man watching virtual event on laptop
From choosing the right type event to making sure you're equipped with the necessary tools, there are several steps to take when planning to host an engaging virtual event. — Getty Images/Ridofranz

As more and more of our business activities move online, events are following suit. Virtual conferences and trade shows have been around for a while, but the influx of platforms that facilitate virtual events has only made this trend skyrocket. Virtual events help businesses avoid scheduling hiccups due to bad weather, canceled flights, or other unforeseen events that disrupt best-laid plans.

A successful virtual event takes careful planning and great communication. Here are some tips for hosting your next conference, panel discussion or webinar online.

Pick the right event

Not all events can be hosted virtually. Taylor Estes, President and CEO of Apple Box, an events planning agency, said that it’s important to make sure that going virtual makes sense for what you hope to achieve with your event. “Sometimes it’s going to make the most sense to postpone an event. Weddings, music and arts festivals, grand openings and product launches require people to gather together,” said Taylor.

The human element can get lost online, which is why you should only host virtual events that don’t need face-to-face interaction to be successful. Here are some events that work well digitally:

  • How-tos, tutorials or classes
  • Webinars or training
  • Behind-the-scenes tours
  • Interviews
  • Conferences
  • Panel discussions

Try to stick to events that translate well in a video format, rather than events that require participants to network individually or see and hold a product.

Video conferencing and web conferencing are ideal for real-time two-way communication.

Brent Rogers, vice president, digital, PSAV

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Use the right tools

Brent Rogers, vice president, digital at PSAV, a global event production company, said that selecting the right platform can make or break your event. There are tons of different platforms out there that can host your virtual event. “Video conferencing and web conferencing are ideal for real-time two-way communication. Zoom is a great example of cloud-based video conferencing. Webcasting is ideal for broadcasting out to a wide, dispersed audience. Sometimes we use a combination of the two,” he said.

[Read more: Must-Have Tech Tools If Your Team Is Working Remotely]

The right tool for your virtual event depends on how many presenters you will have and the number of attendees you expect to host. “There are tools like Zoom, GoToWebinar, and so on that can handle a certain volume of attendees and interaction and can do certain things. After a certain point, they become a little clunky. The transition between slides is a little stilted, some of the things don’t work well with large audiences. We’ve had to move to Twitter, for instance, to do a Q&A successfully,” said Mike Piddock, founder and CEO at Glisser, a virtual meeting platform.

Across the board, event planning experts say that you should find a tool that lets you record your live event and share the video later to a wide audience. “Live meetings are great, but in these changing times, you can’t always guarantee that someone will join in the moment. A lot of our customers have started to create on-demand libraries,” said Rogers.

Emphasize engagement

Distractions are everywhere. If you want your event to be a success, you must find ways to make it engaging. “It’s hard enough to keep attendees focused when they’re sitting in a ballroom. This is going to be exponentially more difficult when they’re sitting at home in their pajamas on their couch,” says Taylor.

Digital events are competing with social media and other websites for attention. As a result, you must find ways for the audience to participate. Keep sessions short — Taylor recommends 10-15 minutes per speaker with plenty of breaks — and use tools like polls to make sure people are paying attention. Many platforms also have built-in chat functions so participants can ask questions or network on the side. Use a branded hashtag on social media to help participants keep the conversation going after the event has ended.

[Read more: Managing From Home? Here’s How to Keep Your Team Engaged During Coronavirus]

Invest in quality production

Joseph Estes, Apple Box co-founder and head of production, said that people will stay engaged if your online event replicates an offline experience. “When it comes to production, high-quality broadcast-style production will definitely help with engagement,” he said.

Use good quality lighting, microphones, transitions from one presenter to the next, and vary the camera angles to make it feel like a live event. “I absolutely believe that high quality, relevant content is what makes people want to tune in; high production value is what makes them want to stay,” Joseph added.

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