss who will be watching with you!
A post shared by Girlboss Rally (@girlbossrally) on
Skift’s Business Travel Online Summit
Skift will use Zoom to host this online summit featuring multiple speakers and attendees. Guests have the opportunity to ask questions and will have access to a recording of the event.
— Rafat Ali, Media Owner & Operator (@rafat) March 23, 2020
3% Conference livestreamed presentations
This organization—founded to remedy the fact that only 3% of creative directors were women—offers livestreaming of its conferences for reduced costs. The group also regularly hosts Instagram Story takeovers to inspire followers.
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