June 1, 2020

Hosting Effective Virtual Events During (and After) a Pandemic

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In the midst (and in the wake) of COVID-19, virtual events — from webinars and webcasts to happy hours and fundraisers — are the new norm. The question now is, how can you create effective virtual events that create raving fans and ROI for your effort? 

Here are a few things to consider + resources and straight-from-the-horses-mouths case studies from those who have dared to go virtual. 

Read the room

COVID-19 has shifted everyone’s focus to flattening the curve, keeping it flat, and, ultimately,  making a descent.  The national change in tone and sensibilities gives new meaning to reading the room during an event… in this case BEFORE the event. If you have something to say, make sure it’s something people want to hear. Just because you want to still host that event you’ve always hosted or had planned to host for the first time doesn’t mean you still should. 

Consult with your own leadership, of course, but also reach out to your partners, sponsors and target audience to find out what they think. Would they still support an event, and would they like to see you move forward? If so, find out just how committed they would be and what kind of content and experience they’d find valuable.

Going virtual opens a door to opportunity. Having an entirely virtual audience means broadening reach to people who may have been unable or uninterested in attending otherwise. If you read the room correctly, moving forward with a virtual event could find you reaping rewards that far outweigh the risks.

Reset goals

As most organizations are used to hosting in-person events, it’s important to understand that hosting a virtual event requires a different set of goals, even if only slightly – goals that can be met within a one-hour (or less) timeframe. People are less inclined to donate without the things that in-person events provide, such as live entertainment, food and drinks. Even if your virtual event offers those things, understand that a lot of donors may not be as tech-savvy as you’d need to be in order to donate during a live virtual event. That said, it might be best to slightly lower expectations for donations and overall turnout. Once achievable goals are set, planning can begin.

Get the word out

Enlist the help of your marketing and PR team to generate awareness in the news and on social media. Come up with a hashtag. Design shareable promotional content for the event. Tell everyone. Just make sure there are incentives, and that your audience is aware of them.

Identify incentives

Why should anyone tune in to an organization’s webcast, virtual conference or virtual event? To learn, of course, and/or to be entertained. Webcasts and virtual conferences and events should provide their audience with unique learning opportunities and experiences.

Why should anyone tune into an organization’s virtual fundraising event? To donate, and to be entertained. Fundraising events should encourage donations with entertainment, such as a raffle, silent auction or live entertainment. 

Without the luxury of an in-person event, consider that attendees’ attention spans are likely significantly shorter – there’s no happy hour at the bar prior to the event, mingling, servers bringing out different meal courses and beverages, etc. These tactics are used at in-person events to not only incentivize people to attend, but also to keep them entertained throughout. Consider cutting speeches down, ramping up intermittent entertainment, throwing in giveaways, or encouraging attendees to have their own sort of pre-event happy hour to generate excitement

Engage the audience

Similar to incentives, engaging with the audience gives organizations a human connection to them. It also gives the audience a reason to stay tuned in.

Surveys and polls are a great way to engage with an audience and get an immediate return. Cision recently hosted a webinar series, “Best Practices for Brand Communications in Times of Uncertainty,” in which they used polls to stay engaged with their audience. One live poll asked audience members to select their career from a list, allowing for the hosts to immediately address the audience based on the information they gained. It’s also interesting for the members of the audience to see who’s there with them, giving more of a personal touch to an event that lacks physical presence.

Some other engaging tactics include a live Q&A and chat, interesting speakers, attendee roundtables, 1:1 networking meetings, virtual networking reception, and virtual sponsor booths. Some organizations are even offering virtual childcare .

Enlist IT support

Zoom? Hangouts Meet? No matter the platform, there will almost always be an IT issue for someone involved in hosting a virtual event. Whether the volume won’t work, sound echoes, video freezes, or entire system crashes, having IT personnel on hand is key. 

Organizations shouldn’t let COVID-19 and technology ruin an important event. This may be the last item on the list, but it’s arguably the most important.

Generally speaking, there’s no denying the benefits of an in-person event. However, it’s important to adapt to the ever-changing world of technology, which has been essential in so many ways throughout COVID-19.

Webinar/Virtual Event Hosting Platforms

Below is a list of platforms for hosting webinars or virtual events that each have different capabilities and price points for organizations to consider based on their needs. It’s important to weigh the pros and cons of these platforms in the early stages of planning to allow enough time to conduct trial runs and enlist any necessary IT support before go-time.


JDRF Nashville

When faced with the prospect of canceling its largest fundraising event of the year, the Nashville chapter of JDRF (the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation) made a bold decision to go forward and go virtual. With the backing of its Board of Directors and a vote of confidence from the nonprofit’s national leadership, JDRF Nashville’s executive director, Mary Lyn Schuh, started navigating the uncharted waters.  In the early stages of planning, when JDRF realized they’d have to hold their annual gala virtually, JDRF knew they’d have to ramp up their incentives for people to “attend” virtually, so they featured both a silent and live auction with a former auctioneer, as well as virtual live performances by MercyMe, Amy Grant, Raelynn and Eric Paslay.

The 20th Annual JDRF Promise Gala made a remarkable and exponential difference for those in the T1D community. As a result, the virtual event concept and multifaceted and multidisciplinary communications approach is being applied by JDRF chapters throughout the country as they work toward holding their annual fundraisers during this time of uncertainty.

To learn more about how JDRF brought the 20th Annual Promise Gala to life, listen to our podcast, Virtual Reality: How One Nonprofit Went Virtual with Its Annual Gala and Raised a Very Real $1.16 Million.

Can’d Aid

Can’d Aid is a nonprofit that fuoco partnered with for a bike build. However, the build was canceled in the early stages of the COVID shutdown due to schools closing and social distancing measures. Can’d Aid has since asked if fuoco would like to participate in a pilot for a bike build workaround, Do-goodery at Your Doorstep, that follows social distancing measures by bringing bike build kits to your doorstep – in our case, the fuoco parking lot. Eventually, the hope is to still do a larger bike build with a school, but since there is no definitive timeline to the pandemic, this approach is a more near-term opportunity to do good in the community at a time when people need it most.

Additional Virtual Events Of Note

The following list includes reputable organizations hosting virtual healthcare events and/or webinars in the near future.

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