Keep your audience top of mind. With virtual events your attendees are not in the same physical space so you lose control of the external environment, making it increasingly important to captivate your audience with your programming and hold on to their attention through engagement. You want to make sure you are considering their needs and the user experience when choosing a platform, developing the programming, and throughout the execution phase of the event to ensure they will have a positive experience.
As a part of our series about “5 Things You Need To Know To Successfully Run a Live Virtual Event”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Nicole Robichaud.
As an Account Executive at Demonstrate PR, Nicole is a passionate PR and marketing professional who believes in the power of storytelling and the importance of relationships. With a background in communications and creative production, she specializes in public relations, event production, influencer relations and integrated communications. Inspired by innovation, culture and connection, Nicole has worked with brands in the lifestyle, entertainment, technology, and consumer products industries to create impact-driven campaigns, generate brand awareness, establish and foster meaningful relationships with media, partners and consumers, and create buzz-worthy experiences. Throughout her career in public relations, Nicole has enjoyed developing thoughtful strategic earned media plans, ideating and executing brand launches and activations, and managing influencer and ambassador partnership programs with both established global brands and innovative startups including Crystal Geyser Roxane, f’real, Hirsch Whiskey, Luxardo, myDNA, SPIN, StageIt, Swisse Wellness, The VOID and VIVANT amongst others.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to learn a bit more about you. Can you tell us a bit about your “childhood backstory”? Can you tell us the story of what led you to this particular career path?
I’m originally from Los Angeles and have always been fascinated with pop culture, live events and entertainment from music and art to movies and books. Growing up, my father worked in PR and Marketing and while I honestly had no clue what he did for a living back then, he inspired my love for storytelling and taught me the value of relationships with others, whether they are professional or personal. It was these principles along with my early exposure to the industry that led me to public relations without even knowing it.
I attended the University of San Francisco where I majored in media studies with an emphasis on creative production and journalism and minored in fine art. During my time there, I completed a variety of courses in video and audio production and also focused my studies on culture, analyzing and critiquing cultural institutions, texts, and forms of media from film to writing. I worked as a freelance production assistant for live events and music video shoots fully intending to graduate and become a producer or creative, but that all changed when I got a PR internship. As a PR intern at Demonstrate, I instantly fell in love with public relations and the way it merged all of my interests from media to events and would grant many opportunities over time given the ever-evolving nature of the industry. Even though I never would have predicted a career in PR, to this day I still remain at Demonstrate and feel the same excitement for PR and the possibilities it presents as I did when I first started.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
Right as I was starting my career in public relations and marketing, I freelanced as a production assistant on a number of music video shoots. Going into each job I had little to no prior experience being on set or an idea on what I’d be tasked with. Looking back, there are so many awkward moments and funny stories from these projects. For example, there was a moment on an important music video shoot that perfectly summarizes my time as a PA figuring it out as I went. It was my first shoot ever and it just so happened to be this huge multi-day, multi-location production and I was put in charge of the celebrity riders for two of the A-list rappers. I spent a ton of time driving all over Los Angeles handling all the requests getting everything just right. The next day I came to find out that the quality of some of the products were not the right quality and a few of the detailed requests made were actually the exact opposite of what was written, creating quite the uproar with the talent teams. It might seem so silly, but after doing all I could at the time to get every detail right I realized that it’s not enough to just double-check the list of things to do. Instead, it’s important to cross off the list and then go further to anticipate needs that may arise and prepare for those as well. Now when dealing with talent, huge productions, events and even just daily communications with clients, media and my team, I always make sure to not just deliver what’s asked of me but pause and think about the perspectives of others and anticipate any needs or issues that may come up and prepare for those as well.
Is there a particular book, podcast, or film that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?
