Over the past two years, online events have been essential for organisations to stay connected with their audiences. During the pandemic, many organisations had to quickly pivot to online activities to remain relevant to their communities, audiences, and visitors. In-person events are steadily returning, and yet many organisations are choosing to keep some of their events online thanks to a host of benefits that these events can provide, particularly for heritage organisations.
Many heritage organisations are venue- or site-based, which can present a range of challenges to people who might otherwise engage with your organisation. These challenges can include things like geography, mobility, and access, alongside the financial impacts of travelling to a space if someone isn’t local to your organisation.
Whilst these barriers might be limiting the number of people you can reach and engage with in person, online events can provide a solution to some of these challenges and help you to reach a wider audience. Whether you’ve been delivering online events over recent years or have yet to put on your first event, there is excellent value in understanding how to deliver successful online events to engage your visitors.
The first step to delivering a successful event is to understand who your audience is or could be. It’s important to have who you are designing the event for in mind from the beginning of the process and embed them at the heart of all your planning to ensure that your event is relevant for them and delivering what they need. For example, an event will look quite different if it’s for members of the public who are just getting to know your heritage organisation versus an annual general meeting (AGM) for members or stakeholders. Understanding who you would like to target for your event will help guide you through the planning process and support you to make decisions that will lead to deeper engagement from your visitors or audience.
Once you have your audience in mind, you can begin to start building your event. There are a few different things to consider at this stage:
Will the event be a full day conference? Will it be an hour-long inspirational talk? Will it be a guided tour or interactive Q&A? Think about what your audience would be most interested in engaging with and how long they are likely to engage for. If your event is focused on introducing new communities to your heritage organisation, then a shorter event is more likely to appeal to audiences, while existing audiences are likely to commit more time to attending your event.
Deciding when to put your event on is key to ensuring it’s as accessible as possible for your target audience. Consider what challenges your audience might have in attending an event on a weekday or weekend, during the day or in the evening. For example, if your event is aimed at families with young children, then you might want to consider avoiding events that run later into the evenings or that are too long in length. You should also consider important dates like religious holidays or half-term dates that could affect whether your target audience are likely to be available to attend your event.
How will you host your event online? Over the past few years, lots of different event platforms have appeared that can support with engaging online audiences in different ways. The type of platform you use will depend on what sort of event and format you are delivering. Consider whether you want the event to be broadcast to an audience without two-way communication, or if you want to encourage conversation between attendees. Think about whether your audience would prefer to view something more passively or be an active participant in the event. Once you’ve considered how you would like to engage with your audience during the event, you can then choose a platform that will deliver what you want to achieve best. [For more information on available event platforms and their benefits, see the resource ‘Tools to support your online event’.]
Online events can be effective solutions to some access barriers, but there are still additional things you can do or consider to ensure that your online event is as accessible as possible. Consider if you can offer subtitles or captions for your event, or if you can hire a sign-language interpreter as a base level of support if you have budget available. Always be clear about what access support is available for your event and ask people at the point of booking if they have any access requirements so that you can put things in place to support them in attending.
As a useful starting point to access, it’s always best to ask your audience what they need and how you can best support them, as everyone’s needs are unique. It’s also important to consider safeguarding here if your event will be for vulnerable participants and groups. For more on this topic, see the dedicated resource How to make your online events and activities as safe, accessible and inclusive as possible.
Pricing and budgeting
There are many different ways to build a pricing plan for your event. It’s useful at this stage to consider the purpose of your event, your target audience, and your budget. If your event or organisation is being funded, you may not need to generate income through ticket sales, which gives you more flexibility with your pricing, and will make your event more accessible to more people. If your event needs to cover its own costs or contribute to staff time and operating expenses, then creating a budget and pricing structure will be crucial to understanding the feasibility of your event to ensure your pricing and targets can cover the costs of things like your speaker fees and event platform costs.
When you think about your target audience for the event, consider if there are any barriers to them attending that clever pricing could help to remove. Costs for online events tend to be lower as there are fewer hard costs associated with venues or catering, and the online nature of the event gives you the potential to sell more tickets as there are fewer limiting factors for the event’s capacity.
A key part of setting up your event well is managing sign-ups or ticket sales. You might already have a customer relationship management (CRM) system, box office, or database which can manage the ticketing for you. If you don’t, there are different online tools that can help you with this. Some of these options are covered in the resource ‘Tools to support your online event’. As your online event might reach people that you haven’t previously engaged with, it’s useful to consider what information you’d find useful to collect from them to help you in building a relationship with them in the future. With some online registration tools, such as EventBrite, you can add additional questions or information-gathering prompts into your booking process, so you might want to give your attendees the option to sign up to your newsletter, or opt-in to hearing more about your future events.
Also consider what information it would be useful to collect about them as an audience: where are they from? Where did they find out about your event? Have they visited your heritage site before? Consider how your event might support with growing and engaging with your audiences long-term, and ask questions that will help you to achieve that.
Depending on what kind of event you’re running, you might benefit from having some external speakers as part of your programme. Programming speakers can support your event in a number of ways: bringing in a speaker that will appeal to your target audience could help you reach more people; it can provide variety to help create a more dynamic and engaging event; it can bring expertise to your event that you might not have within your own team – this is particularly useful if you rely heavily on volunteers. It’s useful to consider your target audience again: what are they interested in hearing about? For example, if they are familiar with your heritage organisation already, then a more in-depth talk about the architecture of the building, or a deep-dive into an object from the collection by a curator, could support this group in engaging with an area of your work that they don’t already know about. If your audience are fairly new to your organisation, then a broader introductory topic delivered by someone they would be interested in hearing from, for example a local public figure who is linked to your organisation, might be more appealing.
