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Mastering the Virtual Conference Setup: A Step-by-Step Guide

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In recent years, the number of events and conferences that have moved to a virtual or online format has been steadily increasing. Based on the success of the events that have made this move, it isn’t hard to see why!Virtual conferences still require care in their planning but they can save organizers a lot of time and money. No need to find a venue, no need to hire catering, servers or event staff. And, what’s more, a virtual conference can reach a much wider audience than a face-to-face conference. But, in order to pull off a successful online conference, you will need to do more than just set up a webcam and go live. It’s important to consider the content, the presenters, and the audience. Here is what you need to know when setting up a virtual conference to ensure that everyone involved has an incredible experience that they are anxious to repeat![embed]https://youtu.be/auNs6k3yizA[/embed]

How Virtual Events Work

Virtual events can function in a couple of ways and their set up will largely depend on the size and scope of your event. One option is to create a landing page on your website where your audience can log in to join virtual meetings, webinars, or live stream speaker presentations. This option makes the most sense for hybrid conferences that have virtual and in-person elements or conferences that have been forced to go virtual for some outside reason like a natural disaster or public health crisis. The other option is to develop a portal that looks like a conference venue and allow attendees to create their own avatars. This option makes the most sense if you are going to use your conference platform for virtual trade booths or exhibitions. While face to face conferences are easy to imagine, a virtual conference may be harder to conjure in your mind. Here are some of the elements that are often a part of virtual events that work to facilitate some of the experiences associated with in-person events:

  • Presenters live streaming: Whether they are sharing audio-only or fully produced videos with audience interaction, presenters will still share their knowledge and information with attendees in real time.
  • Virtual exhibitions: Conference participants can showcase their products and services through searchable booths. All the exhibitors need to do is upload photos, videos, and background information. They will also need to provide individuals to staff a live chat (or employ a chatbot) to answer visitor questions.
  • Discussion boards: The ability to network is probably the most valuable part of attending a conference. A discussion board or chat allows attendees to talk to one another and dig deeper into particular themes or topics.

These, of course, are the foundational elements that make an online conference possible. The things you add to this foundation will be what sets your event apart from the others.

How to Quickly Turn a Traditional Conference into Virtual Conference

Sometimes, the best-laid plans can fail. Whether due to a global pandemic or some other uncontrollable disruption like a fire, earthquake, or hurricane, you may be forced to turn your traditional conference into a virtual conference. Fortunately, making this emergency shift is easier than you might imagine. While not ideal, you can move things online in a matter of days. For starters, notify all participating parties. Email or call registered attendees and ticket holders to inform them of the shift. Be clear in where they can find your content and how they can access it. If you do not have all of those details worked out immediately, send the announcement and mention that there will be a follow-up email that includes the specifics. Talk to your presenters and/or exhibitors. Some of them may not be comfortable presenting on video or may not be prepared to host a virtual exhibition. But, if you speak to them, encourage them, offer to support them in the transition, and give them as much time as possible to prepare for the shift, it is likely that they will still be willing and able to participate. The good news is that in all likelihood, you, your presenters and your attendees have everything they need to make the quick and easy switch to a virtual conference. All you need is a corporate YouTube and/or Facebook account. Simply set up the shot and begin streaming on YouTube Live or Facebook Live. Both of these platforms allow you to control the privacy settings on your videos, giving you the ability to limit access. The big advantage of this approach is that you likely already have everything you need: a built-in or external webcam and a corporate YouTube or Facebook account. Unfortunately, these platforms are not necessarily ideal for hosting multiple speakers. If you have time, it is best to look for a virtual conference platform or some virtual meeting software that allows you to facilitate and moderate conversations and exchanges between multiple streams at once. But, if you don’t have time to source the right tools, you can ask your presenters to record their presentation in advance and then upload it and broadcast it as a live video at a later time. Ask the presenter to tune in so they can answer any viewer questions as they pop up. It is better to carefully plan a virtual conference but if you are stuck and simply trying to save your event, these considerations will help you achieve your goal.

How to Set Up a Virtual Conference

When you aren’t facing an emergency situation or are forced to find a contingency plan, you can take your time and properly plan a virtual conference. Conference organizers know that time is your friend! Here is what you need to consider when planning a virtual event:

1. Expand your audienceAs with any event, it is crucial to know your audience. You cannot plan or market an event if you do know who is likely to be interested. If this is the first time you are taking an event online, consider targeting a larger audience. Without having to run the event from a specific location, it is possible that you can reach more people. The ability to attend from anywhere in the world without having to travel can attract additional folks. When all you need is a computer screen and an internet connection, the door opens much wider. This wider audience can mean increased registrations and revenues.

2. Determine the contentWhile a virtual event may lack a conference room or face-to-face sessions and networking, the content itself is more or less the same. Once you have decided on your conference theme and assembled your team, the next stage in the planning process is to find your speakers/presenters/exhibitors. Obviously, you will want to approach potential speakers who are experts on your chosen theme or have something relevant or innovative to share with your audience. Start by leveraging your own network and expand out from there. Twitter and LinkedIn are great places to start. Make sure that anyone you contact understands that you are planning a virtual conference. Without having to travel, your event may be more attractive to some of these individuals. Once you have chosen your participants, do not forget to create your event agenda. A virtual event may not have as many moving parts in terms of spatial planning and layout but it still requires scheduling and organization. Try not to overlap breakout sessions or schedule popular speakers back to back. Do not make sessions too long. People will still need to take a break, move around, grab something to drink, etc. Make sure it is clear on your agenda if you are planning to host virtual meeting rooms where people can gather to discuss or ask questions. It is important that both the speakers and the attendees understand that you are doing everything you can to facilitate communication and networking opportunities. When your schedule is formalized, update your agenda to include links to and the “location” of each session.

