As part of a panel on planning and strategy for virtual conferences at the IAEE Mid-Year Meeting, I drew upon the “20 Tips for Successful Virtual Conferences” piece that Celisa put together for our The Virtual Events Report and and as a complement to other resources in our Virtual Events Resource Center. That got me thinking that we really need to highlight the free resources we have on the site from time to time, just to make sure that people are aware of them.
So, to that end, here are a dozen of the tips from Celisa’s piece. (We also extracted these for inclusion in ASAE’s 199 Ways to Enhance Learning Experiences.)
1. Be clear on the business issue you’re trying to address—and make sure a virtual conference can help
Are you looking to cut costs? Make money? Reach new audiences? Reduce wear and tear on the environment? Respond to member demand for more education? Whatever it is, clearly state the business issue, so you can determine whether a virtual conference is an appropriate solution—even if virtual conferences are usually cheaper than place-based conferences, they aren’t cheap, and you don’t want to undertake one lightly.
2. Take advantage of going virtual
Try to benefit from the unique opportunities offered by going virtual. Can you get that keynoter you couldn’t get before because she didn’t want to come to Chicago in January but who just might agree if she can deliver from her own desk? Can you target content to segments (young professionals, non-native English speakers, etc.) who can’t or don’t come to your live events? Can you provide more polished sessions and cut down on stress by simulating live delivery (i.e., pre-recording sessions but offering live Q&A)? Can you rebroadcast sessions for different geographies and time zones with live Q&A for each?
3. Devote adequate resources
It’s so easy to underestimate what’s involved. Don’t think only in terms of money, but also in terms of staff time. Expect to spend as much staff time on a virtual conference as you would on a similar place-based conference—in fact, if it’ll be your first virtual conference, expect to spend more time, as the staff will need to come up to speed on the technology themselves and educate other stakeholders. Minutely define roles and responsibilities to ensure nothing falls through the cracks. Facilitation and customer service are arguably more for virtual conferences than place-based events.
4. Pick metrics and set targets
What will success look like for your virtual conference? Decide on your metrics (registration, revenue from sponsors, number of vendors, overall attendance, session attendance, etc.), and then set targets. You might use data from your place-based events to set your targets, or you might find out how other associations have faired with virtual events and benchmark against them. For example, according to some, you should expect that 50 to 70 percent of registrants will not show up for the virtual event (though participants in our survey reported an average of more than 60 percent showing up). Of course, whether the event is free or for fee should factor into your expectations.
5. Keep sessions short and build in sufficient breaks
A sage, if crass, adage applies here: The brain can only absorb what the butt can endure. Shorter is often better for sessions. And don’t forget to build in breaks—attendees will appreciate 15 minutes to check voicemail and e-mail and address other needs (even in the virtual world, people have to go to the bathroom), and you can also use breaks to push attendees to sponsors’ and vendors’ virtual displays.
6. Build a microsite
Drive prospective attendees to a microsite or landing page that makes the value of the virtual conference clear. Be sure to use testimonials from previous attendees—or, if this is your first virtual conference, praise from members who have been given a tour of the virtual platform can help to win over doubtful prospects. Video can be particularly appealing both for testimonials and for showcasing content, so consider adding one here—it doesn’t have to be a high-end production. How to register should be obvious. Keep the registration as short and simple as possible—long registration forms can scare people off, and you’ll have chances later to gather more information.
7. Educate, educate, educate
Because so many stakeholders may be new to virtual conferences, plan to spend significant time explaining what one is and holding hands. Give staff, potential sponsors and vendors, presenters, even attendees access ahead of time, so they can see the platform and get comfortable with it. Folks will be more likely to pay—whether for a big-ticket sponsorship or a simple registration—if they can see for themselves what the virtual conference will be like. Provide training and create videos and demos to show attendees, speakers, and sponsors how to navigate and get the most out of the event. (Hint: There are plenty of relatively low-cost screen-casting tools like Jing (http://www.jingproject.com) that can be used for creating a simple video tour of your conference.) Spell out the benefits of going virtual to sponsors—for example, they can get information about even casual booth visitors who would likely remain anonymous at a “real” event.
8. Practice, practice, practice
Again, because virtual conferences may be new to so many stakeholders, plan to practice even more than you would for a place-based conference. You’ll need to provide technology training for speakers to make sure they’re ready. If speakers will be delivering live, do a rehearsal that mimics the live event as much as possible (same computers, same Internet connections, even the same time of day) about a week before the event. Make sure staff are fully briefed on how to deal with customer service issues, monitor Q&A, facilitate sessions, and so on.
9. Mine the data
Mining the data is always important, but odds are you’ll have much more data available about virtual conferences (time in sessions, most popular sessions, files downloaded, etc.) than you have for place-based conferences. So make good use of the data as you follow up with attendees and sponsors and debrief with staff and speakers.
10. Remind registrants to show up
Without the need to book flights and hotels or, at a minimum, arrange to be out of the office for a few hours, it’s easier for virtual attendees to forget about a conference—especially if it’s free. Send reminders, negotiating that difficult line between sufficient notice and nagging. At least three reminders are usually recommended: one a week before the start of the event, a second the day before, and a third the day of. Remember to include how to access the conference and who to go to for questions and issues. Even after the live portion of the virtual conference is over, continue to drive attendance for the on-demand offerings.
11. Start with a bang
Attendance at a virtual event is usually highest on the first day, so schedule your biggest, most important sessions accordingly. And plan to get right to things—time the opening of the conference with the keynote, so folks logging on initially know exactly where they should go. They’ll have time to explore later—this is your chance to engage them right away. Since you aren’t all in the same place, keep various time zones in mind when choosing a start time.
12. It’s not over when it’s over
Just because the live portion of a virtual conference is over, that doesn’t mean the virtual conferences is over. Keep the platform up and open, and keep marketing it. Depending on the nature of your content, you may even be able to still register new attendees only for the archived sessions. And don’t forget to keep updating the virtual conference site and materials. A landing page pointing to a defunct registration page months (or years!) later makes visitors think there’s nothing of use on the site. If there is ongoing value to be garnered from the site, make that clear by posting relevant revisions.