Over the past few months, many of us have attended—for the first time ever—a virtual version of in-person conferences we’ve participated in for years. Not only did we use this time for our own professional development, but we also paid close attention to the challenges and opportunities that the virtual event format presents for meeting planners, attendees, and sponsors.
Before we get into some observations, we first want to congratulate the meeting professionals who have already completed their first virtual event. While I’m sure you see both successes and opportunities for improvement, we see that you have clearly risen to the challenge! All the events we attended were well-run and full of energy and enthusiasm from hosts, speakers, and attendees alike—they also featured incredible content. You’ve established a very solid foundation to continue to build upon for as long as necessary.
To help you with your virtual conference evolution, we’ve compiled our collective observations and takeaways as food for thought for your next event.
Virtual Event Observations: From Educational Content to Attendee Engagement, Networking, and Beyond
Observation #1: Virtual events offer more education
One thing we loved most about all the virtual conferences we attended was that we had access to more content…a lot more. In all cases, sessions were available on-demand after their initial broadcast, giving us the ability to go back and re-watch sessions that we wanted to hear again, as well as new sessions that we missed the first time around.
In fact, all of us noted that we participated in session topics that would not have been at the top of our lists for an in-person event, and we walked away with a surprising amount of additional knowledge.
The bottom line: On-demand content is a huge advantage for attendees wanting to get the most out of the event. Don’t forget to make the content available to attendees after the event officially ends. And just because your event is now virtual, doesn’t mean the educational value isn’t still there, so don’t underprice or undervalue it.
Observation #2: There’s a fine line between “passive observer” and “active participant”
Webinars certainly have their place as an effective educational tool. But when we think about the ultimate virtual event experience, we probably don’t use the webinar format as our source of inspiration. In-person events are dynamic and interactive. Webinars are much more passive. We watch a webinar, but we participate in a conference.
As we move our events to the virtual space, how do we ensure a dynamic experience where our attendees become participants, not just observers?
To start, be sure that all communication is personalized to the attendee. This will make them feel important and recognized. Want to take it a step further? Send your virtual attendees a physical mailing like a welcome kit or a swag bag to help mirror the experience at the registration desk. This also helps to establish a shared experience and gives your attendees something to actively talk about.
And of course, it’s extremely important to give them ways to participate in the learning, which leads us to observation #3….
Observation #3: People (really, really) want to talk to each other
In every event we attended, we saw how much the attendees were clamoring for more time to learn from each other and better ways to “talk” to each other.
In a few cases, events featured a live chat feed alongside the presentation which was being used heavily! Unfortunately, it could also be distracting and made it difficult to focus on the session. And to be honest, there was equally fantastic content being shared in both places.
In some sessions, attendees went “rogue” and created their own way to continue the conversation in other online channels.
If your event is smaller, it’s easier to program some actual “face time” into your event—meaning, times when attendees turn on their cameras. Some networking offerings could include happy hours, online games and trivia, small discussion groups, health and wellness sessions, and ice breakers.
If you’re hosting a large event, these options may be unrealistic. In which case, opt for ways to create a conversation space without the camera, such as in your existing online community or social media channels. Set up topic or session-based conversations ahead of time, and direct attendees to those communities at a designated point after the session to continue the conversation.
Of course, this also requires leaving time in the conference schedule for these conversations, which is the perfect segue to observation #4….
Observation #4: It’s time to build a whole new conference schedule
When you take your conference virtual, it’s like you enter a new dimension where time doesn’t exist the same way. You don’t have to maximize the hours within a finite number of days because the travel schedule is no longer a factor.
This is the perfect time to re-think the schedule and structure to better support the needs of virtual attendees and speakers. For example, your three-day meeting could instead be held one day a week over the course of three weeks, making it more practical for attendees who are now also balancing home, family, school, and other obligations all from a single working space.
To address the fact that your attendees want more time to talk to each other, consider adding in some time for attendees to interact with each other and process what they just learned as part of the conference agenda—like discussion labs or time in the online community, for instance.
Or, instead of opening the conference with the standard keynote speaker, kick it off with some small group icebreakers to allow participants to get to know each other early in the process. You can group people by a common trait that has nothing to do with the conference, such as the location of their home town, for instance.
Just be sure that you don’t over program your event. Virtual attendees need breaks just like in-person attendees do. In fact, they probably need more of them to address family and household needs, take a screen break, get some nourishment, and get moving. In our experiences, we found that several virtual events featured “optional” or “fun” programming during break times. The problem with this is it makes attendees feel like they’re missing out on something they’ve paid for. Don’t make them make a choice, just give them the time they need. It’s okay to have some “white space” on your agenda.
Observation #5: It’s okay to hold virtual speakers to higher standards
Virtual presentations rely on different tactics than live presentations to be effective. It’s more difficult to hold the audience’s attention on a single screen without the additional visual cues such as a speaker’s movements on stage. The timing and pace of the presentation may need to change accordingly, and the speaker may need to go bigger with their vocal inflection and facial expressions to compensate.
All the conferences we attended featured some extremely high-quality speakers who were animated and engaging, even on camera. In speaking with some of the organizers after the event, we learned that this was no accident. Meeting planners indicated they spent more time coaching and preparing their virtual speakers. And some of the speakers—particularly those who presented as a duo or panel—mentioned they had spent more time than usual rehearsing ahead of the event.
In addition to spending more time with your selected speakers, consider adding a step in your selection process to be sure your speakers have both the right content and the right skill set to deliver it at your virtual event. As part of your initial call for abstracts or proposals, have each speaker also submit a short test video of themselves delivering their presentation, and include this as part of your consideration criteria.
There’s no doubt that the shift to virtual has been challenging for many organizations. And as we begin to migrate to a hybrid model, we’ll be faced with even more. But it is inspiring to see just how much the virtual conference model has evolved in a few short months, and how meeting planners are rising to the challenge to re-think the conference structure and reset attendee expectations, delivering even greater value in return.