Virtual conferences have arrived, and they probably won’t be going away after the pandemic. They’re cheaper to run, less expensive for attendees, and more convenient to attend. But there are also downsides to virtual conferences: networking doesn’t come easily, you can’t walk up to the presenters afterwards, and the sense of isolation doesn’t go away. There’s also something more meaningful and impactful about in-person experiences that virtual just can’t match.
That’s why, if you’re planning to host a virtual conference, it’s critical to provide a rich experience for your attendees and vendors. IDI has attended and sponsored virtual conferences during the pandemic. We’ve seen examples of best practices and things to avoid. Here are our top tips for a virtual conference that people can’t wait to come back to next year.
Well beforehand, send information to your attendees about what they can expect from the virtual conference. A large percentage of them have never attended a virtual conference, and they won’t know how it’s going to work. For example:
- Does their camera have to be on?
- How will they log into the event?
- How familiar will the user controls be?
- Is it just like Zoom, or will they have to learn a new way of navigating the platform?
- Will it be interactive? If so, how will they interact?
- Will they be able to connect with other attendees or presenters?
- Can they access the event with a smartphone?
- Will there be on-demand recordings available after the conference?
Anticipate all of the questions someone will have who hasn’t attended a virtual conference, and provide some sort of what-to-expect guide well beforehand. Send several emails, include an FAQ page on the event site, and post blog articles to address people’s questions.
If possible, share screen shots of the platform they’ll be using. Also be sure to include a detailed agenda of all the sessions, with a link to an online planning tool.
Choose a Sophisticated Platform
The platform you choose for the virtual conference has the potential to make or break the experience for your guests. Ideally, the digital environment should be an all-in-one platform that supports everything related to your event — from watching presentations to chatting and networking, session planning, visiting vendors, and more.
The platform should be beautifully designed, easy and fun to use, robust, and reliable. Your presenters should find it intuitive, and it should be easy to manage on the backend.
Create a Community
One of the biggest challenges for virtual conferences is the lack of community or shared experience. Invest in overcoming this drawback and creating a real sense of community for your guests.
Offer optional one-on-one networking spaces and online after-hour events. This gives people the chance to do meet-and-greets, network with other participants, and connect with presenters.
For their annual conference, HubSpot went above and beyond when it came to creating a virtual community. Their custom-built platform was a virtual 3-D environment, complete with various buildings that you could enter for different purposes. There were virtual vendor booths that were branded, session rooms with virtual stages, and more.
Each attendee was able to create their own avatar. When you entered a session, you could see your avatar in a room full of others. A picture-in-picture displayed the actual presenter speaking. You could even arrange one-on-one meetings with fellow attendees and speakers through video call or live chat.
HubSpot’s virtual 3-D approach created a sense of being a part of a group, which helped reduce the sense of isolation. Using avatars was brilliant, because they let people feel connected, while also letting attendees turn off their camera and maintain some privacy. You could eat your lunch or wear your pajamas, and not worry about it.
Support Your Vendors
Vendor support seems to be one area that needs more attention. We’ve sponsored virtual conferences that had almost no visitors to vendors’ virtual booths. Even HubSpot’s conference, which provided the best user experience we’ve seen, had low vendor visits — one attendee’s survey suggested that only 28 percent of attendees visited any vendor booths.
If virtual conferences are going to be sustainable long-term, it will need to be worthwhile for vendors. Here are a few tips, based on our own experiences.
- Provide plenty of time for attendees to go and visit vendor booths, without fear of missing any session content.
- Actively promote the vendor booths before the virtual conference, and throughout the event.
- Consider the user experience. Make it easy for visitors to check out booths anonymously, without having to engage the vendor.
- Provide a way for visitors to get real-life swag when they visit a virtual booth.
- Consider ways to incentivize attendees to visit the booths.
- Consider all of the friction points that might make it intimidating or unappealing to visit, and eliminate as many as possible.
- Make it easy and seamless to check out the vendors.
Follow Up After the Event
Yogi Bera famously said, “It’s not over till it’s over.” But when it comes to your virtual conference, even then it’s not over! Follow up with your participants — attendees and vendors alike. Ask for their feedback, and promote your next event. Build on the momentum you’ve started!
Also, be sure to provide on-demand recordings of all sessions after the event, so that people can review the content they watched, and get access to great sessions they couldn’t attend.
Braving the New World of Business
Virtual conferences are just one of the myriad ways work is changing permanently as a result of the pandemic. IDI is here to help you make sense of the new normal, and to flourish in a brave new world.
As you evaluate ways to grow your business in 2021 and beyond, we hope you’ll consider IDI as a trusted resource. Whether or not you’re a client of ours, we’re here to help you navigate the new complexities of business and payroll. We have decades of experience at our disposal, and our team of experts is here to help you make smart decisions with confidence.