Unless you have been living off the grid for the last 12 months or so you will have seen the rapid rise of live video for both business and personal communication. With the likes of Zoom, Teams, and Google Meet to name a few becoming part of our everyday lives. In addition to this, we have seen a massive increase in live events or what we now call a Virtual Event.
Virtual events have been around for years, being used to extend audiences either beyond the capacity of the live locations or to open up to a global audience. Typically only those with a good technical understanding of how to do it were capable and confident enough to include an online version of their event.
However, with venues closing, virtual live events became a lifeline for many venues and events, giving them a chance to make an income or to keep their brand (or band) alive during challenging times.
On the flip side, others have seen this as an opportunity to try out live events. With much less risk and cost than a normal physical event, and let's face it, with more time on our hands it was the perfect opportunity to test the water. After all, it will take time for things to get back to normal, and this new normal will include virtual events.
With this new technology being pushed into the mainstream it has forced innovation from its providers, the production companies, streaming providers, and digital agencies involved in the sector. This has made the technology easier and more accessible than ever before.
The aim of this post is to give you a better understanding of all the moving parts that are involved in setting up a live event. Over the past few years we have been building and delivering events on a weekly basis, so have a wealth of experience in what to do, and in some cases what not to do.
A Virtual Event is any event that takes place in a digital space. Commonly used for video conferencing, such as group meetings or one-to-one video communication, as well as larger more audience focussed events.
Larger events combine both video conferencing, and video streaming to allow on-screen participation as well as viewing only for a wider audience. This generally comprises a dedicated website and can include audience interactivity via chat rooms, polls, and Q&A sessions.
Before we dive in, here is a list of the items I’m going to cover.
So without further ado.
The world of streaming is always changing, with new technologies and techniques being released all the time. However, they mostly fall into two main categories;
Commonly used for meetings, small conferences, or video chat. This is one-to-one or group-to-group, where participants can join a virtual room and interact with each other via live video & audio.
The main advantages are speed and ease of use.
Allowing conversations between people in different locations in almost real-time, and as it’s widely adopted it’s easy to set up and use. In most cases, a simple web cam will do a decent job.
The trade offs are quality, control and scalability.
Usually, limits on the quality of audio and video (especially at peak times) are imposed to prioritise the speed. You're also limited to how you can customise the experience for your participants, and most importantly it is not designed for an audience.
The difference between participants and audiences is an important one. Participants are on screen at least some of the time, they are part of the content. Whereas an audience is only there to view (from a video point of view, more on this later).
So in a nutshell, Zoom, Teams, Meet, or any other video conferencing platforms out there are great for communication and can be part of your event, but when it comes to exposing your event to a wider audience you need to consider our next category.
Also known as live streaming and more in line with what we expect to see when turning on the TV, video streaming is a powerful technology. Built as a one-to-many technology it is designed to handle large audiences.
If you have watched a live concert, conference, or sports event via any device (phone/tablet, desktop, or smart tv) it will have been using video streaming.
The advantages to video streaming are quality, control and scalability.
Quality is controlled by you (or your event producer), as is the production side of your event, allowing you to switch between live video and pre-recorded content, cameras, and locations, or even video conferences, giving a truly immersive experience to your audience.
As for scalability, this is where video streaming really comes into its own. Your streaming provider (more on this later) should provide you with everything you need, and all you need to do is send your video feed to them and they will handle the rest.
On the flip side to that, there are two possible negatives, speed and ease of use.
Traditionally, video streaming works like tv broadcasting, where there is a delay between what is recorded by the camera and what is seen by the audience. This can range between 10 and 20 seconds and in most scenarios is not an issue, but if you are running a live Q&A with your audience it can take a little management.
However, new technology is coming out all the time, with low latency options becoming more widely adopted, so if your event needs to be as close to real-time as possible, it’s possible.
As for the ease of use. Again, it can be very complicated to set up and produce an event but if your event justifies a production team, they will know what they are doing.
Over the last few years, we have worked on some large and complicated projects, but on the flip side, I've seen people host and produce an event with a very minimal setup.
Now you know the score with video streaming, it’s time to start planning your event.
It goes without saying that preparation and planning are key to successfully producing any live event. How much planning and preparation, totally depends on your event.
I find with virtual events it helps to start with what you already know. Mapping out these known factors can help highlight the gaps (or questions) early on and inform any unknown factors that you discover as you get further into the details.
Here are some questions to consider when first brainstorming your virtual event.
Armed with at least some of the above answers will set you on the right path and will certainly help you when speaking to any specialists you want to bring into the project such as event organisers, production companies, streaming providers, or digital agencies.
