Hosting a Successful Virtual Conference
Organizations across the globe are turning to virtual conferences to strengthen their community impact and engagement. These online events bring people together in fresh new ways and have the potential to generate significant revenue.
This has created a lot of buzz in the association virtual conference arena, but how exactly does anyone host a virtual conference? What are the different options?
What exactly is a Virtual Conference?
A virtual conference is an official event that happens online, either exclusively, or in connection with a physical event. It is intended to allow participants from a specific region, or internationally, to participate in a simulated conference experience.
Your virtual attendees can experience many of the enjoyable aspects of a normal conference, such as: viewing live and recorded sessions, interacting and networking, downloading resources, connecting with exhibitors, and obtaining Continuing Education credits (CE credits).
All of this is handled in the virtual conference site.
Types of Virtual Conferences
It can help to break down virtual conferences into two categories – Live Stream “Hybrid” Conferences and All-Virtual Conferences. Both have an online site experience arranged and branded to give the attendee the feeling of a real event.
Live Stream “Hybrid” Conferences
With Hybrid Conferences there is a physical in-person event going on simultaneously with the virtual event. This event is then broadcast live, in whole or in part, to the virtual audience. The live stream component can be structured so that virtual attendees are able to interact with each other, in ways such as chatting and resource sharing throughout the session.
With a live stream conference, a professional video team is required to attend the in-person sessions. They work with onsite audio technicians to configure the rooms for broadcasting. The live stream goes through a Content Delivery Network (CDN), then out to virtual participants.
Though costly and logistically complex, hybrid conferences provide high quality archives and a unique attendee experience.
A less expensive approach is all-virtual conferences.
With an all-virtual conference there is no physical location. The experience centers around a virtual site, where sessions are made available as either live webinars, or prerecorded material. Since attendees participate through a customized virtual site, the experience of attending webinars, or viewing prerecorded content differs dramatically.
Engagement areas like discussions, announcements, polling, and raffles are offered throughout the site. A schedule of events can be set up in a dynamic agenda page that changes throughout the day.
Reasons to Host a Virtual Conference
There are various reasons companies, organizations, and associations hold virtual events, including:
- Saving money on physical meeting expenses
- Reaching a larger and more diverse audience
- Making it easier for their community members to attend – accessibility, distance, cost, etc.
- Making it more affordable for attendees
- Increased revenue opportunities through increased participation
- Ability to offer more events throughout the year
Steps to Hosting a Virtual Conference
Once you’re ready to explore hosting a virtual conference, there are a few helpful things to consider:
- Attendance expectations
- Paid versus Free events
- Type and quantity of content
- Getting approval
Let’s explore each of these individually.
1 – Attendance expectations
Even before you look at marketing and promotion, some factors that contribute to overall attendance include:
- Your membership size and community reach
- Yearly timing of the event
- Whether it is paid or free
Keeping these points in mind can help establish a framework for realistic attendee projections.
2 – Paid versus Free events
One of the more difficult questions is whether the event should be fee based or free. If you have a solid membership base, there could be a clear advantage with making the event a perk. However, virtual events make it easy to offer both types of registrations.
Here are some considerations on paid events and free events.
Like in-person events, virtual events have the potential to bring in sizeable revenue for organizations. How much the event costs is normally reflected by:
- Amount of content
- Value of content in the market
- Number of continuing education credits (CEs) offered
- Other virtual offerings you sponsor
When an event is free it eliminates financial barriers to attendance and leads to much higher registrations. This is often tied to a member benefit, meaning the participant only gets in free if they are a member.
One important note about free events, is that fewer people log in to participate. When something is free people are not as inclined to participate, even if they took the time to register. Building excitement and creating engagement hooks, with things like prizes and raffles, can increase actual attendance for your free events.
3 – Amount of content
It’s important to be careful not to overwhelm your attendees with too much material. If your organization offers a broad range of information, consider making this conference a targeted theme.
In our experience, clients with 10-14 presentations have done very well. This can be any mixture of live or recorded sessions.
4 – Getting approval
So, you’ve done the research and feel a virtual event would be of great value to your organization and the members it serves. Now the final hurdle is pitching the idea to the decision makers. There are a few items to keep in mind to make this successful:
- Have a clear reason for the virtual event
- Show the benefit to the members and community you serve
- Show the benefit to your organization
- How virtual events save your organization time and resources
- Be prepared to respond to fears, such as cannibalization of another event
Cannibalization is the fear that hosting a virtual event will take away from pre-scheduled physical event. It is one of the biggest pushbacks received toward offering fresh and meaningful virtual events.
To be responsive to this concern, it’s good to accept that this will actually happen. Cannibalization does occur, but the untapped participation opportunity for a virtual event is significant. In the end, the goal is usually participation itself. Those who transition from a physical event to the virtual event still attend.
