Virtual Event Planning
For many of us, online meetings have become a ubiquitous part of our society in the past year. Since the way in which you structure your event has such a large impact on its success, we wanted to give some guidance on how to thoughtfully set up your event. What follows are some general guidelines and best practices for virtual meetings of many sorts. The specific settings discussed will be for Zoom, though much of this will be useful for other platforms, though the interface and exact functionality might differ a bit. The following guidelines are also just that: guidelines to get you started. These are generalized for common use, but you know the particulars of your event and attendees, so please feel empowered to adapt this advice for your needs.
If you use our Virtual Community Room Service, you won't go into the Zoom account interface and start throwing toggles, but rather would discuss with us what you would want, and we would adjust the settings accordingly. Some options, like enabling cloud recording, are not something that we can do on your behalf. Just be aware that there are a few select settings mentioned below, all marked with an *, that you could do with your own Zoom platform that can't be reflected in our service.
We have two pieces of advice that are true for just about any virtual event you are planning, and are accomplished outside of the the Zoom settings. The first piece of advice is that the more you can communicate with your attendees ahead of time about norms, your event process, technical requirements, or anything that can go wrong, the greater the chance that those issues can be resolved ahead of time. We encourage you to create a resource page, FAQ, or write-up of your policies and expectations. You can include these (or at least link to them) in your Zoom invite or any related correspondence you have with future attendees.
The second thing that we would advise for any large group, especially if folks arrive muted, is to briefly, but repeatedly, update folks on what is going on and what they can expect in the next few minutes. Frequently this is an MC who greats folks as they arrive, ideally by name if the circumstances allow it. This pre-event-check-in time is also a good moment to direct attendees to the particular co-host in charge of technical issues, compiling questions for your town hall event, or whatever is appropriate. Advice on how to manage a list of recently joined attendees can be found at the end of the article.
If you would like a primer on the basics of Zoom, we have a document to get you started, an FAQ on our Virtual Community Rooms available to Patrons, a brief on security settings, and finally our Virtual Community Room registration if you are a patron who would like to use our service.
Settings for security and mitigating chaos
This section is an overview of some aspects of Zoom that are related to security and structuring your event to minimize the chaos inherent in large groups.
Always have a password for your meeting. This may seem as odd advice as the password is included in the meeting invite, so you may wonder what’s the point? While having a password does not protect you from bad actors armed with your meeting invite, it does protect you from getting war-dialed. That being bots across the world trying semi-random Zoom meeting URL’s at the speed of lightning to see if they can luck into an unsecured one.
Unless there is a compelling reason not to do so, we suggest enabling the Zoom setting that allows only hosts and co-hosts to share their screen. This lessens the severity of the more graphic types of Zoom-bombings.
A host can record locally and to the cloud*, and can allow participants the ability to record locally on their own. When we talk about recording, we mean recording natively through Zoom. Any participant has the ability to use a 3rd party program or hardware to record their session. While recording natively, a recording notification is displayed on the screens of everyone in the meeting. Despite this, if you are recording the meeting, it is a good idea to notify participants of that fact.
Registration for Meetings
In order to get the Zoom meeting invite, you can require a registration that collects an attendee’s information from an exhaustive customizable list of data. After registering, the attendees will then get the meeting invite either automatically or upon manual approval from you. There is a hidden cost to this however as the extra steps, which may feel invasive as folks are loath to hand out their information, has the potential to cut down on participation. You can find out more about registration for meetings on Zoom here.
Probably the most common consideration that faces any event host is how chatty do you want your participants to be? While there is an element of security here, most of the time the consideration is about mitigating chaos in a meeting. There are many options for you to choose from, besides just disallowing everyone to speak or not. You can set the meeting defaults to have everyone start muted, and you can globally mute all participants with a hot key if things get out of hand.
Chat settings are the little sibling to Microphone settings: while there is an element of security in their settings, most of the consideration is about managing chaos. Also like microphone settings, there are a variety of options available, and they can be easily adjusted on the fly. In general if no moderator is monitoring the chat, you may want to consider disabling it, just so participants don’t mistakenly think they have an avenue to your attention that they don’t actually have.
Waiting room / Put in waiting room
In Zoom you can enable a waiting room that will hold participants in limbo until you manually let them into the meeting. You can stash a participant that has already joined the meeting back in the waiting room until you re-admit them into the meeting. The security application is obvious here. Since participants can only gain entry if you let them in, it makes the chance of getting Zoom-bombed that much more remote.
There are some aspects of administering the waiting room that may not be obvious however. Generally, participants do not need to sign into Zoom to join a meeting, they can type whatever they want into the name field when they join. This means that the name displayed might not be what you are expecting, and so if you are skittish about letting in folks with names unknown to you, you may very well be inadvertently excluding participants you would want in the event. Additionally, like chat, it requires another place the host needs to pay attention to. If the nature of your event precludes monitoring the waiting room, you should probably skip it as an option as you may get participants accumulating there, unable to proceed
In the Security tab, the host has the ability to lock the meeting, meaning no one can join from that point on. This is best done if you have a precise understanding of who is to attend, and what their screen-names in Zoom will be.
