Your team realizes you have a great message with a lot of information that needs to be heard, so you decide to host an online conference.
If you have never hosted an online conference before, you probably have no idea where to start. It can be mind-boggling when considering the necessary content, technical considerations, promotion and advertising, and funding needed to create such an event.
The good news is others are doing it successfully and you can learn from them. Below is a compilation of advice from several experts with years of experience to help you successfully create your first online conference.
Jack Coursen with the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association (ASHA) suggests focusing tasks on two major milestone anchors: the day you decide to start putting the event together, and the first day of the event. During a webinar, Coursen shared that it’s best to start planning for an online event 8-10 months before the first day of the actual event.
Planning the Online Conference: 8 to 10 weeks
The first phase of preparing for an online event is the planning phase, and this takes 8-10 weeks During the first two weeks, Coursen recommends building a team, picking topics, and picking a date. The next two weeks should be spent putting together a list of speakers and sessions. The two following weeks should involve contacting speakers and securing commitments from them. And the 2-4 weeks after that should be focused on obtaining basic course information and photos from the speakers.
Coursen suggests having a big topic, the biggest topic for the biggest portion of your audience. It’s also smart to get the biggest speakers possible. They can help design the conference, and they can also be instrumental in recruiting other speakers in the field. To avoid confusion, there should never be more than two speakers per session.
Developing the Conference: 8 months
The next step is the development stage. This should take about eight months. Here’s the breakdown:
- Information Gathering: Gather basic course information 7-8 months before the conference begins.
- Session Materials: Create PowerPoints or other articulates 5-6 months prior to the event
- Session Recordings: Coursen recommends making recordings 3-4 months early
- Final Touches: The last two months prior to the conference should be considered a buffer zone and dedicated to polishing, editing, and confirming commitments. It’s not unusual for presenters to provide materials later than they originally promised. Allowing 8 months for planning, helps prevent rushing, stress, and unforeseen problems,
Finding your Audience
For your first online conference, it’s best to be broad in your audience selection and don’t target a niche yet. It also helps to use a project management tool like SharePoint to keep track of everything possible related to the presentation. The first conference will be a lot of work in comparison to future online conferences, but it serves as a template for future events.
Another common practice is to repeat a conference at a different time. This costs less money, it can often produce more registrants, and can sometimes be more popular the second time around. There is less risk, and there is a zero percent chance a presenter won’t show up.
Promoting the Online Conference
Promotion for your online conference is a huge aspect of the whole process. According to Coursen, postcard mailers and podcasts haven’t been very successful in promotion of ASHA’s events. They have found that e-mail, especially to smaller targeted groups, has been helpful. A good tip is to send certain groups or affiliates their own e-mails with discounts. It’s also common for registrations to spike just before early bird discount deadlines, and just prior to the event.
Parrish Swann, an Instructional Technology Manager from ASHA, says it’s a good idea to start an online conference with a “soft launch” several days prior to the event where members can login, get acquainted with set up, download necessary applications and platforms, and become comfortable with the website. This can help members avoid confusion and lower the number of technical questions. All participants should be welcomed with an e-mail and a welcome page with important information such as how to receive continuing education credits.
Making the Experience the Best Possible
Design services and the conference website with the attendees in mind. Swann says using the platform’s announcement feature is a good idea for announcing upcoming chats, when the conference ends, how to use certain buttons, and similar issues. There are several pages needed for a conference website that attendees might find helpful such as an attendee directory, calendar, message center, FAQs, help desk, and additional resources.
Swann suggests creating a casual atmosphere where people feel comfortable asking questions. There can be live chats after presentations with the presenter periodically commenting and answering questions. Participants can also communicate with each other here. A moderated chat screen is helpful because it allows the moderator to see questions and answer them at their leisure,
Marta Okoniewski, MPA, Director of Student Engagement, American Association of Colleges of Nursing, says the most important tip for presenting an online conference is to know your audience and tailor your session specifically to that audience. Give the presenter as much information as possible about the audience, and this will help them know how detailed they should be.
Okoniewski says it’s not unusual to have guest speakers from all over the country for an online conference.
Okoniewski also pointed out the importance of audience engagement. Ways to accomplish this include having a polling feature, allowing participants to be directed to a specific website or page for platform help, and screen sharing. For presentations, there should be some method of evaluation to measure engagement. A good way to ensure completing evaluations is making it a requirement before receiving continuing education credits.
Okoniewski suggests plenty of practice. This would help being prepared for any situation that might come up including sound, connection, and downloading issues. She says that whatever happens, stay calm and don’t panic. Instead, communicate to the audience what the problem is.
Courtney Smith, Learning & Communications Manager of the International Lactation Consultant Association shared her three most important tips for hosting online conference. She also stressed the importance of knowing your audience. A good example is having international participants that don’t speak or read English. There must be some sort of translation methods available. Another tip shared by Smith is allowing plenty of time for setup and testing. Lastly, she suggested having at least three facilitators: one for technical issues, one for answering questions, and one for general audience engagement.
Lance Simon, executive vice president of iCohere, shares three tips of his own. Simon starts with embracing your role as an innovator in championing the benefits and change in your organization. He follows with having smart goals, sticking to them, defining them specifically, writing them down, and communicating them with the management team. Finally, Simon says to keep it simple, especially in the beginning.
Dr. Amanda Batson, information architect and president of ADB Partners, offers her three tips on putting together a successful online conference. The first tip is to develop quality content. She says to keep it standards-based, competency-driven, and regularly updated. Batson’s second tip is to commit to quality eLearning. Thirdly and most importantly, she says to focus on the learner and know your audience members. Know their career goals and what they need.
Tracy King, chief learning strategist and founder of InspirEd says to design learning experiences to maximize the learning process. Do this through a better understanding of your audience, and design the learning experiences for how adults learn in online environments.
The American Speech-Language-Hearing Association (ASHA) is a pioneer in implementing online conferences, and now hosts as many as six each year, grossing over $1 million in revenue annually.
Learn ASHA’s secrets for success from a panel of ASHA event experts. The panelists share their strategies for conference and content planning, recruiting speakers, event marketing, repurposing content, and recruiting sponsors. The team’s strategies and tactics can be scaled to support associations of all sizes.
Here’s a look at the ASHA panelists:
Chris Urena, Director, ASHA Professional Development
Jack Coursen, Associate Director, ASHA Professional Development
Leslie Katz, Director, Brand Marketing
Aiden Callery, Marketing Manager
Justin Goldstein, Sponsorship Manager
Want to see how ASHA makes 1M+ each year? Watch their webinar on hosting a successful online conference Join the iCohere Academy for free and gain access to this ‘on-demand’ webinar and many others for free. Join the academy here.
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