6 Pitfalls of Virtual Meetings

Virtual meetings are here to stay — here’s how to sidestep the major mistakes.

By Hanna Aronovich, CAE

Virtual meetings

When COVID-19 hit, many associations quickly pivoted from in-person meetings and events to a virtual format — and some had great success.

However, virtual meetings come with their own challenges. Being mindful of the potential pitfalls — and successfully navigating around them — is essential for associations to conduct great meetings in the future.

Virtual meetings offer numerous benefits beyond a pandemic, including reduced expenses and greater flexibility.

The Virtual Value

Yes, it’s great that virtual meetings allow associations to continue to conduct meetings in a COVID-19 world. But virtual meetings offer numerous benefits beyond a pandemic, including reduced expenses and greater flexibility.

And, overall, attendees have been satisfied with virtual meetings. A June 2020 survey from International Data Corporation found that about half of attendees at virtual events felt the experience met their expectations, while nearly a third reported a better experience than expected. Similarly, a September 2020 survey from Northstar Meetings Group showed that attendees ranked their experience at a virtual meeting a 6.7 out of 10.

From the exhibitor point of view, there were more concerns about the value of a virtual meeting and the ability to successfully capture leads and demonstrate products in an online environment, according to a Tradeshow Logic report. As a result, expected exhibitor attendance at virtual meetings was underwhelming — with nearly 60% of respondents reporting they were planning to participate in only two or fewer virtual conferences or tradeshows in the next 12 months.

Sponsors, on the other hand, are interested in virtual events but may need some convincing. A May 2020 survey from AIM Group International showed that 78% of sponsors would be interested in sponsoring fully virtual events, although 56% would like to invest less, 34% would invest the same amount, and 10% would be willing to invest more if greater visibility were guaranteed.

Given that virtual meetings are likely to be a staple of associations’ offerings for at least several more months, it’s essential to have the right tools and approaches to satisfy attendees, exhibitors and sponsors.

Overcoming Stumbling Blocks

Victor Bohnert, CEO of Innovatis Group, an association management company, says virtual meetings can be a boon for associations — if they take the right approach.

Bohnert says Innovatis Group encouraged their association clients to become early adopters and transition to virtual events in February 2020, at the beginning of the pandemic. “We counseled our clients to move to virtual events before most of the stay-at-home orders were announced,” he says. “That worked to our advantage because being among the first opened new doors for our association clients, and we saw the opportunities grow.”

Organizations missed out if they took a wait-and-see approach or stalled because they didn’t have the perfect virtual event strategy, Bohnert says. “Offering a definitive solution is always better than holding back.”

Virtual events, however, require a different strategy and approach than in-person events, he says. “Associations need to think of virtual events as their own type of experience.”

Bohnert stresses that associations that simply try to transition an in-person meeting or event to a virtual platform, and fail to look at the entire experience, are likely to encounter some missteps. But that doesn’t have to be the case. “Virtual events can be enormously successful when the proper planning and strategies are implemented,” Bohnert says.

Virtual events require a different strategy and approach than in-person events.

Below are six common problems with virtual events — and the solutions to fix them.

Problem 1: Technical Troubles

Everyone who has attended a virtual meeting or event has likely encountered some technical difficulties, whether it be a poor internet connection, sound issues or difficulty navigating the platform.

Solution: Make Help Easy to Find

Technical difficulties are to be expected during an online event. But the key is to make help easily accessible. “For every event we plan for our association clients, we make sure to offer a very easy-to-find help desk,” Bohnert explains. “We have a live team that is ready to assist with any questions.”

Innovatis Group also ensures there is a backup plan if something should happen during the event. “We have rollover strategies in place, so that if one of the technologies did go down, we could roll into a new environment and protect the event and the experience,” Bohnert says.

Problem 2: Poor User Experience

Virtual meeting platforms that are difficult to navigate or require special downloads or applications are destined to frustrate attendees and other participants.

Solution: Find the Right Platform

Select a platform that excels at providing a great user experience. Bohnert notes there are many virtual meeting platforms on the market, which can make it more challenging to select the right one. But meeting planners need to be discerning. The platform should provide a good user experience for all — from the attendees to the speakers to the exhibitors. He also cautions against implementing gimmicks or trends just for the sake of it, especially if it creates a challenging user experience.

“The platform needs to cover the basics – for example, registration, logging into the online environment — easily and intuitively,” Bohnert says. “It should also not require downloading software or apps. There’s nothing more frustrating than joining a virtual meeting and realizing you need to download an updated version. It has to be web-based.”

Problem 3: Impersonal Experiences

One main reason association professionals attend events is for the in-person experience and networking opportunities. Virtual meetings run the risk of missing out on that human connection and not satisfying attendees’ desire to connect.

Solution: Use Data to Get Personal

Gather information about your attendees so that you can provide them with the experience they want. “As part of the planning process, associations need to consider what type of experience attendees want — from the moment they join the event until the time they leave,” Bohnert says.

