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10 best practices for running a virtual conference

(Image credit: Shutterstock / Mila Pashkovets)

The global pandemic has forced many organizations to jump-start virtual events and online conferences of their own or to shift a regularly scheduled physical event into an online forum.  The pivot sounds easy on the surface, but producing a world-class virtual conference requires a different mindset.

Why virtual?

The vast majority of tech professionals have spent their careers attending in-person conferences. Done well, a conference can stimulate education around best practices and provide valuable opportunities to connect with industry peers. However, in-person conferences are limited by physical space. Often, budgetary constraints on tickets or travel prevent the very people - and entire departments - who would benefit most from new training and peer-led instruction from attending. Understandably, physical events are, by nature, are exclusive - not everyone who could participate has the opportunity to do so.  Virtual events - done right - remove many of the barriers to accessibility. They can be inclusive, free to attend, and accessed from anywhere.

Anyone building a conference, virtual or not, must consider their guiding principles and craft event support accordingly. If inclusivity is important, for example, the virtual model makes it possible to enlist support from a diverse global community of collaborators, and serve more attendees.

However, the biggest benefit of going virtual is the ability to scale conferences larger each year. Unlike in-person conferences, a virtual one can grow, and accommodate more people without sacrificing value or quality. When done well, virtual conferences can quickly earn a reputation for connecting with practitioners around the globe. And ultimately, they can become something which fuels business development all year-round.

Best practices for delivering a virtual conference

Here are some of the more important recommendations for building and operating a virtual conference.

Have the right team
Many companies are racing to transform their physical events to virtual events. A virtual event requires skills and knowledge that may be unfamiliar to your physical event teams. For example, how do you light a room for webcasting? How do you ensure proper audio controls? Lean on experts to help deliver polished production experiences. Think of the production more like a TV show than a long online webinar.

Rehearse
Be sure to host practice sessions with your presenters. Make sure they know how to use your technology platform(s), that they know how to share slides, and that your team has been able to troubleshoot technical difficulties ahead of your big day. This can help put everyone at ease.

Prepare your speakers
Presenting to a crowd at a live conference is not the same as presenting online, especially for keynote addresses. Some speakers perform better in front of an audience. Consider setting up a live audience for some speakers, even if not the huge crowd your physical conference was going to offer.

Registration expectations
Those running live events are used to seeing registrations building months ahead of their events. For virtual events, because no travel is required, participants often register at the last minute - even as sessions begin! Approximately 50% of registrations come in the final two weeks leading up to the event, even though we promote the event several months ahead of time. While this can be nerve-wracking in the lead up to the event, the flip side to this is advantageous. With unlimited capacity, you can promote up to the last minute.

Hallway tracks
Finding a way to drive engagement at virtual conferences is essential to event success. Having an instant messaging platform for folks to interact with each other in real-time helps attendees to learn from one another and build new relationships. This also helps to maintain momentum from your conference well after the event. It ensures the community stays engaged, and gets value that extends far beyond the day itself.

Live on Air
For attendees, there is a big difference between live presentations and recorded ones.  Make live presentations a top priority, but be sure to record all of your sessions for those who can’t attend every session at your conference. Live presentations are simply more authentic to the audience. Think of the difference you feel when watching live television versus a pre-recorded episode. Live events have better engagement.

You’ll be asked 100 times, “are these sessions recorded?” (Pro tip: create a keyboard shortcut to copy/paste the reassuring phrase into your conference chat room: “Yes, these sessions are being recorded.”)

Time zones
With virtual events, people can attend from all over the world so make sure your schedule serves every attendee in their respective time zones, not just for the host’s convenience.  No matter where you live, you can participate, increasing the event’s reach.

Put a code of conduct in place
Just because it’s online doesn’t mean that everyone behaves appropriately. Have a solid code of conduct in place and enforce it. Make sure your conference offers a safe and enjoyable experience for all attendees. If people misbehave, don’t be afraid to boot them from your platform, in order to improve the experience for all of your other attendees.

Best practices after a virtual conference

Post-conference you’ll have additional demands, some of which may be new to virtual conference organisers. Notably, these include:

Continuing conversations
Set up a way for conference attendees to keep new connections growing. Messaging channels can be used year-round so attendees can connect with others, solicit advice, and share job opportunities. However, for this to be successful, conference organisers must be willing and able to monitor it to protect the space’s integrity. 

Amplifying content
Events produce a wealth of insights that can be used to support business development for the rest of the year. Think about how else you can use content from your events to create books, blogs, whitepapers, and continue to fuel engagement year-round.

All told, while virtual events may have come to prominence due to the Covid crisis, they present valuable benefits that businesses and community organizations should continue to harness even when the world returns to normal. 

We encourage others to undertake a virtual conference because of the capacity to scale and reach more people. It won’t be too long before a “virtual conference” is synonymous with hosting a new and improved conference using augmented reality technology. We’ll save you a seat and see you there.

Derek Weeks and Mark Miller are co-founders of All Day DevOps