How to Host Better Breakout Sessions


Make the best of your breakout rooms with our best practices.

Remember discussion sections in college or high school? Sometimes, they generated productive exchanges and even shifted perspectives. But more often, a few minutes of unstructured conversation gave way to random small talk and a lot of texting under the table. 

Done well, breakout rooms give your attendees the chance to make all the connections and your memories your marketing promises. The discussions can educate your audience, while the more informal air can breathe life into even the most corporate of virtual events. 

But, like high school, those discussions can just easily get derailed. If you don’t use a moderator or don’t plan the right topics, etc., you’ll lose your audience’s attention in seconds. And since your audience will be online and able to switch their attention elsewhere once they turn their camera off, it’s especially important to begin your breakout room with structure and focused conversation.

So if you want your breakout rooms to add value to your event, rather than serving as filler content between sessions, you need to approach them as strategically as you would a “real” virtual event session. 

Here’s how to make the best of your breakout rooms. 

What are virtual breakout rooms? 

Breakouts are workshop-style groups geared toward discussion, collaboration and problem-solving. Typically placed right after a keynote or big sessions, breakouts split your sprawling 100+ person audience into smaller, more manageable groups (think: 20-50 people) that are more conducive to conversation and participation. 

During a virtual event, attendees usually enter the main “room,” then get automatically redirected to separate webinar rooms hosting their breakout session. Once the breakout discussion ends, attendees are then automatically “sent” back to the main session for a wrap-up, followed by instructions for accessing their next session. 

What are the benefits of breakout rooms?  

Breakouts give attendees a chance to talk through event topics with like-minded peers, and conduct productive back-and-forths that wouldn’t be possible in the larger setting.

In the virtual space, breakouts also double as a valuable engagement tool. Since attendees chat one-on-one, breakouts can replace the spontaneous coffee break and bathroom line conversations that get lost in a virtual event setting. 

With breakout rooms, hosts can also:

  • Improve attendee engagement and participation, which can boost attendance at later sessions
  • Offer targeted content and offers to distinct segments of the audience
  • Tailor content to attendees across experience, industry and skill levels (i.e., beginner and advanced, new leads v. existing customers) 
  • Allow attendees to network and chat in a more “natural” and less structured environment 
  • Give attendees opportunities to explore ideas in a less formal environment 
  • Glean future topics of interest from attendance numbers in each breakout room 
  • Break up the overall event schedule and reduce event fatigue 

What kind of breakouts can I host? 

Breakout rooms are usually discussion sections that are directly related to the event topic. However, we’ve seen our customers excite and drive unexpected value for their attendees with the following breakout formats: 

Cocktail breaks: After a long day of event programming, everyone could use some time to unwind. For that purpose, consider using an afternoon session as a cocktail break. In addition to serving your audience, this is a great place to insert more personality into your event program. You could give each breakout room a different theme with its own design, background, and playlist, giving attendees the chance to chat in a more relaxed format. 

For example, Locations, one of Hawaii’s largest independent real estate brokerage firms, hosted several cocktail sessions using breakout rooms, each with its own unique theme and costume contest to celebrate their agents’ achievements.

PS: You can also use a cocktail break as a sponsor engagement opportunity

A virtual cocktail session + costume contest hosted by Locations

Yoga or meditation sessions: The problem: Your attendees are more likely to drop off from your event during the mid-afternoon slump hours.

The solution: Schedule a yoga or meditation session as an early-afternoon breakout room option. Both activities have been shown to improve brain function, memory, energy levels, and mood. All those qualities combine to make your attendees more aware and connected with the event program later in the day, when they’d otherwise be zoning out.

Consider pre-recording a session by a fitness instructor or meditation leader prior to the event, then rolling it for your attendees. Then have an instructor on hand to answer any questions or guide participants through the activity. This minimizes the risk of error, injury and technical delays without sacrificing the engagement your audience needs to make the most of the activity. 

Speed networking: Because they split a large audience into smaller groups, breakout rooms are very conducive to virtual networking. During speed networking, attendees meet with one another and discuss their professional goals for about 5 minutes before moving on to the next attendee. These sessions are designed to be just long enough for attendees to learn about one another, exchange information, and arrange a time for a deeper conversation if desired.

Since it allows people to meet “face to face,” speed networking in breakout rooms can help your attendees break the ice and get more comfortable with virtual networking. For that reason, we recommend using speed networking early on in the event agenda (right after the keynote on the first day).

Choose between three different formats: 

  • round-robin, in which participants meet others one-on-one sequentially
  • station-based, in which participants schedule a time to meet with specific people beforehand, or
  • group-based, in which participants meet in groups. 

How do I execute breakout rooms? 

Pick the right breakout format: Depending on your overall event agenda and the timing of your breakouts, your audience may want different things from their breakout sessions.

