Whether you are a seasoned event organizer or brand new to the industry, the move away from physical conferences toward virtual or online conferences can feel challenging at best.
The rapid spread of the coronavirus may have made virtual events necessary, but the truth is that their implementation has been trending upward for years.
In order to capitalize on this momentum and host a successful virtual conference, there are a few foundational elements and processes that absolutely need to be considered or addressed.
At Accelevents, we understand how complicated it can be to launch a virtual conference. So we have put together this list of virtual conference best practices to help you hit the ground running and host the best conference possible!
Best Practices for Running a Virtual Conference
A virtual conference, in many ways, is similar to a physical conference, but that does not mean the two should be planned or facilitated in the same way. By their very nature, virtual events carry different requirements, logistics, and challenges. Here are some tips to help you overcome these obstacles.
1. Plan Carefully
All events should be planned carefully but extra care should be taken with virtual events.
Because virtual attendees do not have to travel to and from your conference, it is important that you make sure that you have chosen a date with little or no conflicts. This means checking conference and event schedules and avoiding all major holidays. It might be easier to attend a conference from the comfort of your own home office but it is also much easier to be distracted by other things taking place online and in the ‘real’ world.
More than just choosing a date, you also need to develop the conference agenda.
For starters, a virtual conference could potentially attract a global audience. Do your best to plan your programming in a way that accommodates different time zones as much as possible. Schedule keynote speakers and major sessions for a time that could work for as many people as possible.
It may be tempting to cram a ton of content into your conference to increase its value, but it is possible to offer too much of a good thing. In-person conferences and live events have natural lulls where people mill about, chat, grab a snack, or use the restroom. Make these breaks possible by planning a little downtime in between sessions. This allows attendees to stretch their legs, grab some coffee, and regroup. It also helps them process information they’ve just been given, open up networking opportunities (see below), maintain audience interest, and improve the overall virtual experience.
2. Facilitate Networking
One of the biggest benefits of conferences is the possibility to network with industry leaders and colleagues and one of the biggest worries people have about virtual events is that these opportunities will disappear. This does not need to be the case.
As a conference organizer, you can (and should!) make networking a part of your conference. The good news is that facilitating networking at your virtual event is not that difficult. Beyond making room for it on your agenda, consider:
- Creating virtual meeting spaces so participants and attendees can discuss and share their thoughts on the previous sessions.
- Enabling live chat and video, which allows presenters, exhibitors, and keynote speakers to address attendee questions and comments in real-time, further audience engagement, and creating more value in the session.
- Scheduling breakout sessions after the major sessions and presentations to give attendees space to discuss and constructively expand upon the ideas that have been shared.
- Making connecting fun by enabling things like a virtual lobby where attendees can meet one another and chat. A virtual cocktail hour is a fun way to bring attendees together in a more casual, social, way.
3. Promote the Conference on Social Media
Because you are planning a digital conference, it simply makes sense that a large portion of your promotion and marketing should take place in a digital space.
These platforms can help you reach a global audience but it also is a space you can use to generate interest and excitement for your event. Share speaker bios and vendor profiles. Ask your followers questions or prompt them with things to think about before the event so that when they arrive, they are prepared and already engaged with the topics.
Share video teasers and set up a video stream of a live session or two so that you can grow your event brand awareness and generate buzz for future events. There are lots of people who may have wanted to attend your event but were unable to do so for one reason or another. Sharing a little taste with them helps keep your brand front of mind and encourages them to follow and find out when you are hosting another conference.
Get your event sponsors and invited speakers on board with social media promotion as well! It is likely that your keynote speaker, for example, has a following and a pool of potential attendees that you may have otherwise been unable to reach.
4. Have Robust Tech Support
Event technology, like most other technology, can experiences glitches or failures. While most virtual conference platforms can handle the demands of your event, it is important to be prepared for any worst-case scenario.
By now we have all hopped on a Zoom meeting or done some form of video conferencing and have seen people struggle with the technology.
When you select your events platform, be sure to look for one that has 24/7 live support as well as clearly documented instructions. This can help both your team and your event participants navigate any troubles that might pop up.
But, you shouldn’t just rely on your platform. Assemble your own support team. Make sure they are familiar with the platform and make them readily available during the course of the event. Have them moderate chat rooms for any issues and clearly display their contact information in each and every session.
Put together a detailed “how-to” guide that can be sent to each participant well in advance of the conference so they know how to sign in and navigate the virtual lobby, meeting rooms, and exhibit hall. You would have a map or plan in a physical space; this is the online equivalent.
Before the event, email your attendees and let them know where and how they can contact your support team.
5. Be Inclusive
Virtual conferences allow you to draw a larger number of attendees than you would with a physical conference and so it is important that you take steps to be as inclusive as possible.
Above, we mentioned time zone challenges. Consider recording live video sessions so that they can be played back on demand so that you can accommodate more people.
More than that, you want every single attendee to feel comfortable and welcome in your virtual space. When choosing speakers, try, whenever possible, to choose people from a diverse background. Give a platform to women and persons of color. Cramming your schedule exclusively with CIS gender white males may alienate some of the people you are hoping to attract.
Use clear language and large, easy to read fonts. Provide captions for audio and video feeds, and provide descriptive audio for visual elements.
If you are drawing an international audience, it is a good idea to have translation services available. Include a question in your event sign up that addresses language preferences and this will allow you to determine the need and the language requirements so you can plan accordingly.
6. Facilitate Engagement
If the thought of your event agenda puts you to sleep, you can be sure your attendees will feel the same. For an online event, it is critical to go above and beyond to facilitate attendee engagement.
We’ve already discussed using live chat, virtual meeting spaces, and social media. All three of these things can be used to promote engagement by giving attendees an opportunity to actively participate in the discussion. But there is so much more you can do.
Facilitate virtual attendee engagement by:
- Planning relevant and dynamic content. Keep sessions on-topic but mix up their presentation. Use live video, pre-recorded video, fireside chats, Q&As, panel discussions, live demos, networking sessions, and whatever makes sense for your specific conference.
- Using interactive features. People do not want to stare at their computer screens all day. Add fun and interactive features like live polling, gamification, virtual exhibit booths, and virtual or augmented reality.
- Creating space. Virtual conferences are so much more than a series of webinars strung together. Creating spaces and times to connect with other attendees can not only help support networking opportunities, but it can also increase attendee engagement.
- Starting early. The earlier you start facilitating engagement with your digital event, the better. Social media prompts and teasers should be a part of your marketing strategy but they should also be considered when thinking about engagement. The more active you are, the more active your audience will be. If you build hype early, that momentum will only grow.
Virtual conferences are becoming part of the new normal in the event industry so it is important that you know how to put one together in a way that sets everyone, from speakers to sponsors to attendees, up for the greatest possible success.
The best practices listed above can help you plan and organize a virtual conference that will grow your audience, foster engagement, and make your efforts a resounding success.