I am a big fan of the Glossy Podcast and Glossy Beauty Podcast, which are hosted by Glossy editors and feature in-depth conversations with brand founders and executives disrupting and driving change within the beauty, fashion and wellness space. As a long-time listener, I’ve found the conversations where experience professional discuss their innovative approaches, proven strategies, and key learnings as they navigate cultural changes, innovating with technology and redefining the industry to be very thought-provoking.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
Andy Warhol once said, “don’t just think about making art, just get it done. Let everyone else decide if it’s good or bad, whether they love it or hate it. While they are deciding, make even more art.” Although he was speaking directly about art and creativity, I believe his attitude can be applied to anything, especially when it comes to marketing, communications and events. While I feel it’s important to be thoughtful and know your audience, sometimes it is easy to overthink and get caught up in how your actions or projects will be received so it’s important to maintain a “get it done” attitude and worry about simply putting your best foot forward.
Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. For the benefit of our readers, can you tell us a bit about your experience organizing events in general?
Early on I had the opportunity to work as a production assistant on the red carpet and in the media center for the Grammy’s and Emmy Award shows, which are really what spurred my love for live production with all the grandeur and excitement that they each create. At Demonstrate, I have worked on a variety of activations, influencer and media events, and product launches. These events have included press previews, workout classes and rooftop happy hours, luncheons with panels, wellness activations at SXSW and pop-ups in the World Trade Center in NYC.
Can you tell us a bit about your experience organizing live virtual events? Can you share any interesting stories about them?
While having coordinated numerous Instagram and Facebook Live Q&As in the past, like many, I really never organized a full scale live virtual event until COVID-19 shut down in-person gatherings.
At the time of the shut down in March, a variety of clients that I was working with were set to have activations to unveil new products at SXSW and Expo West, in addition to a pop-up in New York and more. Most of the events were canceled entirely, so my team and I coordinated editor previews on Zoom/WebEx and explored webinar opportunities with media. One client, however, opted to move forward with a full-scale virtual event to engage their Gen-Z audience so we were tasked with coming up with the event plan. At first, I had no clue how we were going to do it, however, after evaluating platform options we realized that we needed to keep it simple and meet the brands’ audience where they were, which was TikTok. After postponing the event twice due to current events polarizing the country, we ended up executing an Instagram livestream event and a TikTok after party, all of which we promoted with a TikTok challenge and an AR experience.
While producing that event it was challenging initially to figure out how to make something engaging enough digitally to catch the attention of digitally native Gen-Z’s who have higher expectations for content and experiences in a virtual format. But when we thought about it most TikTok’s are not over produced as it’s a platform where anything goes. So, what ended up being so successful about our event was that we were able to employ tactics Gen-Z creators themselves were using on TikTok and apply them to our programming which resonated. We created a tone that was fun, playful and easygoing, used a green screen to have the entire event take place within the AR experience created for the campaign, and even programmed influencer drop-in video calls and performances. Day-of everything went fantastic until our TikTok live stream had about 30 minutes’ worth of on and off technical difficulties, so we ended up restarting the stream but kept the programming running which was unfortunate, but surprisingly enough the viewers came back each time meaning we were doing something right!
In your opinion, what is an example of a company that has done a fantastic job creating live virtual events? What specifically impresses you? What can one do to replicate that?
I think Chipotle is one brand that has done a great job of creating and executing successful live virtual events, from virtual proms to zoom parties, they’ve gotten really creative about hosting interactive and timely events that not only resonate with their audience but also feel exciting and different from many of the day-to-day brand events you see. What I believe they really excel at is finding the perfect balance of interactivity, cultural appeal, playfulness and intrigue. They’ve achieved this balance by tying in seasonal themes and cultural moments, tapping celebrities to participate and host, providing giveaway incentives, adding interactive games into programming and offline extensions for attendees to participate in, all of which are tactics that are simple to employ as add on elements to any event, regardless of the format.
