The Keys to Virtual Meeting Pre-Planning and Engagement

By Heather Swanson • March 26, 2021

An association’s annual meeting is usually their hallmark event where members and attendees come together to learn and network. It’s a time to see old and new colleagues, and catch up. COVID-19 has disrupted the dear traditions associated with many annual meetings: seeing colleagues, connecting with each other, and feeling the excitement of learning together.

The pivot to the virtual meeting world presents many challenges.

  • Will attendees feel connected?
  • How do you create a meaningful and engaging event?
  • How will the move to virtual affect meeting funding?
  • What is the best platform to use?

Each day, virtual event vendors flood subscribers’ inboxes with emails highlighting meeting platforms, how to engage attendees and what makes a successful virtual event. They provide helpful information, but when the rubber meets the road, associations need to evaluate their attendees’ needs and find ways to connect before, during and after the virtual event.

The path to planning a virtual meeting must be intentional. It should include program development, pre-meeting engagement and in-meeting engagement. A virtual meeting will not feel the same as in-person, but intentional planning that responds to your members’ and sponsors’ needs and technological capabilities will result in a successful experience for attendees.

Pre-Planning Your Virtual Meeting

Content is key!

It’s important to develop a program that builds on itself. The risk of just selecting topics that are at your fingertips can set the stage for attendees to come and go, treating the meeting like an a la carte menu. The goal of your virtual meeting should be to engage attendees and sponsors, so they attend the entire meeting and feel energized when it is over. Meeting presentations, keynote speeches and breakout sessions need to provide content, best practices and case studies for current issues. Include a kickoff session each day highlighting the mission of the day’s content. Each conference day should end with a wrap up reviewing the high-level concepts that were presented. Create a cohesive starting point and ending point for your virtual meeting.

Create a cohesive starting point and ending point for your virtual meeting.

Speakers are key!

Presenting in the virtual world is not like presenting live. The best virtual format speakers are ones that can take the more one-dimensional format and add color. Think about those individuals who are larger than life in person and recruit them for your virtual meeting! Provide speakers with templates, virtual backgrounds with the association logo, anything that will create cohesion in the visual portion of their presentations. Offer some filming tips such as keeping their face eye level to their webcam and using enough front lighting. When a speaker is in the dark the presentation can get lost in the shadows.

Virtual meetings are also an opportunity to bring in international speakers or ones that are typically out of budget. Reach big for speakers!

Delivery is key!

One of the final components of planning an effective association virtual meeting is selecting the best virtual platform. Will there be breakout sessions? Do you need a virtual exhibit hall to help drive your revenue? Will your attendees and speakers want direct messaging features? Will a free platform provide all the functionality you need, or should you budget for a premium system? There are many options available. Your association will need to research and vet the options. You don’t want to pay for features are not needed but miss a feature that is needed.

Another content delivery aspect of virtual events your association will need to look at is whether your speakers will deliver content live or pre-recorded. Live virtual events can feel more organic, but the risk of technology snafus grows exponentially the more internet providers that are in the mix. Pre-recording allows for more control and works for budgets of all sizes. Pre-recording works well for panel discussions. The panel can set a time to pre-record together or they can record each of their portions individually and play in succession.

If a meeting has live presentations, the association staff needs to build a backup plan in case of power outages or other technology hiccups. Collect slides in advance in case someone else needs to drive the presentation. Ask the speakers to hardwire and have a backup person to step in should the presenter experience unwanted hardware issues. The best way to ensure you have a seamless program is to pre-record sessions. But if your associations opt to have a live meeting, you must have contingency plans should a live presenter have technical issues. Disruption lessens engagement and can discourage attendees from staying the duration.

The best way to ensure you have a seamless program is to pre-record sessions. But if your associations opt to have a live meeting, you must have contingency plans should a live presenter have technical issues

Engaging Your Attendee – Pre-event

Engaging attendees early is key!

