WORDS BY KEVIN LARSTONE & ERIN SACCOMANO
ILLUSTRATION BY WALKER BALLANTYNE-MAUND
For now, the days of gathering offsite for a multi-day series of meetings are a thing of the past. We’ve lost our sense of togetherness in the physical space, and we’re left to bridge that connection through virtual means. Doing this well is critical for an organization’s performance, culture, and most importantly, its people.
Recall the energy we give and gain while in attendance at a live event. There’s a shift in expectation as the sights, sounds, and smells sweep us away from the daily demands of our jobs. We transport ourselves to be in the moment, to participate in the sharing of a collective experience. We seek to open our minds and to fill our hearts. There’s a feeling of connection – to colleagues, leaders, and the greater purpose of the organization. There’s excitement, engagement, and emotions that sear themselves into our spirit. When done well, live events can be the jumping-off point to a new wave of energy that bands the organization together to achieve the priorities of the business.
Today, we’re left without access to the proven communication channel of in-person events. In its place, we have a feeling of exhaustion that somehow surpasses what many of us already felt, staring at our monitors in the office. Every interaction is mediated by a screen. It’s all digital. The ability to differentiate between types of experience is flattened, and our emotional engagement along with it.
Without the ability to connect an organization’s people together in one place, cultural cohesion could begin to breakdown. Culture solidifies when employees share values, beliefs, purpose, and – most importantly – experiences.
Creating a virtual replacement for the live event – one that creates a compelling emotional connection – is vital. Consider that 97% of C-suite executives surveyed on the value of face-to-face events reported that live meetings produce ROI, with 86% indicating direct improvements to their bottom-line (MBM March 2018). While the need is clear, the solution isn’t as simple as transposing a live face-to-face event with one mediated by conferencing software, computer hardware and internet connectivity.
Imagine replacing a three- or four-day business conference with hundreds or even thousands of participants in plenary sessions, keynotes, breakouts, networking activities, and celebrations with a virtual event of the same length. There’s a well-founded fear that the net result is likely to be a high degree of frustration, distraction, and digital burnout on the part of participants.
The new challenge is to design a virtual experience that fills a dissociated “personal bubble” with meaningful interaction and messaging to encourage what psychologists call “emotional contagion.” This well observed and researched social communication phenomenon is the mirroring of similar feelings and behaviours across groups of people in an audience. Fostering connection through shared emotion helps encourage active participation in a live event and it improves the audience’s retention of the key learnings and messages.
Organizations now need to facilitate connection between a fragmented collection of individuals yearning for a shared experience, yet they’re restricted to promoting that sense of connection through screens and servers. While the technological infrastructure is highly efficient at exchanging packets of information, it’s not the best at conveying emotion.
It isn’t starting a bonfire; it’s nurturing many smaller flames. But the effect is the same: an engaged audience that acts on what its heard.
However, there is an opportunity here: to reinvent the way we engage with and deliver an emotional experience to our audiences in a virtual setting. For leaders and internal communicators, the most impactful thing we can do is encourage genuine emotional connections between all employees.
The power of in-person meetings is tied to their ability to create these peak emotional experiences for attendees – moments that vividly imprint themselves in memory. Virtual meetings can’t replicate that “single serving” dose of energy, but they can still create emotional contagion if they’re delivered as one part of a larger campaign. Create more touchpoints and give virtual attendees more opportunities to discuss and think about the events they attend. This will allow energy and emotion to build over time, solidifying memories and improving retention. It isn’t starting a bonfire; it’s nurturing many smaller flames. But the effect is the same: an engaged audience that acts on what its heard.
Place: Co-Located to Remote
Previously, we would bring our audience to a destination. Now the dynamic has reversed, and we must bring the destination to the audience.
The physical arena of place-based events has been supplanted by a virtual proxy that lacks dimension. All you need is a computer, webcam, keyboard, mouse, and the connective tissue of one of the many conferencing platforms that mediate remote work. That’s our new location.
Unsurprisingly though, many of the virtual event experiences being pitched attempt to visually recreate the physical likeness of place-based meetings. This real world mimicry is known as ‘skeuomorphism’, a term most often used in graphical user interface (GUI) design. Digital objects are made to mimic their real-world counterparts in how they appear and how the user can interact with them.
Landing pages are made to look like vast conference halls with rudimentary one-click navigation to traditional touchpoints like registration, exhibits, and networking areas. Meeting sessions feature images of audiences seated in the lower part of the frame and the presentation area where the webcast appears might look like a stage. There are even developments in creating personalized avatars for attendees to navigate these virtual environments in 3D.
