June 11, 2021
How to design virtual events with diversity and inclusion in mind.
As technology becomes more accessible, more and more people can tell their stories on a smaller scale. Face-to-face, highly personal and more affordable than other marketing channels, virtual events have become a powerful vehicle to spread information and lift the voices of people from previously underrepresented backgrounds.
That, in turn, exposes us to new truths about our world and makes us question the values and ideas we assumed were true. More importantly, when people see and hear from someone like them for the first time, they feel understood and validated on a basic level—and keep coming back.
But events are notorious for doing the exact opposite. In March 2017, Goldman Sachs hosted a two-day technology conference in which 93% of the speakers were men. In 2016, Davos and PayPal each held all-male panels on gender equality. And although the issue has gained attention in the last three years, a 2019 study published in the Trade Show News Network found that in-person event panels are still 69 percent male. Racial diversity and LGBTQ+ representation continues to lag as well.
This doesn’t just “leave people out." It deprives all your guests of a variety of perspectives and insights that will round out their event experience. So a more inclusive virtual event isn’t just good for your audience, but your business.
Here’s how to design virtual events that promote inclusion—and amplify all the voices in your crowd.
We’re all working within the limits of our lived experiences, meaning that we each approach the planning process with our own specific insights and blind spots. For instance, I’m a woman who needed full financial aid to afford college, so I’m predisposed to consider the gendered implications and financial barriers of decisions. But I can only understand the experience of members of racial and sexual minorities in a secondhand way, which often gets layered in bias.
That’s not inherently bad—it’s part of being a person that can only live one life at a time. It’s virtually impossible for any one person to have all the answers—and that’s OK. But to plan a more inclusive event, you do need to account for it upfront and remain aware of it throughout the planning process.
Next, widen your view of your company’s mission. Especially when they’ve been working on the same product for a long time, marketers can take the look and feel of their target audience for granted, and miss other populations who might be interested in their product or message. So as you plan, consider your event objectives more holistically. Ask yourself how your event can benefit or provide more value to more people.
Remember those stock images of women laughing at their sad salads? Or tampon commercials featuring women dancing joyfully through a field? Or the op-ed that addressed incoming First Lady Dr. Jill Biden as “kiddo”? The situations are unrealistic enough that they’ve spawned memes and social media outrage—and they also demonstrate the importance of diverse leadership.
Because when companies misunderstand and alienate their customers, it’s because they miss some fundamental understanding about that audience: i.e., that women use both salads and tampons, but they’re not exactly thrilled about it. Diverse teams—say, those with some women in the room—don’t miss as many blind spots.
And even when the issue is not directly related to diversity, diverse teams make better decisions, according to a study by Northwestern University, mostly because their internal differences prompt them to debate ideas more thoughtfully before making a choice (which, given the dangers of groupthink, is more likely to be wrong).
To hold a truly inclusive event, practice what you preach. starting with your own planning team. By taking more perspectives into account, you can work together to create more well-rounded content that reflects the lived experiences of your whole audience. You can spot more potential issues, like religious and cultural holidays conflicting with your event. And with more diverse team members comes a broader and more interesting network, from which you can source better panelists and sponsors.
The easiest place to start: Your speaker base. A diverse, well-rounded range of speakers—whose skills and experiences differ from one another and your audience—practically guarantees that your audience will walk away with something stirring and new.
Historically, event organizers have argued that it’s too difficult, unnecessary or too sexist/racist to find women or minority speakers—or that they just want the “best” speakers. But once you set the excuses aside, it’s easier than it seems.
For example, Melanie Ehrenkranz put out a call for female tech speakers on Twitter and got 1,000 names in 24 hours (see the list here). You can also use employee resource groups, affinity-based professional networks and even LinkedIn to source speakers from different backgrounds—and give your audience fresh voices to hear from.
Besides being the inclusive move, a representative speaker base presents more ideas and honestly? It just keeps things more interesting. Who wants to hear the same kind of speaker say the same thing, over and over and over. Ruchika Tulshyan, the author of The Diversity Advantage, puts it best:
“I find it a waste of time to attend a conference where I won’t learn from a wide variety of expertise, views, and experiences.”
Some speakers have even started asking events to commit to a diverse panel before signing on, putting the onus on organizers to broaden their networks.
But diversity isn’t just a numbers game—getting enough presenters who look different in the door to appease your audience and conscience. It’s about giving those presenters a comfortable environment that encourages them to share their own stories. You can start with the following:
Who better tell you what they want than the people you’re giving it to?
To ensure your virtual event’s speakers, content and flow reflects the diversity of your audience, crowdsource some of the planning decisions to them. Some places to start:
This audience feedback can expose blind spots or unexplored points in your programming. But this only works if your audience is diverse enough to tell you what you don’t know, but don’t rely on crowdsourcing too heavily. The more your audience can impact your programming, the more included and validated they’ll feel navigating the entire virtual event.
The importance of personal pronouns shows how much one word can shape a person’s sense of self. Use your event software to validate those choices, right from the registration form. On BigMarker, for instance, you can create custom registration fields that ask for a wider range of gender-neutral titles and pronouns. You can create open-ended text fields, dropdown menus or checkboxes, enabling you to provide more choices that reflect your audience’s identities.
