Ali Spain, Executive Director of the Microsoft Alumni Network

As a corporation alumni organization, connecting people is at the core of what we do, and events are an important aspect of our business.

Admittedly though, I’ve always had a love-hate relationship when it comes to events. We love seeing people come together to connect face to face, it’s important, fun, and valuable to our members. But we’ve always struggled with the fact that we couldn’t scale our in-person experiences to our growing worldwide membership.

Because we’ve wrestled with scale for some time, we had a pilot virtual event on our calendars prior to the pandemic. Thankfully, our fortuitous planning worked out, and shortly after the WFH transition, we held our first virtual event. A worldwide virtual career fair using a third-party online events platform called vFairs. In a 24-hour period, across four global time zones, we enabled 60 hiring companies (including Microsoft Corp.) to meet 480+ alumni candidates. The vFairs platform enabled us to simulate the experience one would expect at an in-person career fair, which is important for a highly collaborative event such as a career fair.

Since then, I’ve attended countless other online conferences, webinars, and virtual social hours. Here are some takeaways to keep in mind as you’re planning virtual events.

Content Takes Precedence

Taking time away from the office was a big part of going to in-person events. Now, attendance for virtual events is primarily driven by the information that one can learn and the information to be exchanged; opposed to who they might meet or run into. Thus, content must be compelling and the value of spending screen time (ie attending) — more so than shoulder-to-shoulder events. Prior to the event, communicate clearly, early, and persuasively what they will learn or gain by attending.

The Experience Still Matters

It’s human nature to connect with others. It’s the experience, the interaction, that drives people to an event, even online. It’s still important to enable attendees to connect with the presenter and with each other. Make it personal by asking presenters to acknowledge the attendee’s name when answering Q&A chat questions. You may also include polling between sessions and encourage interaction with prizes or recognition. And, if you’re goal is a collaborative event, select an event solution that enables break out sessions where attendees can interact with each other, like Airmeet.

The Swag

Let’s be honest here, what we all miss is the swag. Providing a token of gratitude for attending is still very important and can still be done virtually. And, if you’re charging a registration fee, you better be packing some decent swag. I recently attended an all-day conference that gave away Grubhub coupons for lunch and did surveys between sessions to break up the program. Trivia winners had pizza delivered to their door during the event, which of course was posted to social media to create buzz. While you may save budget on catering at virtual events, don’t skip the swag budget entirely. It’s also nice to send a little something post-event (digitally or via mail) for saying thank you for attending.

Yes, someday soon, it will be great to pack in shoulder-to-shoulder again. But out of necessity, we’ve learned virtual events can be scalable, economical, and as valuable. I’m convinced, post-vaccine, when our lives and work return to a new normal, virtual events will enjoy a new, elevated status in our business plans.

Connect with me on LinkedIn and share your event ideas.