Next we’re going to start looking at the technical specifics you are going to need to build your Virtual Event.
When it comes to the location of your virtual event, the term ‘hosting’ works for both where you are going to send your audience (the address), and its actual location on the internet (the website hosting).
If you already have your website and hosting in place and the event will be added to this, great! However, these points are still worth checking out as not all hosting services support or indeed are built to handle a live event.
One of the most common problems with virtual events comes from not using the right hosting technology to support a live event. This is caused by the difference in traffic. A normal website has a steady flow of traffic, with occasional spikes, whereas live events are a constant spike in traffic. So choosing the right solution is paramount.
So let’s look at these issues and how you can mitigate them upfront.
Choosing a domain name for your event might sound easy enough, especially if this is an existing brand, use your existing domain name, right?
It can be that simple, and that can have advantages. It keeps things familiar for your regular visitors and any new visitors can be handled as you would any normal visitor, taking advantage of your existing structure, content, and workflows.
However, be sure to check with your current provider that it can handle the expected traffic spike (more on this in the next section).
Another option is to use a subdomain, for example, https://myevent.mydomain.com. This could then be totally separate from your main website, removing the need to make changes to your existing hosting to accommodate the event.
Once the name is decided upon you need to look at the DNS. This is the Domain Name System that handles the routing of the internet, pointing your domain name to its web host.
One of the biggest threats to live events is unwanted traffic, especially if your event is ticketed. It can attract unwanted attention from bots and hackers looking to damage your event, either looking to access the content for free or worse, taking your site offline for the sheer fun of it.
In my experience the best way to guard against this type of threat is to use a service such as Cloudflare, which adds a layer of security at the edge of its global network, stopping the majority of unwanted traffic before it even hits your site.
Cloudflare allows you to proxy the traffic to your website, meaning it is more difficult for them to attack the website directly and are faced with military grade security on a network that's designed to handle it. This also gives you lots of advanced options to increase or customise the security level during your event, so you can react to different levels of threat.
This all works independently from your hosting, and in my eyes is a must to safeguard an event.
Web hosting gets a little more complicated. What you need depends on your website, what it’s built with and what features it gives your audience.
For example, a simple HTML page (with a video player on it) does not need much to handle tons of traffic as it’s only really serving up a page (or small files to be more accurate).
However, websites are rarely that simple these days, with the use of content management systems and page builders being the preferred option for all but the truly technical.
As a rule of thumb, if you are using a DIY page builder such as Godaddy or Wix I would recommend building a new site to manage your event on a professional hosting provider who can control the environment for you.
If you're using something like WordPress (CMS) for a simple site, then you are probably already on a professional host but are more often than not on a shared server. This is risky for anything other than a small event.
If you're running WordPress and are using any systems such as shopping carts, membership systems, or anything else I would look to increase your resources (especially CPU) to handle the increase in concurrent traffic or build a new site on a subdomain, keeping your main website guarded against the expected traffic spike.
I almost always recommend building a site dedicated to a virtual event, this allows you to safeguard your existing website and removes the need to implement resource increases that you might not need once it's over.
This means you can fine-tune the setup of the hosting to suit the needs of your event. Websites are mostly static (with some dynamic aspects), whereas a virtual event can be full of interactive elements such as chat rooms, polling systems, live updates, and anything else you need to interact with your audience, so choose your hosting to match your event.
The best solution is always to use hosting that gives you dedicated resources (not shared) and is scalable so you can add more power exactly where you need it (without lengthy downtime).
This is what we use and has served us well.
Hopefully, by now you have an idea of what your event will look like. You understand the difference between video conferencing and video streaming, you have a high level plan of all the moving parts your event will consist of and have a solid hosting foundation on which to build your events website.
So now is the chance to get creative. With your objectives in mind, what does your viewer's experience look like? What will they do when they land on your site? What will they do during the event?
Some events are all about the on screen content, so very little is needed outside of your video content. If you're running a concert or performance and you want your audience to be fixed to the screen then keeping things simple is the way to go.
You’ll still want to make the website design look great, but sometimes less is more. I’ve run events in the last year or so that were as simple as a one-page website, designed to match the events brand with a bit of content about the event and that was it.
Other events get much more complicated. Including ticketing systems, live chat, live blogs, polls, and just about anything else you can think of to replicate the social interaction side of what a real life event brings.
Before we dive into the tools used to achieve these features it's important to look at what you're going to build these tools into. The core of your website is vital, so picking the right web design tool is vital.
There are lots of good frameworks out there, but for this post, I’m going to focus on the most common one we use, WordPress. If you're not familiar with it, it's a content management system that powers a whopping 40% of websites on the internet, it’s open source (free), and allows you to build powerful websites at a reasonable cost by using plugins to add features to the site.