Additionally, I’ve found myself continuously impressed with the ways companies and individuals have recently become extremely innovative when it comes to creating interesting new formats for events and have tapped into gaming and VR platforms to create entertaining, out-of-the-box offerings. For example, when Travis Scott and Epic Games teamed up to host a virtual concert in Fortnight for the debut of Scott’s new music, it was wildly successful not only because of Scott’s star power but the one-of-a-kind of experience that was created. The event was a fully immersive experience that players were able to actively participate in and enjoy as they would have if they were seeing Scott in concert in real life. It was also successfully able to create a distinct environment and experience like an in real life event by utilizing special effects within the virtual world. This made the event take on a format that was a mixture of an event, art installation, game and live video. While it’s not the easiest to replicate an event like this, I find the creativity behind it inspiring to keep event professionals thinking outside the box when it comes to the possibilities when planning virtual live events.
What are the common mistakes you have seen people make when they try to run a live virtual event? What can be done to avoid those errors?
Many virtual events I see are either too scripted and structured or lack planning overall. It’s hard to create engaging memorable virtual events through computer screens since so much of the DNA of live events is intertwined with shared experiences, a common environment and in-person connections.
Some webinars I’ve seen get too into the programming and leave no space for engagement with the audience or room for inevitable technical difficulties. The pace then ends up being off and users tend to drop off consistently when speakers are too much time, leading to long tangents or speakers talking directly at the audience as opposed to conversing with them. To solve this, it’s important to keep speaking segments short (under 5–10 minutes is a good general rule of thumb) and script out webinars with pauses for engagement or audience questions to keep everyone tuned in. Other Q&A style livestreams I’ve seen are not planned out and rely too heavily on audience participation. During a Q&A while you want your audience to be engaged asking questions, you have to have a backup plan in case you don’t receive any questions at all, questions you don’t want to answer, or those that come in too slow. Be prepared to ad-lib, prompt comments in the chats and guide users to asking the questions you want to answer through the topics you discuss, but most importantly don’t let awkward pauses stop you. That said, overall one of the biggest mistakes I see is expecting high attendance but not promoting the event heavily enough. Events are hard to commit to when you don’t have to show up somewhere, things come up and technical difficulties happen that make virtual event attendance difficult to gauge and anticipate. With IRL events it’s typically safe to assume only 50% of your RSVPs will show up, for virtual events I’d say that number drops to 25%. So, start promoting virtual events early and send out personal invites, reminders and if you can send some kind of physical kit or gift to go along with the event right before it’s set to happen your attendees are going to be more likely to show up.
Which virtual platform have you found to be most effective to be able to bring everyone together virtually?
All of them! It completely depends on your audience and event format. I strongly believe that just like you’d choose a venue for an IRL event you need to be selective and thoughtful when deciding which virtual platform is going to be best suited for your needs and will effectively be able to bring your audience together. If you think about it when selecting venues pre-pandemic, event professionals would think about every minute detail from the location to the services offered, questioning — Does this venue create the right atmosphere? Is the layout suitable for my event flow? How easy will it be for my attendees to get to the venue? etc… At the start of the pandemic when everyone shifted to virtual events, we lost some of that attention to detail as we all had to figure out how to make virtual work overnight. Now that we’re over nine months in and virtual events are here to stay it’s important to start asking the right questions again and finding platforms that work for the unique needs of our events.
If you have an engaged audience on social and are looking to create an event to bring your followers together, host it on Instagram Live, TikTok Live, Facebook Live, etc. They are the lowest barrier to entry for your audience who is already engaging with you on the platform and it’s familiar for them to use. If you’re looking for something more intimate and interactive, where your audience can video call in, converse amongst themselves or engage with the content you’ve prepared, choose a platform developed specifically for meet and greets and conferences like Fundo or OnZoom, which both have ticketed options.
Are there any essential tools or software that you think an event organizer needs to know about?
Aside from learning the ins and outs of the various virtual platforms available, it is extremely useful to get familiar with some of the back end technologies available to increase the production value of your event. If you are doing a livestream and want to customize graphics, toggle between pre-recorded and live content or stream on multiple platforms at once you’ll want to use streaming software like OBS Studio, Wirecast or Streamlabs, which are all production tools. Note, the software can be quite technical and a background in video production is helpful when learning to use them, so if you aren’t a tech pro but still want to up your production value I recommend investing in lighting, mics, and props to create a set like atmosphere for your host.
