Nothing beats a well-executed summit if you want to create momentum around a strategy kickoff, engage large groups of people, or enable large-scale knowledge sharing. But at the same time, summits are expensive in both dollars and CO2 – especially so for global companies.
As a response, organisations are looking at ways to digitalise their events. The need for global conversations is not going away, and technology seems to be an obvious solution. Virtual events will not only help you reduce your carbon footprint, they also allow you to increase the reach of your message across the organization. Instead of hosting just the top 300 management team you could extend the invitation to the tier below them and reach maybe 1.500 people. Add to this the potential for customized user experiences, data harvesting and the convenience of on-demand communication, and a virtual summit has many advantages.
Workz has been a part of a (r)evolution introducing deep and impactful conversations and engagement for the past 20 years. A large part of our work is helping clients organise and design summits and workshops for them. We wrote about some of our experiences in previous articles.
Through the years we have seen the expectations from participants grow. Participants are no longer satisfied with a series of keynotes with unfacilitated group discussions in between; they expect well designed and executed events with a great deal of focus on engagement and value.
There is a risk, that the move to virtual summits will reintroduce the bad habits of the past; that we will see the return of one-way communication with some gimmicks on top.
This article introduces five challenges of virtual events. As this is new territory for us all, we will not present a recipe for sure-fire success but rather some ideas that can help you move forward. A lot of this is good advice for managing events in general, but the points presented are especially important when there is no face-to-face interaction involved.
LOOKING BEYOND PLATFORM LIMITATIONS
Virtual events are totally dependent on technical platforms that enable e.g. video streaming and online discussions. With each platform comes new opportunities for engagement, but they all have some serious limitations as well. Each service provider will try to steer the overall design in a way that suits their platform.
In a situation like that it is easy to lose focus of the overall design of the summit. The key is to first design the summit and then ask how the platforms can help. Not the other way around. You and your platform providers will need to be creative and combine technologies in ways they were not necessarily designed for.
Look beyond streaming or conference software. Look at the knowledge sharing and collaboration software already in use in your organization as well as the digital learning platforms you have available. If security allows it, also look at services outside your own corporate network such as polling and quiz software as well as open gaming platforms.
You should of course also use traditional social media but consider if the virtual format makes this redundant. Engaging a secondary audience through hashtags and live posting may be less important when they can all join the full event.
CREATING COMMITMENT AND PRESENCE
A sense of togetherness is necessary to create that special place where people dare think outside the box and truly speak their mind. At a physical summit, participants need only to look around to sense this togetherness. Even though their attention may be temporarily stolen by their phones, they are committed by their actual presence.
At a virtual event people may choose to stream the content at a later time, and thus not be present for live interaction. Even if they log in during the live event, you may be reduced to a small window at the top of their screen and you are facing the challenge of a potentially unfocused audience.
To create commitment, you have to convince the participants that taking part is a good deal. Make it clear to them how they gain value from the entire event or workshop, and how they in turn are valuable contributors.
To make participation worth their while, you have to make the content appealing. In the case of virtual events where the opportunity for networking is limited, content is truly king. Even though it may go against the nature of digital sharing, consider making some content exclusively available live and not on demand afterwards. This could be content of highly confidential kind (e.g. the competitor intelligence briefing or the product pipeline previews) or intimate nature (e.g. the fireside talk with the CEO).
Using social commitment is also an effective way to make it clear that the participants and their expertise has value too. Put names and faces on the benefactors of their input, be specific and do not resort to generic statements about how valuable the contributions are for the success of the summit. for help, make sure that the work done at the workshop is of value for the local organization, and make it clear how and when the feedback you ask for will be used.
Also consider using visualisations to draw attention to active participants e.g. “The Service Center in Riga just logged on” or gamification mechanisms to secure representation from all parts of the organisation e.g. “North America is at 75% participation”.
Make sure everybody understands that their participation has a purpose. This will help persuade people to log on at the right time and stay committed.
BUILDING RELATIONS AND TRUST
There is no way around the fact that virtual summits will not offer the same opportunities for building personal relations and networking as physical events. This is one of the biggest drawbacks to the format.
