Virtual Conference Planning
Cassy Aite
February 24, 2021
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The 2021 Ultimate Guide to Hosting a Successful Virtual Conference

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The 2021 Ultimate Guide to Hosting a Successful Virtual Conference

Cassy Aite
February 24, 2021
The 2021 Ultimate Guide to Hosting a Successful Virtual Conference

2021 is off to a promising start with vaccination programs getting underway and the world returning somewhat to normal. While physical or in-person conferences and events don’t seem like a distant dream anymore, we expect virtual events to remain a staple for your sales and marketing strategy.

The availability of sophisticated event platforms and technology, companies going remote, and the sheer convenience for organizers, sponsors, and attendees will ensure virtual events stay on for the foreseeable future. So, whether you are looking to up the ante of your virtual conferences or planning to test the waters in 2021, this extensive guide to hosting a successful virtual conference will help you get started.

What Is a Virtual Conference?

A virtual conference is an interactive online conference that incorporates all components of a traditional in-person conference. It is a virtual event that is typically longer and includes many sessions and speakers, different from webinars or other online events. A virtual conference is usually a multi-day event with a keynote for each day, plenary talks, panel discussions, workshops, and breakout sessions. A lot of these conferences follow an extensive schedule that may run for over a week.

5 Benefits of Hosting a Virtual Conference

Virtual conferences have many advantages. Along with cost efficiency and environmental-friendliness, here are five standout benefits of virtual conferences:

1. Access to a Geographically Diverse Audience

Participation for in-person conferences is restricted by the venue’s capacity and location. With virtual conferences, there is no cap on the number of attendees. Also, with online events requiring attendees to have only a working internet connection and a computer/smartphone/tab, geography is no longer a restriction. By its virtue of being location agnostic, virtual conferences enable organizations to cast a much wider net. For instance, the 2021 Virgin Money London Marathon is set to be the biggest marathon ever with 50,000 spots enabling participants to run a course wherever they are. 

2. Better Networking Opportunities

One of the major contentions around virtual events is the lack of networking opportunities due to the absence of face-to-face interactions. While this argument was true for virtual conferences of the past, it is no longer valid. 

The sheer number of networking features available on conferencing software today - online communities, workshops, breakout sessions, networking lounges, and a virtual exhibition hall or sponsor booths, provide attendees with plenty of networking opportunities at their convenience. Some examples of tools we love for networking include Remo.co, Hopin.com, and Rally.Video. 

3. Diverse Content Formats

Most online events such as webinars or workshops cover only one learning style, whereas virtual conferences can bring together multiple formats and sessions, enriching the conference experience.

Apart from the conference content, you can also create content through audience and sponsor surveys through the conference lifecycle. This data can then be used to make informed content and business decisions or be included in post production content such as blogs, whitepapers, and ebooks.

Conference videos can also be streamed on-demand for people who couldn’t attend - possibly creating a new revenue stream or acquisition channel altogether.

4. Scalable and Sustainable

Unlike physical conferences, virtual conferences can be easily scaled by upgrading your conference technology infrastructure. With the minimal logistical cost involved, you can scale up and down, seamlessly.

Among other factors, virtual conferences also have a much lower carbon footprint. By eliminating travel, printing physical documents and brochures, power consumption, you can easily develop a sustainable event without compromising on the number of participants.

A screenshot of a virtual 3D networking space with participants as avatars
Replicate in-person networking with 3D virtual spaces at your event

5. Access to Feedback and Insights on the Go

A versatile event management platform provides deeper insight into conference performance in real-time. You can analyze audience attendance, engagement, track social media discussions, and collect feedback, while the conference is underway.

Surveys and feedback can help presenters gauge attendees’ engagement and tweak their sessions in real-time to improve engagement. Similarly, these insights also allow organizers to evaluate audience and sponsor satisfaction.

The Key Components of a Virtual Conference

Virtual conferences bring together the best of all virtual events. In addition to keynote speeches, you can also integrate hands-on activities and brainstorming sessions leading to active audience participation. Here are eight components you must consider when planning your virtual conference to maximize audience engagement:

1. Keynotes

A sketch of a speaker addressing the audience from a podium
Your keynote strategy can improve audience engagement|Source: CVENT

Keynote sessions set the theme for the conference. A multi-day conference typically features multiple keynotes, one for each day, to set the tone for that specific day. Keynotes are often marquee sessions and feature subject matter experts, industry leaders with celebrity status, and influencers.

Organizers typically schedule keynotes at the beginning or at the end of the day, depending on how they structure their conference. For example, you can have a celebrity keynote address to conclude the day to drum up anticipation among attendees.

2. Plenary Talks

Although plenary sessions can be used as an umbrella term for all types of sessions, we will use it for seminar sessions, talks, or joint presentations. These sessions feature industry experts, leaders, or practitioners.

Some of these presentations are sponsored sessions and focus on educating the audience or establishing thought leadership for the sponsors, but they shouldn’t be product pitches or sound salesy.

