Planning8 Min Read

A Look Behind the Scenes of Google’s First Virtual Event

Naturally, Google’s first virtual event was about, well — virtual events.

As a writer for Socio, I was beyond excited when our CMO, Corey McCarthy, mentioned how she was invited to speak to Google about our experience with virtual events, and “would I like to attend?”

But this wasn’t a typical panel discussion or TED talk — Google’s event planning team was figuring out how to translate their internal events to a virtual format, and they wanted to hear directly from the people who’ve been out in the field blazing the virtual trail. 

Corey, representing Socio, was invited to talk about our highly successful virtual event — EventHack 2020. Back in April, Socio brought together 16 industry leaders to hack virtual event solutions. Even though we planned and executed the event in just under two weeks, we generated 2,500 registrants and had more than 700 people join our EventHack Community. (Not too shabby for a Series-A company.)

The format would be a casual conversation. Google was planning to record the discussion and share it with the more than 1,000 employees who execute the tech giant’s internal events.

On the morning of the event, we conferenced in and met our virtual host, Megan Henshall, global events account manager at Google. She went over the run-of-show, and introduced their audio engineer, who had everyone check their mics and adjust their home-studio lighting. It’s also when we met the other panelists who, like Socio, jumped headfirst into the crazy new world of virtual events. 

Meet the Panelists

Anh Nguyen is the founder and principal of Calgary-based Spark Event Management. She was invited to talk about her experience executing the first virtual iteration of Global Meetings Industry Day, a massive event drawing thousands of industry professionals each year. With no prior experience with virtual events, Anh put out an SOS on social media and enlisted roughly 50 event profs to help with the mission. 

Miguel Neves is a digital strategist for event professionals and founder of MiguelSeven.com. He was inspired by Anh’s Tweet and signed on to help transition Global Meetings Industry Day to a virtual event. Miguel was instrumental in engaging the almost 13,000 virtual attendees with an onslaught of live polls.

Tammy Samut serves as internal events manager at Google. She’s in the process of pivoting several key Google events to virtual, like the popular Take Your Child to Work Day, and the massive Google-Ween celebration. 

Of course, you can’t throw a proper virtual event without a host, so Google brought in super emcee extraordinaire Will Curran, Founder and “Chief Event Einstein” of Endless Events. Event organizers take note: If you need an amazing emcee, Will is your guy. 

After introductions, Will kicked off the discussion, starting with engagement. As many of the early pioneers on the virtual frontier realized, engaging virtual attendees takes some creativity.

Virtual Engagement — Think Outside the Box

For Global Meetings Industry Day, Anh came up with a clever idea to build excitement and engage attendees — set a Guinness World Record for the largest audience at a virtual conference. The number to beat was 13,000.

Anh: “As part of our attempt at the world record, we needed to keep all of our viewers on for 30 minutes. You couldn’t dial in and then jump off if you were bored or dial halfway again, so we had to promote it and design it in a way that would capture attendees for half an hour.”

Holding the attention of 13,000 virtual attendees is not an easy task, so Miguel relied heavily on Slido polls to keep the audience active and engaged. 

Miguel: “There was a whole section in the program, the biggest section was 12, 13 minutes, that was just live polls. We fluctuated from serious questions that were more like, ‘How is your employment status? When do you see events coming up again?’ But we also had a question there which was like, ‘Are you wearing pants right now?’”

For the Socio hackathon, we engaged attendees from the get-go by inviting them to join our EventHack Community in the Socio app. Additionally, we gave them skin in the game by allowing them to vote on the “Audience Choice” award.

Corey: “Of the 2,500 registrations, we had almost 700 people in the Community and in our app. They were all asking questions, introducing themselves and posting pictures. There was so much hype before the event even started, and the app was absolutely blowing up. We also used Slido. We pushed it through the app so when everybody was watching the hackers hack, we also had the audience voting. The audience was responsible for voting right along with the judges.”

Allow for Flexibility, and Keep Virtual Content Short and Bite-Sized

The panelists agreed that long, drawn-out sessions simply don’t translate to a virtual environment. While a two-hour session might work at a live event, it’s not a good user experience for an attendee viewing remotely on their laptop or mobile device. In the absence of a physical event venue, the attendee’s home becomes the virtual venue, which comes with a whole new set of distractions. 

Miguel: “As much as we feel like everybody should dress up and pay attention and do all these things, they’re not coming into a venue and being our guests at the venue. We are their guests in their house. Imposing rules and giving structure, and doing all this stuff, as much as you try to enforce it, if their kid goes across the screen or their dog attacks their desk, or they go up and get a cup of coffee, there’s nothing you could do.”

Instead of mirroring a traditional live event where there’s a strict schedule and the entire day is mapped out to the minute, the panelists suggested breaking up virtual content into smaller bites, and giving attendees more freedom to engage on their own terms. Unlike a live event where there’s an official start and end, virtual events can live on indefinitely — so can virtual content. It can be as simple as making live stream sessions available on demand, so attendees who missed the live broadcast can still participate.

