Many conferences and trade shows have gone virtual in 2020 because of COVID-19. If done right, online events can foster all the outcomes as those that happen in-person, while offering some unexpected benefits. Event experts share some insights regarding the key elements to a successful virtual conference.
Provide Top-Notch Content
Industry bigwigs flock to trade shows to make connections, to talk about their businesses, and to learn what’s new in their industries. Still, solid content remains the bedrock of an engaging event that provokes thought and conversation.
Guests will be sitting through hours of speakers and breakout sessions. In a virtual setting, engagement is crucial as you contend for the attention of attendees from afar. Now is not the time to skimp or throw together a speaker list. In fact, Procore’s Senior Manager of Event Marketing Jessica Rice notes that in the process of moving Procore’s sought-after Groundbreak conference to the virtual realm, organizers felt they had even more reach to get speakers that can touch on the most important topics of the day.
“It’s definitely broadened our horizons,” says Rice. “We are able to have more international speakers on topics that we love, and that they love.”
“We are able to have more international speakers on topics that we love, and that they love.”
In order to keep people listening and clicking into the next session, topics should be on-point, and speakers should be well-lit, easy to hear, and charismatic.
Some aspects of online venues make accessing a conference simpler—without concerns with travel and lodgings, there can be fewer barriers to attendance.
However, putting things online could put up new roadblocks, including headaches in navigating new software. Make sure your format works easily and with as few technical glitches as possible, advises Jean-Paul de Lavison, President of JPdL, a conference planning firm.
“There can be a lot of surprises. You can never rehearse too much,” he says. “When there’s no glitch, it’s because they walked through the whole process.”
Considering time zone differences is another important aspect of accessibility. Attendees will have to carve out time to attend a virtual event, just as they would with an in-person event. There’s one crucial benefit of online conferences, though: They have the option of making content available after the fact. Groundbreak’s organizers have done just that, allowing registrants to watch the content for 30 days after the October 27–28 conference.
“All of the sessions are pre-recorded, so all of them will be available on-demand the minute they’re over,” Rice explains. “You have the same content for 30 days that you would get if you attended live.”
Participants then have the freedom to watch when they like. They can, therefore, view more content as they’re not limited to the two days the conference runs. “You could watch everything if you wanted to,” Rice adds.
Accessibility extends further than that to the cost of admission. Rice has been hearing from business owners who can send far more of their staff to Groundbreak than ever before because the virtual conference costs a fraction of what in-person events typically run. This year, Gardner Builders, a general contractor headquartered in Minneapolis, Minnesota, invited all of its 160 employees to attend Groundbreak.
Make it Fun
One thing an in-person event has going for it is a common venue. Everyone in the conference is tied down to a single time and space, which brings the event together. A virtual event requires slightly different tools to tie it together.
One way to do that is to create common goals and gathering spaces. Groundbreak’s organizers have added a gaming aspect into the event software “to add a little fun and friendly competition” to the events, Rice explains. “Every time you interact with the software, you get points, and those points add up to prizes.” A game portal that features a leaderboard ups the ante, and prizes are awarded for the points.
Chat rooms that offer networking opportunities and a chance to meet Groundbreak’s conference’s sponsors also bring attendees into the event. A specific portal called “Ask the Experts” allows attendees to meet with Procore product experts to get answers to their technical questions.
“That will be staffed live with various Procore experts,” Rice says. “Their job for the two days that we’re live is to answer your questions.”
Carefully Plan and Prepare
Most of all, de Lavison says a virtual meeting must be dealt with the same amount of care as an in-person meeting. You shouldn’t treat it as a last-minute alternative.
“There were a lot of clients who were asking about making their conferences virtual but didn’t really want to invest in it,” de Lavison says. “There’s a lot of preparation with the speakers, and the whole thing has to be thought through and watched very closely.”
“There’s a lot of preparation with the speakers, and the whole thing has to be thought through and watched very closely.”
Finding the right speakers, getting their recordings in the books, and promoting the event to get as far a reach as possible are all part of running a successful virtual conference. Given enough care and attention, there are some definite silver linings to moving your next conference online.