Social distancing during the coronavirus pandemic has put an end to all large in-person gatherings, spelling not just a disruption to social life as we know it but also the cancellation of many of the world’s biggest conferences. The technology and music festival SXSW, for example, was called off for the first time in its 33-year history, as were both Google’s and Facebook’s annual developer conferences.
But many companies are turning to virtual conferences as a means of bringing their communities together despite the ongoing crisis. Microsoft’s Build conference, for example, will be held as a series of virtual online sessions in May. The Game Developers Conference (GDC)—one of the first conferences to face cancellation back in February—successfully broadcast a weeklong schedule of talks over live video-streaming platform Twitch.
While hosting a virtual conference during social distancing presents logistical challenges, it can be done. And for some businesses, hosting a virtual conference during this time can present a real opportunity. Industries are looking for support and connection, and providing a forum for discussion and growth can help build relationships that last well beyond this crisis.
If you’re considering a virtual conference for your company, here are eight things you need to know to make it work.
Eight strategies for hosting a virtual conference
Your industry type and event format will naturally dictate the best practices for hosting a virtual conference. But here are a few general considerations and strategies to bear in mind.
1. Choose a theme that makes sense
Without the anchor of a physical location to fall back on, it can be especially difficult to place virtual conference sessions in a meaningful context. A schedule of loosely related sessions will simply leave attendees feeling directionless or overwhelmed. For a virtual conference to deliver real impact, bring all of your sessions, courses, and workshops together under a clear and overarching theme. Lead with a strong idea—even if it’s a single word—and let that topic guide every aspect of the conference agenda.
2. Include live video
One of the most effective ways to drive attendee engagement is through live video sessions. Wherever possible, encourage speakers and exhibitors to broadcast themselves before or after any prerecorded presentations. Streaming live content brings a much-needed human element to sessions that could otherwise feel impersonal, and reminds attendees that while the conference may be virtual, there are still real people working behind the scenes.
3. Be interactive
Create opportunities to interact with attendees through live question-and-answer sessions as well as tools like polls, activities, or even quizzes. Remember that you’re competing for people’s attention at all times, and by inviting viewers to participate rather than be passive, you’ll ramp up engagement while creating additional content.
Try inviting attendees to submit suggestions or questions ahead of sessions, and then address those submissions as the session comes to an end. People who ask questions are far more likely to stick around to hear them answered.
4. Run rehearsals
With so many potential points of failure, it’s almost certain that you’ll run into a few technical hitches when organizing a virtual conference. As much as possible, have your speakers run through presentations ahead of time. Don’t assume your guests are tech-savvy. Test your equipment and connection speeds, and identify solutions and backup plans should things go south.
5. Keep it simple
Just because you’re unable to host an in-person conference doesn’t mean you need to meticulously re-create the entire event in a virtual sense. Consider which aspects you can strip down to the basics.
Some sessions, for example, could work as straightforward Facebook Live video streams. Could a presentation be reimagined as an Instagram Story, or even a Twitter thread? The easier you make it for your attendees to tune into the content, the more likely you are to reach them and hold their attention.
6. Encourage networking
Social distancing makes it more difficult to be, well, social, but this doesn’t mean a virtual conference can’t offer the same networking opportunities you’d find at an in-person event. Meeting and webinar platforms such as Zoom come with comprehensive chat features that enable discussion during sessions, as well as the ability to break out into one-on-one conversations with other attendees afterward. Learn to leverage these tools, and you’ll find that virtual conferences can be just as effective as in-person events at bringing people together.
7. Use social media as a virtual lounge
During a virtual conference, social media sites like Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram are where conversations between attendees are most likely to take place. Lead the charge and create an atmosphere of sharing by establishing a hashtag. Have your speakers and exhibitors guide attendees to use it.
8. Consider the setting
Reach out to your speakers ahead of time to discuss where they might be able to broadcast or film their sessions from. If needed, provide them with the hardware required to produce a professional-looking stream consistent with the rest of the conference’s agenda.
Exhibitors are unlikely to have a professional studio setup in their apartment, but with a decent USB microphone, an external camera, and a simple backdrop, they can still lead an engaging and vibrant session.
Virtual conference platforms
Depending on the complexity and format of your conference, there are a host of different tools and virtual conference software options available to help organize and run a successful event.
For bigger programs, you might consider a fully-featured webinar platform like ON24 or vConference, both of which offer a powerful suite of tools designed to track audience engagement. Virtual events coordinator Evia is a soup-to-nuts solution for hosting conferences online and can support livestreams, on-demand video, and session resources such as supplementary handouts for attendees.
Videoconferencing platforms like Zoom are great for smaller or more direct sessions, while free options such as YouTube and Facebook Live can reach your target audience at the push of a button.
Benefits of hosting a virtual conference during social distancing
As a host, the prospect of pulling together a virtual conference—especially one that’s organized at the last minute—might seem overwhelming at first. But even though people may not be able to physically attend, there are still many benefits to moving your event online rather than canceling it.
It builds new relationships
Not only does a virtual conference help establish and strengthen the relationship between exhibitors, speakers, and attendees, but it also builds strong partnerships between you and the people who assist in organizing and running the conference. From the production and support staff to the marketing teams, the connections you create will serve your business in countless other ways further down the line.
It provides community for your industry
For many attendees—in particular those working remotely or in freelance roles—your conference may well be an important social event as well as a purely professional one. A virtual conference can still provide this vital community aspect for your industry, bringing people together at a time when many are feeling socially isolated, cut off from their industry, and perhaps in need of a little inspiration.
It creates a library of online video content
Most virtual conference platforms will give you the option to make all of your sessions available on demand to attendees after the conference has ended. Not only does this give you a wide selection of video content to send out to those who were not able to watch live, but you’ll also have a great resource to use for future communications.
Whether you’re moving an existing conference online or starting a virtual one from scratch, the tools available to bring your industry together make it easier than ever to create a seamless and successful event for your attendees and exhibitors.
Social distancing might have us holed up in our homes for the time being, but by adapting to this new normal, we can strive to stay connected and productive during these challenging times.
Steve Hogarty is a writer and journalist based in London. He is the travel editor of City AM newspaper and the deputy editor of City AM Magazine, where his work focuses on technology, travel, and entertainment.