Here’s How You Run a Fun & Engaging Virtual Event

With a little help from my friends, I’ve been running a lot of virtual events for our Graduate Student Association lately. *sigh* COVID times.

But before there was COVID, we were still putting on virtual events. Why?

An online community can have many benefits to support offline communities IRL. It can help organize people to achieve amazing things. It can generate a sense of fun and camaraderie. (See: Slackmojis. Give me more custom Slackmojis, please.) It serves as a high speed information portal, with access to all of the minds observing and contributing to the community knowledge base. Planning and tracking things can be much more convenient. Events can occur asynchronously. There are endless possibilities. It just takes a bit of imagination and social intuition.

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I put together this set of recommendations for online events, because I think they can help leaders to get organized during these scrambly times and ensure the success of their efforts. Specifically, I intend this to be a resource for students participating in Student Governance Associations, although I suspect it could be useful more broadly. I also hope that when you get organized, the materials you generate can be re-usable at future in-person events in future years, too! These recommendations are born out of my personal experiences leading events, as well as some of my research experiences while studying online communities (esp. running focus groups). I hope you find them useful.

  1. People want to feel like someone is there for them. Setting the right tone is important. There are times when things need to be strictly business. But most of the time, online events should be opportunities to exchange support and/or fun–best when both can be managed simultaneously. This is the cornerstone of good friendships. It is achievable online.
  2. Organization matters. It’s often difficult for people to interact organically…sometimes even when they like the same types of things and are sitting in the same room. That can be even harder online. When people don’t know each other well, but are open to making new friends, you can achieve a lot by scaffolding shared experiences, both online and offline. Provide some structure for socializing by thinking creatively about activities that naturally generate rich interactions and conversations. It does take more time upfront to be organized, but the pay-offs are well worth it. See the example I included at the end of this list for more detail!
  3. Start by creating a well-labeled folder in an online shared location, such as a Shared Google Drive or Dropbox. Make sure the permissions are correct so that people who need to can access it. Keep all your materials in that folder and encourage everyone to collaborate on things in that one location, rather than your individual desktops or email inboxes. It will seriously help, and make materials more accessible for re-use in the future. (This recommendation is in line with best practices for carrying out collaborative research, as well.)
  4. Use forms, spreadsheets, and documents to keep track of important information. Be thoughtful and concise when you create this stuff–nobody has forever to read extremely long stuff, but it’s also important to have key event information readily available to either (or both) event planners and event attendees. I’ve observed people who stick to just email, and it feels a lot messier and harder to find things and make stuff happen.
  5. Design your event to have specific outputs that are useful or fun for people. People aren’t going to show up for something unless they have a reasonable expectation that there will be some type of value in it for them–either social or professional. Some people derive a lot of enjoyment just from talking, while other people find that chatting without some structure is an anxious and nerve-wracking experience. If there is a clear goal, and people are energized to work towards it, you can really break the ice without quite as much anxiety. Here are some ideas for collaborative activities which may be fun or useful:
    • Q&A’s or Brainstorms: Use well-formed questions to instruct and prompt participants to type in their responses, then give everyone a chance to discuss what they wrote.
    • Write things together collaboratively! (A community blog post, poetry that’s so-bad-it’s-good, a work of short fiction, a list of awesome local resources related to professional or hobby interests. Get creative with it!)
    • Inside joke memes
    • Re-mixes of other stuff from online
    • Video compilations or photoshop edit-offs to create funny images
    • Really dumb or super epic custom emojis
    • Silly games and contests
    • Twitter shenanigans
    • In general, things that make people smile
  6. Activities with specific outputs should be designed to foster social and professional connections. If you can help people find each other who share professional or hobby interests, this can easily lead to things like research collaborations, intramural sports teams, hobby groups that casually enjoy the same things online or offline, etc.
  7. For synchronous events (e.g. mediated over video platforms), provide dates as far in advance as you can, send out reminders, and think about what would make you want to attend when you share the news about your event. Have fun with it and try to be yourself–whether that’s snarky, silly, ironic, sarcastic, or whatever else. People respond to genuine invites from genuine people.
  8. Asynchronous events can be really fun, too! You don’t get the benefit of face-to-face interaction, but it’s really easy for people to participate in small ways (i.e. Legitimate Peripheral Participation) and from any timezone. Just leaving a comment or an emoji on a thread on your organization’s Slack channel is sometimes enough to feel connected to people, without almost any effort or time investment. Then people feel more comfortable and empowered to get involved in bigger ways next time.
  9. Celebrate every participant. You might get 2 attendees, you might get 50. It’s not about quantity. It’s about learning and developing your leadership skills every step of the way. You’ll learn something every time you run an event. No matter how many people come, every single attendee always has the opportunity to have a meaningful interaction. Don’t ever undercut the value of that–especially right now.
  10. Collect feedback occasionallyIf you try to get feedback every time, you’ll exhaust people. But if you never get feedback, you’ll never know what’s going well. Pick your most important or pivotal events, and try to learn how people experienced them!

Here’s an example. We organized a Research Meet-n-Greet by first using Google Forms to collect research interests of both experienced and incoming graduate students. We exported the results to a spreadsheet and formed teams with matching interests, the best we could. Here’s a master copy of instructions for the event (feel free to re-use if you’d like!) 14 groups met up on Slack and used a Zoom call to go through the instructions together. Now, we have 14 google docs loaded with information that can be useful for the students who attended, as well as CSGSA leadership! A win-win for everyone. Plus, next year, we can hopefully have events in person again. Great! Print out the documents and have people use them while gathered together–same output, but enhanced by the benefits of being in person. Even more winning!

I’ll add to this list as I think of new things, so please consider this an evolving resource. In any case, I hope it has helped to provide a bit of insight as you think about your event planning this year, and into the future. Best of luck with everything, and may you bring forth many smiles upon many faces, despite it all! 

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[Photo credit: https://unsplash.com/photos/IMUwe-p1yqs]

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