Seasoned virtual conference planners are few and far between. So here are a few tips to help you manage the move online.
Hindsight is 2020. The pandemic (and the resulting switch to virtual conferencing) has left organisers across the globe scrambling for tried-and-true tactics to plan their own events. But the lack of people with experience in planning a virtual or hybrid conference means that the demand for ideas still far outweighs their supply.
So back in April, we began planning our first annual ExOrdoCon to help organisers connect with each other, share their strategies, and learn from others’ experiences with virtual. And of course, in the process of hosting a virtual conference on virtual conferencing, we learned a bit ourselves. So here’s a collection of top tips we discovered along the way. I hope you can put them to work to create engaging online experiences for your attendees while minimising the stress for your conference committee.
You’ll need a bigger virtual conference team than you think
“A lot of people think – oh, this is a virtual event so I won’t need to manage a large group of volunteers, I can do most of this myself. While it’s true you rid yourself of volunteers for set-up and hosting at the physical venue, there’s still shedloads of work to be done for a virtual conference. And you won’t realise you’re short on people until it’s too late. The day of the conference ended up being way busier than I’d expected. With all the little tasks that cropped up last minute, it would’ve been helpful to have an extra few hands to pitch in.” ~ Dee McCurry, Conference Engagement Co-ordinator
Our top tips… Outline your timelines and tasks from the beginning. And be realistic about what you can achieve with a small team. Then double (or triple) your ranks for the day of the conference to ensure you always have someone to pick up an unexpected technical issue or help drive engagement within your live sessions.
Virtual conference stages need more than just one host
The “office” view for Eamonn who tuned into ExOrdoCon from his camper van in Galway
“I hosted several live sessions during ExOrdoCon, but I had a team supporting me during each of them. There was always someone running Q&A and another person popping in and out to drive the conversation and encourage questions. When you’re focusing on what the speakers are saying, or moderating a live panel, it really helps to have someone keeping an eye on the chat. It’s like a Mission Impossible film – you’ve got the main agent on the scene. And the rest of the team are parked around the corner in a high-tech van to back them up.” ~ Brian Campbell, Conference Chair
Our top tips… For every live stage you run, make sure you have a host, someone collecting and organising questions, and someone on hand in case the conversation needs a kickstart. It may seem like overkill if everything runs smooth. But in the event of a technical glitch or an extra-enthusiastic audience, you’ll be grateful for the backup.
Your dress rehearsal SHOULD be a well-planned disaster
“For our dress rehearsal, we thought of everything and anything that could possibly go wrong, and then we practised what to do in that scenario. Team members were assigned roles to act – a speaker who can’t get in, a host whose connection cuts out midway through the session, and so on… We went through our process for the day and made sure we all knew everyone’s role in each type of issue. So when a speaker couldn’t access the stage where they were scheduled or an attendee was having tech troubles, we knew exactly what to do.” ~ Nerys Garfield, Conference Support
Our top tips… Set up rehearsal stages in your virtual conference platform to give you and your speakers plenty of opportunities to practice before you go live. Then, prepare for a total tech meltdown during your conference (even if it’s highly unlikely). And make sure everyone on your team knows who’s responsible for what on the day of the live event.
Virtual conference speakers appreciate a helping hand
Brian and Paul speaking during the opening session of ExOrdoCon 2020
“We ended up getting a ton of fantastic speakers and panellists for our event. Still, we made sure to run a rehearsal and planning session for each of them. It really helped to have a chat with every speaker beforehand and talk them through everything in advance. Plus, they had a chance to get used to the software and ask questions before the pressure of the live event was looming over them.” ~ Brian Campbell, Conference Chair
Our top tips… Don’t assume your speakers are tech-savvy… or that they know as much as you do about the virtual conference platform you’re using. Give them the resources and opportunity to design the best session experience they can. And be prepared to support them if they need help running polls or managing Q&A. Even for on-demand sessions, try your best to work with your speakers in advance to guide them in creating engaging content.
Time zones can make or break a live conference programme
“One thing we noticed as the event approached was the conflict in time zones. We’re based out of Ireland and so our schedule worked best for people in Europe and Africa. But we had lots of attendees from North America… their schedules really didn’t line up as well for the live event – especially those on the Pacific coast. Luckily, we planned to record our live sessions and offer them on-demand after the event anyway. So while some had to miss networking sessions, no one missed out on the content.” ~ Sierra Taylor, Communications & Conference Host
Our top tips… Consider your audience and their time zones when planning your virtual conference programme. This is especially important if you have certain sessions that can’t be recorded and offered later on-demand. If you can offer an on-demand option, always do. And be sure to host your most important live sessions at times that work best for the majority of your audience.
