In this extract from our latest e-book – the Ultimate Guide to Virtual & Hybrid Events in 2021 – George Foden, Director of Events at Wise Productions discusses how to use production to elevate your virtual event.

When I talk to other event professionals about the journey we have been on as a business since the start of the Coronavirus pandemic, I often joke that we effectively changed our careers overnight and became TV producers on March 20th last year.

As a company, our specialism pre-Covid was delivering the technical production for events in London’s most unique and historic venues; if you needed a lighting, sound and AV system installed in the British Museum in 45 minutes, that was our comfort zone – overnight our business changed beyond recognition.

Going full screen

Just one week into the very first lockdown, we decided to build a green screen studio at our premises in west London. Whilst we could see our clients were migrating very quickly to online webinar platforms such as Zoom in order to keep communicating both internally and externally, we firmly believed that there would be demand for something better once companies identified the need to elevate their digital events to the next level. Our theory at the time was that customers would be looking for TV-grade experiences to wow their audiences and we quickly immersed ourselves in the world of live broadcast to work out what approach might work best for our clients.

Working in green screen presented a fantastic opportunity to bring some cutting-edge technology to the world of virtual events and borrow techniques which had already been tried and tested in Hollywood productions. Using a piece of software called Unreal Engine, we developed a 3D virtual studio complete with dynamic lighting, a virtual “big screen” behind the presenter and options to incorporate branding and customisations depending on the client brief, without the cost and environmental impact of building a physical set from scratch.

We quickly realised that having the green screen studio and the state-of-the-art 3D virtual backdrop was only half the puzzle. If we wanted to produce broadcasts for our customers with the same production value and seamless delivery of a live TV show, we needed to start emulating the world of live television. We brought in expertise from that world, including camera crew and studio floor managers who had worked on big-budget television shows.

No delay

However, our single most important change of approach was to completely redesign our pre-production processes to ensure our clients were guided from the outset on how their virtual event would need to be planned to ensure success. A phrase we started to use quite often in our planning meetings was “it’s live telly – there’s nowhere to hide”. And that is a key difference between live in-person events and live streaming; at an in-person event, if the speaker is a bit late getting on-stage it is likely most guests will be so busy chatting and enjoying the canapes they probably won’t notice, but on a live stream your audience could be staring at a blank screen wondering what’s going on. If the delay lasts more than a few seconds, they might decide to shut the laptop lid and see what’s on Netflix instead.

At the start of the pandemic, it’s probably fair to say online audiences were quite forgiving. Let’s be honest, we all quite enjoyed seeing virtual event speakers presenting from home and checking out how their homes were decorated. When there was a technical glitch, or someone had their microphone muted we all smiled and put it down to inexperience. Nearly 12 months on the expectations of our audiences have moved on dramatically. Poor quality video, inaudible sound, clunky graphics and dodgy Zoom virtual backgrounds are all guaranteed ways to get your audience switching off or browsing the internet rather than engaging with your content. And that is the ultimate goal of what we do with our virtual event production solutions – to keep your audience engaged with the content by making sure it’s delivered seamlessly.

Great expectations

As the industry migrates from fully virtual events into the world of hybrid and restrictions ease, we predict that the expectations of the online audience are going to increase even further. Our reasoning is that when the event is hybrid, your online audience knows that there are a group of people physically at the venue enjoying the in-person experience. The risk is that poor delivery of the online experience causes a “them and us” mentality to permeate your online guests – they can see on the live stream that everyone’s having a great time at the venue, but they’re stuck at home experiencing poor sound quality, or perhaps the presenter isn’t looking at the camera and they’re feeling disconnected or ignored. Perhaps they also can’t interact properly – there might be a Q&A happening, but the moderator is only getting questions from the live audience because the streaming platform’s Q&A function hasn’t been integrated properly with the live event.

This is where the TV analogy comes in once again and why robust technical production will play such an important role in the future of events, which is certain to be predominantly hybrid as restrictions gradually ease in the months ahead. The success of hybrid is going to rely on the understanding that each audience needs to be given a curated experience centred around the same content. Think of Glastonbury; you might not have realised it, but it’s actually a brilliant hybrid event and has been for many years! You have over 150,000 ticket holders enjoying the live in-person experience, but millions more watching the event live on the BBC.

What the BBC coverage does is curate a more tailored experience for the TV viewer – for example, they have a studio overlooking the Pyramid Stage where artists come for exclusive interviews and performances. They might show some pre-recorded videos of presenters touring the site and showing the audience some of the hidden areas of Glastonbury not many people know about. And when the Sunday night headline act comes on stage, you can be sure that the BBC will have cameras in all the right places to give the TV viewers a front-row seat and the sound mixing will be spot-on. It’s obviously not the same experience as being there with the buzz of the crowd and a 20-minute queue for a Portaloo, but the BBC coverage is an experience in itself and conveys the magic of the festival to someone sat on their sofa at home and keeps them engaged with exclusive content whilst the Pyramid Stage is being reset for 20 minutes ready for the next band.

As a technical production company looking ahead to 2021, we will continue to use technology and techniques borrowed from live TV broadcast to elevate the delivery of our client’s digital events and support them with the transition to hybrid. We firmly believe that investment in the right technical production solutions for online events pays dividends when it comes to your audience engagement and satisfaction, and with that in mind I’m certain we’ll all be working with the mindset of a TV producer for many years to come.

Looking for more? Download the Ultimate Guide to Virtual & Hybrid Events here