While an interface design using a representational approach is familiar on the surface, the positive emotional reaction it creates in the user fades quickly. Worse, these efforts often fail on both sides: they don’t create a convincing feeling of immersion and they needlessly complicate the user experience.
Sacrificing pixels that could be used for interaction for image-based content leaves meaningful engagement value on the table. This doesn’t mean that a reproduction of a physical environment is irrelevant, but there’s little emotional value in trying to replicate an experience our audiences cannot have.
While virtual integration and digital tools have been fundamental parts of live event design for years, they supported rather than challenged the primacy of face-to-face interaction. As internal communicators, we now need to fully commit to the virtual paradigm by leading with a digital-first approach.
Exceptional, digital-first interface design is what audiences have been trained to expect from consumer experiences. They also allow for enhanced accessibility in a way that mimicry cannot. As we work to improve inclusivity and accessibility, we need to prioritize things like font size, contrast, transcripted content, and support for screen readers.
Virtual events can be highly effective in addressing productivity and member-support functions, but it requires more purposeful design to foster feelings of inclusiveness and well-being among audience members. Participant activities that encourage exploration through learning, dialogue, collaboration, recognition, and networking can help close that gap.
Research published in 2010 by the University of Illinois showed that having active control over learning situations helped with knowledge retention and the formation of long-term memories. To maximize these effects, we must focus on active learning, particularly the ability for participants to make meaningful choices.
This thinking needs to be considered when designing a virtual event. Ensure the agenda contains plenty of interactive moments and learning opportunities. While this doesn’t mean getting the audience out of their seats to go exploring (although nothing’s stopping you from mounting a virtual geo-caching scavenger hunt), it does mean that participants need to be able to chat, contribute, and collaborate in real time, as much as possible.
Pace: Time and Attention is Limited
A one-way, never ending video call or webinar-style presentation will drain the life out of any human soul. While attendance can be mandatory, the additional focus required to survive a poorly executed show means that emotional resources are lost in simply trying to pay attention.
As a rule, the length of each virtual conference day should be shorter than a typical place-based event day, coming in at a maximum of five to six hours. Use this “less is more” approach when allotting time for presentations, panels, plenaries, and breakout sessions.
Offset passive modules by finding the right balance to actively engage an audience through a sophisticated mix of digital, live, and video tactics. This will encourage individual participation and support a collective experience. Balance the experience with interactive content like polls, surveys, real-time emoji feeds, games, or quizzes that are timed to appear at key moments during the event.
Face: The New Axis for Relationships
The whole concept of the audience has evolved from ‘the many’ into ‘a few’, and now more often than not, ‘just one’. These new audiences are together, but apart. Individuals are contained in their unique spaces, or at best, gathered together in decentralized hubs of various sizes.
Whether presenters are aware of it or not, virtual meetings connect them to their audiences in a much more intimate way. While they’re no longer in the same location, the realities of webcams and meeting software still put them “face-to-face”. The conduit to that connection is now a digital screen, usually set up in the audience member’s home. It doesn’t get much more personal than that.
For leaders and presenters, this shifts their priority from owning the stage to owning the frame. This can be challenging for presenters who may be unable to see the faces of the group staring back at them. But it does mean keeping this top of mind and finding genuine ways to connect with employees on a personal level. Think of it less like a lecture and more as a one-on-one conversation. Employees need to hear and see themselves reflected in the messages that are being delivered. Anything that gets in the way of that, from irrelevant content, a flat delivery, or a poorly lit subject with tinny audio, is a barrier that must be resolved in the interest of the participant experience.
Regardless of the audience composition, the goal is the same: create an event that produces a positive physical reaction and encourages emotional involvement. To nourish this in virtual is to design a deeply personal, shared experience across employee groups and presenters. One that allows employees to feel like the experience they’re having is connected to the one that other employees are having, even if they’re physically apart.
The Way Forward is Together
Despite the current physical distancing constraints that limit us from being together, we need each other. Your employees need to feel connected to their team and their organization, and a carefully curated virtual event can do just that.
Creating a virtual event requires an integrated approach to properly bring the entire experience together. While many of the tools we traditionally draw from to build unity with a live, in-person audience are non-transferable, our understanding of employee audiences and live event experiences are foundational as we continue to launch into the virtual event space.
Today, more than ever, we need to be purposeful and conscious about the kind of world we are living and working in. So, let’s work together to put some heart into the virtual experiences we’re creating for employees.