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How to Host Effective Virtual Events

July 6, 2020 | Ebony Johnson, IAH Event Planner
Ebony Johnson photo
Ebony Johnson, IAH Event Planner

Since the onset of the novel coronavirus pandemic, industries around the world had to quickly pivot into making experiences and events available to their audiences virtually. While webinars have been available for years now, the shift into online events can create unique challenges. How do you ensure your audiences are engaged, as they would be in person? How can your teams be quickly equipped to manage events virtually, via Zoom or other programs?

The Institute for the Arts and Humanities’ (IAH) spring semester was scheduled to be one of the most exciting to date with the 2020 Mary Stevens Reckford Lecture in European Studies, the 2020 Weil Lecture on American Citizenship, and the Faculty of Color and Indigenous Faculty Symposium all slated between February and April. But as safety concerns grew and guidelines were issued from the University, the Institute had to handle cancellations and postponements for these important events.

The IAH has long served as a home for faculty to build community across disciplines, have intellectual conversations, and collaborate. We have seen these conversations evolve into published works with global impact, innovative programming, and solutions that solve real-world issues; therefore, we knew that it was imperative that we find a way to create a virtual space for these types of interactions to continue to happen. It was important for the IAH to make an intentional, authentic transition to virtual events to maintain our diverse, inclusive, and intellectual communities and to be able to provide feasible options for faculty participation during such as unprecedented time.

Ebony Johnson, IAH Event Planner, discusses how to host an effective virtual event that also maintains a brand’s authenticity and expectations of the audience.

1. Know Your Videoconferencing Platform 

Since UNC-CH provides the Zoom platform for free, I decided to become a “Zoom expert” for the IAH. I spent hours researching Zoom, talking with other organizations, and testing various settings so that I would have a real understanding of all risks and opportunities associated with using this platform.

For example, Zoom suggests using Zoom Webinar instead of Zoom Meeting for groups of 50 or more. If I didn’t know our video conferencing platform, then I would have paid for the webinar option instead of using our free Zoom meeting option that can host up to 350 people.

Here’s another example, Zoom allows participants to call-in by phone. If the host does not activate the “Password by Phone” setting then participants can access password-protected events without a password. There are multiple video-conferencing platforms, but I would suggest learning Zoom since UNC-CH offers a free, premium option to faculty and staff. In the end, learning the Zoom platform has saved us a lot of money.


 2. Practice

Since Zoom is so popular, people tend to assume that everyone has used it. In actuality, some presenters have never “shared a screen” in Zoom. Some people have never hosted a virtual event. Maybe someone has never managed a breakout room or poll. I like to keep this in mind when preparing for a Zoom event, so that I never forget to practice with all parties involved in making the event a success. When hosting virtual events, I have one rule…practice, practice again, and then practice some more. As the old saying goes, “practice makes perfect.”

When we hosted our first E-Salon, I proposed that we create and manage our own trivia before starting guest presentations. I was responsible for selecting trivia questions, creating game rules, and determining the execution strategy for the event.  Zoom has a breakout room option that allows hosts to split all participants into smaller groups and it looked like a lot of fun, so I decided to use this option. It wasn’t until we practiced that we noticed that the broadcast text was too small, only the host could broadcast to rooms, and we could not copy/paste our questions in the broadcast box. Practice helps me identify issues in advance, so that I can correct them before event day.


3. Virtual Events Require As Much Work as an In-person Event

The biggest misconception about virtual events is that they are easier than in-person events or that they require less work than in-person events. In my experience, virtual events require just as much work, if not more, than face-to-face events. Right now, I do not have to coordinate ground transportation or hotel accommodations for guest speakers, but that doesn’t mean that my responsibilities have decreased; they have just changed a little.

Zoom allows participants to use virtual backgrounds, but they are not compatible with all computers; therefore, a practice session turned into an interior design workshop. We were preparing for an upcoming event when we noticed the issue, so the presenter asked me to help “design” their office space for a cleaner Zoom appearance. It was fun, but an unexpected task for both of us. I’ve also been a “virtual Zoom trainer,” training presenters on all Zoom settings and functions.

My best advice is to be flexible. Zoom is still new to a lot of people, so speakers may require a little more time, guidance, and support than they have needed in the past. In addition, a lot of time is spent on developing unique methods for engagement, testing/practicing, prepping for rehearsals, training team members to assist with back-end operations, research, designing content, etc. In my experience, it’s best to start planning for a virtual event as early as I would start planning for an in-person event. As I mentioned before, the work required has not decreased; it just looks different.


4. Know Your Role

When coordinating virtual events, I like to get a clear understanding of my roles/responsibilities as soon as possible. The goal is to make sure that I receive all required access to execute the event successfully. For example, Zoom allows participants to play one of three roles…host, co-host, or alternative host. The host is the only person that can create, manage, or broadcast to a waiting room. A co-host cannot start a Zoom event on behalf of the host. An alternative host is the only person that has the ability to start an event on behalf of the host. What if I was tasked with starting a Zoom event at 3 pm, only to find that I did not have the necessary access until 15 minutes before the start time? What if the host was unavailable and I was unable to get the access needed to start the meeting? One word…nightmare. This is why I like to collect all of this information in the beginning.

Since we have transitioned to virtual events, we’ve seen an increase in participation, our attrition rates have decreased, and faculty are tuning in from all over the world! Zoom has given us the opportunity to partner with more on-campus units and to work with universities and organizations around the globe. Now, we are able to offer on-demand events that make it easier for faculty, staff, students, donors, or supporters to access our events at their leisure. Zoom has provided the IAH with exposure and opportunity that we have never had before, especially since we are such a small unit. In my opinion, the thing that has made our virtual events and programs so successful is our ability to do two things, and to do them well…pivot and reimagine. Good luck on your journey.