Virtual Awards: How to run a successful ceremony

By redback

The show must go on, as they say, and thanks to huge leaps and bounds in technology and changing attitudes to the value and effectiveness of virtual events in general – this is certainly true for virtual awards nights.

In July, the organisers of The Emmys announced this year’s event, which will be hosted by comedian Jimmy Kimmel on 20 September, was to go virtual. Organisers were expected to leave no stone unturned when it comes to taking advantage of virtual technologies to make the event as popular as it always is.

That followed the recent successful virtual production of the 2020 Daytime Emmys held in June, which is being touted as the new blueprint for virtual awards ceremonies.

After the COVID-19 pandemic forced the the event’s organisers to throw their original plans out the window, the show was completely pre-taped from the lounge rooms of the show’s hosts – the women of The Talk (Sharon Osbourne, Marie Osmond, Eve, Sheryl Underwood and Carrie Ann Inaba), as well as the presenters and nominees.

All the finalists made pre-recorded acceptance speeches so the announcements were a complete surprise to both the audience and the winners.

The ceremony was broadcast simultaneously on CBS, attracting more than 3 million viewers. Following the event, more than half (54%) of respondents to a poll by said they found the ceremony ‘better than what they had expected’.


Why you should hold a virtual awards night


A key reason why more organisations are turning to the virtual space for award ceremonies is because, to put it simply, they just work.

Modern video conferencing and virtual event technology makes it easy for anyone, anywhere to get involved, with the only prerequisite being a reliable internet connection.

For starters, your audience is not limited by table space (or social distancing restrictions), and, as long as you choose the right service provider, you can invite as many people as you like.

Besides getting around the modern day event challenges of social distancing and travel restrictions, a key advantage of virtual awards nights is how much they cost to host compared to traditional face-to-face events.

For starters, you won’t have the expensive costs of hiring a venue, travel, accommodation, catering, decorations and printed collateral such as table cards, awards catalogues and signage.

Cutting down on the use of paper and flights also means you can reduce your carbon footprint, which is an extra advantage if you’re in the business of saving the environment or if a green event matches the culture of your organisation.

Saving money on things like event hire, travel and accommodation also means you’ll be able to invest more in the elements that will make your event a success, such as the best technology provider, inviting more special guests and innovative marketing.

Lower overheads also mean you can attract more participants and sponsors by reducing your ticket prices and other fees.

Virtual awards nights also defeat the tyranny of distance, so it’s often easier to get your target VIPs, guest presenters or judges to be involved.



Get the technology right


The first thing you’ll need for a successful virtual awards night is a reliable video conferencing service that meets your needs.

The best video conferencing services today are hosted in the Cloud and can reach anyone, anywhere, at any time, so inviting participants from across the globe who can’t get on a plane is no problem – as long as they’ve got a reliable internet connection.

However, not all video conferencing systems are created equal.

There’s nothing worse than getting dressed in your finest and not being able to book an Uber to take you to the dance on time.

The same goes for online events, especially awards nights which tend to feature a significant ‘opening act’, so make sure it’s easy for your guests to attend – especially if they’re paying for it.

For some services your attendees may have to dial in using a phone number, so if you’re inviting guests from overseas, make sure your service offers international dial-in numbers.

Other services require participants to enter a code to join the meeting, while the easiest simply require users to click on a link.

Solutions that require plug-ins or software installs such as those from Zoom and Microsoft Teams, can face challenges when it comes to compatibility, as well as corporate IT policies.

Before you sign up to any service that requires a plug-in or software install, get familiar with all the technology requirements. If you’re running an event at an enterprise level, run any technology compatibility requirements by your CTO to see if it is allowed under your IT policy, and that it will integrate properly with any existing software and hardware.

Some services are only compatible with Microsoft software, while others will run on any device and operating system. You’ll also need to check the compatibility of web browsers – most platforms run on all the popular browsers, but you’ll probably need to make sure all guests have the latest version which can be a hurdle in itself.

Live-streaming your event on a social media channel or through a platform like YouTube, Periscope or Twitch at the same time you’re broadcasting can be a good way to boost your audience reach and brand exposure.



Planning a successful virtual awards night


While planning a virtual awards night can be less complicated than coordinating a face-to-face event, the more preparation you put in before the big night, the more you and your participants will get out of it.

Try to keep the event itself shorter than you would for a traditional face-to-face awards ceremony – remember it’s a lot easier for people to tune out at home compared with leaving an obviously empty seat at a physical table.

You’ll need a detailed schedule so you don’t run over time. This should include everything from building in short breaks to the length of speeches, presentations, accompanying videos, live crosses, and any other interactive elements and entertainment you might be planning.

The type and format of your entertainment can be crucial. Online events make it harder for direct interaction with your attendees, so if you want to feature a comedian, make sure they’re aware of the subtleties of speaking to a virtual audience — such as engaging them without the benefit of being able to feed off the atmosphere of the crowd.

Pre-recording a band, or featuring them live in a studio or even their own lounge room, can be just as entertaining and engaging to a virtual audience as seeing them across a large ballroom.

Using a video conferencing service that includes a producer to manage the event in real time is the best way to avoid any technical hiccups when you’re including elements such as pre-recorded videos and crossing to remote guests and presenters.



