You want to organise an online conference but don’t know where to start? You may even wonder what makes a virtual event different from a physical event?
Having assisted dozens of clients in the organisation of their virtual events, I have been able to identify the key factors for success. Follow these advice to host virtual conferences that will amaze your attendees.
1. Before the event
Think about the last time you organised a face-to-face event. How long did it take you to choose a venue, contact speakers, coordinate event staff etc? Probably a fair amount of time!
Well, I have to inform you that organising an online event is not much faster. So you’ll have to start planning in advance to make sure that everything will be ready in time.
Here are the core areas you need to plan for:
- Select a theme: Choose a theme for your event. It doesn’t need to be a complicated theme, the simpler the better actually. This will help you bring your attendees together around a meaningful context and keep them focused.
- Pick the right date and time: Choose a date that can accommodate the largest number of participants. Depending on the type of event or audience, it may be wise to avoid weekends or public holidays. Regarding the time of the event itself, think about the participants who will attend your virtual conferences from a different time zone to find the most convenient time.
- Set up the agenda: It is important to maintain a good level of attention throughout the virtual conference. So break up your agenda into short sessions, with breaks in between. It will give your participants the opportunity to grab a coffee or check on their kids for instance. It will also give them time to process the information they have just heard before the next speaker arrives. To avoid “Zoom fatigue”, I recommend that you plan sessions that do not exceed 45 minutes.
- Find the right speakers: The success of your event also depends on good speakers who will captivate your audience. Do not overlook this point and make sure you invite quality speakers who will bring value to your audience. Don’t hesitate to contact them in advance and to follow up regularly. Also make sure your speakers are comfortable using video conferencing tools. If they are not, give them clear and precise instructions and make sure they have all the required equipment.
- Understand the needs of your sponsors: If your event is sponsored, make sure you understand the expectations of your sponsors to help them achieve their goals. Highlight them in various parts of your virtual conference software without damaging the experience of your attendees. Finally, make sure that everything is in place to collect relevant data.
- Think about the registration process: How attendees can register for your event? Is it a free or a paid event? Are there a limited number of tickets? Where can attendees buy tickets? You will also have to think about the pricing and decide whether or not you want to offer discounted tickets (e.g. early bird).
Build your team and assign responsibilities
Organising an online event is not an easy task. It is important to surround yourself with the right people to manage all aspects.
That’s why I recommend that you take stock of your skills and those of your team to ensure that everything is under control when your event goes live.
Let me insist on two aspects. The first one is about the moderation of online conferences:
– Who will be in charge of introducing the event and the speakers?
– How will the content posted in the chat be moderated?
– Will the speakers be able to choose the questions to answer themselves? Or do you need a moderator to sort out the most relevant ones and pass them on to the speakers?
The second one is about technical support. Your attendees will probably have varying degrees of computer skills and some may need help accessing your virtual event.
What channels do you want to use to deal with technical problems? Do you have the resources in-house to answer all their questions?
These are essential questions for the smooth running of your event, so don’t ignore them!
Program your event for connection
Just because your conference takes place online does not mean that it should not facilitate exchanges, quite the contrary! Technology allows us to bring together people from all over the world and we should take advantage of this.
This is why I recommend that you plan a networking session. It makes a virtual event more social.
This moment of exchange should ideally close your event. It can also take place at the end of the first day of virtual conferences if your event takes place over several days. It is a great way to get to know your attendees as they will be spending time together over the next few days.
This networking session could even be the first step towards building a thriving online community!
Plan pre-event rehearsals
This is not breaking news: rehearsal is the best way to be prepared. Just like for a job interview, you will need to rehearse several times to gain confidence and be clear about what your online event will look like.
To do this, I advise you to get your team together and assign a different role to each person. You will need at least two people: one to play the role of speaker, and another one who will be the attendee. You may want to add a moderator and a technical support person as well.
During your rehearsal, make sure that everything works as planned. Check the sound, cameras and screen sharing. This is also an opportunity for you to see the attendee experience. This is important and useful as it will help you to assist your participants if needed.
You can also plan a rehearsal with the speakers to familiarise them with the tool.
2. During the event
Provide awesome support
Probably half of your participants will register half an hour before the first session until half an hour into that first session. This golden hour is vital – if there are any problems during this time, they must be resolved right away. This is why you need to make sure people from your team will be able to reply quickly if needed.