3. Choose the proper technologyTo present the highest quality virtual conference you will need to use the right equipment. And this is where you will notice the process differs the most from planning an in-person conference. Start by investigating web conferencing software or virtual conference platforms. Many of these tools will allow you to broadcast video feeds to your audience and will likely enable many of the other features you need to be successful, like screen sharing and chat options. Some platforms integrate with familiar video conferencing software like Zoom to set up webinars or presentations. Just know that if you are planning to run sessions concurrently, you may need to purchase a specific plan that allows you to do so. Beyond the necessary software, you will also want to make sure you have proper audio and video gear whenever possible. If your conference has a high production value, it will reflect well on you and keep your attendees happy and engaged. Make sure that you have a high-quality camera, a good microphone, the right lighting, and some sort of set or backdrop. If you do not have these items on hand, consider hiring an A/V company or renting what you need. Well in advance of the event, check-in with your presenters to make sure that they have access to this sort of gear. If they do not, consider reaching out to professionals or rental companies in their area to secure it for them. Be sure to perform test runs in advance to work out as many kinks as possible. Technical difficulties may still happen but the more you can do in advance, the better. If you really want to take your virtual conference to the next level, consider adjusting the layout. Picture-in-picture layouts or other advanced features will require additional equipment like a video switcher, a streamer, and a scaler but if you have hired a team or have the technical knowledge, this is worth considering.

4. Market your conferenceAs with any other event, you need to promote and market your conference if you want to find attendees. Be sure to establish a strong event brand. For tips, check out our event branding guide here. A strong brand will capture the essence of your event and help people understand exactly what kind of experience they can expect. Branding will help you stand out from other similar events and help interested parties recognize future offerings from you. Follow the same sort of marketing efforts you would if you were promoting an in-person conference. Create a branded event website and push content on your social media channels. Make all content as shareable as possible. Speakers, sponsors, and potential attendees are some of the best resources you have. Their support of your event can deliver the social proof you need to appeal to a wider audience. Depending on the nature and theme of your virtual conference, consider advertising in industry publications. Reach out to online events calendars and make sure that your conference is included. Launch an email campaign to invite people to buy tickets and register. Email marketing allows you to share important event details and link to your website or social media profiles where you can tell more of your story. For tips and best practices on how to write email invitations that will convert, read our guide here.Just remember, make sure that it is clear that your event is online. This fact can make your event both more appealing and more accessible to people -- two things that are sure to lead to an increase in registrations.

Tips for a Successful Virtual Conference

Before you launch your event there are a few tips to keep in mind that can help you increase your chances for success!

Provide great customer support

All truly successful events have one thing in common: attendee satisfaction. One of the ways you can ensure that everyone is happy, from presenter to attendee, is to provide top-shelf support. At a physical event, you would have a team of volunteers available to answer questions and direct traffic. You need to provide the same in a virtual environment. Most people these days are familiar with web conferencing solutions and virtual meeting software like Google Hangouts, Zoom, and Microsoft Teams but that does not mean things won’t go wrong in this context. Make sure you have a tech support person available. Use email or automated text messages to remind people where and when sessions are taking place. And most importantly, make sure people know how they can reach you. Include a support email and telephone number in all communications and on your website. If possible, have an administrator in each session to moderate comments and help with any issues that may arise.

Acquire sponsors

Just because you do not have to pay for a venue or creative catering doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be looking for event sponsors. Sponsors can not only provide you with much-needed funds, but they can also provide you with credibility and legitimacy. Look for sponsors that sell products or services related to the industry your event is targeting. This will increase the likelihood that they sign on and create a relationship that benefits everyone: you, the sponsor, and the attendee.

Consider stretching it out

Instead of trying to pack all of your programs into a single day or a single weekend, consider spreading it out over the course of the month. Hold sessions on Tuesdays and Thursdays with follow-up discussion sessions on Fridays, for example.This spacing allows participants to more thoughtfully engage with the sessions. It allows them to take in more information and encourages them to use the chat rooms to discuss what they have heard/learned. By giving people more time to participate, you can increase and enhance the experience. It also takes some of the pressure off of you as a conference organizer. Instead of having to get things perfect over a short period of time, you can address issues and improve as the event goes on.

Send a post-event survey

One of the best things you can do to ensure your success as an event planner or conference organizer is to send out a post-event survey. Asking what attendees thought of their experience is one of the truest ways to evaluate your virtual conference and improve any similar events you plan in the future. Obviously, it is not necessary to ask attendees what they think about the venue or catering, so focus on the event experience and marketing. Ask post-event survey questions such as: how would you rate this conference? What did you hope to take away from this conference? How did you hear about this conference? How likely are you to recommend this conference to someone else? And what, if anything, did you dislike about this conference?Do not forget to send a survey to your presenters and exhibitors, your sponsors, and anyone who is volunteering/working the event with you. It is important to understand their expectations of the conference and how that stacks up against their experience. It may be uncomfortable to collect honest feedback about something you worked so hard to produce, but it is necessary in order to improve. Whether you intend to host an online or virtual conference from the beginning or forced by unforeseen circumstances to enact a plan B, this guide to setting up a virtual conference is sure to help you do it right. Identify your audience, determine a theme, make sure you have the right technology, market your event, apply the tips found here and your conference is sure to succeed.

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