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10 Best Practices for Hosting a Virtual Conference or Event [in the COVID Era]

Jamie Davidson August 27, 2020
Attending virtual event

Whether for personal events such as graduations and family reunions or for business conferences and trade shows, online events are in demand. Recently, we’ve seen two of the most-watched events in the US, the Democratic and Republican National Conventions, hosted in a virtual setting. According to Eventbrite, as of April, online business events on the platform had increased over 1100% compared to the year prior. Due to the long-lasting social effects of COVID-19 and the cost-effectiveness of the medium, the rise of digital conferences is undeniable, and it’s becoming increasingly important for businesses to master virtual events best practices.

Although it can be disheartening to cancel in-person events, there are many benefits that come along with virtual. For example, virtual events have little to no barrier to entry and allow for a much wider reach. In addition, they can easily be recorded and monetized post-event, so you can continue to capitalize on your content long after the event ends.

To help you take advantage of these new opportunities and ensure that you don’t get left behind during this mass transition to virtual, we’ve compiled ten must-dos for hosting a virtual conference or event.

Virtual Event Planning

1. Plan diligently

Don’t fall into the trap of assuming that because an event is virtual, it will be simple to plan. You may not have a venue and caterers to manage, but you’ll still need to secure sponsors, market the event, and arrange your speakers, breakout sessions, and networking events.

If you’ve never hosted a virtual event or are unfamiliar with the tools available for you, there will also be a steep learning curve, so it’s important to start planning as early as possible. Here are some considerations when planning your virtual event:

Determine the format based on the type of event you’ll be hosting. For example, you can include live streams, pre-recorded sessions, breakout rooms, and even virtual trade show booths.

Choose a date and time that accommodate the majority of your potential attendees. Make sure you take time zones into account. You may also consider recording some, if not all, of the sessions so that everyone who signed up can access the content.

Demo different conferencing tools to see which one best suits your needs. When hosting a virtual event, you need a software platform that will allow you to customize the event to your needs and support you throughout the process.

If you’re looking for a role model of a well-planned conference, look to the Women in Product Conference, hosted by the non-profit Women in Product. The conference successfully hosted participants from all over the world and featured ten speakers from companies like PayPal and GoDaddy to discuss their experiences in product development. The virtual event had keynote speakers, fireside chats, and networking events, demonstrating mastery over the various formats of the new medium.

2. Make sure your technology is up to par

Virtual events rely heavily on technology, so the tools you use can make or break your event. The last thing you want is a system crash in the middle of your keynote presentation. And while a disaster plan is critical, it’s best to avoid these technical issues altogether. To do so, you need a reliable video conferencing platform that can handle the demands of the virtual event. It’s important to look for a partner that can also offer support staff to help guide you through system capabilities and assist with any technical issues that may arise.

Tracking and reporting features are also key, as the data you capture will help you analyze what worked and what didn’t for your virtual event. This will help optimize planning for your next online conference.

3. Choose an event theme

Virtual conferences lack the advantage of a physical space that brings everyone together. It’s therefore important to ensure that the event environment feels as cohesive as possible.

To achieve this, choose an overarching theme for your event that relates to your content. For instance, the Augmented World Expo USA 2020 used the theme “It’s Time To Go Spatial,” which referenced its AR and VR-focused content and was reinforced with a space design.

You should always have consistent messaging, imagery, and backdrops throughout your event and marketing materials to tie everything together and make attendees feel like they’re a part of something.

4. Keep session lengths manageable

It’s important to remember that people’s attention spans are shorter when consuming online content.  Try to keep your sessions short — under 20 minutes if you can. Also, try to include frequent breaks between sessions so that your audience can stretch their legs, grab another coffee, and balance work from home requirements – like checking on the kids and dog.

Not only will this give them an energy boost for the next speaker, but it will also give them more time to digest and internalize what they have just experienced.

