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At the end of January, Cognito held its annual employee conference, “Cognicon”, in a very different and unique way. In “normal” circumstances, we would all congregate in one location and spend three days together learning, collaborating and appreciating the local culture and cuisine! 

The challenge was how to replicate the magic of Cognicon in a virtual setting. And after a tough and challenging 10 months for everyone, we wanted to keep the teams motivated and engaged. Pandemic or not, it was important for us as a company to come together to unite and understand the future vision of the company and to connect and build relationships. 

We know our clients face similar challenges but virtual events have had a mixed reception in the past year. Contently referred to virtual events still being “in their awkward teenage stage—not quite sure what they’re supposed to be, and constantly worried that everyone is a little disappointed in them.”

Many communications professionals are planning and thinking about big campaigns or milestone events that will help engage internal and external audiences.  While we are buoyed by the promising news of vaccines, international travel is likely to remain restricted this year, so virtual events are here for a while.  

If planned carefully with a good dose of creativity, your event can be as successful as the real thing. Here are my top 5 tips for running a virtual event:  

Find the theme

Be clear on what the objectives are, followed by a theme. How do you want people to feel at the end of the event? What are your key messages and takeaways? What do you want them to know? For Cognito, we wanted to inspire and motivate the team, while providing an opportunity to learn and enhance their skills. Connection and collaboration were paramount.

As we set off on a five year plan, we wanted to take our team on a journey forwards – so we landed on a theme about skyrocketing in the future. Right now we are a critical point of transformation and disruption – so much of how we work, how we live will continue to change. We wanted to explore all themes that are most relevant to financial services, technology as well as marketing and communications trends. 

To make the event memorable, we created a logo, a colour palette, and themed communication. Every element, every piece of design, logo had an underlying theme of space. So many space puns! Moon, lift-off, landings, flight – we wanted to create something unique. 

Find stand out speakers 

Conference content should always be interesting and relevant but for virtual events delivery needs to be outstanding. Find speakers and moderators who own the virtual setting and encourage active engagement. If you are moderating, write a script and practise. It’s crucial to bring high energy to every single session, as this sets the tone and creates an exciting atmosphere. Use and experiment with different session formats. Have break-out groups, run a panel session, a Q&A session, a workshop, encourage interaction as much as possible. 

Inject fun and frivolity to build relationships

One of our overriding objectives was to bring the team closer together and to collaborate. We know that trust and collaboration allows us to deliver for clients. And we are a social and fun company. We organised a cook-a-long, hosted a murder mystery evening and held a quiz where everybody played a role. These activities were not only fun but it brought us all together, so it was ideal for team building.

Use the right technology and platform

There are a host of platforms that you can choose from to run your virtual event. HopIn is a virtual events platform that aims to  recreate the in-person event experience as closely as possible. Zoom also has excellent functionality, is easy to use (once you know how) and allows customised and randomly selected break-out rooms. We used the speed networking platform Glimpse to enable connection. Attendees are paired in private virtual rooms to begin a conversation, then are rotated to ensure they can make as many connections as possible. It was definitely one of the highlights of the conference. 

Surprise and delight with a home delivery 

To build excitement, we organised a package of Cognito merchandise drop in a beautiful box linked to the theme of the event. Every item in the box had a role to play in the three days – tea and biscuits for a break, a warm hoodie for a sense of connection and a book for creativity. This helps to elevate the overall experience, increases engagement and creates alignment with your theme and brand. It also gives people a sense of ownership and being part of a wider team, something that has been hard to achieve under lockdown.  

Do it! 

I was amazed by how brilliantly our virtual event helped us achieve our objectives; it brought the team together and injected a fresh wave of enthusiasm and motivation across our entire business from West Coast to East Coast to EMEA to Singapore to Hong Kong. My advice would be to go for it - embrace new concepts and new technologies and don’t be afraid of being an awkward teenager; this is an opportunity to create something unique and memorable. 

Yvonne Maher is the deputy managing director of Cognito's London office