May’s community call recap: Creating virtual events that meet people where they are

Two years after the pandemic pushed the majority of events online, we invited community members to discuss when virtual and hybrid formats work well, when they work poorly, and the tools that lead to success.

We also hosted a co-working session, during which we worked on a virtual events glossary and an updated version of our guidebook of curated virtual events resources – two items we’ll release soon. In this blog post, we offer some of the key takeaways from this month’s community call, in the hopes that it helps you plan engaging and inclusive events. 

Find your why

For virtual events to go well, everyone in the room needs to know why they are there. A clear sense of purpose allows participants to focus on the event, reduces the temptation to multitask (or worse, begrudge the time spent chained to their computer). As a meeting organizer, make sure your intention is clear and that you and your attendees understand the goal of the event. (See also our Making a PACT framework where the P of PACT is for purpose.)

This intentionality is particularly relevant as some of us shift back to working in person: do we all need to be in the same room or could/should this meeting be virtual (or, is this actually an email thread)? 

Define your event goals and make sure everyone knows what they are. Photo by Markus Winkler on Unsplash

Create a clear roadmap and employ more facilitators

Because virtual events rely on multiple individuals interacting with different software and hardware combinations, they require more scaffolding than in-person events. Make sure you have clear instructions for how to access the meeting, how attendees will participate once they’re there, and stick to your agenda as closely as possible. 

You’ll also need to think carefully about moderation. You will need people responsible for in-session moderation, technical support, and ensuring the security of the online space (e.g., watching out for Zoom bombers). You may also want to provide translators, captioners, and note-takers. 

Don’t try to replicate an in-person activity

Virtual events are different from in-person ones, and that’s A-OK. The crucial thing is to think through what works best online before you start planning the content of the event and not attempt to take your in-person format and put it online. Some considerations for convening virtually: 

  • Keep your sessions short. Sitting in front of a screen for more than 90 minutes can be exhausting. 
  • If you still need to plan an event that’s longer than 90 minutes, offer breaks for people to eat, move around, and have informal interactions with each other. 
  • Consider using supplementary tools to add functionality and variety to your proceedings (e.g., Mural, Gather, Padlet, etc.). If you do this, allow ample time to orient your participants on the new platform. 

We’re all content creators now

One big bonus of online events is that they can create a lot of event artifacts – recordings, notes docs, posters, whiteboards, and so on that capture what happened at the event. That opens up the possibility of extending the event’s reach to others who couldn’t attend at the time, or to support deeper engagement after the event from attendees who might wish to extend conversations or make links between different content from different sessions.  Of course, this also requires careful curation, which is often the role of the event convenor. We see a big opportunity for community-building around event content that has yet to be fully realized.

There is no “better”

On the call, we asked whether folks enjoyed virtual events, or if they’d prefer to connect with people face-to-face. But our discussion revealed that the answer is less about a simple choice between the two formats, and more about weighing up the benefits of each for your specific needs, acknowledging that sometimes virtual is the best way to go. Virtual events almost always increase the accessibility of an event for people with disabilities and those with burdensome travel or visa requirements. They are also the smarter choice when it comes to reducing environmental impacts of gathering in large groups. But they don’t always meet the need for additional social interaction and attendee feedback in the moment that we get from connecting in-person. So our challenge is to wisely choose the best formats and activities that we can for our participants, their contexts, and community-building needs for each and every event we convene – and sometimes those may be online.  

On hybrid: What is a hybrid event? 

We closed the call by asking people about their experiences with hybrid events. These can be even trickier to plan than online events, and our discussion revealed the extent of their complexity. Many people expressed that they aren’t even sure how to define a true hybrid event, where virtual and in-person participants are fully immersed in the same happenings. Some participants said that they were finding balance by committing to separate in-person and online events throughout the calendar year, and others noted that they were organizing “in-person events with live streaming” so as not to over-promise with regards to the virtual experience. We also talked about how a combination of virtual plenary sessions and in-person “satellite” events works well for creating a local community around a common purpose. 

Hybrid events: is it possible to engage two different audiences simultaneously? Photo by Mario Gogh on Unsplash

New resources in the works

We wanted to make the most of having a room full of virtual events experts and create resources that could be useful to the broader community. So, on the call we spent about half an hour co-working on two resources.

The first is a new section of our STEM community management glossary. The virtual events section will be added to our website glossary soon, and also published on Zenodo as a downloadable PDF. We’re modeling this release on our inclusive language glossary, in that its an active glossary with implementation tips. For more context, see our blog post about the inclusive language glossary which we co-created last fall with members of our community and participants in the Inclusive Sci Comm Symposium. 

We also worked on updating our guidebook of curated resources for virtual event organizers, which is one section in our four-part guidebook on virtual events that we published in 2020. 

We’ll put some final touches on these resources over the next couple of weeks, so watch this space (and sign up for our newsletter to be the first to know when they’re available!). 

Next month – get to know your fellow community members!

On next month’s call we’re hosting our annual summer social. It’s a regular opportunity for networking and connection, and will involve the return of our hugely successful curated networking forum where you tell us who you’d like to meet and we set you up with a “personalized dance card” of 1-on-1 chats! If you’re curious, you can read a recap of how this went last time, and then let us know you’re interested by filling out this short form

Our June call will take place on 29 June at 11am EDT / 3pm UTC (Zoom link). Add to your calendar: iCal | Google