There are lots of reasons you might consider moving a conference to a virtual setting. Whether you’re working with a small budget or you need to change your in-person plans for some reason, a virtual conference is a great way to foster meaningful connections and learning opportunities.
Why host a virtual conference?
An online conference comes with plenty of perks. The big one: Hosting your conference online lowers the bar to entry for event planners and participants alike.
HubSpot points out that a virtual conference can reduce expenses for event hosts, which means you can charge lower admission fees and attract more attendees, instead of just the people who have big budgets for conference travel.
Plus, for many attendees, conferences are more about creating connections than learning something new. Don’t get us wrong: Stellar speakers and educational opportunities are important, but many people go to conferences in search of human connection. Below, we’ll walk through some ways you can facilitate interpersonal connections at your virtual conference.
Choosing a virtual conference platform
Technology makes it easier than ever to move your conference online. There are endless ways to coordinate a virtual conference, but in general, you have two options: a DIY set-up or a one-stop-shop platform.
Pros: Taking a DIY approach could save you a lot of money. By taking advantage of free livestreaming tools, video conferencing, webinar, and communication tools, you can put together your own agenda using whichever platforms you prefer or already pay for. You won’t end up paying for any extra bells and whistles that you don’t need.
Cons: Piecemealing your conference across platforms can be cumbersome, so even if you save money, you might spend more time dealing with organization and gruntwork.
Virtual conference platforms
Pros: Platforms like Hopin and vFAIRS provide an all-in-one answer to online conferences. These tools offer slick solutions for break-out sessions, speed networking, and live webinars, and you can organize everything in one place—no need to keep track of webinar links and private Slack or Facebook groups.
Cons: Dedicated conferencing platforms don’t come cheap. Pricing for Hopin, for example, goes all the way up to over $700 per month.
The Logistics: How to take your conference online
As you make the transition online, be sure to address every aspect of your conference.
- Assign moderators. You need good moderation to help keep conversations flowing and to call on attendees when questions or comments arise. Moderators in webinars should keep an eye on the chat box for questions. They can also help flag technical issues and stop presenters from going too far if the audio connection isn’t working, for example.
- Take advantage of pre-recording. By pre-recording presentations, speakers are free to participate with attendees and answer questions over chat. It’s a win for presenters, who don’t need to worry about getting off track as questions come up, and it’s great for attendees, who get to interact with the presenter throughout the session.
- Create a space for socializing. Slack and Facebook Groups are two places where you can build a community and provide a place for attendees to stay in touch before, during, and after your conference.
Sponsors, vendors and exhibitors
- Be flexible with sponsors. You can’t offer sponsors flashy signage in your meeting space, but you can still create incentives for businesses to support your virtual events. A few ideas:
- Include sponsor logos in marketing emails.
- Allow sponsors to host their own presentations or breakout sessions.
- Encourage sponsors to create custom content that adds value for your audience (but avoid being overly sales-y or self-promotional).
- Create a virtual exhibit/vendor hall. Take your merch table online with an ecommerce solution for your website like WooCommerce.
First-person advice for virtual conference success
Many major conferences have moved online in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. Some organizations, like CMX, are finding new ways to connect online. The organization recently organized its first-ever one-day virtual conference, and leaders are also looking into the possibility of moving CMX’s annual summit to an online format.
Here are some helpful pointers from Ann-Marie Pawlicki Dinkel, Events Manager at CMX:
Learn everything about the tools your virtual event platform has to offer. Become a master of it. You will not be able to clearly explain the process or what is needed from your sponsors or speakers unless you yourself have a clear understanding. Take the time to do the demo, ask questions, read those help articles, get on those calls, run mock events—the list goes on. Once you educate yourself, then you can educate others.
Try putting yourself in their shoes: How would I as a sponsor, speaker, or attendee, do X, Y, or Z? Do my instructions make sense, or do they lack clarity? Send your documents to colleagues to get their feedback before sending to sponsors or speakers to avoid questions that could have been easily addressed.
And finally, be honest. If you don’t know something, tell them and then go figure it out!
Go virtual with confidence and optimism
Virtual conferences come with unique challenges, but they also present major opportunities to attract a large audience and cut costs. By taking the time to walk through each aspect of your conference and reimagining it for an online audience, you’ll save yourself time (and headaches) down the road.