(That you probably should stop doing in person, too) habits

Early on in the Covid-19 pandemic, I found myself emphasizing over and over to planners that they didn’t have to throw out the rulebook when it came to taking their events online. There were a lot of experienced in-person event planners who felt completely out of their element, and it was important to remind them of the incredible wealth of experience they brought to the table.

Online events were just “a different venue,” and their core skills were still valuable: being able to visualize the audience experience from start to finish, vendor evaluation and selection best practices, knowing their stakeholders, and making all decisions flow from the goals and objectives of their events.

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By emphasizing the similarities between successful online events and their in-person counterparts, I hoped to help people ease their way into taking their audiences online, then later open their minds to the possibilities that online events can afford. As I wrap up a busy month of both hybrid and online events, I’ve come to realize that in addition to the positive similarities between the formats, many of our old bad habits are not only rearing their ugly heads, they’re even uglier online.

1. ‘Sit and Watch’ Formats

If you go back and look at any of my writing for the past decade, when it comes to event formats you’ll see a common thread: engage, engage, engage. If there’s no way for your audience to interact and engage with your content in real time, it might as well be pre-recorded. If it’s pre-recorded, there’s no reason it has to be “live.”

Recently, I attended a much-hyped hybrid event, only to be met with talking heads and pre-recorded video showcasing the in-person experience. Within 10 minutes, I was literally looking for the Playback Speed button on the player, only to remember it was live, and I left the sessions about 35 minutes in.

“Death by PowerPoint” was bad in our in-person events, but the “45 Minutes of Lecture and Slides Followed by 15 Minutes of Q&A” needs to end yesterday. And don’t even get me started on 90-minute panels with obviously canned questions….

2. Holding the Doors

In my 25-plus years of experience, I can think of only one client that never held doors, and always started, and ended, on time. I won’t embarrass them publicly, but they were my favorite client of all time, largely because of this fact. My wife recently asked me (as she has begun coincidentally working in education events), “How do I get people to come out of the lobby and into the room when it’s time to start?” My answer was simple: “Start on time, every time, no matter what.”

If you show your audience that you don’t wait for them and always start on time, they start showing up on time or early to make sure they don’t miss anything. If they know you’re going to hold the doors because people take their time coming from breakfast, they’re going to take their time coming from breakfast.

For online events, this is important for a couple of additional reasons. First off, when people log in for an event that starts at 9 a.m., and it gets to be 9:03, 9:05 or 9:07, people immediately assume that something is wrong with the feed. People expect online meetings and events to start on time, or to be given a darn good excuse as to why not. We’re talking a “sorry for the delay, there’s a badger loose in the control room, and he keeps stepping on the power-strip switches” level of excuse. Open your virtual doors 15 minutes early and entertain your audience with live interviews, games and music. It’s important to have both visual and audio signals so that your attendees know their feed is working properly for both, to give them time to sort out any issues before the main feature begins. And if you need to hold the main content for a few minutes, they’ll be so busy they might not even notice.

3. Last-minute Agenda Changes

To be fair, though, it’s not just the beginning of our events that need to be locked in and on time. That’s because, in addition to the audience’s reaction to starting late, we have the issue that computers are very literal. If you tell your event platform to make the “join session” buttons go live at 9 a.m., they will go live at 9 a.m. without human interaction, regardless of whether your presenters are still discussing the Q4 projections, or if Chad from sales is still stuck in his previous meeting and hasn’t shown up yet.

Even if you do get ahold of your event platform support (or have access to the back end yourself), it’s going to take a minute to change the start time to 9:05, and if in that minute the clock changes over from 8:59 a.m. to 9 a.m., those buttons are going live, no matter what.

And even if you do get it changed, you’re still left with people trying to log in at 9 a.m., only to be told that they can’t.

Next, when an agenda changes, it has to be changed in multiple places: the main event website, the agenda tab in the platform, as well as those “Join Session” buttons for the attendees. If your registration system allowed attendees to download calendar placeholders for the sessions they were interested in attending, and then you change the timing behind the scenes, those invites may no longer be correct.

Every time you make a change, it increases the likelihood of a mistake slipping into the system, as happened recently to one of my online events. A slight change to the program on Day 2 caused a misunderstanding that resulted in an entire session being excluded from the platform on Day 1.

Literally, a typo caused an entire session to “vanish” and attendees were sent directly to the virtual expo hall instead of the next session. It’s the kind of thing that could happen at any time, but the more changes you make, especially at the last minute, the more likely it is.

4. Last-minute Additions

If you’re sensing a trend here, you’d be right. The key phrase in many of these is “last-minute.” This one is about the presenters themselves, though. What’s the point of having weeks of presenter tech-checks and “y’know you look great, but I’m wondering how it would look if the windows were in front of you instead of behind you?” calls if you add a VIP at the last minute whose internet access at her summer condo is measured in Kbps instead of Mbps, and the laundry hamper is clearly visible in the background?

Or if you add a fourth person to a panel that has already rehearsed because they just became available and it doesn’t “cost you” anything to add them? We undervalue rehearsal in our in-person events and, sadly, many value it even less online.

5. Marathon Meetings

Just as this column sometimes gets a little long, so do our online conferences, unfortunately. In-person conferences are jam-packed in an attempt to make it worthwhile for attendees to take several days off work and away from their families, and can range from the hundreds to thousands of dollars—a price tag that needs to be justified to bean counters worldwide.

Can that price tag apply to online events? Sure, but we’re no longer bound by time and space, and asking a person to sit for nine hours in front of a computer screen is more than just a heavy lift—it’s nearly an impossible task. Combine that with our first point of the day, “Sit and Watch” sessions, and it’s a recipe for attendees checking out and checking their email.

Consider spreading out your event over days (or weeks!) and include plenty of white space for people to reflect, grab a sandwich, or check in on the family.

While all of these are made worse by online events, they are by no means OK to do in our in-person events. In fact, I’ve often maintained that in making the experience better for our online audiences, you might accidentally make the event experience better for your in-person audiences, as well.