Are you planning to run a virtual conference but don’t know where to start?
You’ve come to the right place, as in this guide, we will discuss everything you need to know about planning your first virtual conference.
A virtual conference offers businesses and marketers a great and more cost-effective way to connect with a broader audience, but at the same time, planning and hosting one can be a real challenge.
With the COVID-19 pandemic forcing the majority of event planners to move their events to the virtual realm, there’s never been a better time to jump in. Let us begin with the first step you should do to start planning your first virtual conference.
Step 1: Deciding on Technology Platforms
In hosting a traditional, in-person conference, arguably the venue is going to be the most important aspect to consider.
For a virtual conference, however, it’s about the tech setup.
There are various different technologies that can help you in organizing a virtual conference, but basically, you’ll need to consider three things:
How you’ll host and distribute the exhibitors’ content
Will it just be an on-demand video that participants can download? Will it be an interactive webinar? Will there be a chat room? Depending on your answers, you may need different platforms.
Of course, building your platform from scratch is also an option, but there are various webinar platforms you can choose from, and if you are only going to distribute videos, YouTube Live or Facebook Live can also be great options.
- Registration/ticketing and check-in
You’ll need a solution to help you sell online tickets and/or for people to easily register and check in to the virtual conference. Ideally, the registration functionality should be integrated into the virtual conference platform.
- Attendee tracking and management
Managing an event guest list can be a very challenging task, and for a virtual conference, you’ll also need the ability to track attendees’ activities while attending your event.
Also, we shouldn’t forget the management side of running an event, most probably you’ll also need tools to accommodate the collaboration of your event team and to manage schedules. An all-in-one event management system can provide you with all these features including registration and attendee management. Thus, you’ll only need to worry about a content hosting and distribution solution.
Step 2: Preparing Speakers and Content
For a virtual conference, content is definitely king. Securing high-quality speakers is arguably the most important aspect when planning and hosting a virtual conference.
Why? In a traditional, in-person conference, we can “sell” the venue, stage, decorations, and other elements, but that is not the case with virtual events.
In general, we can offer two different types of content in a virtual conference: live video presentations or pre-recorded videos. We should also consider the level of interactivity we’ll offer in each content.
Pre-recorded videos will typically provide a higher degree of quality and accuracy, but keep in mind that not all speakers have the time to pre-record their sessions. Live sessions, on the other hand, are technically more difficult to handle, but will also allow more interactions.
In most cases, you won’t be able to meet the speakers in person (although it’s possible), so it’s important to provide clear instructions. Depending on your budget you might want to send assistants/aides along with equipment, and here are some key considerations:
At the very least, your speakers should have:
- A decent-quality microphone
- A high-quality camera (if the laptop’s webcam is decent enough, it will do)
- Preferably high-quality lighting, or at least a place with good lighting
- With a plain and light-colored background, you may decide on a color for all your speakers to maintain consistency
For Live Speakers
- If they are going to use presentation slides, the trick is to place a smartphone, tablet, or additional monitor above the camera. This way they’ll look natural throughout the session rather than looking to the side of the screen.
- Ask the speaker to provide a written outline in advance when possible. This is to make sure their presentations don’t overlap with other speakers and so that you can create a better learning flow by scheduling a connected topic before and after the session.
For Pre-Recorded Speakers
- Ask the speaker to structure and record their talks by segments. It’s easier to record shorter segments without mistakes. So, if it’s a 30-minute session, we can ask them to divide it into five chapters, each 6 minutes long.
- Ask the speaker to share a short sample of their video recording before they record the full talk. So, you can check whether their setup is appropriate or whether you’ll need to make adjustments.
- You can then edit the pre-recorded video for a better flow. For example, add intro and outro as required, and you can even add extra content (i.e. animations, infographics) after you’ve asked the speaker’s permission. Also, fix the lighting as needed. Send the edited video to the speaker for approval.
Step 3: Structuring and Scheduling Your Virtual Conference
You should structure the virtual conference to encourage a smooth and engaging learning flow.
Your virtual conference should have a clear and attractive schedule with date/times, session summaries, speaker names, titles, photos, and the estimated length of each presentation. If any event would include an interactive session (i.e. Q&A), make it visible on the schedule.
You can divide the event into several blocks or segments, depending on the speakers and topics presented by the speakers. If, for example, several speakers are talking about productivity, then you can organize them into one block.
A trick for an online conference is not to reveal the schedule at once, but rather you can unlock only one segment/block at a time. This is to keep people focused on the segment. You can gradually unlock the next sessions and segments just before they were meant to start.
Step 4: Accommodating Real-Time Interaction
Don’t forget to accommodate networking. People attend conferences to meet others, and you can insert networking/chat sessions in-between speakers, as well as holding giveaways and raffles. If there’s enough time, you can also host online interactive activities like online quizzes or scavenger hunts.
Have a moderator (MC) who guides the attendees through the virtual conference between events, just like in a traditional conference.
For pre-recorded sessions, you can ask the speaker to be online at the time of their talk, so they are ready to answer the attendees’ questions. You can, for example, let the speaker join the chat, and they can answer attendees’ questions in the chat section on the go.
You can also allow attendees to post on social media, and use various social monitoring tools to capture questions and mentions in real-time. The MC or the speaker can address these questions/mentions on social media right away.
For live sessions, there are various tools that can help you organize live Q&A sessions. Most of them work by collecting questions from attendees (that are posted during the live stream). The speaker or the moderator can then vote for the questions they’d like to answer, and then the speaker can answer them in real-time.
You can also include live polls, contests, and other interactive activities to make the sessions even more engaging.
Step 5: Preparing a Marketing Plan
Just because you already have a well-planned virtual conference with the biggest speakers, doesn’t mean you’ll automatically attract attendees. A proper marketing and promotion plan is still required.
First, prepare your promotional assets, including but not limited to:
- A landing page or website. There are tools like Wix, Squarespace, and others that can allow you to build a professionally designed website with ease
- Email newsletters, very useful especially if you already have a sizable email database
- Blog posts and other types of content
- Social media content
- Press release
- Speaker announcements
- And more.
Be creative. There are many ways you can use to promote your virtual conference and attract more people:
- Ask your speakers to share the event with their networks, this is one of the most effective tactics especially if you are inviting famous speakers
- Leverage relevant social media networks to build awareness about your virtual conference and build a community
- Send sneak peeks, teasers, and other types of engaging content via email newsletter
A virtual conference can be a very effective way for businesses to connect with a wider range of audiences not limited to venue size or geographical location. However, planning a virtual conference can be quite challenging, so taking the time to properly prepare and plan the event in advance is very important.
Also, it’s crucial to provide something unique to set yourself apart from other virtual events, or else attracting your target audience will be difficult. Always aim to bring value to any virtual conference you host, and don’t be afraid to ask your attendees for their feedback to ensure they get the best experience and also to improve your future events.
Be creative, and don’t limit yourself to what you’ve done before. In the online environment, you’ll have more freedom and versatility to recreate virtually anything. So, think outside the box.