Virtual conferences obviously aren’t a new concept. In fact, according to a recent study conducted by continuing education consultancy Tagoras, 21.6 percent of the virtual event organizers that were surveyed said that their organization had previously held a virtual conference before 2020.
But due to the halt of large gatherings because of the coronavirus pandemic, the need for virtual conferences has grown exponentially. The Tagoras study also found that 66.2 percent of participants plan to hold a virtual conference in the next 12 months, which would mean that nearly 88 percent of organizations will have held a virtual conference by the end of the first quarter of 2021. Read on to learn how to host a successful virtual conference.
What is a virtual conference?
A virtual conference is similar to a traditional in-person conference in terms of setup, with multiple sessions (not just a single webinar), keynote speeches, workshops, discussion areas or chat rooms, networking opportunities, and exhibit areas for vendors. A virtual conference can take place live, on demand, or both.
How do you plan a virtual conference?
Typically, virtual conferences follow the same format as an IRL conference, with a clearly defined beginning, middle, and end.
To start (and end) a virtual conference, you should include one or two plenary sessions; this is something all attendees are encouraged to watch. These could be keynote addresses, a welcome message with details on the day ahead, or award presentations. Following that, offer a range of breakout sessions, workshops, and tutorials, which run on parallel tracks, allowing attendees to easily “session surf.” Unlike an in-person conference, attendees should feel free to pop in and out of these smaller group meetings without disturbing the other attendees.
And just like a venue-based conference, make sure to post the programming schedule, with links to sessions so they’re easy to access, along with other resources like tech support. “There are so many distractions and other activities that people will be doing with their time. So having clear communications and agendas available is essential for success,” explains Ida Pennymon, director of global marketing at Cherwell Software where she executes the company’s corporate events plan.
How do you make a virtual conference engaging?
Perhaps the biggest drawback to gathering digitally is the lack of face-to-face interaction that can keep attendees engaged and interested throughout a conference.
In order to replicate that experience, establish virtual chat rooms (similar to a room in an IRL venue), either within the hosting platform or via a designated Slack workspace. These can be session-related channels or specialized chats for specific groups such as vendors.
“People are hungry to talk to other people, especially when they are consuming inspiring content. Attendees felt like they were participating in the action, rather than listening to a one-way stream,” Joe Faulder of AV production company Projection told The Vendry about the annual Simmons Leadership Conference, which took place in April. For the event, organizers used Cisco’s Webex teams to facilitate convo between attendees.
“Remote, virtual attendees still want an experience, even if they are in front of a screen,” explains Matt Schrader, senior vice president and head of client development at The XD Agency. In addition to chat functionality, he also suggests offering Q&As, polling, and giveaways to hold the attendees’ attention throughout the event. “Keep attendees on their toes and keep them guessing as to what’s next!,” he exclaims.
Folks can also be easily distracted during a virtual conference, especially if they are working from home. So remember to keep your conference content punchy ala late night talk shows. Schrader advises imitating some pro hosts like Jimmy Fallon, Jimmy Kimmel, and Trevor Noah. “They keep things moving, and shorter is always better,” he recommends. “People love to watch video, but many make the mistake of making their videos too long. For me, when I see a video on Twitter or LinkedIn that is over two minutes, I skip right over it. Most people are the same. Attendees want snackable content.”
Pennymon agrees, saying that “the time of day when you have your sessions and the length of the sessions” are very important. “Remember that people have shorter attention spans and are less likely to sit for a 45-minute breakout session. So consider shortening those sessions to 20 to 25 minutes.”
Earlier this year, Katie Krongard, art director at WEBB Production, spoke to The Vendry about producing content for tech company Domo’s virtual conference, called Domopalooza, which took place in March. “An important question we considered was how much would be live and how much would be pre-recorded? We had to figure out how to modify content to make it more deliverable online. You can’t produce an 8-hour video and expect to keep people’s attention.”
Moreover, don’t forget to build in commercial breaks. Give attendees time to check email and visit the bathroom. These short intermissions also allow you the opportunity to insert sponsored content.
How much does a virtual conference cost?
