Virtually seamless: 7 key lessons we learnt from hosting our first online event
Customer Success Representative
The value of face-to-face interaction will never go away. But just as there are undeniable benefits to being in the same room as others that can’t be replicated online, the flip-side is also true: the virtual world opens up possibilities that are denied by the limitations of the physical world.
This reality crystallised for me back in March, when, in response to the continued restrictions on travel caused by the pandemic, we took the bold leap of hosting our first ever virtual event: PRISMA On Air.
And I was charged with the task of organising it. If that sounds like a daunting prospect, I’ll come clean: it was.
But, as the saying goes, “nothing worth doing is easy”.
Three months later, and with many predicting that one of the permanent effects of the pandemic will be that online events - or hybrid events, at least - become the preferred format for businesses, I wanted to share some of the key lessons I learnt along the way.
Map out your objectives
The acclaimed 1989 self-help book 7 Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen Covey has a chapter in it titled ‘Begin with the end in mind’. In other words, before embarking on anything, determine what you want to achieve, then work backwards.
When it came to planning PRISMA On Air, the temptation was for us to consider the event a mere victim of circumstance; a makeshift simulacrum of our preferred format. I knew we needed to avoid this mindset and instead treat it not as a pale imitation but rather an opportunity. With this in mind, we built our OKR around the goal of delivering an impactful, value-added and engagement-driven experience that extended well-beyond people’s computer screens.
We knew, however, that this would only be achievable by keeping at front and centre PRISMA’s first principles as an organisation. We’ve always placed our customers at the heart of everything we do, and by creating a virtual event we had a chance to expand our reach to more of them than ever before.
To put it into context, a typical pre-pandemic PRISMA event - such as our annual shipper event - hosted a maximum of around 50 guests. By moving online, in terms of potential attendees, the sky was suddenly the limit. We have 800 shippers within our community and beyond that thousands more peripheral to our organisation whose spheres of interest intersect with ours.
The challenge was to accommodate as many of them as possible while retaining the kind of personal touch that has always been a hallmark of our customer relations and that continues to be so important to the smooth running of the energy market.
Understand what your audience wants
We’re proud to have built long-standing relationships with our customers. We already know most of them very well on a professional level - and sometimes on a personal level, too. It’s why you’ll often hear us refer to the PRISMA “family”.
One of the major upsides to this is that we’ve developed channels of communication that allow us to regularly engage with our customers about our products, services and anything else. So we decided early on to harness these existing channels by asking what they wanted to see at PRISMA On Air.
We sent out surveys inviting them to tell us which subjects or themes they’d like to hear talks on, the kind of workshops they’d be keen to attend, and the level of online interactivity that would appeal to them. Their responses helped inform our decision making when it came to our next task - defining the format.
Define the format
Thanks to our pre-event surveys we were able to tailor our content according to what the majority of the attendees desired. But we also wanted to create a setting that allowed people to express themselves in a spontaneous way during the event itself, just as they might in person.
We decided to optimise for this by using a hybrid format that combined pre-recorded talks with live Q&As, during which guests could ask questions and interact with the speakers. We felt this would be the best way to create the right balance between the technological implications of a virtual event and the need to keep people engaged. On which note...
Maximise participant engagement
Whereas in-person events are typically all-day (or even multi-day) affairs that include breaks for lunch and coffee, holding the event virtually gave us the chance to streamline things. We knew that people’s attention spans online are by nature much shorter than in real life, so we decided to keep our talks to a TedTalk style limit of around 15 minutes.
We were also aware that when it comes to online, content is king. In a nutshell, with a physical event you can keep people entertained through the inherent sociability of the occasion, but with a virtual setting your content is your event. Powerful keynotes and engaging sessions tailored to your guests are critical.
However, ‘alone’ doesn’t have to mean ‘lonely’.
And so we put much thought into how we could encourage the maximum level of engagement and participation in both the subject matter and interactive elements of the event.