We are currently living in a virtual world, but it is nice to have something to touch and hold. Send a print program guide to attendees prior to the event to create excitement. Sell sponsorships in it to defray costs, and highlight keynote speakers, award recipients and important meeting information. A printed accompaniment to an online event is an unexpected touch that reminds attendees your association is thinking of them.

Promoting the virtual event on social media is key!

Members and attendees are associations’ best source for promoting their virtual meeting. Providing them with promo text, the meeting hashtag and a shortened URL to the meeting registration page make it easy for them to share via their social media accounts. (And the shortened, unique URL can help your marketing team better track how much member word-of-mouth contributes to your attendance numbers.) Attendee participation in social media creates excitement and engagement at an organic level. When attendees are engaged early, they feel connected to the meeting.

Asking questions is key!

Your meeting content often drives attendance. A live meeting allows for many touch points to ask questions, discuss content and engage with speakers. There’s often time for questions and answers during the session, social events, and common areas where attendees and presenters mingle.

In the virtual world, these dynamic points of contact are removed, but can be re-created through virtual lounges, lobbies or hangouts. Providing a tool for attendees to ask questions in advance is another way to create pre-meeting engagement. Their questions can be provided to the presenters prior to the meeting to allow them to incorporate answers into their presentations.

Creating socialization opportunities is key!

If your association has committees or small subgroups that typically meet during a live meeting holding virtual social hours the weeks leading up to the meeting can lead to stronger engagement. These events should be casual and be structured so attendees can talk, engage, and laugh with one another.


Making it easy to join the meeting is key!

The week of the meeting, it’s important to provide your attendees with clear and concise directions for joining the meeting. Is there a password? Will links be sent from another source like Zoom? Is there a meeting landing page? Who do they contact if they have issues? The meeting support team must be ready to address attendee issues quickly. Even a year into the virtual world of meetings, not all attendees are adept at technology.

Polling is key!

The easiest way to engage virtual attendees is to have each speaker embed polls in their presentations. Social media influencers poll their Instagram or Facebook followers because doing so builds their community. The same effect happens in a virtual meeting. Presenters have been using polls for years, but in the virtual format it is a must for building engagement. Almost all meeting platforms have a polling option. Just like it is important to make it easy to join the meeting, it is important to let attendees know how the polls will be deployed!

Supporting your sponsors is key!

If a meeting has a virtual exhibit hall or option to engage vendors, it’s important to encourage attendees to visit them. Gamification is an easy way for virtual event hosts to encourage attendee-sponsor interaction. Offer prizes when attendees achieve established goals such as visiting with a specified number of sponsors or setting appointments with sponsors. More robust meeting platforms usually have built-in gamification features.

Even if a meeting platform does not have a gamification feature, there are other ways to track engagement. Your association can pull meeting reports into a spreadsheet to identify attendees that complete the game. If there are random drawings for prizes random winners can be selected in the spreadsheet as well. Be creative! Make it fun for attendees and worthwhile for sponsors!

Questions are still key!

Pre-questions are a good way to see what attendees want to know in advance, but this does not erase the need for question opportunities during the live event. If the meeting content is pre-recorded, presenters can answer questions via the Q&A portal during their talk.

Social media is STILL key!

Encourage attendees to post about your virtual meeting to their social media accounts and tag it using the official hashtag or your association’s name. The Twitter feed is fun to watch and the momentum of social media activity builds on itself. You can award prizes for the most tweets or most humorous meeting tweet or whatever makes sense for the association. Make it fun! Encourage attendees to keep the conversations going!

Engaging virtual attendees is achievable

We all want to get back to business as usual but the virtual format will likely be a factor for meetings into the near future and beyond. It takes planning and intention but engaging the virtual attendee is achievable when using the right keys and Naylor is ready to help!


About The Author

Heather Swanson is the senior vice president of WJ Weiser association management services, part of the Naylor family.