In theory, virtual conferences (and virtual events in general) can be cheaper than venue-based conferences. But as Kimberly Schmitz, vice president of client services and delivery for Impact Point Group (IPG), recently told The Vendry that’s not always the case:
“In the past, planners had to account for venue, food and beverage, entertainment, and exhibitor services. Now, we have to account not just for the same amount of time, but virtual platforms and increased customer acquisition and engagement. What we have learned and seen is that although there are some cost savings, such as F&B, venue, travel and hotel for speakers, exhibitions, etc., the cost in time for design, planning, acquisition, and execution doesn’t reduce.”
According to Markletic, the average cost per attendee for a large virtual conference is between $1,000 to $1,500.
What is the best virtual meeting software?
“Honestly, there is no magical best platform,” Schrader says. “As an experiential design agency, we focus on the goals and objectives of our clients. What are they trying to achieve, who is their audience, what are the messages they need to communicate, etc. Once this is determined, we can help decide on the best platform that meets their needs.” Pennymon agrees, saying that “the best platform for hosting a virtual event really depends on the needs of your organization.”
Although there isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution, most platforms have the same core features and functionalities, so look for one that fulfills all (or most) of your requirements, such as concurrent sessions, exhibit halls, and networking opportunities. “You should make a list of the features that are most important for your event and then search for a platform that fits those needs,” Pennymon says. Adding that, some of the most well-known platforms are ON24, Intrado, 6Connex, and VFairs.
According to the Tagoras survey, of the 24 virtual event providers named, only three of them—Zoom, GoToMeetings, and ON24—had been used by more than 10 percent of the respondents.
Once you’ve chosen your platform, remember to send tech guidelines to speakers and panelists ahead of the event. For Domopalooza, Krongard explained that the production company sent guest speaker packets to ensure good production value. “We advised speakers about needed lighting equipment and appropriate clothing.”
Plus, you need to practice. Just like a live, in-person event, you’ll want to rehearse, mimicking the day-of as much as possible. This also includes training in-house staff on the platform features and technical aspects like how to deal with customer service issues, monitor Q&A, facilitate sessions, and more.
How to integrate sponsorships into a virtual conference
Because sponsors and brand partners aren’t able to attract attendees with physical activation spaces at a conference venue, virtual event organizers need to try to incorporate their messaging within the programming.
One of the simplest ways to do this is by designing a session that’s relevant to the conference that features experts from the brand, or sprinkle sponsored presenters throughout the conference, such as during keynotes, workshops, roundtable discussions, or panels. Sponsors can also provide prizes like gift cards and swag for attendees.
How do you measure the success of a virtual conference?
One of the advantages to hosting a virtual conference is the wealth of available data thanks to the built-in tools offered by tech platforms. But first, you need to figure out exactly what you want to measure. “We get involved early with our clients to collaborate and create a measurement strategy and framework,” Schrader says. “Once this is created, we create KPI requirements to measure against the success of each program.”
For a virtual conference, you could analyze a range of metrics such as the number of session attendees, number of questions asked in sessions, number of poll responses, number of networking check-ins, and more. “I would advise virtual event planners to set a registration goal, an attendee goal, and a day-of attendance goal, as well as a ‘time-watched’ goal for the average amount of time someone spends at your virtual event,” Pennymon recommends.
For example, Domo expected 3-4,000 attendees at Domopalooza, but saw 8,000 log in. That’s because folks “continued to sign on after the event, further increasing viewership and visibility.”
This is why it’s wise to record and post content after the event. “Video playback is important because remote attendees are ‘managing life’ working from home,” Schrader says. “So they may need to step away during a session. Having attendees watch content more than once is a great thing because they can take more time to absorb the topics.” Plus, he adds that “on-demand content is where companies may be able to charge to gain some revenue.” Pennymon also notes that on-demand content helps accommodate different time zones.
Although virtual conferences may not provide the same level of energy as an in-person event, they do offer some advantages such as a bigger audience reach and less travel expenses. And with large-scale events still on hold, learning how to execute a successful virtual conference will become an increasingly important skill for event planners.