We suggest having a general support guide that participants can use to quickly troubleshoot the most obvious problems: restart browser, clear cache, login and logout again, update browser, etc. Here is ours – this enables you to respond quickly and often participants can quickly fix the issue themselves.
Have a live support channel. One of your team should have the primary responsibility of being the responder. And can escalate as they see fit.
Keep things moving with moderators
Having experienced moderators for each session will reduce the number of technical problems that live speakers might have and will keep each session running for the appropriate duration. This stops the event from running over and each session from starting late.
If there are lots of questions, this is great. But you can always ask questions to be submitted in a chat or Q&A which the speakers will reply to later if they don’t get the chance during the live session. Once a session runs over, it’s very hard to get back on time which is why moderators take a ‘hard break’ approach – it might seem merciless but it’s for the good of everyone.
Engage your audience
Providing quality content (speakers, video presentations) is your first objective. Yet no matter how good your content is, your participants will eventually fatigue if they are just watching someone talk all day (the dreaded Zoom Fatigue).
Event organizers typically program virtual events so that they are consumed over a wider time frame – often over a month or more. But even this isn’t enough.
Remember your high school classes? There are certainly some disciplines that you enjoyed more than others, and this was not necessarily due to the course content. Your teachers each had their own way of teaching and some were better than others at delivering a dynamic and lively lesson. All the best teachers had a way of getting participants involved.
You need to design your event to promote interaction so that participants are spending some time doing instead of always watching.
The first technique is to set a moment aside at the end of each presentation for a Q&A (Questions & Answers) session. I recommend that you inform attendees that there will be a Q&A session at the very beginning of the conference so that you don’t take them by surprise. They will then have the opportunity to list their questions during the live session. This way, the Q&A session will be lively and the speakers will be able to take the time to answer questions without being interrupted during their presentation.
Another good technique is to create a poll to ask your attendees’ opinion on a particular topic. You can also ask them a simple question and ask them to answer in 1 word in the chat for instance. Be creative and involve your attendees as much as possible!
One of my favourite tools to foster collaboration and interaction are breakout rooms. They allow you to split your participants into smaller groups. This is particularly useful for large events, as it is easier to speak in a smaller group than in front of hundreds of people.
It allows you to adopt original formats such as speed networking or focus groups for example. It can also be used for small group workshops or sponsor workshops.
This is relevant only to scientific conferences where pre-published research is typically shared by participants sharing a poster of their work that others can browse. Sharing files and studies are a good way to provide content to discuss about and engage your audience.
If your participants are indeed active in the polls, questions and comments – then you have an engaging event. Well done!
It is vital however to keep an eye on the user-generated content to watch for anything that may be inappropriate. Even if people don’t intend to, they can sometimes post inappropriate content that is either insulting or offensive. While you can deal with this participant in a number of ways, the most urgent task is to take that content down. You should designate a person who is keeping an eye on all user-generated content.
3. After the event
Close the event well
Thank people, share a few highlights, perhaps some metrics and follow up with sponsors. Confirm the event was a success, build on the feeling that this was worth their time and that your audience played a big part.
Review all questions, comments and poll results to ensure participants got a reply from the event organizer or relevant speaker. Even if it’s a day later, it’s important that those who contributed get a reply from the appropriate person.
Review metrics – what worked well and what did not work so well. Ask your team, ask your sponsors and look at the data. Check what features participants used (e.g. chat, polls, comments, group chats).
Conduct surveys – Same as above but from the participant perspective, and typically done via an online survey. Find out what worked, if there were any issues. If the event went well, this plants the seed for future engagement and follow ups.
Drip release recorded sessions
Record your live sessions and make them available after the event. By doing so, you will allow participants to (re)watch the event. This is very valuable from the point of view of guests who could not make themselves available or who could not attend all the conferences.
A good strategy is to add these recorded sessions by small batches, to keep the excitement going around your event.
Plan your next event
Often doing a small event or webinar (even of 1-2 hours) within a month can help transform the participants of a single conference into becoming a community (i.e. a year-round destination where your participants can connect with other people who share their interests and passions). This opens up many new revenue opportunities including sponsorship, membership, paid smaller events and so on.
You are now ready to host your first virtual conference! Feel free to share your best tips in the comments.