More and more associations are transitioning to the digital sphere to host what’s often their largest event experiences: conferences.
There are a few different reasons why an association may pivot to virtual events, whether it’s to increase accessibility or to ensure that the show can still go on amidst a disaster (such as the COVID-19 pandemic). Whatever your reasoning, we believe that virtual conferences are easier for associations to host than ever before.
In this guide, we will explore the essentials of virtual conferences for associations through the following points:
- Virtual Conferences for Associations: The Basics
- How To Host a Virtual Conference
As long as you’re equipped with the right association software and are ready to get a bit creative, your next conference will be a digital hit! Let’s start with an overview of virtual conferences before diving in to the top tips and tricks for your next event.
Virtual Conferences for Associations: The Basics
What is a virtual conference?
A virtual conference is a type of virtual event that emulates in-person conferences in complexity and scale. In a content-laden virtual event, attendees access classic conference elements— including but not limited to speakers, panels, networking opportunities, trade show exhibits, and even sponsored experiences— all through the comfort of their own home and computer.
Virtual conferences are differentiated from other online association events (like webinars) due to their more-intensive nature. Often a multi-day and multimedia experience, virtual conferences involve many moving parts and the coordination of multiple key players.
Why should you host an online conference?
It’s important to not be deterred from hosting a virtual conference for your association simply due to the complexity of such an event. Conferences are a common event for associations to hold because they’re the perfect conduit to share a wide range of information and experiences with members in one neat package.
Online conferences take this a step further, allowing your association to provide just as much of an experience to members without anyone involved actually leaving their homes. Beyond that, there are quite a few reasons why an association may choose to take their next event to the virtual sphere:
- Increased accessibility. In-person events present a challenge for members with accessibility concerns, whether that’s due to geographic location or physical limitations. Virtual events are accessible for members near and far and without physical movement limitations.
- Lowered budget. When you don’t have to invest in renting a venue, providing meals and hiring event staff, or even filling the venue with physical promotional materials, your association saves on conference expenses.
- Insurance in case of crisis. Whether it’s natural disasters or a global pandemic, there are times when in-person events are impossible to hold in their original state. When that happens, online events are often able to continue as planned and without major interruption.
- Technological innovations. Virtual events allow associations to capitalize on innovations and trends in technology, which can pave the way for more growth and evolution the value organizations provide to members going forward.
It’s easy to see why many associations are pivoting to virtual events for the coming season. The benefits are immense! If your organization is interested in experiencing any of these positives, continue reading to learn how to host your own virtual conference.
How To Host a Virtual Conference
Prior to hosting a virtual conference, there are a few essential elements to account for. Many are similar to what’s required of an in-person conference. The key point here is to understand that each of these elements looks slightly different when considered in the virtual sphere.
Essential Elements of an Online Conference
There are a few essential elements for any online conference. We’re going to explore the following:
Content is an essential element of any association event, and that holds true for virtual conferences as well. For an in-person conference, you may include CE presentations, keynote speakers and panels, networking lunches, and even product tabling and exhibition.
To host a successful virtual conference, understand that you can still include each of those elements— they’re just going to look slightly different than the in-person version. For example:
- CE presentations become webinars and LMS-led online education.
- Keynote speakers become pre-recorded or live-streamed webinars.
- Speaker panels become live-streamed webinars with chat moderation.
- Networking events become video chat or chat room-led affairs.
- Sponsor tabling and exhibition elements become virtual trade shows, with sponsor pages rather than physical exhibits.
When planning your virtual conference, don’t shy away from including the key elements and experiences you would have included in a place-based event. Instead, just edit them a bit to be more internet-friendly.
The role of participants in virtual conferences is interesting, as engagement is equally essential and difficult to achieve. By understanding how participants interact with your virtual event, you’ll be able to optimize the experience to reach the engagement levels of a place-based counterpart.
One of the biggest challenges of hosting a virtual conference is maintaining a connection between members and the event itself. At a physical event, members are relegated to one venue and are inherently participating because of that. Even if they’re not paying close attention or interacting very effectively, they are interacting with the event in some way by just being there in person.
With virtual events, however, it’s easy to lose that engagement fully. Members can easily pull up their web browser, log into the event, and then step away from the computer— effectively “walking out” of your event. It’s up to you to combat that risk.
We’re going to discuss a few ways to engage members in more depth later in this piece but for now, the two key factors are:
- Providing a wide variety of engaging content.
- Providing an outlet for members to engage with one another.
Luckily, the third essential element we’re about to discuss will allow your association to do just that.
Virtual Conference Platform
Hosting a virtual conference for your association involves juggling many moving parts. Whereas a webinar-style event would have an inherently simpler set-up (one video and a method of distributing it to members), virtual conferences involve multiple layers of engagement, often spread across multiple days and mediums, and occurring in quick succession if not simultaneously.
When it comes to managing the various aspects of your virtual conference, your best bet is to invest in a virtual conference platform that brings each aspect under one integrated umbrella. With this type of software, you access:
- Virtual Conference Portal. Functioning as a “home base” for your conference, members are able to navigate to educational resources, conference sessions, virtual tradeshow elements, networking experiences, and speaker and sponsor information.
- Social Engagement Features. Encourage members to communicate with one another and with your association leadership through engagement tools. Whether creating forums or discussion boards, or even holding live chat during presentations, members are encouraged to actively engage.
