Handshakes to Headsets: A Guide to Running Virtual Events

virtual events

As an events organizer, your mind is conditioned to think of every worst case scenario and plan accordingly. We can honestly say that a global pandemic did not make our list of potential worst case scenarios—but here we are. Given this new reality, virtual events have become more important than ever.

Events around the world are being cancelled or postponed. It’s every event organizer’s worst nightmare. But we see an opportunity here: it’s time to get back to basics. Let’s find creative ways to continue to build community and connection in a world without the limitations of travel or cost.

In this article, you’ll learn tips from Shopify’s Experiential Marketing team (behind events like Shopify Unite and Pursuit) on how to plan, host, and run successful virtual events.

Virtual events: bringing offline to online

Many conferences planned for the first half of 2020 have opted to go virtual, digital, or remote, and attendees who planned to join in-person can now experience the talks and conversations from the comfort of their own homes.

With humans’ ever-shortening attention spans, it’s a struggle to engage attendees in this new world, but it’s also an opportunity to connect in new and exciting ways. Virtual events can be quite powerful and scalable, as they allow people from around the world to gather in a virtual space, connect, and share ideas.

How to start planning your event

virtual events: Shopify happy hour
The first ever Women in Shopify Virtual Happy Hour was hosted using Zoom on March 2020, organized by Alli Burg from Lucid, Deb Hopkins from Causeway305, and Kelly Vaughn from The Taproom Agency.

Just like any other event, think about the purpose of your gathering. You’ll want to brainstorm and think about the following questions: 

  • How do you want attendees to feel?
  • What format do you think would work best? 
  • How can you keep people feeling engaged?
  • Is this a smaller, more intimate gathering limited to a certain number of people? 
  • Is this a larger scale event dedicated to sharing information more widely?

Aren’t virtual events just webinars?

A webinar is typically one-to-many and sometimes pre-recorded, with little to no opportunity for attendees to interact with each other. Challenge yourself to think beyond a ‘webinar’ format—what makes your event something people wouldn’t want to miss?

Decide on roles for your team during your virtual event

Similar to an in-person event, you’ll want to make sure everyone on your team knows their specific role and responsibilities. Examples of virtual event roles include:

  • Registration/greeter: Welcomes attendees as they join the space and is in charge of collecting attendance data after the online event.
  • Chat moderator: Posts the rules/code of conduct into the chat, encourages attendee participation, and removes anyone who breaks the rules.
  • Host: Makes sure that the event stays on time and follows the pre-planned agenda. This is especially helpful when there are multiple speakers.
  • Technical admin: Remains on standby in case of technical issues or troubleshooting required during the virtual event. If your chosen technology fails, this person would be in charge of emailing all attendees to ask them to reboot, or provide information about Plan B technology if you need to switch tools mid-event.

You might also like: Building Partnerships: Shopify Partners Share How They're Creating Long-Term Value.

Find the right tools

Instead of a venue, you will need a platform to connect you and your attendees together. Your choice should tie back to the goals of your event, your ideal audience size, the experience you’re looking to create, and the type of programming you’ll offer. Here are some recommendations worth exploring:

"Instead of a venue, you will need a platform to connect you and your attendees together."
  • Zoom Webinars and Zoom Rooms: For content sharing and breakout sessions. The Zoom Rooms feature allows you to break out into smaller sessions for networking, and the Zoom Webinar feature allows you to create a webinar space. Note: Zoom has received bad press from security holes in its platform recently, so don't choose this tool for confidential meetings.
  • Google Meet & Hangouts: Virtual space for 1:1s and meetings that can be recorded.
  • WebinarJam: Creates a recording and replay of your webinar that attendees can join anytime.
  • Crowdcast: Host live video Q&As, interviews, summits, webinars, and more.
  • Hopin: An online events platform built for broadcasting content and attendee collaboration.
  • HeySummit: Host and manage your online summits, webinars, video content, and more. 
  • Livestorm: A video communication platform, offering meeting, event, and webinar functionality.
  • Whereby: A flexible tool that provides you with video meetings in your browser—no downloads or logins required for guests.

Our checklist for running perfect virtual events

virtual events: man sitting at desk

Now that you know who your event is for and the tools you can use to run it, here is our checklist of what to do from setup to going live, and following up after your event:

1. Practice makes perfect—test everything in advance of your event

  • Test the software and your internet connection. Get your speakers and colleagues in the virtual space together to test out how it will look and feel when you get to the main event. Do this at least one day before your event.
  • Plan ahead. Is there any content you can pre-record and share during the event? Perhaps a wrap-up video of some recent updates or highlights from members of your community? Your future self will thank you for anything you do to lighten your load during the actual event.