How to host a virtual awards night


Your MC is just as important to a virtual event as they are to a traditional awards night because they are often the sole focus of the audience’s on-screen attention.

If you’re using a professional MC, many of the required techniques for face-to-face events, such as maintaining eye contact, being relaxed, having a good, high-level understanding of the subject matter and speaking clearly are the same for the virtual space.

Your MC should treat the camera like it’s another person in the room, which includes looking directly at the lens when speaking to the audience (but not staring at it).

If you’re shooting in a studio with a panel of judges or other guests, make sure they interact with each other as well to keep it natural.

The host should also be comfortable not holding a script they have to repeatedly refer to because looking away from the camera too frequently is distracting for your guests. Consider using a teleprompter if needed.

If required, your MC should be comfortable responding to questions taken from a virtual chat feature in your virtual awards event platform, and working with a producer.

The host also needs to be ready to fill to hold the audience’s attention when something unexpected happens, such as a special guest joining late or a technical glitch.

One option is to have two hosts that can speak to each other as well as to the audience, which can be especially engaging if they have a strong rapport and can respond to one another’s jokes or bounce ideas off each other.



Provide opportunities for networking and broader participation


Take advantage of virtual chat rooms for attendees to ‘mingle’ before and after the event, and even during short breaks throughout the evening.

For many people, awards nights are often the only chance they get during the year to catch up with former colleagues or current workmates spread across vast distances, so facilitating the opportunity for people to connect is an effective way to make your event more enjoyable and memorable.

Consider including a series of virtual meeting rooms where you feature all the finalists in a particular award category so attendees can compare and discuss the winners.

To broaden the scope and opportunities for participation, especially when you have a diverse range of award categories, virtual breakout rooms can also feature speakers relevant to certain categories, such as a pre-recorded video by an award winner discussing their product or service, or a judge discussing the key elements of a why a particular entry was chosen as the winner.

A virtual meeting room could also host a band, comedian or other entertainment as part of a VIP area.

You can also offer organisations the chance to sponsor chat rooms or other virtual spaces.

Make sure you include information on what’s taking place outside the main event when you confirm an attendee’s registration so they can plan their viewing experience.



Pre-event marketing


Just like any traditional awards night, it’s a good idea to get in early when it comes to your pre-event marketing.

Launch your event website and registration and Facebook pages, email your database and create your ads.

Share a short video with work by some of the finalists or from a previous event to stimulate interest and build anticipation.

Get people used to remote and virtual environments by holding an online event on Google Hangouts or a Twitter chat featuring one of your presenters, sponsors or previous award winners, in the lead up to your event.

Pre-event marketing is also an opportunity to offer more value to your sponsors. It could include making the introduction on a pre-event video, as well as providing opportunities on your event website and registration page, your corporate website and newsletters, and social media channels. You can also include sponsors in event reminders and registration emails.



Take advantage of online providers


Just because your attendees aren’t sitting in the room doesn’t mean they can’t share in some of the treats they might expect at a physical event.

You could ask registrants before the event what their favourite style of wine is and in the lead up to the awards, send them a bottle of their favourite drop along with some nibbles they can enjoy with it throughout the evening.

Think about signing up sponsors that might be interested in supporting such a strategy, like online providers and food delivery services.

You can also deliver sponsor or promotional materials to participants so they can engage with a product or service that might be related to an award recipient, finalist or sponsor.



Interactive polls, quizzes and competitions


The interactive polling features that come with most virtual event platforms can be used in other fun and interactive ways to boost the engagement level of participants at virtual awards ceremonies.

You could create a series of trivia questions related to your industry sector which can be read out throughout the event. Reward your winners with an instant prize that can be redeemed online or delivered.

Competitions also provide an incentive for attendees to stay tuned in, and can also be a great way to inject a bit of humour into your event, which will make it more enjoyable for everyone.



How to manage virtual acceptance speeches


Playing pre-recorded videos is a great way to showcase entries, while having all the finalists appear on a video wall as the winner is being announced is a great way to create anticipation and get everyone involved as they watch their reactions.

When it comes to your winners accepting awards, virtual events can give you total control over the length of an acceptance speech.

Pre-recording acceptance speeches means you can more easily determine the length of a speech because you can edit it down to the time limit you’ve allowed for — as opposed to turning down the mic and turning up the music as you try to shuffle someone off the stage.

Make sure you specify the time limit to your award winner, and let them know that you’ll have to edit anything that runs over.

If your award winners will be accepting their gong live, consider notifying them before the live event, and let them know how to accept the award for a virtual event, addressing the camera and speaking clearly.



Plan a virtual gift bag for your award attendees


Whether it’s the top gong, or a couple of helium balloons for the kids, everyone likes to take something home from an awards night.

Create a section on your event platform where sponsors can list or link to special offers, or attendees can redeem them or obtain codes for purchases on other sites.

While it’s sometimes hard to know what gets used in a physical delegate bag, it’s much easier to track the effectiveness of an online offer.



At the end of the day, the right virtual event platform, an engaging host, some catchy, pre-recorded videos, a dash of interactivity, some great acceptance speeches and a spot of entertainment will go a long way towards entertaining your virtual crowd and get them coming back for next year’s awards!