In 2020, associations everywhere faced a tough decision: pivot to virtual events or fully cancel/postpone their much-anticipated conferences outright. Those who chose the former only had a few weeks— months if they were lucky— to craft a virtual event to varying degrees of success.
Now, over a year later, associations plan their conferences either fully virtual or hybrid from the jump. At this point, you can incorporate the lessons learned from 2020 to plan a thoughtful virtual experience for your members.
Since last year, the Web Courseworks team has helped associations such as The American Medical Informatics Society, The Society of Interventional Radiology, and more host successful virtual conferences. Using that experience, we’ve picked up a few tips and tricks that your team can use to elevate your next virtual conference.
In this guide, you’ll cover these tips through the following points:
Before we dive into the many lessons learned in 2020, let’s briefly touch on the basics of hosting a virtual conference to ensure we’re building from the same foundation.
For a deeper dive into this topic, check out our dedicated guide to virtual conferences for associations— however, the sections below should provide a good overview.
How To Host a Virtual Conference: A Quick Overview
How do I host a virtual conference?
The main elements of a virtual conference are the same as its in-person variation— the main difference is that instead of securing a physical event space, you’ll need a virtual event platform.
Rather than attendees traveling to the in-person event, they’re able to chime in from the comfort of their own homes. While this means that the reach of your event is limitless, you’ll also need to get creative to emulate in-person connections through technology (more on this later).
As far as planning your virtual event, you’ll need to account for the following considerations:
- Logistics: This includes investing in and configuring the virtual conference platform to host your event, setting the dates and times in which the event will take place, planning for digital registration and ticketing, and creating a marketing strategy to spread the word. If you work with a virtual event platform such as Web Courseworks’ Conference Now, you access both the technical infrastructure and accompanying services that help bring your virtual event to life. This can remove much of the administrative lift from your team’s schedules.
- Content: This covers the sessions you’re going to host as well as the speakers and presenters that will be hosting them, as you can see depicted in the example virtual event schedule. This can include webinars, interactive eLearning courses, pre-recorded or livestreamed keynotes, livestreamed speaker panels with live chat moderation, video-conferenced networking events, and even a virtual trade show that connects attendees and sponsors.
- Interactivity: It’s up to you to make sure attendees stick by their computers and engage with the event material. Breakout sessions, icebreakers, live polling, and live chat all encourage attendees to connect with one another digitally and opt into the event experience.
- Sponsors: Sponsors provide integral non-dues revenue and their funds help bring your event to life. Additionally, securing relevant sponsors can result in more content for members to engage with and use to connect with innovators in your field. Attract sponsors to your event with virtual trade show elements, sponsor chat, one-on-one meeting scheduling, and digital ads within your platform.
For a full overview of the elements needed for your next virtual conference, download our whitepaper “Anatomy of a Virtual Event.”
How do I run a successful virtual conference?
While the four considerations above are crucial, hosting a successful virtual conference isn’t just choosing speakers and purchasing a virtual event platform.
Many other factors come into play— from how comfortable your attendees are navigating the platform to how you follow-up after the event itself. We’ve picked up a few tips in the last year that can help you host more successful conferences going forward.
6 Virtual Conference Lessons Learned for 2021
Prioritize accessibility for all attendees.
It’s impossible for attendees to enjoy your association’s virtual or hybrid conference if they’re unable to access it and engage with all material.
Whether your attendees note the need for accommodations or not, there’s a decent chance you’ll have some attendees with visual, auditory, or other physical impairments. Creating a digital experience in which all elements are easily accessed regardless of ability creates a more positive experience across the board and shows your association’s members that you prioritize inclusivity.
Here are a few strategies to keep in mind to ensure all attendees can engage with your conference:
- Prioritize the accessibility of your platform. Compare your virtual event platform against the WCAG standards. Are all aspects of your platform universally operable, perceivable, understandable, and robust?
- Use closed captioning alongside audio elements. Accompany all recorded and live sessions with closed captioning so attendees can read along if they’re unable to listen to a session. Additionally, providing a transcript of the session after the fact can be equally helpful for ongoing reference.
- Build in breaks between sessions. Schedule 5 or 10-minute breaks between sessions, along with a lunch break, if you’re planning a full day of conference activities. This will allow attendees to step away from their home desk set up, stretch their legs, and tend to anything they need to.
Accessibility goes beyond making sure all attendees of various abilities are able to engage. For example, how can you make your event more accessible for members with full-time jobs? You can schedule events for the weekend. How about for members who are parents? Avoiding scheduling conference activities during the evening is a great start.