5. Use effective engagement techniques

Keeping up engagement is one of the biggest challenges of virtual events. You lack the immersion that an in-person conference provides, and your attendees will more easily fall prey to the many distractions of their remote environment. It’s therefore critical to find new ways to create a captivating experience for attendees.

Apple did a great job of this at its Worldwide Developers Conference. Over the short 2-hour conference, 20-plus people spoke, none taking more than 10 minutes. This constant change kept up engagement because of an age-old advertising technique called pattern interruption. In other words, people start paying attention again when something in their perception stands out from a consistent sequence. Here are some other best practices to keep your viewers engaged:

High Production Quality Make sure you have the best audio, backdrops, camera angles, and resolution possible.

Live Q&A Include chat boxes during live presentations to allow attendees to interact with speakers.

Push Notifications Let your attendees know when the next speaker is coming on with a notification to the event web or mobile app.

Quizzes Try including some post-segment quizzes to help your attendees feel confident in what they have learned.

6. Find creative ways to include your sponsors

Many events rely on sponsors, but not all sponsor opportunities translate well to virtual. So, think outside the box and consider ways to offer value to both sponsors and attendees. Remember to spend some time going over what your sponsors hope to achieve through their sponsorship to make sure their needs are met. Then, make sure you have the tools in place to capture data to demonstrate your event ROI to the sponsors.

In terms of specific sponsorship opportunities, consider strategically placed sponsor logos throughout the event, including video advertisements in between sessions, and inviting sponsors to participate in panel discussions. Whatever you do, make sure that your sponsored content doesn’t take away or distract from the overall event experience.

7. Facilitate networking

Networking is another major challenge of virtual events, but it’s one of the main aspects of most conferences. It’s key to get this part right. Since networking doesn’t happen naturally at a virtual event, organizers need to act as facilitators by using breakout sessions, virtual cocktail hours, and even personalized recommendations for who to connect with.

It’s also important to give your less outgoing attendees a way to connect through other mediums like Slack channels, event hashtags, or live chats.

8. Help presenters succeed

Many speakers might not be used to presenting online. Make sure you train them properly prior to the event and that they feel comfortable with the tech. This may include conducting mock presentations and going over the content they plan to share to ensure that it aligns with your event’s overarching theme.

Your speakers will appreciate you sharing your expectations and instructions ahead of time so that they can perform their best and feel good about the impact they’ve made on the audience.

9. Leverage advantages of the new virtual medium

Virtual certainly presents its challenges, but there are also some things you can do with virtual conferences that you cannot during face-to-face events — capitalize on these. The following are some ideas to help you capitalize on what digital events can offer:

Pre-record certain sessions and have speakers available to answer questions in real-time during their presentations.

Included unique breakout sessions and workshops such as virtual city tours with team members from various locations.

Provide early access to the event platform several days prior to the event so attendees can start to introduce themselves and network.

Easily grab feedback and learn more about what interests your viewers with real-time polls and engagement tracking.

Business professionals have a knack for finding ways to turn obstacles into opportunities, and the virtual event is a perfect example of that flexibility.

10. Utilize event data

Collecting event data is always important, but it’s even easier as analytics capabilities come built-in with many virtual conferencing tools and event platforms. Use these tools to evaluate what went well and what didn’t, especially as you’re just starting out with virtual events — there will be a lot of trial and error. Here are some questions to guide your data mining:

  • Which sessions had the highest attendance?
  • Which presentations did attendees engage with most?
  • When did attendees log on or off?

And of course, spend some time finding quality leads to follow up with. Those hot leads could be the attendees who interacted most with your content and chat boxes or the ones who were most vocal in your breakout sessions. Business owners and marketers are quickly getting up to speed on the remote skills necessary for success in the COVID era. But there’s still a lot of learning to do before virtual event best practices are set in stone.

Apply these best practices to create a fun, informative event, but always make sure to prioritize the experience of your attendees by listening to their feedback and adjusting accordingly.