One of the primary benefits of attending a physical summit is the networking opportunities provided by workshops, coffee breaks and socializing. This is not possible at virtual events. To some degree this can be balanced out by workshopping locally or connecting people in discussion or knowledge sharing groups, but at large it is a trade-of you have to accept.
When it comes to building rapport and trust between hosts and participants, the difference is not that big compared to physical summit. In both settings it is limited how many people the CEO or the sender can manage to engage with. The key here is to keep presentations honest, personal and at eye-level with the participants. Tone down the polished corporate lingo and let your personality shine through. Introduce some vulnerability and be open about what you do not know.
Communicating in this way also creates a much better foundation for involvement.
MAKING PEOPLE TALK
One of the biggest challenges of creating engaging workshops of any kind is to make people have quality conversations. This is even more challenging in the virtual space. Anybody who has experienced the confusion of a teleconference knows; this format is not optimal for discussing complex or sensitive matters.
At Workz, we describe a designed dialogue as having three dimensions; what you want to tell the participants, what you want them to tell you and what you want them to talk about with each other. When you look at virtual workshops through this lens it is clear where the problem lies.
The first two are manageable in a virtual setting. Through live streaming and pre-made content you can get your message across quite effectively. Using surveys and polls you can also ask for, and showcase, the feedback you get in return. But getting the participants to really talk to each other virtually is no trivial task.
If possible, we suggest bringing people together locally and running the deeper discussions face to face. Running small local breakouts during the otherwise virtual summit will also help create a sense of global/local togetherness; designed the right way it can be like when people stay up at night to watch the Superbowl or the Oscars.
To enable these deep conversations, groups they need all the help they can get. First of all, you need to frame the questions or tasks in a way that are both conducive to your end goal and provoking enough to spark a conversation. But just as importantly, the answers need to be easy to share and visualize. The output of the conversation should not require elaborate written answers but rather short and concise such as a top 3 or a prioritized list.
Running these discussions locally introduces a need for analogue material to supplement the virtual experience. Even if you have training facilitators to run each local workshop to keep an eye out for the raised hand in the back or clear up any confusion surrounding the process, they need workshop material to help run the process.
Such material could be produced with a high production value and distributed in advance. This could help off-set some of the otherwise “cheap” feel of a virtual summit. It could also be made to be printed on an office printer and instead highlight the cost cutting dimension.
No matter what, the workshop materials have to be so well designed that they are virtually self-facilitating (pardon the pun).
MANAGING THE SWITCH
For most participants a virtual summit will be a new thing and they will have had even shorter time to prepare mentally than you. Given no other narrative, the risk is that they see it as a light or cheap version of the traditional summit; less exclusive and without the side benefits of traveling abroad, networking and special access to important people.
If this is your first time running a virtual summit, you can leverage the fact that you are breaking new ground. You can frame your communication in a way that makes the participants feel like trailblazers exploring new grounds for the benefit of the organization at large. Of course, this approach only works the first time.
Things will also be very different for content providers and workshop owners who used to exclusively own the content and be able to change it right up until the very last moment. Now, they have to deal with a stricter constrain in terms of timeline and format – and they might not be as easy to cast into the roles of explorers.
One advice is to shift the focus from the event itself as the most important and instead have the involved commit to a journey of many steps.
For the workshop owners and content providers this is a journey of deadlines and deliverables. Topics has to be curated. Material has to be prepared in advance to be uploaded and distributed. Workshop content has to be adjusted to fit the online platforms and to create a consistent user experience. Workshop owners have to present during the live events and be available before and after to moderate discussions and update content.
The journey of the participants takes them through sign-ups and pre-reads, surveys, actual participation and an afterlife of on-demand content and follow-up initiatives.
Consider a service design approach for your preparation. Map the user experience of both participants and content providers, make it clear what is expected and when, identify road blocks and design the process in a way that makes it as easy as possible for them to take part and contribute.
All of this puts a lot of work on the shoulders of workshop owners and the project team. Going virtual will certainly help you reach your CO2-emmision goals already this year but prepare to treat the first summit as a learning experience for everybody involved. The full benefits may not come until further down the line.
The future will no doubt trend towards more virtual interactions. However, it is important we do not forget the valuable lessons from the last 20 years of experience design.