Why online events are boring, and how to make them better.

Since a worldwide pandemic has recently upended day-to-day life for every person living on planet earth, you’ll know that many industries have also been affected by the economic repercussions of COVID-19. The events industry was probably one of the first to take a hit. As an event designer and producer I spent most of February and March frantically trying to help clients cancel, reschedule (then eventually re-cancel), or move things online. It seemed like every event ever scheduled in early 2020 was suddenly pushing out messages that they were MOVING ONLINE (!!!!) with lots of exclamation points to hide the fact that everyone was freaking out.

Now we live in a world where events happen on a screen. Previously, you’d probably attend an event not just for the content but also to connect with other folks who were doing interesting work in or around your professional wheelhouse. Network, loosen up with a cocktail, bond with some colleagues, and pick up some industry news and gossip. You went to an event for all of these things, and what happened on stage was just one important part of the whole experience. Now, after personally attending many online events just to see what they’re like — I fear the experience is lost.

Why do online events bore me so much? I’ll explain a bit, but I’ll also list some ideas for making them more interesting. During my time producing events at the MIT Media Lab I put a lot of effort into thinking about how to produce high quality and interactive streaming for our live events. Over the last few months I have been doing a lot more research on virtual event platform offerings, and have some opinions on what may or may not work (this will be in my follow up post). Also — I think we need to stop forcing content out there and calling it “events.” Maybe we should start to get a little more intentional and creative.

Reasons why virtual events are boring:

  1. There is little to no attendee engagement. Probably the most important reason why events are boring is that there is zero connection between attendees. And while some virtual events may try to connect people through chat features or “exhibit rooms” or speed dating-type stuff (hello, remember Chatroulette? Lol), it’s weird. Maybe it will become less weird, I doubt it.
  2. Poor visual output. Usually the sound, lighting, and camera location totally sucks. If a person stood that close to me in real life I’d have an anxiety attack. Apply social distancing rules to your computer, please.
  3. Lack of on-screen graphics. A virtual “event,” once live, usually consists of a screen filled with people with no session titles, lower thirds (or chyrons), and no place to easily access an agenda. So if you are joining late it’s anyone’s guess who is speaking and what the session title is. Most people aren’t Oprah who can keep a show moving along, so unfortunately I think you lose a lot of interest from people logging in late. This has happened to me several times.
  4. Transitions between sessions are clunky. I watched a panel discussion through the event platform Hopin.to and after the event host said we were taking a quick break, the screen went dead and about 30 seconds later you start hearing creepy elevator music. Eventually a branding slide popped up. I think most people just logged off at that point, but there were more sessions to follow and we were supposed to be networking via chat which no one did. With virtual events that are longer than an hour (maybe two), my guess is you lose people.
  5. Virtual events have very little pre-production. In my world of live events, pre-production is everything! You must meet with every speaker and brief them, you manage expectations, you set up technical rehearsals with your AV crew, and you test presentation materials. With virtual events all of that is out the window because there’s not an easy process for it, and most people organizing online events right now are doing this for the first time.
  6. There is ZERO creativity. There’s no music. There are no interstitials between sessions. There’s no branding or screen graphics. People aren’t even dressed up anymore! Everyone has bags under their eyes and 5 o’clock shadows. Including myself!

Ways to improve virtual events:

  1. Create a speaker guidelines document. Just like you might create AV guidelines for your stage speakers, you can do the same for a virtual event. Share your preferred camera angles, lighting sources, mic options, etc… and send it to every speaker to ensure consistency. Test optimal distances from your camera. Maybe your event is formal and you want your speaker wearing a dress shirt in their library (tour their house ahead of time and find the best location — also fun to look at peoples homes). Maybe your event is casual and your speaker would look great on their mid-century sofa with a plant framing the view (or between two ferns). Natural lighting is best, headphones or airpods with a built-in mic are better than freely yelling at your computer, and so-on.
  2. Up your production value. It’s one thing to slap a zoom webinar together and use the first five minutes to realize your headset isn’t pairing, it’s another thing entirely to use lower thirds, output your stream to a video player (YouTube or Vimeo Live, for example), and test the technology beforehand. Maybe you don’t have the bandwidth to do this yourself, but there are lots of audio visual companies with a little free time on their hands right now, it would be an easy lift for them to help you pull together a quality show. They can also help smooth out transitions between sessions, execute on-screen graphics, and build in some visual elements like interstitials or branding. Generally, they can make your event more watchable and less boring and sad.
  3. PLAN your event. Take some time to think about creative surprises. When I organized the MIT Media Lab’s Disobedience Awards in 2018, we handed out pocket constitutions as “swag.” Can you send your guests some “digital swag” like desktop wallpaper designed by a local artist? Can you send everyone a post-event “work-from-home” playlist curated by your guest speakers? By the way, if you plan to play any music during your virtual event you must have the rights to that music, otherwise you could get in a lot of trouble. This web site has some reasonable royalty free options.
  4. Build an agenda that is suitable for short attention spans and virtual spaces. Online events shouldn’t be like the conferences you attend in person, they should be adapting to this new world of virtual. What would make you excited to join an online event? It certainly isn’t going to be an hour long panel discussion among five giant floating heads with bad lighting and no agenda anywhere in sight, that also sounds like it’s being broadcast from a tin can …. Think about it.
  5. Captions! You have no excuse not to caption all of your online events. Some virtual event platforms and streaming sites have closed captioning options built right in (though they’re not always super accurate, it’s better than nothing if you can’t afford real-time captioning services). But there are lots of low-cost captioning vendors available out there. And if you’re planning to show any pre-recorded videos during your live event, you should get those subtitled as well.

Hopefully this is a useful primer for anyone out there organizing online events. Honestly, you don’t even need to be an events professional, even if you are just hosting a zoom presentation for 10 people I think some of the small adjustments I list above will go a long way. Just remember, it’s not really about the tools you use (there are tons of tools and some are better than others which I will discuss in my follow-up post), it’s about captivating your audience with a thoughtfully designed program. Right now everyone is doing the same thing, and it stinks. There is a huge opportunity to stand out by doing things differently.

Event designer and producer thinking about what makes a successful event, both in-person and online. Contact me at https://www.jessicasousa.com/.

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