Virtual Stage with 2 presenters

How to make the virtual conference experience better: 10 tips

It’s been one year since covid-19 broke out here. Next month, it will be one year since international travel came to a halt. I’ve been working from home since. We went through several lockdowns and we’re a lot closer to getting vaccinated. It’s been a strange and taxing year.

Before the pandemic, I used to visit conferences around the world. To meet with clients and talk about their services and new plans. To hear from partners how they were expanding their solutions with new features. And to listen to keynote speakers who shared their ideas about the future of work.

Conferences are scheduled a year in advance. When the lockdowns began, companies quickly organized virtual conferences, and often made them available to everyone. I was able to attend a larger number of conferences than I normally could, which was enriching: I could listen to speakers anywhere in the world from the comfort of my home.

As an additional bonus, if I couldn’t watch the conference at the scheduled time, most organizers shared a link, so I could view a session at a time that worked for me. And skip the ones I wasn’t interested in.

What’s not to like?

There were many things I liked about the virtual conference experience. But, after watching dozens of online conferences, I also have some ideas to make them better. And because we probably won’t be able to travel until a lot more of us are vaccinated, I want to share them, before conference season starts again.

I want to say first how much I appreciated the quick pivot of conference organizers: imagine having to take your carefully organized, in-person conference and move it online in a few weeks. That takes a lot of effort, skills and careful planning. Also, most of these conferences were free, where normally organizers charge a fee to attend. Really well done and thank you to all of you!

I hope you take these suggestions in the spirit they are intended: let’s make online conferences even better this year.

1. Fresh content is key

In real life, there’s a group of keynote speakers who travel from conference to conference, delivering high quality, carefully constructed and rehearsed speeches. They repeat the same presentation until everyone has seen it. And that works, because conferences attract local audiences.

You need a different plan for virtual conferences. Otherwise your audience sees the same speakers deliver the same story using the same slides over and over again. When you invite a speaker to your virtual conference, check if they will present an original story (made for your conference only).

If not, check at which conferences they’ve already delivered that keynote and think how likely it is that your audience attended these events. Because people watch from home, you are competing for their interest and it’s so easy to click away. Make sure your audience hears something fresh, that’s worth staying for.

This is also be a good opportunity to invite some new voices with fresh messages. More on that later.

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2. Don’t pretend a session is live

Picture this: you are listening to a thought-provoking speaker. People are asking questions, and there’s a lively debate going on in the chat. But when it’s time for the Q&A, the moderator seems to ignore the debate. And the questions she asks on behalf of “Jack” and “Jill” aren’t from the chat or people that engaged in the conversation. In other words, the session is not live and the Q&A is scripted.

I get it. You want to give the audience the opportunity to participate, and you open the chat to start the conversation. You have a couple of people standing by to engage with the audience. But you shouldn’t fool the audience into thinking they are watching a live event and can interact with the speaker when that isn’t the case.

There’s nothing wrong with broadcasting a session that was taped upfront. You can do a bit of editing and make it look polished to provide a quality experience. Just don’t pretend it is live, when it isn’t.

One of the better experiences I had: a taped conference session with a live Q&A afterwards, where the keynote speaker fully engaged with the audience. I thoroughly enjoyed it!

3. Embrace diversity

I had high hopes that I wouldn’t have to bring this topic up again – it’s 2021! Unfortunately, the so-called manels are still here.

They aren’t OK in real-life – and because the virtual speaker pool is global and so much larger, they are especially not OK during a virtual conference. There is no excuse for any lack of diversity in your speaker line-up.

As my mom always said: if you can’t find what you’re searching for, you haven’t looked hard enough.

Do better.

4. Make it visually pleasing

I’ve seen a lot of noisy backgrounds, disappearing heads, and more living rooms and studies than I care for. It’s personal, but it’s also distracting. I like it best when conferences use muted backgrounds and color schemes, so my attention is on the speaker and not on their book case.

Man presenting on stage

One of the best experiences I had was the conference pictured here – a speaker standing on a stage, with a screen next to him. The camera alternated between the whole area, a close-up of the speaker, and the slide contents. The background wasn’t distracting and I found it easy to focus on the message.

I confess that Zoom fatigue plays a role here, but I enjoy a conference where you don’t only watch “talking heads”. I had the best viewing experience when companies spend a bit of money on a studio, great camera work and editing. You can still have panel sessions throughout the day – just make sure you alternate with high quality presentations.

Another advantage of taped sessions: you can offer all sessions at once. You kick off with a keynote session, and then make all taped session available at once. There is no reason to wait. Your audience can immediately watch the sessions they like best and you run less risk of losing them.

5. A good moderator is worth a lot!

A good moderator makes all the difference: I attended one conference where the speaker was so distracted by the conversation in the chat, that he left the slides and started to answer questions instead. Keeping the energy and excitement up is much easier when feeding off a live audience, so I understand that he wanted to participate. But he never finished the story he started.

A moderator can keep the speaker on track, follow the chat and summarize the burning questions to make sure the speaker responds to them. They can also throw some questions to the audience and get the Q&A going. I’ve participated in a couple of events where moderators stepped in to answer remaining questions after the session concluded, or where the speaker followed them up by email. It made me feel engaged and shows appreciation for the audience.

The purpose of a conference is to connect with your customers, and to generate leads. A virtual conference doesn’t change that. Moderators are your hosts, and can channel participants into the sales funnel. Make sure you benefit, and have enough staff available for interactions.

