What makes a great virtual experience?
May 6th 2021 | By Stephanie Karaolis
Just over a year ago, the UK went into its first national lockdown and the workplace went predominantly online literally overnight. Some hailed this as the time for online and virtual learning to shine, but in many cases we’ve seen it fall short. As most are (painfully) aware by now, simply taking a face-to-face experience from the classroom or other physical venue and shoehorning it into a webinar or video platform does not create a great virtual learning experience.
Designing and delivering exceptional digital experiences is our bread-and-butter. So whether you’re just starting out with live, digital experiences or you’re tackling a year’s worth of hastily-adapted programmes that need refining, here’s our tried-and-tested advice.
You’re not designing an event - you’re designing an experience, a full customer journey.
Map out every touchpoint from the very first to the very last comms, and every interaction in between. Then design all those touchpoints to feel coherent, aligned and part of the same journey. You want people to instantly recognise that whatever they’re interacting with is part of your experience.
While we’re talking touchpoints, don’t limit yourself to digital. A box of tangible assets to support your virtual experience turns it three-dimensional with a corresponding physical experience, and gives your audience the warm and fuzzy feeling that comes with getting a surprise package in the mail.
That said, the most important touchpoint is of course the event platform itself, so don’t just settle for whatever technology your organisation has used before. The goal is not just something that functionally does the job; it needs to look the part and provide a seamless experience for the audience. A consumer-grade shop window might not come cheap, but will be money well-invested.
Producers of podcasts, TV shows and even adverts know the power of the front man or woman.
Who you have hosting your event is a key decision. In-person experiences include the venue or accommodation, the catering and many other tangible demonstrations of the investment being made in the people attending. None of this exists when it comes to virtual experiences, so it’s even more worth directing a good portion of the budget towards your choice of host. And we don’t simply mean a senior (nor an even-more-senior) stakeholder.
Industry award ceremonies or conferences often feature famous faces. Take a leaf from their book and aim high. For example, stand-up comedians excel at bringing together groups of people and setting the tone, while sports stars bring celebrity and have inspiring and motivational stories to share.
When designing a virtual learning experience, some of the rules are the same as for face-to-face events.
People learn by doing, so simply transferring knowledge from an expert’s head to the audience is never a good experience. It’s a waste of people’s time together, whether online or in the room.
People learn from each other and - hard truth though it may be - most people care more about meeting new people than they do about learning. Online events don’t offer the same social opportunities as a face-to-face residential experience, but you still need to think about how to facilitate networking.
Tackle both of these by designing combinations of small team challenges, whole group discussions and one-to-ones, and a mix of formal and informal sessions. Create breakout rooms designed for the number of people and planned activities in advance.
Remember that when someone wants to know how to do something, they either ask someone next to them or they Google it. Don’t fight these habits - capitalise on them. Protect your virtual event from content dumping by creating a first-class supporting digital tool that provides the how-to.
One final thought: plan enough breaks. Then double it. Seriously: this is as crucial to a good experience as the content itself. Breaks are an opportunity to reflect, and of course in a virtual event there’s the need for a break from the screen too. Design in some kind of break every 40 minutes, and for at least some of those encourage people to leave their desk, move around and even go outside for fresh air.
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