Panels are the virtual conference sweet spot
One of our speaker sessions during ExOrdoCon 2020
“I loved the panel sessions we ran. I think these are one of the best formats for a virtual conference. The quality of education and discussion that comes from them always impresses me. And when you get a group of minds together to chat about their area of expertise from different perspectives, that naturally gives you more dynamic and diverse insights on the topic. We also had a few comments that the panels made the conference feel more like a live event and a conversation that everyone was a part of. So they added a lot of experience value for attendees.” ~ Nerys Garfield, Conference Support
Our top tips… Consider pre-recording presentations and offering them on-demand for viewing before and during the conference. Then bring your speakers and presenters together for live panel discussions and Q&A sessions during key times that work for the majority of your attendees. It maximises the value of your live sessions and makes your virtual conference attendees feel like they’re a bigger part of the discussion.
Breaks are vital in a virtual conference schedule
“I think it’s easy to assume that sitting at a computer is less stressful or tiring than attending a physical conference. But I remember being surprised by how quickly the screen fatigue set in at the first virtual conference I attended during the lockdown. So, when it came time to plan ExOrdoCon, we made sure to add two long breaks each day, and we overlapped them with our networking sessions to give people an option of an even longer break. People were grateful for the room to breathe. Looking back, we probably could have even benefited from a few more short breaks between our live sessions.” ~ Sierra Taylor, Communications & Conference Host
Our top tips… Don’t give in to the fear that long breaks will cause attendees to lose their focus on your event. Combatting screen fatigue is an important part of planning a virtual conference. And breaks are a simple tactic to do just that. If you deliver great content from the get-go, attendees will be happy for the opportunity to rest, before returning with a clear mind to the next live session.
On-demand is an underrated benefit of virtual conferences
Making our ExOrdoCon recordings available on-demand has proved to be a big hit with attendees who couldn’t make it on the day
“A common strategy for physical research events has always been running parallel sessions to fit a lot of presentations into a short conference programme. But, running ExOrdoCon, we discovered the potential of hosting presentations on-demand. Allowing people to watch videos of presentations in their own time, at their own speed, meant that we were able to reach a wider audience than those who could attend our live sessions. And we’ve had great feedback from attendees since, who find being able to pause or revisit sessions is a major help. Plus, we can continue to share these sessions with customers who go virtual with us long into the future.” ~ Dee McCurry, Conference Engagement Co-ordinator
Our top tip… Identify your dense, technical talks that will be best-served up on-demand, then schedule some live Q&A sessions for these presentations. That way, your attendees get the best of both worlds: a chance to digest complex info in their own time, and the opportunity to engage in a live discussion with the authors.
Conversations in the live chat are a valuable tool
“We had a ton of conversations and engagement happening in the public chat panel during our live sessions. And some of the learning I gained was just from watching attendees have these discussions. We also had several speakers engage with the chat – that was so helpful and really made it worth it for those who attended live… as opposed to them waiting for the recordings to be released.” ~ Sierra Taylor, Communications & Conference Host
Our top tip… Try your darndest to get every attendee joining in live for the most important sessions. Even if a presentation recording will be available on-demand, the real-time conversations in the chat can make for equally valuable learning opportunities (and often a bit of extra entertainment to boot).
It doesn’t hurt to have a bit of fun at your virtual conference
Just a few of the shirts Brian sported during his hosting gig with ExOrdoCon 2020
“I was the host on our main stage, and during one of my tech rehearsals with a speaker, we joked about how I should change my outfit multiple times throughout each day of the conference to see if anyone noticed. At first, I hesitated as I was worried it might seem unprofessional. But I’m glad I did it in the end. We even ended up holding a social competition to see if anyone could guess the total outfit changes throughout the full event. It was a good bit of entertainment and we had several attendees who commented on it after the event. People really engaged with that casual style.” ~ Brian Campbell, Conference Chair
Our top tip… Don’t be afraid to have a bit of fun throughout your virtual conference. Keep things appropriate to your purposes, but remember that holding people’s attention online can be very tricky. And there’s nothing like a good inside joke or a quirky competition to keep people engaged. The rules of virtual conferencing are still being written… but attendees are always going to appreciate a chance to lighten up and have a laugh.
So what’s coming next for virtual conferencing…?
The do’s and don’ts of planning a virtual conference are still tough to pin down. But we’re getting there. And the passionate, heated, generous and honest conversations happening among industry experts and seasoned conference planners are bringing much-needed innovations to the online events space.
ExOrdoCon 2020 was a trial by fire for our team. We’ve learned so much and we can’t wait for next year’s event. But in the meantime, we’ve got software to build and plenty more events to support. So if you’re hoping to plan a virtual conference, check us out at Ex Ordo. There’s a team of people here waiting to help.