It’s hard to speak up in a group of strangers, especially when attendees are going from their living rooms straight to the event without any small talk to warm them up. Some attendees may need more time to get used to the group—or even be reassured that it's OK for them to speak up throughout out the event. So use a service like Capsule to let people introduce themselves on a social video wall. They can also submit video questions on the agenda ahead of time, which can make them feel more involved in shaping the content of the program.
This is a great way to make your entire audience feel seen and included from the start, setting the tone for them to share more throughout the whole virtual event.
Breaking down huge keynotes into smaller groups, breakout rooms gives participants the chance to share their thoughts in a small group dynamic. The conversational format also encourages people to make more one-on-one connections, prompting people to get to know each other individually and feel heard.
If you’re hosting an internal event, separating people into BigMarker breakout rooms by job title (aka, separating junior employees from their managers) also encourages them to share more honestly and critically than they would in a larger general setting.
In BigMarker, you can create up to 25 breakout rooms with participants randomly sent or pre-assigned to a room, letting you shape the feel of those experiences.
But discussions aren’t productive unless everyone in the room feels they can freely voice their opinion without retribution. And unfortunately, that’s not a common experience.
Any virtual event should have a set of standards for attendee behavior and discourse, along with a policy for responding to violations. At the beginning of the event, tell your attendees who they can contact with concerns so that they know you’re taking their experiences seriously.
Hosts can then respond to violations in several ways: On BigMarker, hosts and admins can remove individuals from the session room, use the block list to boot violators from the whole event, or even block inflammatory words from chat boxes entirely.
The idea isn’t to police or censor your attendees, but to cultivate psychological safety, an environment “where one feels that one’s voice is welcome with bad news, questions, concerns, half-baked ideas and even mistakes,” according to Harvard Business School psychologist Amy Edmundson. When an environment feels psychologically safe, people feel more trusting and more confident to express their opinion.
That results in more productive discussions, and in turn, a more memorable discussion for everyone.
You won’t need to set up physical accommodations for audience members with physical, visual or hearing challenges, but you still need to adapt your virtual environment for those needs. Address potential physical accessibility challenges in your event program and encourage all of your presenters to follow suit. Start with these best practices from Melinda Epler, the CEO of Change Catalyst, a consulting firm that helps tech companies build inclusive ecosystems:
2020 spotlighted many unresolved racial and gender inequities, including the gap in business ownership and opportunity. Though the issue is gaining recognition, minority business owners still struggle to secure business loans and attain necessary social capital to the same degree as their white counterparts. The same is true for women entrepreneurs and small business owners, according to the National Association for Women Business Owners.
Through your sponsor and exhibitor choices, you can spotlight minority- and women-owned businesses. And these event partnerships don’t just provide nebulous “exposure.” In booths, your event partners can conduct product demonstrations with attendees, hold sales meetings, chat one-on-one with guests and obtain lead data from a brand new audience.
Although this requires buy-in from the participating company, it offers minority and female business owners valuable and necessary access to development and networking opportunities, which can have cascading effects for their business success. You can also use sponsorship tiers to provide differently priced packages, giving potential sponsors more chances to participate while also adding to your event’s budget.
Growing up as a girl in your standard lower middle-class family, I never saw women hold jobs besides teaching or nursing, so I really never thought to aspire to careers beyond that. Then I started at a top-10 university, watched my senior friends get investment banking jobs at Goldman Sachs, report on Capitol Hill and start law and med school. Once I saw people like me in those jobs, I could start considering those possibilities for myself. But if I’d gone to a smaller college, I wouldn’t have had that vital exposure.
When an industry has a diversity problem, it really has an exposure problem. It lacks a professional pipeline exposing students of underrepresented backgrounds to that field, resulting in the long-standing diversity “issues” we’ve seen in tech, finance, government and really any leadership position.
Virtual event organizers, especially those in traditionally homogeneous industries, can provide those opportunities by offering discounted or comped entry to students and young professionals from underrepresented backgrounds. Hosts can do this via partnerships with financial aid scholarship organizations (like the Posse, QuestBridge or Evans Scholarships) or affinity groups at graduate programs (some school-specific examples are Kellogg’s Executive Women’s Network or Pride at Kellogg).
The exposure and networking opportunities can help students broaden their possibilities and networks at a time when they’re best positioned to do something about it. And as a bonus, it also gives companies additional pipelines for new talent.
One of the biggest challenges to inclusive events is assuming that you’ve already got it figured out, whether because your team looks visibly diverse or you’ve never gotten any complaints before.
But it’s hard to account for every perspective in your audience and as our understanding of social inequity evolves, norms and terms are shifting as well. Under those conditions, teams with the best intentions can still unintentionally say or do something that makes an attendee feel marginalized.
The only way that organizers can avoid those accidental missteps in the future is by learning from it and adjusting accordingly. But it’s difficult, to say the least, for people to speak up in the moment that they’ve been made to feel uncomfortable. Often, they need to fully process these experiences before they suggest feedback that’s constructive and actionable.
So through your post-event feedback survey, give people a space to address any concerns that weren’t resolved during the event. That feedback may force you to reconsider your assumptions or ask tough questions of your team.
But if you take a positive and solution-focused approach, free of blaming and shaming, it will help you create a guest experience that amplifies and appreciates the stories of everyone in the room.
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