Don’t forget to set KPIs and measure success. You might find that your virtual conference has a much better success rate than your offline events, especially when you have a personal touch.

6. Introduce fun elements and breaks

One of the first virtual conferences I attended was afternoon only: 2-5pm. It kicked off with a short, fun activity: the first day with a comedian, and the second day with chair yoga. I enjoyed that because the break gets you in a different mindset, and helps you switch to listening mode. And while you might prefer other activities, doing something unexpected (and physical) is key here.

Stage fun

That same conference also included regular breaks after sessions, with an invitation to get up, grab a snack and a drink and come back. The moderation team (pictured above) came on after each session to engage with the audience, respond to people in the chat and introduce the next speaker. It was really well done, and because I felt connected, I stayed for the whole conference, including the after party with DJ – great music!

7. Location is irrelevant

I attended at least 2 conferences that used geo fencing: one repeated the same conference in different time zones on different days. You could only attend the day conference in your region. What if you prefer to watch it at night when the kids are asleep?

The other one broadcasted a global keynote and then continued in regional breakouts with different programs. While that allows the organizer to determine the tracks the visitors see, I was limited to watching speakers from my region. There were speakers I wanted to see but couldn’t, because they appeared in another region.

I understand that you want to include regional aspects to give the audience a sense of belonging, to ensure they see familiar faces and hear from familiar brands. But one of the great advantages of virtual conferences is that you can hear from speakers or companies that you normally wouldn’t, because they live elsewhere.

The purpose of attending these conferences is to hear something new – it can be especially enlightening to find out how people solve the same issue in a completely different way because that’s how they approach it in other parts of the world.

One conference took this to the next level and used a “follow the sun” approach. During a period of 48 hours they had speakers from all continents. Links to finished sessions were offered within minutes, and so I could switch between live and archived sessions, and create my own schedule. It was great.

8. Online speaking is an art

When you organize conferences in real life, it’s hard to get all speakers together upfront and walk through their presentations. Only a few of the conferences I spoke at did it, and even though I didn’t always enjoy it, the feedback made my keynotes better.

Remember those speakers that flip through 60 slides in 60 minutes? I’ve seen that work really well during in-person sessions. It’s not so great in virtual events. First, you need to talk slower. Secondly, online flipping is dizzying. So use it your advantage: everyone has a first row seat and you have a unique opportunity to dig a little deeper.

Virtual events allow you invite a different set of speakers, many of whom don’t have a lot of experience. And it shows. But it’s important to give these new speakers a chance to shine and help them find their voice.

When you create your conference schedule, book rehearsals with every speaker at least 2 weeks in advance. Two advantages: you’ll be certain they have their presentation ready, and they can incorporate your feedback to make their keynote perfect. While you are at it, check their audio and video quality.

9. What’s the purpose of a Conference Campus?

Online isn’t offline. I have attended several conferences that recreated the offline conference experience online – with a main stage, break out rooms and expos. I’m a bit puzzled why, and if it adds to the experience. I haven’t found the networking tables particularly inspiring and it usually involves a lot of clicking around.

I’ve visited a couple of expos, but most are just a vendor video with a form or a chat bot. You can get better information from a website. I wonder if an expo makes it worthwhile for these vendors, and if they are getting their money’s worth.

When someone sponsors your conference, give them a speaking slot and let them showcase their solution. Run a parallel track if you want, but give them the opportunity to engage with the audience. I could be wrong here – and I’m happy to hear from vendors who think sponsoring the expo is worth it.

10. It’s too early for Virtual Reality

I’m lucky – I live close to one of the major internet hubs in the world and have an high speed internet connection. Bandwidth is never an issue. But for most people it is. And while technology allows you to organize VR conferences, it also excludes a large group of people from attending.

So while VR might be great for geeks and nerds, it is too early for mainstream conferences. I don’t know many people that have the hardware to enjoy all of the features offered. On the other hand, if you want to offer an exclusive event, go for VR.

What hasn’t changed: compelling content

It has never been easier to attend a conference: most of them are free, and you can choose from a global menu. Which brings content front and center: nothing beats a compelling and engaging topic with knowledgeable speakers. 

You don’t have to organize an online event because the competition does. If a webinar works for you, stick with it. It’s much easier to organize and less time consuming for your audience.

Another idea is to offer your clients and prospects an online educational track with weekly one-hour sessions if that is pertinent to your industry. It keeps them coming back for more, and it’s a way to attract an audience that might not be willing or able to spend days on a conference.

Yes, there’s a startup for online events

It’s likely that international travel will remain restricted for at least another year, if not longer. Businesses have slashed their travel budgets and it will be hard to justify the expense. Large gatherings will involve frequent testing and extensive hygiene measures.

Will people go back to attending large, in-person business events with thousands of people? I highly doubt it. It’s much more likely that we’ll see smaller, local face-to-face events that link to global, virtual conferences.

With so much technology available, and new companies entering the virtual conference space every day, you don’t need to travel to connect with your customers. The only thing you need is creativity. Shake things up, do them differently and especially: find out what your audience is interested in.

Last year, investors poured millions of dollars into companies that offer solutions to organize online conferences. Your next conference doesn’t have to use Zoom or Webex. Check out emerging companies like Hopin, Bizzabo, Wonder, Teeoh and many others. 

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