Crucial to this was ‘democratising’ the content - that is, ensuring that all of the information presented could be understood by a layperson, not just specialists. Several of the topics to be explored at the event, such as crypto-shredding, cybersecurity and platform development, would be highly technical in nature, and it was important to make the content inclusive to all, so that non-specialists wouldn’t be tempted to ‘switch off’ - literally or otherwise.
Furthermore, one of our most satisfying discoveries was Gathertown, a tool for building social platforms that creates virtual spaces to bring people together. It has a rather retro appearance, a bit like an 8-bit video game, but in terms of usability it was absolutely perfect for creating the kind of cosy and inclusive virtual atmosphere that would foster engagement among people of varying ages who may not necessarily be tech-savy.
Indeed, making all of the tools required to participate in the event highly accessible was a central focus for us and I even performed my own ‘Mum Test’ by asking my parents to try out the technology for themselves with no prompting. When I saw them navigating their chosen avatars around our virtual space with ease, I breathed a big sigh of relief.
Choose a service provider you trust
While the scope of content was very much our responsibility for the event, we knew the success of PRISMA On Air would stand and fall on picking the right service provider. As I discovered, the jeopardy that comes with hosting a live online event was too much for many, and we had a number of candidates drop out of the running once they became aware of the complexity of both the event format and the logistics of ensuring our tools would be compatible across countries and browsers.
In short, I needed a company that could roll with the punches – and I found one.
Our early discussions reinforced this sentiment. It was clear they shared my vision and were unfazed by the hybrid aspect of the event, in which pre-recorded talks would be combined with live audience participation and other interactive features. Flexibility was key too, and I was hugely impressed with their willingness to adapt to changes in our plans at quick notice, as well as their rigorous approach to stress-testing the technology that would be integral to the event’s success.
Don’t cut corners on production values
Like with so much in life, when it comes to organising events, the devil is in the detail and we had a number of critical production decisions to make around issues ranging from lighting to set dressing. While this may not be a specialist subject of the PRISMA team, we knew that getting it right was about far more than mere aesthetics. After all, your production values define and underpin your messaging and your content. Just as a dinner party host brings out their best tableware as a mark of respect for their guests, a well produced event shows a level of respect for your attendees.
As a company that prides ourselves on nurturing good relations with our users and our community, offering them a metaphorical sandwich on a cardboard party plate was simply never an option.
For this occasion, only our finest china would do.
Furthermore, we were focussed on creating the most immersive experience possible in order to compensate for the fact that people couldn't be there in person. So when it came to conversations about production with our service provider, there was a clear consensus over investing significant effort and time into pre-production in order to optimise the guest experience.
Allow some breathing space before the post-mortem
While the inclination may well be to catch up on all of the non-event related work you’re likely to have put at the bottom of the pile, it’s essential to have in place protocols that enable you to dissect how it went, what worked, what didn’t, and what you’d do differently next time.
Our first port of call was to go back to the people who’ll know the answers to these questions better than anyone: our guests. We sent out a survey to all participants in order to gain their feedback. We also met internally as a team to discuss the event and assess whether we feel we met our established OKR.
Additionally, I worked closely with Codencetric, our external service provider, and we also met with them to conduct our own combined retrospective, which was especially useful as it allowed us to gain impartial insights from specialists in their field.
So looking back, how would I distill everything I’ve learnt into one key takeaway?
Put simply, doing cool stuff in business is great. But if you aspire to upholding the highest standards then you must always look to improve. And even if you think you’ve pulled off the perfect event, it may just be that there’s something you could’ve done better.
We believe that PRISMA On Air was a great success and that the response we’ve had endorses that view. Our job now is to consider how we can capitalise on the potential of online events to further expand our community, enhance the transparency and collaboration that underpin our values as a company, and adapt to a new post-pandemic world.
We look forward to you joining us on this journey!
To read more about our inaugural PRISMA On Air event, click here. And if you want to catch up on any of the talks from the day, you can view them here.