To keep your event as audience-focused as possible, give specific details about who you’re targeting to attend your event when you brief your speakers, to ensure that the content they deliver is meeting your audience’s needs.
When you have all of your event details ready to promote, you can start marketing your event. Thinking once again about your target audience, consider the best ways you might be able to reach those people. If the target audience for your online event is the same as your regular in-person audience, people who are your members, or people you already have a relationship with, then using your own newsletters, websites, and social media pages are good places to start.
If you’re looking to reach new audiences through your event, then it’s useful to consider how you might reach those people, and if there are other organisations or groups that might help to promote your event to their own contacts. For example, if you’re looking to introduce young people to your heritage organisation, can you contact local schools or parent groups to advertise your event. Are there any local community groups or charities that work with your target audiences who you could partner with? Local groups are a good starting point, as they might already have an awareness of your organisation. However, a great benefit of online events is that location isn’t a barrier, so think big in terms of how to reach potential audiences, and don’t limit your pool of potential attendees to people who are local to you – unless that is your target audience, of course. A key part of marketing is making sure you are also communicating with your audience well, so think about what you are telling your potential audience about the event, and ensure that any marketing copy is accessible and relevant to the people you are trying to reach.
Once you’ve planned and promoted your event, and you have people signing up, it’s time to start thinking about the actual delivery of your event. The majority of small to medium-sized heritage organisations may not have a big team or lots of resources to support with this, but the good news is that you can deliver a successful and professional-looking online event with quite limited resources, as long as you plan it well. Following checklist will help to ensure you have prepared as much as you can for your online event, and make the event delivery a much smoother process for everyone involved:
Think about how the event will run and all of its different components – will there be a host or chairperson, or someone who will introduce your speakers? How many different parts make up the event as a whole? Plan out the timings for the event and check with everyone involved that they are realistic and meeting the expectations of the times you’re advertising for your event. Writing out a detailed running order for the event can often raise questions or things that need to be thought through, so it’s a useful process to go through as well as a helpful document to have on the day to keep to time.
Get familiar with your event platform, even if you’ve used it before. It’s incredibly useful to practice on the online event platform you’re using so there are no surprises on the day and to ensure that everyone involved in the delivery is feeling comfortable and confident using the online platform. This is also a good opportunity to check if everyone’s video and audio is looking and sounding as good as it can be. There are a few useful tips and tricks in the ‘Getting the best of your video and sound’ resource if you’d like some guidance with this.
Have a rehearsal or run-through with your speakers. This is a good opportunity to check that the content they have prepared matches your expectations and that it meets the needs of the audience and your marketing promises.
Think about all of the technical elements that will need to happen during your event and assign someone to manage them. You could have one person throughout the event that manages all of the tech, or this could be split across multiple people. It’s useful to find out who in your staff or volunteer team feels the most confident with this sort of thing so that you can play to people’s strengths. Depending on which event platform you are using, technical elements can include things like: starting the event, letting guests in from a waiting room, sharing presentation slides, images, or videos, managing which speakers are visible during different points in the event, monitoring any chat messages, moving people into breakout rooms, sharing poll questions and answers, recording the event, and ending the event. The key to getting comfortable with these elements is to practice as many times as you can. The more you do it, the easier and more confident you will become, so make sure to build in time to run through these elements a few times with other members of your team before your event so you are feeling ready. This is very manageable to do with a small team and little resource, with just a small amount of time dedicated to it.
On the day of your event, bring together any speakers, hosts, and technical support staff who will be working on the delivery of the event at least 30 minutes before your event starts, or longer depending on how many people you have involved in the delivery. This will give you another opportunity to check that everyone’s video and sound is working well, that everyone has everything they need for the event, and it gives time to run through any final questions that anyone has. It’s also useful to get your speakers and presenters together in your online event space so they have the chance to warm up and feel prepared for the event, instead of coming in at the last minute and potentially feeling rushed or unprepared.
Once your event has taken place, it’s important to gather feedback about your audience’s experience. This will help you to think about your future activity and events in relation to that particular audience, and your online events offer as a whole. At this point, it’s useful to go back to the very start of your event planning process: what did you set out to achieve? Who did you want to reach? What experience did you want to give to your audience? What did you want your audience to think and feel about your heritage organisation?
You can use these prompts as a starting point to build questions for your evaluation form. This will help you to understand if your event delivered what you were aiming for. For online evaluation forms, it’s useful to keep the surveys succinct to ensure that as many people as possible will share their feedback with you, as lengthy surveys can put people off and be a barrier to getting that insight. To achieve this, think about what’s essential for you to know, and what information will genuinely help you to increase engagement with your audiences in the future. If something feels like it would be interesting to know, but you are unlikely to take any action based on the feedback, then try to remove it so you are only asking your essential questions. For more on the topic of online evaluation, see the How to get visitor feedback online to improve what you do resource.
Once you’ve received feedback for your event, put time aside to review it properly. Consider whether the event helped to engage the people you were hoping it would, and whether they had a positive experience. You can use this insight to build on your plans for future online events to support with engaging your audiences and reaching new ones.
In the new digital landscape following the pandemic, online events can play a valuable part in your audience engagement strategy alongside in-person events, so it’s useful to consider what your goals are for online vs in-person and how they can work to support one another.
You can also consider what elements of online learning you can use to support your in-person experiences and events. From expanding audiences, increasing accessibility and engaging with new communities, there are many ways in which you and your heritage organisation can blend your in-person engagement with digital offers. To think more about this blended approach, you can watch the Digital Heritage Lab recording of ‘Using digital to support your in-person learning offer after reopening’.
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Please attribute as: "How to run excellent online events to engage my visitors (2022) by Danielle Patrick supported by The Heritage Fund, licensed under CC BY 4.0