Five Things To Remember When Hosting A Digital Event

on March 5, 2020

Thanks to the COVID-19 virus, we have seen several events being canceled both in the tech world but also in other industries like fashion, home, and publishing. I am sure more will be announced over the next few weeks, leaving my calendar free from travel but full of digital meetings.

There has been a lot of talk already about remote work and I wrote about it in last week’s column. Hosting digital events, however, is not the same as working remotely and this is true for internal events as well as external ones. I was spoiled to have my first event be hosted by Zoom, a company that was built for remote work and video, so, as you can imagine, the quality of the technology was great. The team knew exactly how to keep the audience engaged over the 8 hours we spent together.

Good Speakers Are Critical

Keeping people engaged for a long period is not easy at the best of times, but when you are not in the same room, it gets even harder. People get easily distracted, but in a room, maybe out of respect for the speaker or just good old fashion manners, people tend to limit their multitasking. During a remote meeting, video can be turned on and off the leaving the participant free to zone out without guilt (I might be projecting a little here .)

Technology can help speakers with live transcription and even live translations making it easier for the audience to follow along in a more natural way than when those options are offered during a live meeting. Remotely nobody knows whether or not you are taking advantage of these features.

The pressure, however, might be higher when it comes to tone of voice, cadence and overall level of engagement. A good speaker, changes pace and tone, tells a story without getting off-topic too much and, most of all, keeps on schedule. Timeliness is more important than during a live event because your audience might have scheduled other meetings or work around the virtual event, something they would be less likely to do if they traveled somewhere to attend the event.

Always On Video Is Not Always Best

Just because you are attending a remote event, it does not mean your camera has to be on all the time. If you have a meeting where you are actively participating, of course, video matters. Seeing people face to face makes the exchange more personal, that’s the point! Yet, if you are mostly listening to a speaker or a set of speakers and you are part of a large group having your camera on and not being muted can take away from the experience for other participants.

Most video conferencing systems have some intelligence built-in that allows for the video to focus on the person who is speaking. How quickly the system performs that switch is crucial to establishing a natural conversation flow and, by doing so, increase engagement. Participants often forget to go on mute, which triggers the system to think you are either speaking or about to speak and therefore focusing on you rather than the actual speaker. This makes for a cumbersome experience, the more participants you have.

All that said, if you are invited to an online meeting, do make an effort to access the meeting through the system, video included rather than just dialing in. This helps with creating a consistency of experience across all participants. Simple things like not having to say your name because the system knows who you are, being able to use the “raise your hand” feature, so you don’t talk over someone else and generally better read the meeting.

Time Zones Will Be A Challenge

This is probably the biggest hurdle for world-wide events. While a live event will have everybody physically in one place while possibly mentally battling jetlag, virtual meetings have to account for time differences.

The time difference can impact the outcome of a meeting in several ways from a simple variable in energy from both speakers and participants due to the time of day, to a change in audience mix. The complexity of dealing with participants in different time zones might lead you to consider splitting the event into an overall event for the top-level remarks and smaller regional events to follow from there. You could even consider a mix of live and recorded portions, so people have the option to join the top-level remarks and then attend the rest of the sessions as a recording. This is no different than how many events are set up with a keynote and then several parallel sessions one chooses from.

One significant point to remember is that for virtual events, people don’t usually get time off around it. For instance, if you have a meeting or event you are attending in a time zone that requires getting up early or staying up late, most participants will be expected to still have a regular workday around it.

Sensitive Information Might Be At Higher Risk

Securing information you share over a remote meeting is both a question of technology and education. While information is not necessarily easier to secure during an in-person meeting, technology does make it easier for people to capture and share information over a virtual meeting.

Most of the collaboration systems use encrypted solutions to safely keep the data as well as offering ways to trace back leaks. Unfortunately, however, participants can use other devices to record or capture data. Informing upfront and reminding participants of what is public information and what is not is a must in a virtual world.

Engagement Can’t Be Taken For Granted

Aside from a good speaker, you need to make sure your audience is engaged, so leave time for questions during the presentation and at the end. In the same way as you would for an in-person meeting, make sure you moderate your Q&A segments, so time does not get away from you.

You can also think about using different tools to keep your audience connected with your speaker and the content. You can ask to submit questions via chat if you have someone who is moderating those questions. This allows the speaker to stay on track and the audience to ask more questions and get clarification when needed rather than at the end. Have your speaker ask questions or take polls, but try and keep your audience within the video platform, so you lower the chances to lose them. If the topic permits, make it a little fun. Zoom used a wheel of fortune with the participants’ names to draw who would be asked a question.

Especially when you are dealing with a large group, the speaker has little chance to see everybody and feel the room in the same way as they would in an in-person meeting. It would be best if you created those opportunities to take a pulse check, especially when the event you are hosting is going to last several hours.


I am sure over the coming months, I will have plenty of opportunities to come up with a best practice list, but I have little hope that my experiences will be perfect, not because of the technology but because of the people. After all, we have been doing phone meetings for years, and people can still make it unbearable.