Practice makes (almost) perfect.
In 2020, many associations pivoted their traditional events to virtual in a hasty attempt to keep their conference schedule on track despite the safety challenges posed by the pandemic. While the show still went on, many of these events were riddled with growing pains in the form of technical difficulties, whether it was registrants struggling to navigate the event platform, buffering video, or splotchy audio.
At this point, we’ve had more time to sit with the idea of virtual events. Not only is virtual event tech improving, but gradual reopening efforts mean hybrid events— those that combine aspects of virtual and in-person events— are growing in popularity. Using our experience, we now know that you should dedicate some of your planning time to “practice,” ensuring the event goes off without a hitch.
To make the most of this practice, do the following:
- Allow your team and presenters to explore the event platform in advance. They can navigate the platform, discover any bugs and challenging points, and prepare accordingly before the live event.
- Review the event schedule with your team multiple times. Just as with an in-person event, each session depends on the successful, on-time completion of the one before it. Make sure every person responsible for an event aspect, from your tech team to individual presenters, is familiar with the rundown of the schedule and their responsibilities at each moment.
- Open the event platform a few days before the event begins. Allow attendees to navigate the platform before the event itself to familiarize themselves with its workings. This will mitigate a large influx of questions for your team and help you discover any structural issues and resolve them before the event begins.
Not only will ample practice set your team and attendees up for success during the event itself, leading to a more pleasant experience for all, but it will also prevent a large influx of questions and technical difficulties for your team to handle once the event begins. While we’re a year into virtual events, that doesn’t mean that everyone is 100% tech-savvy.
Prepare speakers to engage with a virtual audience.
Just as you want to prepare your team and attendees for the virtual session, it’s crucial that the main attractions— your prized speakers— are also able to successfully participate. There are two main ways that speakers might present during your virtual or hybrid event: by pre-recording their presentation, which is then streamed by your team during the event, or by giving the presentation live with streaming software. You’ll want to prepare speakers for both scenarios.
Speakers need to know how to effectively create video content and share it within your conference platform. This includes:
- Setting up cameras and microphones in a manner that all video and audio comes through cleanly.
- Abiding by video presentation best practices, including positioning lighting and choosing clothing in a way that conveys a professional, clean-cut atmosphere.
- Understanding how to navigate the platform from the presenter’s position, such as finding sessions, sharing slides, muting their microphone, and live streaming content.
- Communicating with attendees via live chat, polling, Q&A, and any other interactive features built into your virtual event platform.
You can provide a hosted training session to prep speakers for this task and share a speaker prep checklist for them to run through on the day of. Further, as the efforts to curb the spread of COVID-19 progress, you may be able to send a team to meet with speakers in person to set them up for the event. This could mean pre-recording sessions, setting up the livestreaming space with camera and audio equipment, or even sitting alongside the presenter during the live session, moderating chat, and making sure everything runs smoothly.
Web Courseworks provides speaker preparation as a service alongside our virtual event platform, Conference Now. This is just one of the benefits of investing in a virtual event platform and associated services, allowing you to focus less on the logistics of speaker prep and more on providing top-quality content for your attendees.
Record all sessions.
While pre-recorded sessions are, by nature, recorded videos, we’d encourage you to record all livestreamed sessions as well.
This offers a plethora of benefits, as recorded sessions can be:
- Used as demand generation content after the event itself. Pricing your eLearning experiences, whether courses or events, is rarely a straightforward process. Specifically with events, you want to price the experience in a way that allows the majority of members to participate while also generating non-dues revenue. One way to do this is to offer access to past recorded live sessions as an add-on value for members who are interested in purchasing them.
- A valuable reference resource for presenters. Keynote speakers and panelists are always improving their craft when it comes to public speaking. You can assist them in this quest and provide additional value by sharing recordings of their live sessions. This creates a strong reputation for your association as one that values presenters and will go a long way when it comes to attracting top speakers going forward.
- Appreciated by attendees who missed a session. While you should create an event that’s easily accessible for all, it’s also true that unforeseen circumstances can arise and prevent attendees from participating in each and every session. With a virtual event, all it takes is one WiFi connection to go down and then an attendee misses key sessions. By recording your virtual event, members can access the content once their internet issues are resolved. This shows members that you’re invested in their experience.
- Used to improve your virtual and hybrid event quality going forward. For example, maybe you notice that around the 30-minute mark, you consistently lose the attention of live session viewers. Or, maybe speakers that were standing during their presentation spoke in a significantly more engaging manner. You can use these observations to provide guidance to virtual event presenters and even create parameters around your events— such as only allowing 30 minute or shorter sessions.
