How to Create a Virtual Experience that People Show Up For

A headshot of Chad Neufeld

by Chad Neufeld

A cartoon illustration depicting three people working together as colourful and the individuals working alone as dull.

Ah, the virtual event. A true magnet for mediocrity. All too often, ‘virtual experience’ means ‘webinar’. We read an event title we find enticing, click the big red ‘register’ button, and then instantly forget about the event until an hour before. We join some clunky interface a few minutes after the hour and then absentmindedly absorb content that (almost) always has the same format:

  1. The sponsor or organizer waxes poetically about the presenter for a few minutes.
  2. The presenter launches into the same powerpoint presentation they’ve done a dozen times for different organizations. Sometimes the content is interesting, but most times it would have been better as a blog post.
  3. The organizer jumps back on to ask the presenter a few softball questions and cherrypicks some softies from the audience chat or the Q&A panel.
  4. A sales email from the organizers lands in your inbox a few days later.

90% of the virtual experiences I just described are crud. They are tired noise that does not take advantage of the wonderful medium at our disposal: the internet.

A colourful cartoon illustration of a man working alone at his desk resting his head in his hand.

In a connected world, especially one facing pandemic-inspired precautions, virtual events are more common than ever. This means that modern professionals face an avalanche of crud. Sturgeon’s Law states that 90% of everything is crud, but that doesn’t mean that you have to copy the same tired virtual event format, hoping that yours falls into the good 10%.

What follows is a structure to use next time you are building an online experience. My hope is that it empowers you to build exceptional virtual experiences that people show up for… and get value from. 

Step One: Define Your ‘Why’

BEFORE YOU ROLL YOUR EYES, I am absolutely not suggesting that you fire up that Simon Sineck TED talk with the flipchart and the sharpie. Can you believe that video is from 2009 and keynote speakers are still trotting it out at leadership conferences?

What I am suggesting is writing down three practical ways your organization adds value. If you had a new neighbour and they asked what your company does, what would you say? What does your [thing/service] help people achieve? Why is your [thing/service] more effective than alternatives? 

Once you’ve established 2 or 3 ‘why’s, it’s time to figure out who would benefit most from a virtual experience centering on the value you bring to the world.

Step Two: Establish Your Target Audience

It is likely that you have a sense for your organization’s broad target audience, but when you are planning an online event, it’s important you get a bit more granular. Are your business objectives dictating a focus on current users? Would future or potential customers be a better target? How about industry thought leaders or new recruits? Consider the work you did in Step One and then nail down the group of people who your event is most likely to appeal to. 

A colourful cartoon illustration of two men working together while a dog rests near their feet.

Why is it so important to establish a tight target market before you build out your event? Because if you neglect this step, you run the risk of hosting an experience that is so general and high-level that it fails to add value for any group. Many events have hit that weird spot where the content is too basic for experienced professionals, but too complicated for novices. You can guard against this by establishing your target audience before you get down to planning the substance of the experience.

Step Three: Translate Your ‘Why’ Into Substance

So you know your topic and you know who you want to show up for your event. Great start. Now comes the tricky part. Creating a substantive virtual experience for that group of people. How do you translate your ‘why’ into a great event? When I looked at the most interesting online experiences hosted by brands and organizations, most fell into one of six translation categories. 

Translation One: First Thought

What is the standard structure in your industry? Maybe it is the webinar structure I mocked above, a lunch & learn, or a panel. Take the standard format and knock it out of the park. 

Translation Two: Transport

Break down the walls between your organization and your audience. Maybe that means you take the audience on a virtual tour of your manufacturing facilities or set up a HQ live stream of your studio. Take your target audience behind the scenes.

Translation Three: Improv

It’s time to ‘yes, and’ your way through an online experience. Give yourself and your participants a space to explore & experiment. Arm yourself with a few starting points, and then make things as interactive as possible. The wikipedia game is a great example of this approach. Start with a random wikipedia page, and then click on the first hyperlinked word you aren’t familiar with. Repeat as desired.

Translation Four: Asynchronous

Virtual experiences do not all have to start at 10am and wrapped up by 10:59. Online experiences can involve contributions over time, and take place over a week or a month. Allowing people to submit their problems for the group to solve over the course of a few days might be a better fit than a live presentation.

A colourful cartoon illustration of a woman holding a mug while a thought bubble appears from her head.

Translation Five: Kitsch

Crank up the cheese factor! These events are inspired by game shows, speed dating, talent shows, and other fun, corny tv staples. What about an unlicensed game of Who Wants to be a Millionaire with questions related to your industry? Maybe you can host a talent show with your users or members to celebrate Pride, or pair up users with one another in speed dating rounds where they talk about your product and their successes and feature requests. Have some fun and enlist an over-the-top colleague to play host.

Translation Six: Hands-on

Take a specialist or a team from your organization and ask them to tackle real challenges from your audience, live. Test your merit in front of potential customers.

How do you choose which one of the translations to explore? Roll the dice! You aren’t tied to the outcome, but if you roll a 5, give Kitsch a solid thought. Whether the die guides you to the perfect experience or it just gets you thinking outside the box, I will consider it a success.

Don’t Be Afraid to Try Something New

If you have taken the time to define your why, you’ve established a tight target audience for your event, and you have come up with an interesting format, there is a good chance your outcome is something new, something that your peers are not already doing. That’s a good thing. In a desert of beige webinars, your quirky concept is likely to stand out as something new. And ‘new’ is the oldest trick in the marketer’s playbook.

So break out a pad of paper, dig a die out of a family board game, and start planning a virtual experience that people will be excited to show up for. Together, we can make ‘interesting’ the standard, not the exception.

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