2. Set up your space

  • Set up your laptop on a solid surface. Make sure there is no risk of it tipping or falling. Imagine if that happened during your event!
  • Place your computer at eye level. You don’t want to be looking down at your webcam.
  • Connect to the power and internet. Make sure you have a solid connection so you won’t freeze, lag, or drop off during your event.
  • Avoid choosing a spot with a window in your shot. This will cause the background to be overexposed and you to be underexposed. 
  • Wear headphones with a microphone attached. Standard Apple headphones work well for this, but you can use any set of quality headphones.
  • Find a quiet room. Make sure you’re in a silent place without any background noise or distractions. Your audience wants to be able to hear you, and not what’s going on around you.

3. Go live! 

virtual events: woman sitting at desk front view

  • Email your attendees. Do this the day of the event, an hour before, as well as a few minutes in advance of your start time to remind them to log in and join the session.
  • Record your event. If possible, record your virtual events through a screen capture video or through the tool you are using (Google Hangouts, Zoom, etc.). This allows you to share your content afterwards with your internal team, and with attendees who couldn’t make it or want to rewatch.
  • Make sure your team members are aware of their roles. Everyone should feel confident that they can deliver on their responsibilities.

4. Keep your audience engaged

Think about some ways to engage your audience during the event that will discourage them from tuning out. Be aware that online and remote content is very different from on-stage content. Try to avoid long-form talks, keep content simple, and consider live Q&A or panel sessions as engaging ways to keep your audience entertained. Here are some ideas:

"Be aware that online and remote content is very different from on-stage content."
  • Show your face. This may seem like a strange suggestion, but people are more likely to stay engaged if they can see the presenter. It’s also a good idea to encourage audience members to keep their camera on as well. You can even have fun with it and download SnapChat filters for your camera.
  • Have live music. Sound can create very powerful experiences. Think about ways you can play with sound by having a live performer kick things off or close things down. You could also assign someone as the DJ to play music from their laptop while people enter the space, setting the stage.
  • Show them your pet. At the beginning of your event or while in breakout groups, have attendees get comfortable showing their space and any of their furry fellow inhabitants.
  • Hold a contest. Perhaps the attendee with the best question as selected by the speaker gets a prize shipped to them or a gift card in their inbox. Contests help break up the format of speaker after speaker, and can be a fun way to keep your audience’s attention.
  • Use breakout groups. Some solutions like Zoom offer the opportunity to break out into smaller groups for discussion. Be sure to have questions prepared as conversation starters for these sessions.
  • Don’t forget to use the chat. This is a great way to encourage participants to talk amongst each other throughout your virtual events, and can also be used to share reminders or even activity prompts with the group.
  • Find spontaneous ways to surprise and delight your audience. Perhaps an unannounced speaker, an icebreaker activity, a community standup time (where people can share updates, pitches, or job postings), or a giveaway. Throwing in a few random items that aren’t scheduled can bring your audience’s attention back.

You might also like: 5 Things You Should Know About Forming Strategic Partnerships.

5. Stay connected and follow up after the event 

virtual events: woman sitting at desk smiling

Once you’ve gone through all the work of planning, creating, and running the perfect virtual event, make sure to follow up afterwards with the following action steps:

  • Create a Slack channel or Facebook group to continue the conversation. This is a space you should monitor for any questions around the content, and encourage your event speakers and community moderators to engage with attendees.
  • Send a post-event email. Include a recording of the event (if possible), photos you’d like to share, highlights and key resources, a date for your next event, and a survey for attendees to share their experience and suggestions for improvement for your next event. 
  • Collect data. How many people joined the session? What are the most important insights from your survey results? What anecdotal stories came out of this experience? Use this data to improve and build out your next event!

Your community is here

You’ve made it! You’ve read through all the tools and tips you need to get started, but we know it’s not easy.

It’s common to feel anxious, nervous, and lonely during this time. Know that you’re not alone in this, and that Shopify is here to support you and our community during these trying times. We’re curating a wide range of upcoming events to help connect you with communities in your virtual backyard as well as around the world. Shopify Partners are also stepping up to support one another—it’s been incredible to watch.

This is a new world, and we’re facing it together as a community. Let’s share ideas and overcome challenges as a team.

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