How Long Should a Virtual Event Be?

One of the most frequent questions our virtual events team hears is, “How long should my virtual event be?” Whether you’ve never done an event before or you’re pivoting from a physical event to a virtual event, the answer is the same: it should be as long as you need it to be, and as short as it can be.

It can be tempting to start virtual event planning by setting a hard and fast rule on event length, but this is the wrong move.

Instead, start by determining what the objective of the event is. Is it to educate attendees about something? To build camaraderie? To sell a product? To raise funds or awareness?

Once you’ve determined the goal of the event, identify all of the building blocks that need to go into achieving that goal. This can include considerations like the interests the prospective audience has, how familiar they are with technology, and what they will need to experience to make the event deemed “successful”. These elements should give you an outline of what types of content you’ll need to have.

Some examples of our virtual events – long, short, and in-between:

  • PechaKucha: a storytelling format in which a presenter shows 20 slides for 20 seconds of commentary each (6 minutes and 40 seconds total)
  • Short “Ted-Talk” format presentations
  • One hour virtual galas / fundraisers
  • 48 hours of continuous global content
  • Multi-day conferences that span weeks

For example, if your goal is to educate your audience about a new initiative and your audience consists primarily of visual learners, you’ll probably want to have engaging slides or videos that illustrate both the overview and more granular points. Similarly, if your goal is team building and you know your audience tends to be more introverted, you may need to include an instructor-led or speaker-led Q and A session to break the ice before going into participant breakout sessions.

Each of these building blocks will need to be assigned an estimated amount of time, and that’s where some of the differences between virtual events and physical events come into play.

  • In a physical event, there can be a need to justify the amount of time people have traveled by making the event longer. Few people want to travel three hours for a 30-minute event. When you remove travel, you also remove the perceived obligation to stretch out the event.

  • Physical events usually incorporate time for people to park, check in, use the restrooms, check their coats, get coffee or snacks, find their seat, settle in, and meet their neighbors. In a virtual event, you can reduce the amount of time needed for each session by 5-10 minutes for these activities alone.

  • At the same time, virtual events with no break can be tough on everyone’s eyes and legs. Make sure you build in breaks that allow people to rest their eyes and stretch – or incorporate those into your event with activities like beginner-level mini-yoga, breathing exercises, or even a dance break for events with more outgoing audiences.

  • “Catch up” breaks can also be helpful. When people know they’ll have a designated opportunity to respond to emails or return phone calls, it’s easier for them to focus and engage in the event.

  • The average attention span of an adult is 10-18 minutes, pre-COVID-19. For virtual or physical events, consider how to make the best use of that time. You don’t need to have 10-minute sessions – but you may want to for certain key building blocks that require active engagement. Passive engagement activities could be longer but with short bursts of activity to keep interest levels up.

  • During a virtual event, you may be competing with children, pets, spouses, ringing phones, or television for the attention of your attendees. Consider how many times, and in what different ways, you may need to reinforce a message to break through the ambient noise.

The total of all of these blocks is your “first draft” event length. Does it match your expectations? Does it seem in line with the expectations of your attendees? Does it give your invited speakers enough time? Does the ask of time seem reasonable for your audience? If the event seems too long, consider whether it could be broken into shorter “can’t miss” events. It’s always better to leave your audience wanting more than to have them watching the clock.

Despite their differences, virtual events and physical events are similar in a very important way: they ask something of the people who attend, in return for the delivery of a meaningful experience. It matters less that your event is a certain length than it does that you deliver the experience you’ve promised your audience.

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