The need for social distancing during the Covid 19 crisis has meant that thousands of business events have had to be canceled or postponed. But a significant number of companies have decided to host their conferences virtually – aided by the many new and innovative technological solutions available.

As in other areas such as HR, sales, and more, for many event organizers it’s been a case of either adapting and embracing new technology – by moving towards video conferencing, for instance – or putting their livelihoods at risk.

Conferences are important in terms of revenue and education

Apart from the financial impact of the crisis on event organizers, the value of many of these events shouldn’t be underestimated either. Conferences offer a space where industry leaders and professionals can come together and have meaningful debates and discussions. They’re places where people can network and forge new relationships and foster a collaborative culture.

The conference industry is also important because of the numbers. It’s worth trillions of dollars globally, with millions of people attending events every year. There were almost 1.5 million business events in the UK alone in 2018.

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Simply canceling all these events would not only be ruinous financially but would see people missing out on valuable educational and networking experiences. Which is why companies have had to change how they run conferences in a post Covid 19 world.

Out of necessity has come invention – and the rise of the virtual conference. Businesses that don’t get creative and instead sit on the sidelines are likely to suffer. Those that achieve the next level of digital transformation and make the most of the existing environment look set to survive.

In this post, we’ll look at some things organizers should take into consideration when planning a conference, along with some best practices.

What is a virtual conference?

A virtual conference is an event that allows people to take part without having to be in a set physical location. Unlike in traditional conferences, these virtual meetings do not require people to fly in from all over the world — it’s an opportunity to get a diverse global audience together without adding to the carbon footprint.

There’s a wide range of solutions to help companies host virtual conferences, with most offering excellent alternatives to an in-person event. Organizers can offer presentations, keynote speeches, and discussion forums along with networking opportunities to make the conference appealing to attendees.

Things to consider when planning a virtual conference

  • Whether to provide some content ‘on demand’ so attendees can watch when they like.
  • Whether it makes sense to ask speakers to limit their sessions to 15-20 minutes rather than the usual 45. Keeping engagement levels high is more tricky during a virtual event, so keeping sessions shorter may be a good idea – and you can still deliver great value this way.
  • Whether to use a virtual event (VE) platform to duplicate the real event as closely as possible. This option can be costly and involve a steep learning curve. It could be an option for companies launching a new product – or in a situation where organizers would otherwise lose out on precious sponsorship revenue (or lose a difficult to get speaker).

But VE platforms aren’t always the right approach for every conference. Video conferencing hosting tools might be better for smaller or less complex events.

This chart from Forrester outlines the virtual event technology alternatives:

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Once you’ve decided the best platform to use for a virtual conference, it’s time to think about how to manage things on the day.

How to manage audience expectations

Apart from logistical issues, virtual conference organizers need to know how to create memorable experiences for an online audience. To do this they need to think about how they can create added value, rather than simply deliver a mediocre online version of the original event. Developing an online event requires creativity if it is to be successful.

Customers attend ‘live’ events for the opportunities to learn something new, meet an interesting exhibitor or partner, or exchange business phone numbers. Sponsors see them as great places to engage with the audience and generate leads. Many of these moments happen outside of the presentations or sessions.

Hosting a conference online means cutting back on content and creating an agenda that will engage the audience. Having great keynote presentations is essential, as is audience participation. Top interactive experiences include recognition, raffles, and rewards to keep everyone engaged.

Virtual conferences best practices

How a virtual conference is delivered will depend on technological constraints and the number of attendees. From workshops to online trade shows, each will differ in terms of location and interaction levels. It’s essential to anticipate potential obstacles and aim to facilitate participation.

These obstacles are likely to be technical (e.g. a lag in communications that interrupts the flow of the meeting). So being able to troubleshoot issues by having close contact with the tech team is imperative. It may be worthwhile to consider pre-recorded sessions, intermingling this with live content to reduce the likelihood of technical issues holding things up.

Having a moderator or facilitator on hand to ensure the smooth running of the conference will also ensure everyone sticks to the schedule.

Including social aspects of the event will add value. Initiate introductions in breakout sessions and use ice breakers to allow participants to meet each other virtually.

Preparing for a virtual conference

Organizers need to ramp up communication efforts with attendees ahead of the virtual conference, so they know what to expect on the day. Participants should have plenty of time to get used to the idea of change and remain committed to the idea of a conference held this way.

It’s essential to create a dedicated online event hub where all the information and key event details will be held. Invite people to get in touch with any questions they may have – consider tapping contact center agents to help you get through especially busy periods.

Include information about the speakers and preview some of the features you’ll be using. For example, let people know if you’re going to run online polls, so they know what to expect. Social media channels are a good way to get information about the event in the public domain.

Before the conference, attendees should know the software that’s being used – along with accurate instructions on how to join. Participants should also know how to access customer support if they run into any issues.

Post conference

Post conference, there’s the advantage of having all the content in a digital format ready to reuse and repurpose for post-event marketing. The virtual conference content can also be shown to people who couldn’t attend.

It’s important to measure the specific performance metrics around different areas of the conference. For instance, you can see how many people tuned in to each session and the actions they took while observing. This will offer valuable insights into what people liked most so you can plan for future events.

Send out thank you emails and post event survey questions to get feedback from attendees to gauge the overall success of the conference.

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You can also use this data to show sponsors how promotions within your event could give them tangible returns.

Benefits of virtual conferences

Professional events take place for a number of reasons, not least to bring brand awareness and revenue to the organizer. They are also a place to share information and network. When well run a virtual conference can achieve all these things. They also have many advantages over a traditional face-to-face event:

Financial benefits: Virtual events eliminate the requirement for venue hire, some types of insurance, and the costs of staffing and catering. They can help organizers reduce many kinds of operational costs and increase potential ROI. There are also free video conferencing platforms available that are good to consider for smaller events.

Higher attendance figures: Since participants no longer need to travel vast distances or book costly hotel accommodation, attendance figures are likely to be higher. And, events can now reach an even wider audience.

Measurability: The technology used to deliver virtual events has built-in capabilities that allow organizers to measure the success of the event in real-time. This data can be used to make any necessary adjustments – as well as to measure audience sentiment around the event.

This enables organizers to improve things both during and after the event, and increase customer retention.

Easy transition: Switching to virtual events may be easier than it first appears. Many people have already been using the mediums and formats that allow them to take place. And they are familiar with many of the online interactions and activities involved either on mobile or desktop. A significant number will have attended online webinars or live-streaming events.

The future of event marketing

The Covid 19 crisis has forced companies to react to and maintain normalcy in difficult situations. But there is much to take away for the future, too. While in-person conferences will no doubt rebound eventually (people always value face-to-face interactions) marketers who employ a digital approach and personalize an attendee’s experience will earn good returns for their efforts.

Whilst it’s a challenging task, there are many plus points to hosting virtual conferences – not least the fact they can generate higher numbers of attendees and reduce operational costs.

Read more: 8 Best Conferences and Events for Entrepreneurs