Four levels of virtual engagement

Most of us love live events. No one really loves a Zoom call. It was fun and convenient to begin with. We put on silly hats, we did funny backgrounds. But now it feels functional and flat. It’s certainly not an event. Virtual is just that …virtual.

The thing we love most about live is usually the people…the social interactions, the unexpected meetings, the tribal gathering…but it is also the dramatic experience, the spontaneous moment and the rare connection.

I don’t go to a festival to follow an agenda or to even know what’s coming up. I want to be surprised, to go beyond the limit of my expectations. I want to make random links, and to experience the unusual. I want be in the same place as the artist (or at least make them out over a few hundred yards of field) and to commune in their performance with others. We all know what that feels like when it works. It’s an experience beyond the every day.

It’s the same for a corporate event. No one wants an agenda to be so predictable that you know what we’re in for before you even dial in (or register in a grey hotel foyer, like the old days). I don’t want it to feel like work, although I’m very happy to do some. I want to feel intrigued, to be with others on an unexpected journey. I want to be inspired. Again I want to connect.

The current situation sees most event organisers (be that corporate, charity or entertainment) taking the obvious route to virtual delivery. Basically transferring the live experience to an online format, maybe chucking in a bit of video, some games, some downloadable resources and hey…we just saved thousands of pounds on a venue, travel and accommodation…and an agency.

However, the attendees may be turning up but they are surely tuning out.

The best of virtual creates a reason to be there, it generates expectation, surprise and as much as possible a live parallel. Let me explain.

Take a Charity Fundraising Ball that last year raised say £1m from an audience of 350 sponsors and punters at a glam, themed venue (see image). This year that aint happening. But the ambitions for the charity…the objectives to raise money, to engage with donors and supporters and to celebrate the great work of the organisation are still there. So what to do?

Why not break the audience into 50 ‘dinner events’ of 12 each (this year you can invite more people as you’re not limited by space). You deliver incredible catering to each host’s home. You create an agenda of auctions, live acts and interviews. You make some heart tugging videos. That bit is relatively easy.

The hard work is to create a compelling narrative theme, that is reflected in the event experience and delivered by a team of ‘facilitators’ who travel to each of the host’s homes. Now you are running 50 events each of which have their own flavour but that are connected by incredible catering, table ware and design, by the facilitators and hosts, by the shared agenda, by the live studio events (and by the usual auctions, videos and appeals) but above all by a reason to engage. What takes this above and beyond?

The creative concept and its execution. Running a slick event is one thing, but creating an experience that individuals want to join and really engage with is hard. There may be a big name act but the experience at each event needs to feel unique and help you not only play but actually part with some cash. Top tip. Don’t try this bit at home. Get that agency involved.

Now take a large scale corporate event.

You might need to get your people to engage with a big idea, with your strategy post Covid, with your behaviours and brand now you’ve pivoted. This is critical to your success going forward but you can’t get x00 people together for a meeting. How do you go beyond some Zoom presentations with leaders in silly outfits, a bunch of sexy videos and a confusion of digital whiteboards? 

Again the trick is in the creative execution.

Take a business wanting to demonstrate new ways of operating and behaving post 2020…well why not set up a series of zoom court rooms in which your people participate as prosecution, defence and jury putting the business on trial for failing to deliver.  Or take inspiration from Fran Cotton’s ‘Happy Place Festival’ and create a festival week of inspirational talks, events, drop ins, gigs, showcases etc that demonstrate how your organisation could pivot and bring that all together on the ‘main stage’ at the end. Or even send your team the brief for the event in the post and unwrap the key elements as you go to gain a real world experience.

These tricks will increase the engagement and participation.

But the real magic comes when you create a reason to be engaged that is at the deeper purpose level. Now you are connecting your product with brand, customers, employees and strategy. Instead of putting on a festival why not challenge employees to create one themselves. We’ve seen it work with PPE. Could your team deliver a product that goes straight into a refugee camp to help children to express their trauma through play? Could you deliver your beer straight to customers via drones? Could you switch your process capabilities to help care homes with theirs? Could you distribute stock to school kids to help them learn new skills at this time?

So there are four levels of virtual.

  1. Level one is bunging what you used to do live onto a website and going online
  2. Then there is using some new tools (from zoom to digital whiteboards) and adding a bit of facilitation
  3. Then there is mixing it up with some of the engagement techniques (that really worked live)
  4. And then there is reaching towards a purpose led challenge that brings the other three levels together, but with meaning


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