10 steps to running engaging online and hybrid events

We’ve all been to online events in recent times where there has been a voice or two droning on, no way of participating or responding, and time seemed to stretch out forever, regardless of how long the event actually lasted. And, I hope, we’ve all also been to online events that were almost as good as in person ones. Engaging, interactive, and stimulating. So what makes an online event worth attending? I’ve written ten key things that are important to get right, but I’m sure there are more. What would you add?

1. Enable Interaction. People focus much more easily on events they are a part of, rather than passive observers. Make sure all attendees can use the chat, and that everyone can send messages to the whole group. Some online sessions are setup so that attendees can only message the hosts. Try to make sure that’s not the case before you open the virtual doors.

2. Plan for Moderation. Nominate a couple of people to monitor the chat. They must have the power to evict anyone who is behaving inappropriately. It’s a good idea to have a code of conduct to facilitate this. It also helps to have an explicit policy about what kinds of behaviour will trigger immediate expulsion, what requires a warning, and how many warnings you will give. Make this public.

3. Encourage participation. Seed the chat with questions, ask people to introduce themselves, get the conversation flowing. Ideally delegate a few people to do this, to spread the load, and stimulate discussion organically.

4. Involve the speaker in the chat. Make sure the speaker can see the chat, and check beforehand whether they want to respond to the chat during their talk. If they don’t want to talk & monitor the chat at the same time, make sure there is a co-host delegated to keep an eye on the chat and pass questions and comments to the speaker at the appropriate time.

5. Get all the chat in the same place. If it’s a hybrid event, make sure everyone has access to the chat. It can be useful to have the chat on a different platform, such as slack or discord, to minimise the divide between online and in person attendees.

6. Make all participants equal. Also for hybrid events, make sure that everyone is able to ask questions. I went to a hybrid event recently where in person attendees lined up behind the microphone, and online attendees were told to use the Raise Hand button in zoom. The organisers proceeded to focus on the in person attendees, ignoring the raise hand button entirely, so no-one attending online was able to participate. It’s much easier to see people who are right in front of you, so you have to take active steps to democratise question time. Use Sli.do or a similar online platform, so that everyone can see the questions, and even vote on them to make sure the best questions get prioritised.

7. Make time for mingling. Make sure you build time into the schedule for discussion after each talk or session, whether by text chat or voice. Encourage your attendees to connect, to share ideas, and to collaborate.

8. Ask for feedback. Encourage your attendees to let you know (and make sure they know who to contact) if they have urgent feedback (like, “we can’t see the slides”, or “there’s a distracting echo”), and make sure you have someone watching for that feedback who has the power to act on it. (Sometimes this means muting attendees. I spoke at one online event where someone in the audience started to eat a packet of chips with his microphone on. It was… unhelpful.)

9. Test everything beforehand. Always test beforehand. Either setup an advance meeting with your speakers to run through all of the tech and make sure everyone’s systems play nicely together, or get your speakers to turn up half an hour early to do a quick tech check. I prefer the latter approach because it makes it less likely that a change in the meantime will have broken things. At a minimum, test mics, screen sharing, the chat function, and lighting. Try to make sure your audience isn’t admitted to the call until this has completed.

10. Make sure the chat is easily accessible, or setup in advance. I went to one hybrid conference that used a system with a chat next to the video window, but you had to login to a different system, and press a button to reveal the chat, and no-one used it. Either make sure the chat is visible by default, or, if you’re using an external chat such as slack, encourage attendees to login, setup, and start chatting before the event, to maximise interaction as much as possible. You want to minimise the barriers to chat. Many people won’t go looking for it, but will participate if it’s already in front of them.

It’s not rocket science, but it is actually quite a lot of work to do online events well. Some of the best events I’ve attended have been almost as good as in person. Pawsey Supercomputing Research Centre runs its webinars as meetings rather than webinars, which makes all participants equal and really encourages interaction. PyconAU online had a beautiful setup with a chat session running down the side of the speaker video, which encourages lots of interaction. Both organisations work hard to make their events engaging and interactive, but the hard work is worth it, because the events are so much better.

It looks like online and hybrid events are here to stay. Let’s make them great! What are your favourite tricks for getting engagement at online events?

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