The novel coronavirus pandemic has shifted much of life online. Among the biggest changes are in the world of conferences and meetings. While replicating the intimacy and spontaneity of a coffee break or an exhibit hall is a tall order, there are things you can do to ensure the core aspects of every meeting—sessions and attendee interactivity—are built into your events. Let’s take a look at a few.
Start from the attendee perspective
One of the best strategies for making a virtual meeting better is to look at it from an attendee’s point of view. What are they looking for, and how do they expect to use the opportunity that you’re presenting?
The Chronicle of Higher Education just featured a relevant piece on the subject by Thomas Tobin, an expert in online teaching long before the novel coronavirus pandemic hit. The focus was on explaining how attendees can get the most out of virtual conferences. It offered insight that organizations can use to make sure they are hitting the marks from event planning and execution perspectives.
Among the tips offered: attendees should think narrow and small. In other words, the more specific a topic, the more valuable a learning experience it is likely to be. “Look for narrowly conceived sessions that will help you learn or improve a specific skill,” Tobin writes. “Find and attend more of those than large plenary sessions on broad themes.”
Similarly, Tobin advocates for smaller meetings vs larger ones. While large meetings may sound like they offer greater opportunities to connect and be a part of something large, smaller meetings are better at fostering engagement.
Speaking of engagement, Tobin says one of the most effective ways to ensure conference knowledge sticks with an attendee is to talk about it afterwards—preferably, as soon as possible. As an organizer, you can facilitate this by offering small breakout sessions designed for participants to engage. You can also create hashtags or special groups on platforms such as Facebook and LinkedIn set aside especially for attendees.
Tobin also advocates that attendees connect with their conferences before the events start. This means downloading dedicated apps and, critically, becoming familiar with any platforms or technologies the conference will feature. As a conference organizer, you can be proactive by offering tutorials, question-and-answer sessions, or a simple set of instructions that walk would-be attendees through how you will put on your event. Don’t assume everyone knows Zoom or Google Meet. Instead, take the approach of being as inclusive as possible.
“You can tell that online-conference organizers are well prepared if they provide opportunities ahead of the event for self-guided and/or facilitated practice with the common tools that will be used throughout the meeting,” Tobin writes. “They will also offer you the chance to practice with the tools they plan to use for social interactions, such as chat apps or connection tools in the conference mobile app.”
Tobin’s entire article is available here: https://www.chronicle.com/article/how-to-make-the-most-of-a-virtual-conference. If virtual conferences are in your future, it’s worth the time to read.
Fine-tuning your event
With a topic in place and plenty of pre-meeting preparations planned for attendees, it’s time to shift your thinking to executing the event itself. A recent TechRadar piece shared a few valuable pointers for ensuring your event resonates.
Among the key tips is the suggestion that live events do best. While it’s not always possible to have presenters available during their speaking slots (meaning they record their talks), live is by far the preferred method. “Live presentations are simply more authentic to the audience,” Derek Weeks and Mark Miller, co-founders of the All Day DevOps tech conference, write in their co-written piece. “Think of the difference you feel when watching live television versus a pre-recorded episode. Live events have better engagement.” Plus, it’s hard to ask questions to a panelist that has submitted a recorded presentation!
This doesn’t mean your sessions should not be recorded for attendees, however. By all means, record your sessions for later consumption. But the more live content you have, the better—and you should promote your event as such.
Another item that Weeks and Miller say is often overlooked but very important is having a code of conduct, and enforcing it. Simply put, attendees want to engage without any concern that bad individuals will detract from the experience. “Just because it’s online doesn’t mean that everyone behaves appropriately,” they write. “If people misbehave, don’t be afraid to boot them from your platform.”
Like Tobin, Weeks and Miller also laud dedicated channels for attendees to connect and collaborate. These should be available during the meeting—think instant-messaging features of live video conferencing software—as well as after the event via social media or other means. Your event will start conversations, so give attendees places to keep them going.
Check out more of what Weeks and Miller had to say here: https://www.techradar.com/news/10-best-practices-for-running-a-virtual-conference.
Personalization and connection
Virtual events have many advantages over in-person ones. They are easier to scale, easier to attend, and offer the convenience of being able to go back and experience them later. But the one thing a virtual event cannot do is replicate the intimacy and shared in-person collaboration of a live event.
So what do you do to help close that gap for attendees? As mentioned above, start by giving them platforms to talk on. A more subtle but equally important part of forming that connection is the classic swag bag or conference gift. How many times have you seen a backpack, messenger bag, or bag tag with a certain conference logo on it and thought, “Hey, that’s my industry!” Giving virtual attendees that same sense of community is possible—it just takes a little more effort.
Offer sponsorship to a company for a giveaway, and then tell attendees they can have the gift sent to them for free if they provide their mailing address. This not only helps empower the community, but it can beef up your database for future outreach.
We have several clients that have had success connecting virtual attendees using customized promotional items from our GRC Marketplace (www.grcmarketplace.com). Some are sticking with traditional conference gifts such as key chains or bags, while others are getting creative during the pandemic by sending out stress balls or touch tools that can be used for everything from elevator buttons to point-of-sale pin pads.
Putting it all together
Virtual events are more than just sitting in front of a camera and broadcasting. They require not only different technology but also a different perspective. Recognizing this is the first step to creating a successful and well-received event.
We’re happy to help you plan and execute your virtual event. Reach out and start a conversation!