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Proven Guidelines for Virtual Awards Nights

You have been charged with the task of keeping your annual awards alive during the COVID-19 crisis. How are you going to achieve this?


The one question that we’re now being asked almost daily: Is a virtual awards night viable?

The answer is yes, without doubt as long as you cater to your audience motivations and follow a few rules.

We have all attended awards where we wished the gala event was over by 8.00 pm, and the reason is because some of the typical rules of how to create a fabulous celebration need to be rewritten for award celebrations.

The major point of difference for awards is that the presentation must communicate a flood of information. This means that success primarily relies on finding engaging, exciting and entertaining ways to verbally and visually disseminate this plethora of information.

The good news is that, thanks to inexpensive technology, this can now be achieved via a virtual means easier than ever.

There’s also good evidence that taking your awards event online could open your program to nominees who otherwise would not consider entering awards. I know it sounds counter-intuitive, but the simple truth is that there are two main types of people in the world: those who shy away from the spotlight and others who thrive on attention.

Our research over the past two decades shows that shy people tend not to enter self-nominating awards programs because the idea of standing on the winners’ stage fills them with anxiety. By contrast, those who flourish on attention love awards that culminate in big gala dinners where fellow guests will celebrate their success. Your challenge is to create a virtual event where attendees choose their level of interaction and exposure. You must let shy nominees celebrate in private while giving others the opportunity to shine.

What format options do you have?

There are four main virtual awards presentation mechanisms:

1. Live stream the event on a single social media platform, such as Facebook, Instagram or YouTube. The advantage is that this is an easy, inexpensive option that almost anyone can do from anywhere. The disadvantages are that you must convince your audience to “come together” on one social media platform and not everyone will be au fait with that platform.

2. Live stream on multiple social media platforms thanks to simulcasting software, such as Restream, Switchboard Live and Castr. There are others, but we’re mentioning these specifically because each is proven, credible and incorporates integrated chat boards. Chatting is important because it allows virtual attendees to congratulate finalists and winners in real time. Depending on which option and features you choose, the cost may be higher than using a single social media channel, but the advantages are that you will not need to worry about bandwidth drop-out (where the live stream drops out on the audience) and each audience member can choose their social media option.

3. Use online conferencing software. We’re about to go down the rabbit hole because the options are mind boggling and each has its own set of specific features. Most people think of meeting software like Zoom when you mention video conferencing. The key advantages of Zoom are that you can interview each winner via live video chat and the recording feature means you can share the video later. However, some event organisers report that it can be expensive and unpredictable in quality for large, interactive events. I’m choosing only one more to mention here so you can see what an alternative to Zoom can look like. Crowdcast has built-in registration for ticket prices if you choose to charge plus options for multi-streaming on social media platforms, pre-recorded presentation options, live video chat with winners and has a playback function for anyone who missed the excitement. However, there are dozens of others so do your homework to choose the one with features that work best for your situation.

4. Pre-record the entire “show” and schedule it on one or more platforms. This is the least nail-biting option for professional announcements and can be achieved through the creation of a single video that incorporates all your event elements, but because it is not live then you have to work harder to find effective ways to engage your audience.

Which option is best?

That depends on your resources and budget. The least expensive and most fraught approach is live streaming via social media. The more expensive options of simulcasting and virtual conferencing deliver the best features for audience engagement.

Be aware that a virtual event without audience engagement is nothing more than a webinar. And an awards presentation webinar doesn’t sound like much fun! So, no matter which option you choose, find ways to engage your audience.

And remember that what makes awards presentations different to other events is the necessity to find exciting and entertaining ways to make the announcements. How do you achieve that?

By using variety and surprise to create an event that is as exceptional as the people being honoured. This can be achieved by variety in pace, visuals, announcement styles and entertainment. That’s right – still consider engaging an entertainer for a short piece of no more than 10 minutes. An act that requires little audio-visual set up and that the audience at home can watch with their whole family and enjoy. A magician or comedian, for instance.

Other aspects often incorporated into live Awards presentations that I recommend you retain include:

  • Making a good first impression when the presentation starts, so kick-off with something unexpected and surprising

  • Creating screen shots that feature special offers from your sponsors that can be interspersed through the presentation

  • Holding a live poll to announce a “People’s Choice” winner to engage with the audience

  • Incorporating live or pre-recorded acceptance speeches for winners who want their 5 minutes of fame

  • Announcing at least one of the winners in an unexpected way to keep the attendee’s focus. For instance, over the years we’ve had envelopes that contain the winner’s names delivered to the MC in many different ways - using a remote control car, via a pulley, handed over by a superhero, hidden in a flower bouquet and even via an illustrator who drew a cartoon of the winner! All were highly visual, unexpected and therefore kept the audience engaged.

That leads me to my biggest tip for virtual awards night success: Think about ways to encourage participation, preparation and excitement long before the presentation and give attendees materials to create a unified celebration where people are only separated by distance.

Here are five ideas to kick-start your creativity:

  • Announce a dress code a month before the celebration and then encourage social sharing of what guests will be wearing

  • Invite guests to enjoy the evening’s menu, and provide simple recipes to recreate the dishes at home

  • Invite guests to make a specific yet simple “Awards cocktail” for which you’ve provided the recipe and then host pre-dinner drinks 10 minutes before the presentation starts with music playing online. Remember, attendees are not mingling with other guests so the typical 30 minutes of pre-dinner drinks is too long.

  • Announce a lucky door prize during the pre-dinner drinks period

  • Send a trivia playing card to each attendee before the night, intersperse the game throughout the presentation and grant a prize for a photograph of the first completed, correct entry received on a specific email address.

Blending technology and creativity to create winner participation choices and engagement for everyone will mean that all stakeholders in your virtual awards event – your organisation, sponsors, finalists, winners and attendees - will be winners.

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