- Used to recap the event and build anticipation for future experiences. You can create a highlight reel using past event sessions and share it to promote future virtual events. Remember, virtual and hybrid events are still a newer experience for many of your attendees, and this recap can give them a good idea of the high-value experience they’re registering for.
If you plan to record your live sessions, make sure that you inform presenters ahead of time regarding why you’re recording the sessions and what you’ll use the video for. If you’re recording any sessions where attendees are visible, such as a video Q&A, make sure that attendees have given permission to be recorded. This will ensure that everyone involved is more comfortable with the process.
Work with outside experts.
There are many moving parts when hosting a virtual event.
Prior to the event, you have to invest in a virtual event platform, design and set up your event on that platform, pre-record sessions, and handle registration, marketing, and sponsor outreach. During the event, you need to coordinate both live and pre-recorded sessions, respond to questions from members, presenters, and sponsors alike, and engage attendees with interactive elements. After the event, you need to export the attendee list, convert live sessions for on-demand viewing, and analyze the success of the experience.
This is a huge task list for any organization, let alone an association that is still navigating the newer transition to virtual and hybrid events. This is why we recommend working with experts in virtual event production to lessen your team’s administrative burden.
For example, an external expert can assist your team with any of the following steps:
- Pre-conference, an expert can help your team design and configure your virtual event platform as well as conduct testing and quality assurance. Some consultants also offer speaker training and session recording services.
- Day-of the conference, an expert can manage the technical aspects of your event. This includes on-call technical support, the creation of day-of materials such as new graphics or breakout sessions, and monitoring live chat during sessions and otherwise.
- Post-conference, an expert can export the attendee list for easy analysis and translate any live content to on-demand content for repackaging and selling.
While you can work with consultants who have expertise in virtual events, we instead recommend investing in a virtual event platform that comes with technical support, such as Conference Now. By doing this, you can rest assured that the experts you’re working with are not only well-versed in virtual events but also the specific platform you’re using.
When you’re bogged down with the technical details, it can be challenging to focus on what really matters— providing the best content and experience for your members. By working with outside experts, you can direct your focus to your members.
Invest in an effective virtual conference platform.
While Zoom and other straightforward video-conferencing platforms work well for day-to-day meetings, these platforms don’t have the features or capacity to host a truly engaging multi-track, multi-session virtual conference.
We recommend investing in a dedicated virtual conference platform to access a variety of tools and features that will benefit your members and team alike. For example, if you invest in Web Courseworks’ Conference Now and accompanying virtual events services, you can provide:
- A wide variety of virtual sessions for members. This includes keynote speakers, speaker panels, poster sessions, and more. You can organize these sessions in multi-session tracks, to empower attendees to follow the track that best aligns with their interests.
- In-platform interactivity. With live chat, polling, video conferencing, and Q&A, members can chat with, respond to, and provide feedback to one another, presenters, and your association with ease.
- Clear value for sponsors. You can empower sponsors with a full virtual trade show, where they can share materials with and chat one-on-one with attendees. Plus, as you can control the design of the platform (unlike with a non-customized video conferencing platform), you can include banner advertisements for sponsors across the platform itself.
Not only does investing in a virtual event platform provide a richer experience for association members, but its benefits can translate directly into non-dues revenue for your association. For example, you can draw on the various functionalities of your virtual event platform— such as the virtual trade show, banner ads, and member chat— to offer higher sponsorship levels and bring in more revenue.
Wrapping Up: Hosting a Virtual Conference Successfully in 2021
The pivot to virtual events in 2020 was fast enough to give anyone whiplash, but this year is different. Rather than making the same mistakes of last year, dedicate time to learning from the lessons and planning better events for your members in the future.
For some members, it will be their second virtual conference with your association— and their expectations will rise accordingly. These six tips will set you up for success in the future of virtual and hybrid events as these experiences remain vital in the coming months.
To learn more about Conference Now and Web Courseworks’ virtual event services, contact our team today. In the meantime, explore the following additional virtual event resources:
- Examining Virtual And Hybrid Events in 2021 and Beyond. Download our latest whitepaper to explore the future of virtual and hybrid association events.
- How-To Guide: Hosting a Virtual Conference for Associations. Are you planning your first fully virtual association conference? Explore this guide for a full breakdown.
- Virtual Events for Associations: Your Guide to Going Digital. Last year, many associations pivoted to virtual events for the first time. This guide provides a comprehensive overview of best practices for that transition.