Ok. Thank you for all that. Here is the main question of our discussion. An in-person event can have a certain electric energy. How do you create an engaging and memorable event when everyone is separated and in their own homes? What are the “Five Things You Need To Know To Successfully Run a Live Virtual Event” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)
- Keep your audience top of mind. With virtual events your attendees are not in the same physical space so you lose control of the external environment, making it increasingly important to captivate your audience with your programming and hold on to their attention through engagement. You want to make sure you are considering their needs and the user experience when choosing a platform, developing the programming, and throughout the execution phase of the event to ensure they will have a positive experience.
- Give your event personality and set the right tone. A big part of why in-person events have such electric energy is because of the atmosphere and tone produced by event planners and the liveliness created by a room full of personalities joining together for a common purpose. When developing virtual programming it is essential to inject personality into the event and set the tone from the start, making sure it’s identified from the beginning and stays consistent throughout planning and execution. Since you can’t rely on attendees being in a common space you want to make sure to use every tool possible to create a unified experience and evoke feelings from your audience that they’ll remember following the event.
- Prioritize engagement. Many virtual events struggle to manage and encourage conversation and connection. Early celebrity Instagram Live’s are the perfect example of this where the host was often found talking at the audience, completely ignoring the comments section and leaving viewers to feel like they were just watching a show vs. interacting with the host and other users. For this very reason, active user engagement is the best way to ensure attendees stay tuned in and walk away with a memorable experience. To achieve this I recommend specifically focusing on building interactive moments within programming and choosing engaging hosts who can keep the event conversational throughout and adapt based on the feedback and tone of the audience.
- Develop detailed programming. A common characteristic of in-person events is flexibility with programming and it’s inevitable you’ll find yourself with some “free time” to mingle and have side conversations with other attendees. Virtual events on the other hand are by nature very visual and often performative, not to mention sedentary. To make up for the lack of free time, it’s crucial to develop strong programming and a consistent pace. When creating your run of show I recommend taking a similar approach to planning a televised live event — going minute by minute and thinking of it as a script that has everything planned out from talking points to pauses for transitions and dedicated time to engage with the audience. Also be sure to space out and vary programming to create a pace that will keep attendees actively participating and interested. For example, if you open with a conversational segment, follow it with a short speaking bit, interactive activity, and close with question and answer.
- Be flexible. With virtual live events, anything can happen, and technical difficulties are almost guaranteed. Make sure you do multiple tests and run-throughs to work out kinks in the programming, ensure you have the right timing and pace set and have plans prepared for technical difficulties. That said, you should also be prepared to wing it and troubleshoot on the spot. If your feed cuts or you lose sound it might be awkward at first, but if you just roll with the punches, acknowledge the difficulties and adapt your audience will understand.
Let’s imagine that someone reading this interview has an idea for a live virtual event that they would like to develop. What are the first few steps that you would recommend that they take?
Start by asking yourself three things — What is the objective? Who is the audience? What will attendees walk away with? Once you have those defined, pick your “venue” or virtual platform and make sure you’re considering all the elements you would for an in-person event from the audience to production needs. I’d then recommend developing an initial run of show and program the event out minute by minute before choosing your speakers and hosts or going into production on any visual assets or set elements you need to create, that way you have one detailed plan guiding all the elements of production.
Super. We are nearly done. Here are our final questions. You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.
I believe that as we live more of our lives online it is becoming increasingly essential to re-prioritize communication and connection in our daily lives. If everyone in the world challenged at least one other person to create a meaningful moment each year or day, I truly feel that we’d start to see a noticeable shift in the way we interact and connect with others online and in real life. Afterall, as a society we can’t come together for common good until we are able to understand and connect with others, including those who may share opposite beliefs and perspectives.