In the Zoom.us settings for your account, you can allow or disallow file transfer through the chat interface. There are several legitimate reasons why file transfer would be a convenient tool, such as circulating memoranda and other documents in a meeting. It can also be a vector for attack to anyone who clicks on the file, so unless you have a specific use in mind for your meeting, it is best left toggled off
Remote support allows the host, with permission, to take limited control over a participant’s desktop and interact with it as the user. Everything said about File Transfer also applies to Remote Support: unless you have a particular use in mind, it’s best just to leave it off.
Setting up your Event
Description: A point of service for the public to drop in on.
Recommended settings: Waiting room on, customize the waiting room message to advertise your workflow or marketing. Participants not muted on entry.
Labor intensity: Low.
Things to consider: One person can handle a point of service, using the waiting room to allow participants to interact with the public one-at-a-time in private and form a de facto (but unordered) queue in the waiting room. This can be combined with Zoom Phone if you want one platform to handle remote communications though. With breakout rooms, you can even jerry-rig a remote virtual office space with other staff attending to participants as the host assigns.
If you are thinking about a persistent POS, then you have three scheduling options to choose from. You can use your Personal Meeting ID for the service desk, a recurring meeting scheduled each day your POS is open, or use the connection invite for a meeting you schedule for years in the future. The reason you would be reluctant to schedule a fresh meeting each day is because you would have to update the connection information in all places that refer to it.
Each Zoom account comes with a Personal Meeting ID that is essentially a static meeting you can always start up on the fly, and that has the same contact information. Advertising your Personal Meeting ID is generally frowned upon as once a bad actor has it, it's not just one meeting they can harass you in, but what has now become your service desk.
A recurring meeting can be a workable analog for the PMI in this case, and if the worst happens you would then generate a new recurring meeting (and update all references to the old meeting information). Another workaround is to schedule a meeting years in the future, and then use it as a PMI substitute. There may be some limitations on this use not found in the literature, but in our testing we were able to restart over and over, meetings scheduled 2 years into the future. You still will have to update your service point connection info when the scheduled date expires.
Description: One main presenter, co-hosts added according to the size of the crowd to help manage tech issues and communication.
Recommended settings: Participants muted on entry, allow non-verbal feedback, only hosts can share screen, and chat settings appropriate to the type of discussion you want.
Labor intensity: Medium depending on size of crowd.
Things to consider: The main consideration in these settings is to streamline the flow of information to eliminate noise from errant chatter in the group. A typical agenda might include an introduction, then the presenter, then a time for questions.
If the size of your group is large enough that you want to organize attendees in their asking of questions, you have a couple options available. You can direct participants to use the non-verbal feedback options that you have enabled so that they can ‘raise their hand,’ then the presenter or moderator would name them and have them ask their question ( unmuting them if they don’t have the ability to unmute themselves).
You can also direct participants to send their questions in through the chat. If you don’t want a free-for-all that may get confusing to follow with a large crowd in attendance, you can limit this by having the chat settings set at Participant Can Chat With: Host only. If you are planning to have a moderator to facilitate the questions other than the presenter, then the moderator would be the host, and the presenter would be a co-host.
General medium sized event
Description: This would cover most events where there is an unknown amount of attendees who may want to present and speak. This might include a wake, large book-club, a family reunion, or a business meeting.
Recommended settings: Participants muted on entry, but are able to unmute themselves, only hosts can share screen.
Labor intensity: Low, but the host must be prompt to respond to the flow of the event and designate co-hosts when needed.
Things to consider: This setup is for events where you do not know the amount of screen-sharing that will be needed, but the size or make-up of the group is such that you still would like to provide some structure or limit authority. Unless you are familiar with all your participants, we would still recommend limiting screen-sharing to only hosts, but as a host, try be prompt with elevating and rescinding co-hosting authority to attendees that need to share their screen.
Description: A large meeting, open to the public, that mixes official agenda items or a presentation with participant questions and comments.
Recommended settings: Participants muted on entry, only hosts can screen-share, chat limited to host, a waiting room enabled with rules of conduct and / or an agenda laid out for attendees to read in the waiting room, possibly breakout rooms enabled.
Labor intensity: High.
Things to consider: In most ways a town hall has the same challenges of a webinar, just taken to the next level. As a public event where you want to allow an orderly but fair distribution of participation at certain points, Zoom gives you the tools to do this. We recommend having several co-host from your organization deputized to help administer the event. Having particular co-hosts responsible for distinct duties such as attending to administering the waiting room, moderating questions, providing overall structure as an MC, and specializing in technical difficulties are all worth considering.
While many town hall style events are purposely open to the public, it might be worth thinking through the way in which you disseminate the meeting invitation. If you publicly post the link on your webpage or in your newspaper you are more likely to get attendees brazened by anonymity than if they contact your organization for the link. Requiring this extra step with future attendees also allows you a chance for outreach or marketing. For instance, if an attendee contacts you for an invite, you can do a brief needs survey on demographics or to see if they need any help with the tech side of things before the event starts.
