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Hosting Online Events? 8 Best Practices for Museums & Libraries

By: Sarah Roberts
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Museums and libraries are continuing to host more online events, webinars and virtual tours to attract their communities and audiences abroad. Cultural institutions have found that virtual events offer different benefits from in-person ones and complement important engagement efforts.

Putting together a successful online event requires plenty of preparation. As AST supports the growth of online events throughout the cultural sector, we’re sharing key reasons you should likely start using this format and eight ideas on how to make for online activations which are top-notch.

Why museums & libraries should host virtually

Virtual events allow for flexibility, with people being able to tune in and engage from anywhere in the world. Additionally, when you remove the need to commute, locals can sign on during a lunch break or while their baby is napping to catch a lecture on a topic that piques their interest. As a result, museums and libraries hosting online events are increasing their potential audiences and connecting with people who cannot otherwise visit in-person. That larger audience can translate into more site visits, connections and publicity for your exhibits. 
Webinars, online lectures and similar events also give people a chance to connect with your curators and staff. Some museums are already doing a great job of introducing the public to interesting characters who work behind the scenes. For example, the Frick Collection hosts a popular happy hour event every Friday called “Cocktails with a Curator.”

smiling man working on his laptop on a white table

Letting the public have a glimpse of research efforts or collections that aren’t on display allows patrons an opportunity to feel closely connected to their favorite cultural institutions. Having these events online means that you can host as many people as you want to without worrying about having enough space or putting delicate collections and artwork at risk. 

Also, when you host a great webinar or lecture online, you can convert that content into videos. Those videos can remain on your website and make great content that viewers can watch on-demand. With so many reasons to host live events, investing the time and resources to do them right is well worthwhile. Here are eight steps to take to ensure you’re putting together the best possible events.

a gallery full of white sculptures

1. Set clear goals

Creating a webinar because everyone’s doing it isn’t a great reason. Without clear goals, your event might not be engaging, useful or even interesting. Consider the possible reasons to host a live virtual lecture and any data points you want to measure for success.

Is it about generating interest and buzz for a new exhibit? Perhaps you want to host an event to provide a sneak peek or behind-the-scenes look at upcoming special exhibits. You may want to have an expert on the topic as your host to get the public excited about going to see that exhibition. Are there audiences in specific regions that you’re interested in reaching? Hosting the same event live in different time zones and customizing it could help to engage different audiences and personalize the experience to them.

Maybe you are interested in creating more online content to improve your website. Hosting events so that you have snackable clips of content for your site to turn into ads to target potential visitors can also prove fruitful.

Once you know why you’re doing a particular event or how many audience members you’re looking to engage and why, you can start thinking about how to achieve your desired results.

2. Select strong speakers

Museums and libraries often have endless interesting people at their disposal to host their events or serve on virtual panels. When hosting these events online, you also provide yourself with more flexibility to invite speakers from different regions who may not be able to make it in to participate in an event in-person. 

For the discussions to be successful, look to schedule not just knowledgeable people, but engaging people. For instance, a top historian who doesn’t also have the ability to convey their research or speak in a compelling way, won’t make for an engaging event, even if they’re an expert. Consider adding multiple voices and viewpoints to the conversation to combine the credibility of different experts to fuel more dynamic conversations that will excite your audiences.

When considering external or guest speakers, also look to engage those with large networks or followings to drive promotion for your event. To get buy-in from an outside speaker, you may want to consider co-hosting or co-branding the event. By doing so, you can find speakers who will feel compelled to share the event on their social channels, newsletters and more to drive more awareness for what you’re trying to achieve and sign-ups.

The American Libraries Association, for example, frequently hosts webinars with experts from different museums across the country. A partnering organization can also help you increase your audience size by giving you more channels through which you can promote the event.

woman looking at a painting in a corner

3. Pick an optimal day and time

Scheduling your online event on a weekend might not be a good idea. In fact, the best days for webinars are Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays. Statistically, if you plan your event on those days, you’re likely to have a better turnout. 

The time of day you plan for is also important. In many cases, early afternoon or during lunch breaks is the best option. However, this is typically the case for audiences that work standard business hours. If your audience includes school age children or retirees, the optimal time might be different. Take a moment in the planning process to identify your target audience to get a sense of when it might work best for them to join live. Also, remember to be mindful if you’re trying to attract an audience that spans different time zones.

