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.
Don’t let this be your 12 person panel discussion on the “future of work-from-home tech in a post pandemic world” or something like that. Hilarious screen shot from the project https://zooooom.us/ — check it out.

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.

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/.