You will need to choose a page builder to design your pages, again there are multiple options ranging from the beginner's choice, Elementor right up to the professional's choice Oxygen. This allows you to create Headers, Footers, and pages with content on. Sounds simple enough, right?
At this point, if you're not an aspiring web designer it’s always best to get a professional to do it, but if your budget is tight and you have the time to learn, it is possible to DIY it.
By far the most common request we get when building a virtual events website is content restriction. What this means is that access to the pages that play your video content (and any other pages that need restricting) is behind a login form.
There are a few common reasons for restricting access to your event, such as;
Selling tickets - If your objective is to monetise your content and sell tickets to your event, then restricting access to only valid ticket holders is a must.
Invite only - Maybe your event is not for everyone, it could be that only customers, employees, or just the chosen few are allowed access to your event. Keeping everyone else out can be vital to your event's success.
Member subscriptions - If you plan on doing regular live events you might want to offer monthly subscriptions that allow your paid members access.
There are lots of tools out there for handling content restriction but the one we turn to more often than not, especially for pop-up events is Restrict Content Pro. This is a WordPress plugin that does the basics really well and is fairly simple to set up.
It also packs all the essential tools into one plugin, including payment integration, subscriptions, one-off tickets, and all the management tools you need to handle your events transactions.
In addition to this, it does a good job on the security side, ensuring tickets can’t be shared by limiting only one login per ticket.
When it comes to replicating a real life event, visitor interaction is an obvious choice and the simplest way to achieve this is with live chat.
This allows your audience to chat amongst themselves or network as they would in person and boosts engagement during your event.
Additionally, most events have at least one person monitoring the chat room, moderating its contents, and communicating with the audience. This is an opportunity to gather questions that can be passed back to your event hosts (like Q&A) or just to get your audience engaged over your event's content.
Adding a chat room to your event is also an easy process with providers giving you access to a control panel to customise and manage your chat room which is external to your website, making it easy to delegate moderation to anybody in your team.
Some of the better options we have used are;
Managing a live event in real time can be challenging, with lots of moving parts, especially when you have a large audience. Using a live updates system can bring a new dynamic to how you communicate with your audience, outside of your video content, both on and off your events website.
What I mean by this is running a live blog, where you can post updates your audience will see instantly (without the need to refresh their page). This could be to post questions or updates about your events schedule, ask for feedback or promote your sponsors.
The platform I'm going to suggest here also has some other great tools for promoting your event, during your event. Social Streams and Auto Posting are tools that allow you to monitor social media for any mention of your event and then pull that into your own live blog, as well as posting your updates back out to your social channels.
This is a great way to promote your event, during your event, leveraging your user generated content adds to the authenticity of your message.
The platform I’m referring to is Arena.im, it is fairly simple to set up and add to your website and comes packed with features you can take advantage of before, during, and after your event.
Another great option for engaging with your audience is to use polls, quizzes, or surveys. This can be used to collect audience questions, opinions, or just for fun.
There are a few ways of doing this and depending on your event, audience, and objectives you may prefer one strategy, or you could employ them all.
Pre-event Polls and Surveys - If you are looking to run a Q&A session on screen it is much easier to gather the questions upfront, giving you time to plan them into your onscreen production. This is also a chance to communicate with your audience before your event and get them involved.
There are many tools for creating surveys, but probably the most common is Survey Monkey. This allows you to easily create a survey that can be shared with your audience, either by sharing it on social media or via email. Additionally, if you already use Mailchimp for your email marketing, this is integrated nicely to make sending your survey a quick and simple process.
Live polls, quizzes, and Q&A - Running a real time poll or quiz during your event can be a great way to get your audience to interact with you during your event. This is commonly used during business events to allow the audience to post questions to the speakers, or to gauge the audience's feedback on key topics you are covering. This can then be communicated to your host, or speakers so they can in turn cover the reaction of your audience.
This can be done on your site by using most web form plugins, but to really harness the real time aspect of this I would recommend using something like Slido. This is a platform that allows you to build polls and questions that can be displayed in real time on your website, then your audience can react to the content and the results are fed back to you in real time on the Slido platform.
Now, you have an idea of what can be done on your website, it’s time to turn our attention to the streaming side of things.
When it comes to choosing a streaming service to handle the broadcasting of your virtual event it can seem like a daunting task. With so many options available how do you make the right choice?
As always, I would start with learning the basics of what a streaming service is, what they do for you and how they structure their pricing. Then we will move into what you need for your event so you can work out not only the right provider but also the right price plan.