Enabling the waiting room not only serves as a level of security against Zoom-bombing, but it also functions as a tool to get your code of conduct and your meeting agenda in front of attendees so that everyone is on the same page with regard to what to expect. If you want to give your attendees every chance to consume that material, hosts can be a little slower than normal in admitting attendees in order to give them some time to read your event’s expectations (exempting attendees connecting by calling-in on a phone, as they can’t see your waiting room text).
If you feel that technical assistance an attendee needs during the event is likely to be involved or disruptive to others, you can have breakout rooms ready to go, just be conscientious only to send the particular attendee in need and the tech advisor into the breakout room.
Description: Online classroom.
Recommended settings: Private chat off, attendee local recording off, attendees can rename themselves off, microphone settings appropriate to class style. If screen-sharing is needed for the students, screen-sharing is on for all (lower risk alternative than promoting students to co-hosts).
Labor intensity: Low.
Things to consider: Obviously how you structure your online classroom is greatly dependent on the size of the class and maturity of the students. Breakout rooms may be a very useful tool for group work.
Trivia: Conference style
Description: Trivia or other interactive online activity, run in-part on a 3rd party platform where individuals participate.
Recommended settings: Mute attendees upon entering, only hosts can screen-share.
Labor intensity: Low.
Things to consider: This is basically a webinar, but the host screen-shares a presentation (for example a multiple-choice trivia competition) that they administer. There are several platforms for this such as Poll Everywhere and Mentimeter. These platforms also allow you to do word clouds, upvote a triage list, and do graphical inputs on a map or quadrant in addition to multiple choice quizzes.
Attendees take the quiz in another tab in their browser or preferably on a second device (a smart-phone is a good choice). They navigate to a URL that you supply and interact with the host’s presentation as the host advances it. The attendees interact with the event through the other platform and with the host and each other though Zoom. Note that the host should direct attendees participating in another browser tab back to their Zoom tab between questions to see the correct answers and the leaderboard if those are not displayed in the presentation interface (which is true for Poll Everywhere’s competition mode as of this writing).
When you are estimating your labor to run this event, note that while the host is running their presentation, they are unlikely to troubleshoot or multitask in other ways.
Trivia: Pub style
Description: This is essentially the same setup as the Trivia above, but breakout rooms are used so that small groups can collaborate in the event.
Recommended settings: Mute attendees upon entering, breakout rooms enabled, only hosts can share screen.
Labor intensity: Very High if each breakout room is facilitated by your event staff.
Things to consider: The host runs their interactive presentation on a third party platform, same as above, but in this case, only one person in each breakout room brings up the presentation client and shares their screen. The group collectively reads, debates, and agrees on an answer which the screen-sharer enters on the groups behalf. The biggest decision you have in this event is whether the person in the breakout room facilitating the group (sharing their screen and logged into the presentation client) is an event staff or an attendee.
While having an event staff in each breakout room is a very labor-intensive approach, it allows you to be assured that each room has a knowledgeable and well trained facilitator that can assist the group along.
The alternative, having an attendee be promoted to a co-host, is less secure and comes with the potential chaos of a learning curve on their part, but requires less staff on your side. If you do go with using attendees as facilitators, we recommend having a very well detailed write-up, or video training of the process that attendees can view ahead of time.
Grab-bag of Advice
Can you guys see this?
When screen sharing it's very common to wonder if folks can see what you are sharing. Why wonder? Before you present, have your smartphone join the event through the Zoom app, but not signed into your account on the Zoom app. When you connect on that phone, don’t connect the audio (its ok to just leave the audio connection dialog un-responded to). Now you have eyes as a participant and can just glance at your phone whenever you wonder what an attendee is seeing.
Keeping up with recently joined attendees
Before an event starts, if you are giving newly joined attendees a brief orientation on how your event works, the timeframe, and structure, it can be useful to know if anyone has joined since your last checkin with the guests. An easy way to do this is to use breakout rooms. Create one breakout room, give the existing attendees your the pre-event-check-in, assign them to the breakout room, but do not Open all rooms. As new attendees enter your event, they will be unassigned to the breakout room. Every time you repeat your check-in, assign the unassigned attendees to the breakout room. Repeat as many times as you need, just never Open the breakout room. When you are ready to begin your event, just close out the breakout room dialog.
Connecting by phone woes
When attendees join a meeting by phone (meaning they don't use the app on a smartphone, but call in old-school style). Their displayed name in Zoom will usually be their phone number. There are many events where displaying the phone number of an attendee is not ideal. A host or co-host can rename the displayed number once they have joined, but unfortunately cannot do this while they are in a waiting room.
If you want to quickly whisk callers into a private space to rename them, you can have the host admit a call from the waiting room, and then immediately place them in a breakout room where or a host or co-host can join the breakout room and rename them. Attendees who call in also will not be able to affirm the dialog window to join breakout room, so you have to enable Move all participants into breakout rooms automatically in the breakout room options.