For virtual events, many planners look to recreate the experience of an in-person event as closely as possible. There are many advantages to this approach—it helps planners wrap their heads around the attendee experience, which can be especially helpful for those who are new to virtual events, and often leads to creative enhancements and fulfilling touchpoints. On the other hand, planners who stick too closely to their in-person planning processes may miss the opportunity to see the full potential of virtual events or even hurt the overall attendee experience.

Over the last few months, one of the big debates we’ve seen among our clients and vendors revolves around prerecording virtual event content. At first glance, many planners assume that truly “live” content is essential to creating an exciting virtual event since it is closest to how in-person events operate. They assume that live streaming is the only way to create interaction. The truth is, the majority of attendees won’t even notice if most types of sessions are truly live or not, and a lot of what people think is live is actually prerecorded.

Taking a look at one of the largest streaming platforms for reference, YouTube offers creators options to upload, live stream, or premiere their videos. These, or similar, methods are applied to virtual events on pre-existing and custom-built platforms, representing the main options for presenting content.

a microphone and a sign which reads "on air" in a recording studio

In this instance, “uploading” refers to ready-made content that has been made available on the platform for viewers to watch whenever they want. Users can opt-in to receive notifications when new content is uploaded by creators of their choice, but, in general, play videos when they happen to see them. The interactions available to them are limited to leaving comments or rating the video with a thumbs up/thumbs down tool. Uploading content allows creators to have full control over the videos they produce. Viewers generally expect higher production quality from this type of content. For virtual events, this type of content is parallel to videos stored in a media library, often event sessions that have ended yet remain available to watch.

Much the opposite, “live streamed” content happens 100% as viewers watch. In general, this content is unscripted and fully centered around the creator’s ability to interact with their audience through a live chat feature alongside the video in addition to the typical commenting and rating tools. This style is extremely successful in the world of e-sports, where video game action draws fans much the same way as live sports. Live stream is the riskiest option in terms of technology, as each attendee’s experience is completely reliant on the streamer who, in many cases, is at home equipped with standard internet access. Familiarity with streaming is also a concern, as not all speakers are used to presenting to a virtual audience. Live content also presents the problem of awkward pauses between content as the next speaker or entertainer takes over the stream.

Somewhere between the two, YouTube allows its creators to “premier” their videos. In these cases, creators produce their content for uploading the same as they would for any upload. When the video goes live, however, viewers are invited to a live stream-like watch party where the interface reflects that of a live video. Users enjoy all of the features available to them on a live stream and are often joined by the video creator in the chat. This style blends the control and production capability of pre-recorded content with the excitement and interaction of a live stream. It’s also more reliable than live streaming and may be more comfortable for speakers. For virtual events, this style appears in many forms, like a keynote or streaming entertainment.

two people video chatting

Depending on the needs of your event, it’s likely that the best method of delivering content includes some combination of all three. Of course, certain session types can’t be prerecorded, like a Q&A or open forum discussion. A tip we love is to combine premiered content with a live Q&A, having the speaker pre-record the bulk of their presentation and return in the same outfit and location to live stream their audience interaction. Maybe the day begins with a brief, live welcome address from your organization’s leadership, continues to premiered content for the majority of sessions, and offers downtime for attendees to explore your media library on their own.

When in doubt, you can always rely on the classic event planner tool of imagining yourself in the attendees’ shoes, walking (or in this case clicking) through the event and interacting with each touchpoint. Think about the type of interaction that truly creates value at each step of the way. Understanding how your attendees will interact with your content is key to choosing the best fitting method.