9 Lessons You Can Learn from the espnW Summit NYC about Effective Virtual Events
Transitioning your in-person event to virtual is a challenge. Learn how espnW made it look easy.
The annual espnW Summit NYC went virtual this year, offering an entire afternoon of content for free. It consisted of over three hours of programming, featuring female on-screen talent and professional athletes. Leading up to the event, espnW promised: “to make you smile, think, and feel the W love!”
Now virtual events are very different from in-person events. In the virtual world, you’re competing against at-home distractions and challenged to create connections through a screen, all while providing value to your attendees.
Somehow, espnW nailed it. They are one of the few organizations completely delivered on their pre-event promise and made the most of their virtual event. I finished watching their three-hour broadcast and found myself wishing it wasn’t over. I’ve never had that feeling with any other virtual event that I attended.
Now, espnW definitely has the benefit of working with ESPN and a professional broadcast team to produce their event but that’s not entirely why it was so successful. Here are several strategies that you can apply to your next virtual event right now.
1. Variety of Format
espnW took a fun approach to the virtual setting by not relying on one model for content. The event’s host Sarah Spain was the master of ceremonies and the main narrator but she wasn’t involved in every single segment or transition.
I also loved the variety of formatting with each session. Instead of a series of panels that blend together, they had a single person talking to camera on a topic, panels, one-on-one interviews featuring one speaker interviewing another, pre-recorded talks, pre-recorded podcast, followed by a live podcast, and more. They also included movement into their virtual event with a guided meditation and a quick workout to finish it off.
2. Variety of Content
The variety continued when it came to the format of content, especially the tone of the segments. There were serious stories about athlete’s or broadcaster’s career struggles, Olympians hearing the Tokyo Olympics were postponed and talking about the loss of Kobe Bryant. There were also light-hearted skits about the secret women’s society of broadcasters and Dwayne Wade wanting to do a one-man comedy show. It felt fresh and fun and kept me engaged.
Another way they added variety to the content was getting live reactions to speakers after showing short video clips and photos during their interviews/panels. This brought a feeling of those authentic, off-the-cuff moments that you get when you’re attending a live in-person event.
3. You Can Be Long, But Keep it Short
Their event was hosted from 2:00PM-5:30PM Eastern, over three hours in total. That sounds like a long virtual event and it was the longest virtual event (outside of meetings) that I’d sat through. The organizers were smart with their time, with no session lasting longer than 30 minutes, with the average being closer to 15 minutes. The shorter sessions kept the pace up for the entire summit, making it feel fresh and fun without feeling like you’re watching a lecture. So despite being a long event, their short sessions made the time fly by.
4. Technology Will Be Fickle
Similar to in-person events, unexpected challenges will appear with virtual events. But unlike in-person events, the more noticeable challenges usually are noticed around technology.
No matter the setting, it’s not about the challenge itself but how you handle it that attendees will remember. During the espnW Summit NYC, there were a handful of times that the speaker’s internet connection caused the audio to break up or a delay on their end. This challenge was artfully navigated by the host, who instead of panicking, allowed the speaker to keep talking and would only acknowledge the issue if she wanted the speaker to repeat a comment.
If ESPN with their broadcast team can have technical issues, almost any event can. The best thing you can do is prepare for any hiccups along the way. Test your connections ahead of time, utilize a production company to help with the broadcast, and hire a great on-air host who can adapt to any challenges that might arise. In this new world of virtual events, you don’t need to be perfect to put on an amazing event. You just need to be ready to adapt to the situation and keeping moving, just like at in-person events.
5. Know Your Audience
When you’re planning your programming, think about your audience. It sounds simple but this is an exercise you should do anytime you plan an event, but especially a virtual one. And in the new virtual event world, you need to understand your audience and their life when they’re in their homes.
- What does their world look like while your event is going on?
- Do they have a full-time job? Or are they out of work?
- Do they have children at home?
- What is going to hold their attention to their computer or phone screen?
I never realized how much of a relief it was to not have the summit on Zoom. I’ve loved using Zoom but I definitely am having Zoom fatigue. espnW Summit was hosted on YouTube Live and this was a very smart move for their event.
I was able to make myself coffee and later lunch, and even hang outside in my yard when the sun came out, all while still virtually attending the summit. If you look through their #espnWNYC hashtag, you can see I wasn’t alone. Most of the other attendees seemed to also be multi-tasking.
So before you chose your broadcast platform or website, be sure to understand your attendees and their new quarantine lives and routines.
6. Add Extra Time into Your Run-of-Show
From in-person events, we all know that speakers can go over the time they’re given. At in-person events, you have the luxury of having a speaker timer or a host let the speaker know they’re going over on their time, but when you’re virtual that can be a little more challenging. espnW Summit did a great job of staying relatively on time with a few sessions going over.
One solution would be to utilize virtual speaker times or countdowns. Another tactic would be to extra stress to your speakers their times may be shorter than the advertised sessions to ensure that you’re running on time. Worst case scenario you can cut away from the speaker virtually but it can feel awkward and abrupt to the attendee so use that as a last resort.
7. Get Creative with Sponsor Activations
Many event organizers are concerned about how to showcase sponsors in a live event. In the intro of the summit, the host Sarah Spain read an ad spot and showcased Gatorade gear, including an adorable tiny Gatorade bottle that is actually a phone charger. She then used the towel in the end of the event workout video promo. It felt authentic and fun way to thank and recognize sponsors that were memorable and better than having a graphic with their logo on the screen.
8. Video Backgrounds Showcase Personality
I enjoyed seeing how the speakers played around with their backgrounds. For the espnW event, most of the speakers are on-screen broadcasters and so they’re used to the camera. Spain utilized her background to showcase her bookcase and featured the books of several of the speakers, turned around so you could see the whole cover. The president of espnW sparked a conversation on Twitter by having an odd Halloween mask in the background of her opening remarks. She addressed it in the closing segment when Spain brought it up saying, she’s a big Halloween costume person and that’s just one of her large stock of costumes. It was a fun moment to add personality into the day and integrate social media. Remind your speakers to be mindful of their backgrounds if they’ll be on-camera but also encourage them to share some of their personality in it as well.
9. Make it Your Own
I was so impressed by the different formatting, content, sponsor activations, and thought that went into the espnW Summit NYC. As you plan your event, think through all the things that make you and your organization unique and stay true to that. There are lots of virtual events happening but there is no rule anywhere that says there is only one way to bring people together online. espnW definitely found their niche and so can you.
I loved attending the espnW Summit NYC and loved the lessons I learned about virtual events by attending. Keep the formatting and content fresh and fun and don’t be afraid to mix it up. Think about your audience and what they’ll be doing now, from their homes. And don’t be afraid to add in some personality, with sponsor activations, video backgrounds, and more. And lastly, be patient with online event technology. You can prepare for everything but be ready to have to react at the moment to new challenges (just like at in-person events).
And if you’re interested in watching the espnW Summit NYC, you can watch the entire program on YouTube (another benefit of YouTube Live).
Logan is a freelance event manager and to-do list maker with over six years of event experience. She loves reading and listening to podcasts, which she credits for her interest in writing and telling stories. After five years in China, she relocated to Seattle, WA where she continues to drink too many cups of coffee, explore becoming a bobsled driver, and search for the best local food (in Shanghai, it’s jianbing — a Chinese breakfast pancake — yum). Connect with Logan on Instagram and LinkedIn.