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Virtual event honesty - an interactive virtual event won't work unless we solve the participation paradox

Jon Reed Profile picture for user jreed October 2, 2020
My virtual event series makes a vigorous case for interactive events, while holding brandcasted events to the satirical fire. But I've left out a big piece of the puzzle - until now.


Dear enterprise event planners, I've been holding out on you. Yes, I've exhorted you to raise your game to make the fall event season better: Virtual events and the flawed obsession with entertainment over interactivity - will fall events get it right?. But now the rules have changed.

Maybe you accept my argument. Let's say you agree that the true impact of online events isn't brandcasting, but energizing your community. You're ready to take a chance on a more interactive event - and the liberating perils of unscripted live action.

You've figured out an event platform that has enough interactive features - or maybe you're going to combine a couple of platforms, and take a risk by giving up some topic control (Check out options like, and see how much power you can give event participants to organize their own tribes).

Live interactive events - planners and participants (usually) aren't ready

If you've come this far, then I've done you a disservice. I've covered how to do this at scale. I've covered how to create a separate (paid?) interactive track for VIPs. But I haven't reckoned with a fundamental truth: most event planners - and participants - aren't ready. They're too accustomed to the passive rituals of brandcasting and (half-heartedly) consuming. To pull off a better live event, we need to change event culture - on both sides. There is a better result - but both sides have to earn it.

In a recent post, Participants: Jazz Up Your Next Online Event!, Mark Finnern called out the passive participant problem:

The unfortunate thing is, we all are trained to passively consume content by years and years of sitting on our couches watching TV, Netflix, or movies in cinemas...  What we need is a mind shift of all of us online event participants. We need to get off the couch of consuming and judging from the stadium stands. We need to get into the arena and start leaning into the event and actively participate.

I would add: after a steady diet of online events, enterprise audiences are now numb to the possibilities. We've shown up to so-called "virtual experiences," only to find ourselves staring blankly ahead:

Recently, I had two vendors tell me they "prefer to call their events 'experiences.'" Sure - if we admit that experiences are not necessarily good experiences at all.

We've all been invited to "interactive webinars," only to have the presentation run long as the slides blur. By the time a few select questions are finally permitted, we're either comatose, or lured into the distracting grind of Microsoft Outlook.

To be fair, this participation problem happened at on-the-ground events also. I've written about the challenges of drawing people out in unconferences. Online, the risk of an interactive event falling flat is greater. So how do we avoid this predicament?

Interactive events - a different type of preparation

I've alluded to investing in training your event facilitators, rather than squandering that money on bad live music warbling through webcams. The path to interactivity looks like this:

1. Train your event speakers and staff for a highly interactive event.

2. Prep your participants ahead of time. Be ready to get involved early and often, and ready to press questions - e.g. "Have your burning questions and webcam ready!" (Finnern advises drawing out questions ahead of time to seed the dialogue and prep your speakers).

Let's say a number of your sessions will be discussion-oriented (including participants). In that case, you may need to team your subject matter expert with a facilitator. Good candidates for this role are: folks who already play a moderating role in your online communities. Live video discussions are similar to any text-based forum: sometimes it goes well, occasionally it goes off the rails. Have a plan ready for:

  • Dealing quickly and decisively with trolls and event disruptors. I haven't run into any of them this year, but they are out there.
  • Drawing out quieter participants - ensuring sure the most vocal don't take up all the airtime.
  • Intervening in discussions before loud talkers take over, or dissenting views are squelched.
  • An escalation plan if one of the participants reveals information about a troubled project, or an unhappy customer situation that will need follow up after the event.
  • Training on the interactive features of the platform you are using (example: how to manage the "raise hands" and "mute" functions in Zoom - and perhaps even the breakout rooms).
  • Aggressive use of that mute function when participants get careless with background noise.

Does this take facilitation talent? Certainly. But it's all trainable; many speakers and community managers are well on their way to finesse. But yes - you might choose to limit discussion sessions, to the extent your paid and volunteer staff can handle them.

Active chat streams are potent - and require training

What if some of your sessions are more like webinars, where there are one or two speakers, followed by a Q/A? Make two changes:

  1. Ensure the Q/A time is generous, at least 25 percent of the session should be Q/A.
  2. In the spirit of a live event, plan on having an active chat from the beginning of the session.

That chat will be managed by 1-3 folks who are not the main speakers. Your speakers should not be expected to monitor the chat. But, they should be clear on this point: they will be interrupted by the chat team, if something in the chat sparks a pressing question. Ideally, the chat team is also monitoring your social hashtag, and pulling relevant questions from there also.

Training for the chat moderators and the speakers centers on this principle: an active chat is to be encouraged. It is not an insult to the speaker if folks in the chat are snarking off a bit - or if they are asking their own questions while you are presenting. Therefore:

  • At the beginning of the session, an active chat is encouraged during the intro. Explain that questions will be answered during the chat. The goal is to answer all questions by the end of the session - none of the typical "we'll follow up with the rest of your questions by email" excuse-making.
  • Speakers are aware they could be interrupted if something important comes up. They are coached to understand these kinds of interruptions are not unprofessional. Rather, they bring the live immediacy that makes events compelling. The relevance factor of their content shoots up.
  • Chat facilitators should include at least one subject matter expert on the speaker topic, who can effectively answer the topical questions raised.
  • Another facilitator may be more expert on the facilitation side: identifying the most popular questions, making a note of issues to escalate, or helping chat participants find additional resources and sessions.

The wrap

This is not a comprehensive guide to the upskilling needed to put on a truly live, interactive event - but it gives an idea. If this sounds like a lot of work, it is. If it sounds messy, yes, it can be. But the reward is an engaging, perhaps even electrifying event - one that earns a deeper sense of community. One that shows your customers their voices matter. A risk? Yes. But not as big a risk as putting on another boilerplate event, and watching your constituents tune you out.

I've said all along: I don't expect vendors to move from a broadcast event to a full-blown, all-interactive event in one fell swoop. But you'd be surprised how far you can get - simply by taking your existing community managers, customer success peeps, and developer engagement types and getting them involved in event design.

Finnern is right - we run the risk of interactive formats falling flat. It takes effort to overcome participant cynicism, to show attendees they can share unvarnished feedback - and make new connections.  Being heard - that matters right now.

It surprises me how many creative formats have not been tried. Example: you can keep your entire day of industry-track sessions, but add a white board session to start and end the day. The start of the day is: attendees share their current project problems. A white board session at the end of the day rounds up lessons learned. Speakers for the day's sessions attend the kick-off white board session.

They are asked to touch on the open questions wherever possible - throughout the day. Those are marked off on the white board. Without altering your entire event, you've now changed it from a one-way broadcast - into a customized problems -> solutions format. Would you charge for such an event? Perhaps. The point is not necessarily to charge admission. The point is to put on events good enough that you could have charged for them.

Maybe then you'll get this kind of feedback:

I can catch the replays anytime. What I can't miss is these live discussions.

Some vendors seem to think they'll be saved by the bell next year, when on the ground events will magically come back. I don't see it that way for 2021. But even if I'm wrong, vendors who can pull in virtual attendees will have an edge. You can use these event designs on the ground, or mix the two. Vendors may be obligated to do so, for attendees who are not ready to travel.

I'll put it to you this way: knowing how to put on kickass virtual events is not a short term skill that will expire at the end of this year. It will be an edge that will carry you far into whatever's next looks like.

This piece is part of my ongoing diginomica series on the art and pitfalls of virtual events.

Updated, 7am GMT October 5, with a few tweaks for reading clarity.

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