For instance, if you’re hosting your breakout sessions at 10am, right after a captivating, high-energy keynote, your audience will be revved up and ready to chat with other attendees with a workshop-style session.

But if your breakouts come right after lunch, your audience may want to unwind with a presentation-style session while they digest and regain energy. Since you’ll most likely need to schedule your breakouts around the availability of your main speakers, ensure that you’re designing your breakouts in a way that maximizes attendance and participation.

Administer pre-event surveys to determine breakout room topics: To state the obvious, breakout sessions work best when attendees get to talk about topics they’re passionate about. 

So in the months before your event, use email and social media to poll your audience on topics they’d like to discuss in breakout rooms. Then design your breakout room agenda to fit their wishlist. By crowdsourcing, you’re enlisting your audience as co-creators of your event, making them more likely to participate and promote it.

From there, recruit facilitators, speakers, sponsors and your own team members to act as moderators of those rooms. Sessions can be track-specific, theme-specific, or unrelated to any specific theme. What matters is that they give your attendees a chance to collaborate or simply learn something in a more casual format. 

Ask guests to pre-register for breakout sessions: Besides ensuring that your guests are hearing about the topics they care about most, this incentivizes people to register more quickly. This gives your team more lead time to promote (or even cut) less popular options and staff each room with the appropriate moderators.

However, some guests may forget to register for breakouts or drop into the event on the day of. So create a plan for unregistered attendees: Leave unfilled seats in each breakout room to save space or if that isn’t possible, allow overflow guests to join a standby list for full breakout rooms. Also add “drop-in” sessions specifically for these individuals, including meditation or networking rooms 

Consider creating a breakout room for product onboarding and troubleshooting: If you’re selling a SaaS or enterprise software product, use breakout rooms to help your customers master basic processes on their own. Meeting “face to face” with a customer support rep, your customers can show reps their browsers, identify issues and get their questions answered more quickly. This saves them a 20-email back-and-forth with support—and could save your company some churn in the long run. 

This serves two purposes. Not only are you answering your current audience’s questions, you’re laying the groundwork for a repeatable, evergreen customer self-education program. 

Using a screen recording service like Loom, you can also repurpose this session as evergreen training content, so that anyone onboarding to your product on their own can view the video and complete the steps themselves, no emails and chatbots required. You can also create documentation or FAQs in response to the most commonly asked questions. 

Train moderators to get the conversation started: If you’ve ever suffered through an insufferably boring breakout, or a “Bueller? Bueller?”-esque moderator, you know that these sessions live and die by the first five minutes. 

So recruit subject matter experts or enthusiastic team members as moderators for each room. Give each one a list of room-specific talking points to kickstart the conversation quickly and alleviate any awkwardness within the audience.

What’s considered a “good” ice-breaker is very context-dependent, especially in the virtual settings: Overscheduled C-suite professionals won’t be down for small talk, while hyperconnected salespeople will relish the chance to swap information. 

As a failsafe, ask your attendees what they thought of the last speaker (after all, they signed up for the event for a reason). For a more personal approach, consider these virtual icebreakers from Zapier, a fully remote software company

(Bonus: Also recruit one of your team members to join the breakout room as a guest, so they can contribute to the conversation as well.) 

Ensure your moderators and attendees can use the technology: Besides just turning their cameras and microphones on, breakout moderators will need to manage the webinar room’s chat panel, answer and upvote questions submitted by the audience, distribute polls through the platform and more. So before going live, conduct onboarding sessions with each moderator to ensure they know how to perform these functions on the virtual event platform.

Since their microphones and webcams are disabled by default during most main sessions, attendees will also need to double-check their tech before participating in the breakout rooms. So in your pre-event guide, encourage attendees to test their microphones and cameras.

Also provide troubleshooting guides and checklists to help them avoid—or resolve—common mistakes (some common mistakes include using corporate VPNs, using outdated browsers or running other video apps in conjunction with the virtual event platform). 

Share insights with the whole audience: After breakout discussions, attendees typically return to the whole group for a debrief/wrap-up before leaving the room entirely. Encourage attendees to share takeaways and new learnings from their breakout room with the rest of the audience at that time (If it makes sense for the format of your session).

This could take place during an open conversation immediately following the breakouts, or you can have attendees contribute to a document that is shared with attendees following the event. 

Use your breakout room performance and data to inform future content topics: Breakout room activity can shed light on your audience’s interests and needs, both of which should drive your future marketing strategy. For instance, if your breakout room on cybersecurity went well over capacity, but your room on AI has virtual crickets, focus more of your content around the former and less on the latter. 

Want to learn more about how the world's most innovative companies are using online events to drive business results? BigMarker's Account Executives are here to help! Contact us to schedule a demo or get started.

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