The spread of the Coronavirus has caused a lot of events to cancel and has forced event and meetup organizers to consider moving their events online. But many of the skills and tools that people use to run IRL events don't easily translate to online events. In addition, there are a myriad of options out there to host your event, but each has costs and/or limitations.
In this post, I wanted to share what I've learned over those years. If you're thinking of hosting online meetups or events, hopefully my experiences will help guide you.
This is usually the first issue folks face - where can I host my online event? I've looked at a number of options. I'll be up-front and say that what works best may depend on your specific event's needs. Part of that may depend on budget, part of that may depend on the need for registration or payment, or it may depend on some other factors entirely. There are so many options out there, I can't cover them all.
One option is to live stream via many of the existing social sites like YouTube, Facebook, Twitch and even LinkedIn. Those options are generally free. However, some require that the user have an account with that social network and, as far as I am aware, they don't offer options for pre-registration or payment. You also don't have access to emails or other information about who attended. The benefit is that you can leverage the social network for reach.
Once you get past the social networks, most of the options I am aware of cost money. This can be an issue for a meetup (who is already typically shelling out Meetup.com fees) or other free events. For instance, Zoom is free for under 100 participants but scales up in cost after that. There are a myriad of other similar options. Some things you might consider are:
- What features does the software have to support attendee participation?
- Do I need to support paid attendance?
- Am I ok with attendees needing to install software to attend?
- How many attendees do I need to support? If I reach or exceed attendees in my plan, how is that handled?
- Do I want the ability to multi-stream to other platforms like YouTube and Facebook?
- How does the software manage playbacks? Can I have access to the the raw video if I want it?
I have chosen to use a system called Crowdcast for the past 2.5 years. It has generally served me very well. It has live chat and Q&A features that have worked pretty well (often the chat is quite active during meetups). It does support paid events. Attendees don't need to install anything (and speakers only need the Chrome extension). It does allow me to go over plan, with a small charge per attendee over that. It does support multi-streams though I've often had issues getting this to work properly with YouTube. Playbacks are available immediately following the sessions via their service and I can download the raw video recording as well.
Crowdcast has worked well for me, but do your research and find the platform that best fits your needs.
Timing your event can be tough because, in my experience, some typical times and lengths for events may work less well in a virtual setting. For instance, an evening event (often with food provided) works well for many IRL meetups, but that timing works far less well for a virtual meetup. Once a person is in a virtual setting, it can be much tougher to avoid distractions including meal preparation and family obligations.
I have found that daytime events seem to work better online. I tend to favor lunchtime, but factor in whether you need to accommodate different time zones. While some people may still find it tough to get away from work responsibilities or distractions, there is far less time commitment for an online meetup than an IRL one. This is because there is no commute, no time required for networking or eating and so on.
In my experience, it is not a good idea to schedule long events as you would a typical full-day conference. Anything over 2 hours should be broken up with a break. I don't suggest scheduling more than 4 hours in a single day. Conferences have opportunities to stand up, chat with people, grab a drink, etc. These things break up the monotony of sitting for a full-day watching sessions. It can still be tough to sit through a full day and yet online events are that much more difficult. If you are planning a full or multi-day conference, consider breaking it up into more but shorter days.
Anyone who has run an IRL conference or meetup knows that there is a last minute surge for registrations. For conferences it tends to occur 2-3 weeks prior. For meetups, it's typically 2-3 days prior. These may seem last minute, but, for online events, the surge can happen as little as 20-30 before an event.
For my meetups, I tend to get a burst of people in the final 10 minutes prior and even within the first 5-10 minutes of the event. Even for an online conference, the surge may happen only hours prior. Keep in mind, no one needs to schedule travel or manage a commute, so the decision to attend can be made at the very last second. So don't get overly discouraged if sign ups are weak in the weeks before your event.
This can make virtual events tough to gauge as you don't know how successful they may be until the last moment. So, adjust how you market your event. Rather than weeks before, plan your big push in the days, if not the day, before the event. Continue this right up to the start of the event and even try to draw people in once the event started.
This is something that probably only applies to a small fraction of virtual events and mostly to virtual workshops, but it is something that can go very badly if not planned properly. Trust me, I speak from experience. Basically, if you have a virtual meetup that requires the attendees have some sort of materials that you'll need to provide to them, ensure that you plan ahead if shipping is required. Domestic shipping in the US can be done usually the same week, but international shipping can be a mess.
The best solution if your virtual workshop requires materials to be shipped is to ship them out as folks register so as to prevent any backlog. Set a cutoff of two-to-three weeks for any sort of guaranteed arrival (I can say that 2 weeks is probably still cutting it close for international shipments). And be prepared to address issues as there are factors out of your control that may cause individual attendees not to get their materials in time.
Regardless of how foolproof whatever system you choose to host on may seem, be sure to set aside time to test with each and every speaker, each and every time. For my meetups, I generally arrive in the green room 30 minutes prior to allow speakers time to come and test the screen share, video and audio. This works but has caused a couple of close calls. Preferably, especially if you will have a number of consecutive speakers, set up time with each individual prior to your event to walk through testing and give them a rundown of the system.
If you are going to host multiple speakers/sessions back-to-back across multiple recorded sessions, be sure to arrange a test of handling the transitions. Most online conference software allows you to create private events. This can be a useful way to test scenarios. Invite a couple friends or speakers and walk through how you can handle transitioning between multiple sessions. The last thing you want is to lose your attendees in the middle of an event due to a mistake on your part.
Also, remain on, watching and listening to the entire virtual event because even the best test can't anticipate every situation...which leads me to my last point.
This is true for any kind of event planning, but for virtual events, the types of issues tend to be different and equally difficult to plan for. For instance, in 2.5 years, I had speakers have random connectivity loss, very serious family emergencies occur during an event, have their power go out for 2 full hours during a hands-on workshop and more. I've had issues occur on my end as well where I've had to scramble to find someone to monitor the event on my behalf while I went to take care of an urgent situation.
Attendees are generally very understanding of these sorts of unexpected issues. So, don't freak out. Be ready to jump on at any point in the event of an issue, explain the situation and try to address it. It's also very helpful if you have ways outside the software to connect with your speaker, preferably text or phone, but DMs or Slack can work in a crunch.
That said, have fun. These sorts of issues are rare, but running virtual events can be rewarding. I was a skeptic when I started doing them but I've gotten to see some amazing speakers, learned a ton and helped a lot of other people learn as well. That's a win!