An easy way to navigate concerns about cannibalization is to bring it up first. Have it as part of your pitch and address it there. “We know that offering virtual events will make some people not attend our physical events. However, this information shows that the amount of participation we will receive from those who can’t travel, have physical limitations, or financial restrictions, should far outweigh the small percentage who choose to not attend our physical events.”
Virtual Exhibitors and Sponsors
Conference sites come with plenty of opportunities for showcasing exhibitors and sponsors. This can help lighten the cost of the event, even before you take attendee registrations into account.
Virtual exhibit halls and booths are popular choices. You might consider reviewing the platform for places of exposure/interaction and then creating a tiered system, such as Platinum, Gold, Silver, Bronze. Some organizations also create a sponsorship prospectus which gives potential sponsors helpful information about the event and their choices.
It’s good to keep in mind that the first year can be difficult to quantify in terms of value for sponsors. Since you haven’t yet held an event, there isn’t historical attendance and participation data. If you open your registration early enough, you might be able to improve your chances of sponsorship by updating statistics in real time. You can also consider enticing them with a lower-price higher-exposure incentive for first year sponsors.
Encouraging Attendee Engagement
One of the best parts of the virtual conference is making it fun and engaging.
In fact, virtual environments eliminate certain barriers of networking that can occur during a physical event, such as time limitations and missed connections. In a virtual conference, everything is in the site, and attendees can choose what to participate in on their own time.
One way to encourage participation is through raffles, or other prize awarding activities. You might offer prize drawings for attendees who respond to polls, post questions, add a picture to their profile, etc. Just like at a physical conference, raffles and prizes add a layer of enjoyment to the overall event.
Sponsors could gain exposure by providing prizes.
Types of Site Experiences
The site experience is the important differentiator of virtual conferences from general webinars or live streams. The goal of a virtual conference is not to send people to Youtube, Vimeo, or a static page with limited interaction, rather it is inviting them to participate in an exciting space you have provided.
There are different kinds of virtual site experiences. We’ll break these down into three separate categories:
Simple web pages
With a good html designer, it is possible to offer a virtual conference using standard web-pages, like in your website. This format is the most basic, and may lack the experience and interactive elements that your community would appreciate.
Immersive site platforms
There are a number of platforms out there that offer an “immersive” web experience. This process uses picture-based layouts that help simulate attending an actual event. There are a number of menu options to help flow attendees through different elements of the site.
The site is designed to make your participants feel like they are at a real event and make them engaged in the experience.
It is important to take a good look at immersive conferences and decide if the experience matches your vision.
Virtual conferencing platforms
You can also use a virtual conference platform to hold your event. These are platforms designed to offer a conference experience, that is partly immersive, but also offers familiar layouts of websites. All your content, handouts, discussions, exhibits, announcements, etc. live in the conference site.
As with immersive conferences, the site is designed to make your participants feel like they are at an event and engaged in the experience. It is important to see if the layout and structure fits your vision for a virtual event.
Capitalizing on a Successful Conference?
So, you put on your first virtual conference, and it was a smashing success! Great, but now you find yourself asking whether the attendees would like to attend subsequent events. This is where feedback comes in.
It’s crucial to ask participants to provide their honest feedback. What did they like and dislike? what would they like to see next year? Make sure these are asked in a survey format. You can also offer rewards for filling out the surveys.
Here are some common questions asked:
- Was this your first time attending a virtual conference?
- Was the virtual site easy to navigate?
- Did this virtual conference meet your learning objectives?
- What did you like most?
- What topics would you like to see next year?
- Did you experience any technical problems? What were they?
- I would recommend this virtual conference to my colleagues. Y / N
- Explain the reason for your recommendation response.
If you find yourself with a long list of questions you would like to ask, keep in mind that there might be ways to break out feedback into multiple surveys throughout the event. For instance, you could always have a short 2-3 question evaluation after the presentations and before participants receive their certificates.
No matter what platform you choose, make sure that the vendor and designers involved understand your vision for the conference.
In many cases you will benefit from their expertise for developing the site. However, there are a few things your team will need to be in control of, namely:
- Providing and reviewing your content
- Presenters and topics
- Planning early (3-6 months)
In conclusion, virtual conferences offer tremendous opportunities for organizations and the members they serve.
There are two primary types of online conference: live stream hybrid conferences, and all-virtual conferences. Provided they are approached with a thoughtful plan of action and a trustworthy platform vendor there is huge potential. Having virtual conferences provides many ways to enrich your community impact.
A Final Thought on Success
Success varies organization-by-organization and year-by-year for virtual events. A helpful step in the overall process is to define success yearly for each conference and then do a post-conference analysis.
Here’s to many successful (and fun!) virtual events.