Corey: “I think it’s a huge ask to have attendees spend an entire day on their computer. Instead, breaking it up and having smaller chunks of content stretched over longer periods of time, with something to string it together, is much more impactful to digest the information and also to keep people more engaged on a continual basis.”

Give Attendees a Reason to Stay Engaged

The topic of storytelling kept coming up, and the panelists talked about how it can be effective in stringing multiple events together, and keeping virtual audiences actively engaged.

Tammy shared how she’s converting Google’s Take Your Child to Work event from a single day in April to four, mini events over the summer with new content each week. While hesitant to give away too many details, she mentioned there will be a theme and story that ties it together.

Tammy: “We also decided not to have any live dates and times for anything because again, we didn’t want to put the stress on parents — that they have to be free at a certain time. It’s designed to be at your leisure, as a parent.”

Anh agreed with Tammy, and mentioned how she can easily binge-watch eight hours of Ozark because she’s invested in what happens to the Byrds, but an eight-hour webinar — no thanks.

Anh: “If there’s a way over the four weeks, if there’s a character or something that you can build through and the audience gets invested in what happens to those characters, that’s how people get invested in these experiences — when they feel like they care about what happens to the characters.”

It’s time to Ramp Up Production!

March and April were all about figuring how to make virtual events work. As an industry, we basically went from zero to one. Now, it’s all about upleveling and really making the production shine. A virtual event doesn’t have to be some low-fi production or glorified webinar. Savvy organizers are upping their production game with better sound and lighting, building sets, and even using green screens. 

Corey: “That production value is starting to matter more because we’re confronting Zoom fatigue. You have to get in there. You have to be strong. You have to keep it exciting and you have to make it matter. We’re now to the point where this is our reality for the foreseeable future, and so now it’s got to be good. What are you going to do? What are you going to bring to the table to make it look sexy, and to really keep everybody engaged in there?”

Megan: “Our team is actively looking at ways to pivot our in-house technical themes to digital environments. We’re talking about remote production, having studio production equipment that we can send to leaders and speakers to help them have a better production value at home. I love this idea of maybe a formalized speaker training option.”

The conversation pivoted to mixing offline experiences with virtual events, and how they can enhance the attendee experience, and provide a unique sponsorship opportunity. 

Corey: “I think another part is creating excitement. I’ve heard of a lot of people trying to pull together UberEATS delivery for coffee, bagels, and that sort of thing. Imagine, as an attendee, that you have magically this coffee and bagels show up to your house. I mean that’s exciting. That’s something that brightens up your day when you sit down with the coffee that was delivered to you and a bagel that you don’t usually have every day. There are all of these other little things that we can do offline, I think, to inspire more engagement online as well.”

Biggest Learning, Key Takeaways

As the event came to a close, Will wanted to know about key learnings, takeaways, and what the panelists would do differently.

Tammy: “I think my biggest learning right now, to be very honest, is why haven’t I done this sooner with Take Your Child to Work Day? Every year we get parents saying, ‘We can’t attend. I don’t want to take my child out of school.’ That’s been my biggest realization, is next year, if we go back to a live version of Take Your Child to Work Day, we are still going to do a virtual version for all the parents that may not be able to make it and have the exact same vendors at the event, as we do online, so it’s a very similar experience. I would say that’s, right now, probably my biggest learning.”

Corey mentioned how the end of a virtual event can leave attendees feeling cold. At Socio, we’ve started treating the end of our events more like the end of a movie, where there’s music, (sometimes dancing) and we’ll post a closing question in the Q&A like, “Let us know your top takeaway from today’s event.”

Corey: “I think that one of the tricky things about virtual is that when it’s done, it’s done. When you’re at a normal event, when a panel session is done, everyone stands up and they smile, and they look at each other, and they go up to talk to the speaker, but when a virtual event is done, the computer goes dark. It’s a bummer, especially for event organizers, to put this all together. I mean you click ‘end meeting’ and that’s it. Everyone is gone.”

Anh let it slip that had her team been more focused on the programming and less focused on every technical detail, they might have broken the Guinness World Record.

Anh: “Had we just stepped away from some of the guidelines that you inherit and some of the technical things you worry about more in a virtual environment than you do in an in-person environment, somebody would have identified that had we just had an hour program and let people dial in at the peak of it, we probably would have hit our numbers. You get really fixated on following all the rules because you have these nightmares about your whole event just shutting down and everything going dark on the Internet. I think you sometimes forget a little bit about the flexibility that’s required for humans to interact and to connect, and how we function when we’re not just all looking at a screen.”

We’re All Dealing with the Same Issues — Even Google

In the end, it was fascinating to peek behind the curtain of a tech giant like Google. Their world has been disrupted just like the rest of us, they’re solving the same problems, and have the same pain points. 

Mike LaFollette
Mike LaFollette
Event Evangelist. Master Gardener. Dad to an enormous Alaskan Malamute! Connect with Mike on Twitter or LinkedIn.