Sometimes the best option is simply to test. Host events at different times until you find one that seems to work best for your audience. You can also poll your community to get their perspective and let them feel connected and heard for when works best for them. 

4. Learn the tech

Zoom and other platforms for hosting virtual events are fairly user-friendly, and most people have at least some experience using them. However, you should give yourself and your team plenty of time to practice using the platform before the event. Make sure that a designated person is responsible for starting the event, enabling screen sharing, displaying any presentations or videos and is able to set up captioning or other necessary accessibility solutions.

Zoom and other platforms like Webex also offer much more than just a platform with which to livestream. With options like polls, chat, Q&As, emoji sharing and much more, you can look to milk the features these platforms offer for higher engagement. 

It’s always a good idea to have a backup person who is ready and able to step in if the original person designed to host can’t attend. For example, if that person’s Wi-Fi cuts out or an emergency comes up, someone else should know how to get the event rolling and understand the ins and outs of all the platform is capable of.

a person in a red sweatshirt holding his mobile phone

5. Promote the event

Event promotion is incredibly important. If you don’t make an effort to get the word out, you’re unlikely to get much of an audience. Your event should have its own landing page that makes it easy for people to RSVP. Promoting the event on your homepage is a good idea as well. 

Putting posters up or displaying upcoming event ads on screens for in-person visitors to see can also attract attention from people who are already interested in what you offer. Finally, don’t forget to post on any social media channel where you have a presence and following. Again, the people who follow your account are already potentially interested.

Naturally, you’ll also want to email your database and community of subscribers about the event to spread awareness. Once they do sign up, send an email to them with a calendar invite and additional email reminders leading up to the event to increase the chances of them tuning in live.

Gaining the attention of new audience members should be another priority too. Consider having your event listed on popular form pages, museum sister sites or ticketing site like Eventbrite. Many cultural institutions, including London’s Guildhall Library and the National Portrait Gallery post free and for purchase events on this site. Adding your online offerings to a site like this could attract people who aren’t yet familiar with your institution. 

You could also consider offering something to those who participate, such as a discount on tickets or to your gift shop. It’s common for people to enroll in an online event, but not attend. Anything you can do to increase the likelihood of them attending through an incentive or otherwise will work in your favor.

6. Make the event inclusive

Accessibility is a best practice, but in some cases, making your event accessible is legally mandatory. Captions should be at the top of your list of accommodations being made so that all audience members can engage in your online event.

For example, without captions, you’ll exclude people who are Deaf or hard of hearing. Additionally, captions will help non-native speakers, people with learning disabilities and anyone who may need to watch the event without the sound on. 

You should also look into live audio description options. Audio description helps people who are blind understand the visual context of what’s being shown on screen during your events. For instance, if you’re using video clips, images, or visual demonstrations, you should be audio describing them.

Additional accessibility solutions like live event transcription and translation can also help when planning events and wanting to engage and include as many audience members as possible.

person sitting on a ben with laptop on his lap holding a cup of coffee

7. Use interactive tools to boost engagement

Even people who are interested in a topic may lose focus during long talks. Look for ways to create a lean forward experience and make your events more interactive. 

One option is to use Zoom’s live polls. Taking this step lets the audience participate and see the results of what others are saying in real-time. You can also use quizzes to create a trivia aspect that lets the audience feel more involved in the event. Options for live Q&A, hand raising, options to win prizes when engaging or completing actions and much more will help to keep your audience watching more attentively and for longer.

8. Create post-event assets

Putting on an event – whether in-person or online – is no easy feat. Once the event is over, you can use the recording to create an on-demand long form video for others to watch on their own time. You can also pull out clips or soundbytes to create more snackable content to post out on social media to engage audiences who may not have 30-minutes to watch your content in full.

Whether it’s short or long form, your post-event videos should offer captions and audio descriptions to ensure everyone can enjoy the content. Plus, when you place these videos on your site with captions and transcripts, it will also boost your site’s search engine optimization (SEO), allowing more people to discover your content as they search online.

These eight tips offer a great start to enhancing your online events and engage more audience members from around the world. AST is also happy to help out and provide insights on the specific events you’re hosting or considering currently. We serve as an essential partner to cultural institutions like the Library of Congress and MoMa to help make their events and content more engaging and inclusive.

Contact us to learn how our solutions like captioning, transcription, audio description and translation. We can greatly help to support your museum, gallery or library in today’s environment.