Six Ways to Run a Better Virtual Event

Just a year ago, February 2020, the team at Grid Forward was fresh off a rebrand and a successful event in Seattle, with a detailed plan to expand our impact across the western U.S. and Canada.

A month later, we threw that plan in the waste bin and started over.

Like so many other organizations, we went through the painful and uncertain process of figuring out how to engage our members and community during a pandemic. Feeling our way forward, we launched a series of small-group roundtables, held larger Town Halls, hosted a series of lunchtime discussions, and celebrated our tenth anniversary during our annual member meeting… all online.

To top it all off, we rolled out a virtual version of our flagship GridFWD 2020 event in October. Instead of two intense days at a conference facility, we spread out more than 25 events in multiple formats over the course of eight days. We applied lessons we learned along the way to making this event as relevant, entertaining and convenient as possible.

By the end, over 500 people participated in at least some portion of those sessions.

While we all missed in-person connections and camaraderie, the ability to bring people together across vast distances at very little cost opened up new ways to connect. The lessons we’ve learned about virtual events will help us continue our momentum in 2021 and for years to come.

  1. Forget networking, it’s all about education

What we missed most about in-person events was the networking: the value in swapping cards with a speaker, chatting a new contact for five minutes outside a session room, or sipping wine with an old friend at the end of the day.

The more than 500 people who logged in to GridFWD 2020 were there for something else. In the exit survey, just 19% said they were effectively able to make new connections. Even so, 83% of them said the conference was a good use of their time. Why? Our three session formats (featured sessions, discussions topics, themed social groups) all scored at least 4 out of top score of 5 for excellence. Our participants showed up to learn.

83% of respondents said GridFWD 2020 was a good use of time, vs. 76% in the in-person GridFWD 2019.

That’s the primary value of virtual events, so make sure your content delivers actionable information. Get input from your audience what they want to learn about and deliver it, without a sales pitch. Vet your presenters and plan your sessions for maximum educational value. Don’t worry too much about making connections — that’s what LinkedIn is for.

2. Four straight hours of Zoom? Nope.

You don’t want to spend several hours straight in a virtual meeting, so why ask your participants to do that? Much has already been written about Zoom fatigue. We’ve all felt it. So break your event into easily scheduled and enjoyed chunks.

For GridFWD 2020, we scheduled a few sessions each day, spread out over eight days. Attendees could pick and choose the sessions that they wanted, and were always able to schedule breaks if they wanted. And outside of the opening and closing sessions, no session was more than an hour.

The schedule for week one of GridFWD 2020 shows how sessions fell over four days, color coded according to type of session, and distributed to allow participants from different time zones to find sessions that fit their schedule. In our exit survey, 62% of participants said they preferred “spacing out sessions across the longer timeframe.”

3. Remember your audience’s time zones

Another good reason to spread out sessions was to make it easier for attendees to attend at least some sessions that fell into their workday, whenever that was. Those logging in from the UK could easily join our morning sessions, while our afternoon sessions were better for those in Alaska and Hawaii. This also made it easier to invite the ideal speakers for the topics we wanted to cover, no matter where they resided.

Here is the note of caution. In 2019, when all our GridFWD 2019 attendees gathered in Seattle, 11am was 11am Pacific time for everyone. But with virtual attendees logging in to GridFWD 2020 from across continents and oceans, Pacific time was unclear to many of them. So list your session times in multiple time zones to help your far-flung audience plan their attendance.

4. Be flexible — respond to participant interests

As we noted above, a virtual event gives you significantly more freedom to go after the speakers you really want. After all, they are only making a commitment for an hour (or less), and they are just as eager to make interact with humans during the pandemic as the rest of us. And get this: If a speaker has a last minute conflict, finding a substitute who is able to be available at that time is much easier without the travel requirement.

Here’s one thing you probably can’t do at a live event: rerun your most popular sessions. Let’s say, during the first couple of days of your conference, one of your sessions is wildly popular. Why not run it again later in the conference? Your speakers and/or panel will probably be flattered by the interest, and only need to agree on a time later in the event. Add the “Encore” session to your website, send out another email to registrants, and make many more people happy.

5. Schedule a check-in with your team

During a two-day conference, there is little time for eating and sleeping, much less shoehorning in a meeting for a team check-in. When you spread the event out over a week or more, consuming only a few hours per day, you now have that luxury.

Gather your team and see what people are learning about the topics, event platform, and audience needs and feedback. You may be surprised at what you learn about your audience’s base level of knowledge or their interest in the event topics. This check-in may be when you find out about a session that was popular enough for an encore. You can advise session leaders how to run their sessions for the best outcomes. And at the very least, it helps reenergize the troops during the midst of exciting and tiring event.

6. Give freebies to friends and friends of friends

Here’s another way to attract and energize your speakers: let them invite friends. Since each session may have it’s own login credentials (depending on the platform you use) there’s no harm in having a prominent speaker invite in a customer, business partner or peer who can add to the conversation. This person could even be a “plant” to encourage interactivity, since their friend on the podium could prepare them to ask or answer a particular question.

In fact, you could structure a panel around this concept of a featured speaker and her guests. We did something like this at GridFWD 2020, in which each of our three case study sessions featured a pair of speakers: one the utility customer/user, the other the technology provider.

Different, but still effective

The eight days of GridFWD 2020 went by in a flash, during which we received many suggestions and positive feedback from participants. A week later, we reviewed results from our exit survey, and were surprised to see just how much they appreciated it. The broadest measure, our Net Promoter Score, was 38, an excellent score and a big jump up from the respectable score of eight from the in-person GridFWD 2019 a year before. If asked if they would attend GridFWD 2021 this year, 79% said yes and 19% said probably.

98% of respondents said “yes” or “probably” about attending the next GridFWD.

There could be several explanations for this. For example, after six months of webinars, we believe that people’s expectations of virtual events may be somewhat low. With GridFWD 2020, the steady cadence of high-quality sessions in multiple formats was refreshing, and made it easier for people to fit interesting sessions into their work days.

This doesn’t mean that our GridFWD events are going to be virtual from now on. After a chaotic, scary year of a dangerous pandemic and its difficult economic fallout, we all acutely feel the need to meet again in person. We are preparing multiple online events during the first half of 2021, including a summit, town hall, utility roundtables, socials and annual member meeting.

In the fall, perhaps we can meet in-person at GridFWD 2021. But until then, we know how effectively we can bring our community together, and maintain momentum, virtually.

Creative director, writer and marketer for clean energy; husband, dad, skier, snowboarder, motorcyclist, runner, brewer, Portland fan