Simply put, a streaming provider is a platform that manages the broadcasting of your video. You send it your video (more on this later), they receive it and make it available to your audience via a video player that is embedded on your website.
Essentially they do the heavy lifting, your video feed is sent once, but can be viewed any number of times by your audience at the same time. As mentioned before, this is a one-to-many scenario.
To dig a little deeper, once your video feed is received by a streaming service it is ingested by its network in a protocol called RTMP (Real-time Messaging Protocol) and then transcoded into HLS (HTTP Live Streaming) ready for viewing.
In addition to handling this process your streaming provider will provide the video player for you to embed on your website. This is what your audience sees and not only plays the video content for them but also recognises the device your viewer is using and makes any adjustments to ensure playback works.
Finally, your streaming provider will be responsible for a number of security measures you might need to deploy to be sure your content is safe and cannot be copied onto other sites. This can be handled in a number of ways but a common one is domain locking, so only your site can playback the video.
The majority of streaming providers work the same, so a few common factors make the difference in the price plans they offer, such as;
Features - Not all providers give you full access on lower plans, some even disallow live streaming as a feature. So be sure to avoid these.
Bandwidth - This is the metric used when someone watches your video content and is measured in Gigabytes and Terabytes. Simply put, the more viewers and the longer your event runs for will impact this.
Storage - This is the metric used for video storage. If you want to make your event available as on-demand content (aka VoD) after the event then this is something to factor in. Measured in Gigabytes and Terabytes and also uses bandwidth when it is viewed.
Even with the above knowledge, it can be difficult to estimate your events usage, so finding a provider that can be flexible is a good idea. In most cases you can commit to a lower plan upfront and then only pay for over usage (aka overage) after the event, making sure you only pay for what you use.
Producing your virtual event is the process of gathering your video sources and then sending the live video to your chosen streaming provider. This can be as simple as using a webcam or can get complex with multiple locations, cameras and need much more hardware and expertise.
When it comes to video production the possibilities are endless these days, with new hardware and software technologies emerging all the time. As long as your budget matches your goals you can achieve almost anything.
For now let’s keep things simple and look at the basics.
The quality of your camera will have a direct impact on the quality of your video stream, so if you're looking for an HD visual experience for your audience a built-in webcam just won't cut it.
The higher end webcams on the market will do a job for you, especially if your event is all based on video conference, talking heads style content. A good one is the Logitech c920.
Anything more than video conferencing you need to look at standalone cameras, or digital camcorders, this will vastly improve your video quality. A few entry level ones such as the Canon Vixia HF R800 and Panasonic HC-V180K are a good place to start.
In some cases, you will also need a capture card, as the camera will shoot in raw video format rather than the digital format needed for your stream, so either be sure to check it is compatible with HDMI/USB for streaming. If not then a capture card is needed, good options are the Elgato HD60 S or the Razor Ripsure HD.
Similar to cameras, microphones can also be a vital element to your production setup. Built-in microphones of any description are terrible quality and just about manage when being used for audio/video meetings.
If you need to pick up sound from either people speaking or a room in general then microphones are must buy. Again, there are tons of options to suit your objectives and surroundings, with a standout model being the Blue Yeti or Yeticaster.
If however, the sound you are looking to record is coming from something other than speakers, such as instruments, DJ controllers/decks, or any other amplified audio setup you will need to look at an audio interface.
For these it’s hard to look beyond the Focusrite range, models to suit most scenarios and fairly priced they are a great addition to your production armory.
Once you have all your audio and video devices ready you need to set up an encoder. This is the software or device that handles the delivery of your video output to your streaming provider.
Again these come in many different shapes and sizes with hardware options generally being the choice of video professionals as they take some of the processing load off your computing gear. Some good options here are the Yololiv Yolobox or the Teradeck VidiU range.
For software encoders, there are again many choices, but the two I come up against most often are OBS Studio which is a great free option, and Wirecast Pro which has everything you could possibly need.
Another essential for live video production is connectivity, having the right internet connection can make or break an event.
Most importantly, be sure to test your internet connections upload speed as this is what you have to work with when sending your video out to your streaming provider.
Download speed and network connectivity, either Wifi or Ethernet are also important if you are sharing that network with any other devices, including your cameras, this needs to be able to handle the traffic to avoid issues.
If however, you do not have the connectivity you need there are other options. You can use 4g/5g and even bonded routers to take advantage of multiple sim cards if needed, but this will limit your upload speed to what is possible, so remember to factor this in.
Hopefully, this has given you a good overview of all the moving parts involved in building and producing your own live virtual event.
Here at Nova, we have been involved in web design, hosting, and video streaming for decades so if you would like some help bringing your idea to life get in touch!