One main reason association professionals attend events is for the in-person experience and networking opportunities. Virtual meetings run the risk of missing out on that human connection and not satisfying attendees’ desire to connect.

Innovatis Group employs a matchmaking strategy to deliver a more personal touch and a richer experience. “We want to take the randomness out of meetings and events,” Bohnert says. “We felt it was important to create the environment to foster deliberate interactions between attendees and exhibitors.”

There are several matchmaking tools available. Associations can explore this technology for their virtual meetings to deliver a more personalized experience and greater value.

Problem 4: Environmental Distractions

At an in-person meeting, attendees are a captive audience. They have spent time and money to travel to the event and have set aside several days for the experience. With a virtual meeting, attendees are typically working from their home or office and may be multitasking throughout the event. This can reduce attendance and participation.

Solution: Put Engagement First

Attendee engagement should be at the center of a virtual event strategy, Bohnert says. “Our clients have seen increases in attendance, satisfaction and revenue for virtual events,” he says. “And that’s because we’re not just looking at the size of our audience — we’re looking at engagement levels. Associations need to ask how members are engaging with the association and how attendees are engaging during the event.”

One way to increase attendee engagement is to ensure that the virtual environment is as compelling as the in-person environment. For one association, Innovatis Group created a virtual replica of the hotel where the in-person meeting was supposed to be held. “The in-person meeting was scheduled to be at a very distinctive property,” Bohnert explains. “When we transitioned that meeting to a virtual event, recreating the property in the virtual environment went a long way to creating a connection with attendees and providing a distinctive experience.”

Paying attention to these types of details is critical, Bohnert says. “When someone has a lackluster in-person experience at an event, it’s harder for them to leave,” he notes. “But when the virtual experience is negative, it’s really easy to leave.”

Attendees who don’t have a good first experience with the virtual event are more likely to drop out. Focus on making a good first impression with attendees — and then be sure to continue to deliver on that great experience throughout the meeting.

Problem 5: Unimpressed Exhibitors 

With associations focusing heavily on the attendee experience, exhibitors might feel overlooked or be unimpressed with their experience in the virtual exhibit hall.

Solution: Create Exhibitor Tools and Guides

In addition to communicating with attendees about what to expect during the virtual event, associations should take equal care with their exhibitor communications. Innovatis Group develops documents covering best practices for exhibitors and other partners, so they are prepared with what they need to make their virtual booth a success. “We make sure our exhibitor partners are set up and comfortable well before attendees begin to visit the exhibit hall,” Bohnert says.

“We also work with our exhibitor partners to ensure they have built out their booth space and posted compelling content, which is critical for driving booth traffic and meaningful interactions,” he says. “One of the associations we worked with had hundreds of attendees at their virtual event, which resulted in several thousand document downloads. This would not have happened if we did not have conversations with our exhibitors upfront.”

Problem 6: Skeptical Sponsors

Many associations have fine-tuned their sponsorship packages for in-person events. But with virtual events, many physical touchpoints are no longer an option.

Solution: Redefine Sponsorship Packages

“Sponsorship packages need to change and how associations speak with partners about sponsorship opportunities needs to change,” Bohnert says. “There aren’t lanyards or on-site giveaways anymore — but on the flip side, virtual events can create a more meaningful environment.”

For example, with in-person events, attendee tracking can be more challenging. In a virtual environment, associations can provide sponsors with more insight into attendee behavior and interests.

“Sponsorship packages need to change and how associations speak with partners about sponsorship opportunities needs to change. There aren’t lanyards or on-site giveaways anymore — but on the flip side, virtual events can create a more meaningful environment.” —Victor Bohnert, CEO of Innovatis Group

“The virtual meeting makes the interaction between the attendee and the sponsor active, not passive,” Bohnert explains. “Sponsors are not just handing out giveaways and hoping it works. Clicks and connections can be tracked and turned into insights, creating more value for partners.”

Associations should reevaluate the offers they are presenting to sponsors and look for opportunities to deliver attendee insights and value — and adjust sponsorship packages to align with these new realities.

Planning for 2021 and Beyond

Looking to the future, Bohnert says associations should plan for virtual events to remain a staple of their meeting strategy. “Anyone who is not planning for virtual events in the future is making a mistake,” he stresses. “Starting in the second half of 2021, we think smaller, regional events may resume meeting in-person, but the larger events will take longer to come back.”

Even once in-person meetings can fully resume without worry, virtual events aren’t likely to disappear. “Many attendees have gotten used to the convenience and benefits of virtual meetings,” Bohnert says. “Associations should plan to continue to offer virtual meetings — not to replace the in-person meeting, but to extend or augment the meeting for those who can’t attend in person.” 

Read “A Quick Prep School for Digital Speakers” for more virtual event speaker prep tips.

About the Author

Hanna Aronovich, CAE, is the chief marketing and communications officer for the Dental Assisting National Board.

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