- Virtual Trade Show Capabilities. Host a virtual trade show “hall” in which exhibitors can create virtual booths. They can provide presentations and educational material about their product as well as accept live chats from interested members.
- Non-Dues Revenue Features. Facilitate registration payment from attendees, sponsors, and exhibitors for easy tracking of non-dues revenue generated by the event. Further, by opening the event to participants near-and-far, it will be inherently more accessible and attract more members.
- Variety in session types. You’re able to host keynote sessions, breakout sessions, and even virtual town hall discussions ensuring members are interested in each and every session format.
To explore this type of software further, check out ConferenceNow— a virtual events platform offered by Web Courseworks. Then, continue reading to explore a few best practices for hosting your next event.
Best Practices for Virtual Conferences for Associations
Once you’ve accounted for the essential elements of a virtual conference, the next step is to put those elements together into a successful event.
We’ve pulled together a few best practices to help you in your efforts when doing so:
Empower stakeholders to spread the word about your online conference.
One aspect of conference event planning that’s easier than ever when you go digital is event marketing and outreach.
Because of the nature of a virtual event, you can simply create digital materials (such as flyer designs featuring your event’s logo or banner images for the conference portal) for the event itself and use those same resources to spread the word. Instead of creating physical, place-based event decorations and separate marketing collateral, you can simply repurpose the materials created for your digital event to market the event online.
From there, empower all stakeholders to spread the word about your event on the internet. These stakeholders include:
- Association leadership.
- Speakers or other presenters.
Remember, each of these stakeholders is dependent to some extent on the success of your event, and that success depends on members participating in it. It naturally follows that they will want to spread the word about the event, so if you provide them with the digital collateral to do so, they will. This could be as simple as digital flyers and social-media friendly graphics containing information about the event.
Maintain a clear theme throughout the virtual conference.
When hosting association conferences in the past, you’ve probably built the event with one running theme. This could have been a specific CE certification that many members were seeking, a focus on current events and news in the sector your members operate in, or even simply an emphasis on member networking.
This is an incredibly effective way to structure an association conference as it gives context to all sessions included in the event. For a CE-based event, for example, the sessions may have focused on different aspects of the certification in mind before ending with a keynote speaker that’s an expert in the field.
Adding context to your event’s content— showing where it fits into the overall cohesive experience— inherently proves the value of each session offered. When members see each virtual session as one part of the whole conference, rather than an amalgamation of random experiences they can tune in to, they’re more likely to be engaged for the entire duration of the event.
This is especially crucial for combatting the risk of disengagement for your virtual event.
Aim for variety in your online conference content.
In addition to adding context to your online conference content, it’s also important to include a variety of mediums in that content itself.
Consider this: Would you grow bored with repetitive slideshows or pre-recorded webinars? If your online conference only includes these types of content, your members might lose interest as well.
By offering a variety of sessions, networking opportunities, and even exhibitions, you’re emulating the in-person conference experience through virtual means. Members will be excited to see what each experience has to offer— rather than tuning out a few slides into the presentation.
Consider the following mediums to spice up your conference offerings:
- Pre-recorded and live webinars.
- Speaker panels with live chat functionality.
- Amplified e-learning experiences, including gamification and social learning features.
- Virtual trade shows and exhibitor booths.
- Downloadable session resources, including transcripts and educational content.
- Full-event networking chats and forums and small group breakout sessions.
- Virtual member-to-member meetings.
This may sound like a lot to manage, but if you’re working with capable and dedicated virtual conference software, you’re already equipped with the tools you need.
Plan ahead for technical difficulties with your virtual conference.
Anytime your association pivots to tech solutions, it’s understandable to expect technical difficulties to arise. Whether it’s a large issue like your software becoming overwhelmed due to so many users, or a small issue like member confusion as they adjust to the new event style— it’s important to have a plan for when those issues arise.
Being prepared is what will prevent the cancellation or otherwise delay of your virtual conference, as well as ensure that all members have an enjoyable experience. Consider appointing a few team members whose sole effort is to respond to technical issues and creating a specific line of communication where members can report their concerns.
The faster you can respond to these issues, the better!
Partner with a dedicated team of virtual conference experts.
Hosting your first virtual conference can be an overwhelming experience, even if you’re equipped with optimal virtual conference software to facilitate the event.
Consider working with a team of virtual event experts, like Web Courseworks. These teams can:
- Create digital branding elements and carry those elements throughout the conference platform.
- Configure the conference lobby, virtual trade show, and other navigational elements.
- Upload users and create accounts.
- Set up educational and virtual networking sessions.
- Produce webinars, including broadcast recording, question moderation, and live streaming.
To learn more about how a virtual conference team can help your organization create your next event, contact Web Courseworks today.
To explore virtual conferences further, check out these additional resources:
- Virtual Events for Associations: Your Guide to Going Digital. Explore other types of virtual events, as well as a few best practices for hosting one, through this guide.
- Leading Learning Podcast Features Virtual Conferences Information & eLearning Trends. Listen to the leading learning podcast to hear eLearning experts discuss virtual events.
- Coronavirus Pushes Associations to Offer Online Options for Face to Face Events. Associations are pivoting to virtual events in the wake of COVID-19. Learn more through this blog post.