Bringing the Real World into Virtual Events

Written by Candice Davis on February 15, 2018

The world connects virtually, and it is no different for the associations we serve. Building effective virtual programs drives value for members across borders, provides cost effective means for engagement, and creates a unique forum for networking and learning. But a common mistake in planning virtual programs is limiting the vision of the event to the function of the tool.

Logging into a reality that mimics, in some way, our real-life experiences is both a novelty and a convenience, not to mention technologically inspiring. The value of going virtual, however, is beyond trying something cool and instead is offering a tangible and worthwhile experience.

In my experience managing virtual programs for user groups, I’ve had the opportunity to experience the power of virtual events first-hand. The VMware User Group (VMUG) has over 100,000 members around the world. Providing a robust and compelling virtual program is important in ensuring members everywhere have access to relevant training and networking opportunities. In addition, we aim to provide members who do not have access to in-person events, the opportunity to engage in something unique and valuable.

Leveraging virtual event technology to curate content and help members forge connections has proven to be very powerful. Over the past year, attendance growth has increased by 44% with over 5,500 participants among three virtual events.

The goal for me is to make it real and to think beyond the tool. I approach virtual event planning like someone does an in-person event – considering the experience we want attendees to have from the moment they register to the moment they leave. This involves making the aesthetics of the event as important as the content and resources. At our last event in December, attendees entered a virtual “winter wonderland” lobby, avatars, and doorways leading to various locations within the virtual environment. Upon entering the environment, attendees knew where and how to connect!

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Just as planners put a priority on carrying the branding and theme of an in-person event into an onsite experience, the same must be true for a virtual experience.

Driving attendee connections is another key to success. The warm and cozy networking lounge offered the capability for attendees to join chatrooms hosted by experts and the community to discuss industry trends and hot topics.

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One of the most exciting places to make the virtual event come to life is within the exhibit hall.

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Recreating sponsor-attendee relations virtually can be tricky: the possibilities for browsing different booths, for striking up conversation, and for sifting through resources, can be hard to transpose. The personalisation and communication opportunities afforded by our virtual exhibit hall ensured the interaction between attendees and our partners could be effective virtually.

Exhibitors are encouraged to think outside of the box in designing their booth. A variety of layouts, and options to add videos, images and branding needs, made it possible for exhibitors to ensure creativity and consistency in branding and experience. Each company had their own booth, which they were able to choose a design layout and use their creativity to transform into their virtual booth. Their ability to be creative in creating their booth empowered exhibitors to differentiate themselves within the event.

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Visitors to the booths were able to download physical resources like whitepapers and PDFs, to chat one-on-one with a representative from each company, or to join a group conversation. Depending on the sponsorship package, a sponsor could also host a breakout session in the auditorium for further exposure and engagement.

The feedback from our sponsors has been overwhelmingly positive. As so much of our industry, and the world at large, continues to become more virtualized, people still crave connection. Barriers to communication, especially for the introverted, are easily broken down in an individualised environment like this – you are both part of something bigger than you, and able to navigate it independently and individually. This means that conversations that do strike up between sponsors and attendees are full of value, motivation, and meaning, for both parties, and that close-knit relationships can be built. Also, the addition of adding gamification to the virtual environment has proven to be very successful.

Virtual event environments also make it easier to extend the life of the event. VMUG’s online events remain available on demand for at least 30 days following the event, during which attendees maintain access to the resources and information within the booths, and to the saved group discussion transcript.

Associations missions are to serve their members, and to continue to challenge ourselves to expand the value we provide to them. Making it easy to participate, engage and build connections is even more valuable when time and resources are limited. Leveraging virtual event technology to provide unique and relevant experiences makes it possible for members to experience all that you offer. But by giving it the extra effort to make it truly come to life, organizations can provide members what they seek – connections, content, engagement and a real event experience– all without having to leave the office.

Candice spoke in the “Virtual Conferences: The New Frontier” session during SURGE Spring, an interactive virtual summit hosted by AssociationSuccess.org on May 2nd-4th. Click here to watch the sessions on demand.