3. Panel Discussions

You can invite industry experts to discuss and share their viewpoints on a specific topic during panel discussions. Since panelists may have differing opinions and perspectives, attendees benefit significantly by exploring multiple facets of the same issue.

These sessions are facilitated by a moderator, an industry professional or MC, to give the conversation some direction. Attendees can also ask questions and add to the discussion if time permits.

4. Breakout Sessions

A screenshot of a virtual breakout session on an event platform
Use virtual breakout rooms to foster discussions and engagement | Source: BlueJeans

Breakout sessions allow you to split the audience into smaller groups of 5-10 people per group. These sessions can last 15-20 minutes, allowing participants to discuss and debate a topic. Another nifty alternative to this is roundtable discussions, where attendees are usually fewer than five.

Besides debating, participants can also share tactical knowledge like best practices, their learnings, or their problem-solving approach to a challenge.

5. Fireside Chats

Fireside chats are interesting because they are largely an impromptu, casual discussion/on-stage interview between the guest and the moderator. These informal sessions can feature a keynote speaker as a way to extend the Q&A session.

6. Workshops

Workshops break the monotony of one-way communication and invite audience participation. Workshops can be based on formal or informal topics. For example, a marketing conference could include a formal workshop with hands-on training for a sought-after tool in the industry.

7. Networking

Networking sessions enable sponsors and attendees to generate leads, establish industry contacts, and connect with peers. A challenge with virtual events is that attendees lose out on spontaneous networking opportunities that in-person events offer. For instance, you don’t bump into a fellow participant when heading out for lunch or striking a conversation with your next seat neighbor.

Virtual networking spaces can provide you the much-needed "watercooler" moments at your virtual event | Source: AIJA

Virtual conference platforms help you overcome this challenge by providing dedicated networking spaces. You could also exercise some creativity by creating online communities based on attendees' common interests leading up to the conference.

8. Sponsorships

Sponsorships bring two benefits for organizers. First, by sponsoring, they are funding your event so you can share the finances and invest in better infrastructure to enhance the event experience. Second, they serve as social proof. For the sponsor’s user base, endorsing your conference shows trust in your event, which helps you spread your reach.

In return for these benefits, sponsors get to connect with your attendees, get slots for talks or panel discussions, and build brand awareness.

10 Best Practices For Planning Your Virtual Conference

Virtual conferences are fundamentally different compared to in-person events due to multiple factors. You need to take into account the time zones, the number of sessions and their duration, etc., while ensuring that your attendees can engage despite their busy schedules.

We’ve created a ten-step framework to help plan your virtual conference:

1. Define Strategic Aspects for the Conference

The key strategic areas you need to consider for the conference are the goals, the audience, and the timeline. Let’s look at each of them:

  • Goals: What are you looking to achieve through the conference? Is it to build brand awareness, establish thought leadership, or generate revenue? Similarly, you can set goals for sponsors and attendees as to what they would get out of the conference. For example, if education is the main goal for your audience, you need to build a knowledge dense conference agenda.
  • Target Audience: Define the type of participants you would want to see at the conference. Be clear on the function/department and job seniority of the attendees as this will help you tailor the talks and sessions. Creating buyer personas will help you get more granularity in this area.
  • Timeline: Set the conference date and a standby date and work your way backward with the list of activities such as creating an event identity, researching speakers, onboarding sponsors, promotional activities, etc. Each activity should have a tentative date of completion and batch them in phases for smooth execution.

2. Set a Virtual Conference Budget

A detailed budget would include every cost the conference is likely to incur. Mention expenses for the event technology, marketing and sales, merchandise and their shipping costs, onboarding speakers, vendor payments, additional production equipment, personnel expenses, and so on.

Understanding the total cost will help you determine the break-even, which will give you better clarity on pricing the tickets, the minimum you need to raise from your sponsors, and make profit projections accordingly.

3. Decide the Conference Theme and Format

The audience persona will dictate the central conference theme. If aimed toward practitioners, it will primarily cover tactical topics, whereas, for C-suite personnel, the conference might have to focus on strategic aspects.

The conference format should include the number of days the conference will run, the number of keynotes, plenary sessions, fireside chats, breakout sessions, and networking sessions along with their schedules.

4. Design Event Identity

Your event identity should primarily consist of the event name, logo, brand colors, font, and a style guide to keep the event identity consistent. When designing the event identity, be mindful of accessibility concerns so that people with disabilities can view them. For example, pick a dyslexia-friendly font.

You can also take event identity elements up a notch by designing custom Zoom backgrounds and conference swag.

A coherent event identity on event collaterals, emails, social media posts, and other communication channels helps prospective attendees form brand recall, which can influence their decision to attend.

5. Build a Technology Stack

The technology stack includes all the tools you will use throughout the conference lifecycle. Take into consideration the tech-savviness and accessibility concerns of your attendees while choosing the applications. Your scout towards building a robust stack should include taking a live demo, reading reviews on blogs and forums, and evaluating their technical support capabilities.

Here is a list of applications you could use in your stack:

  • Content Management System (CMS): A CMS will help you set up the event website easily and host all the content you publish on the website. WordPress, Squarespace, Wix are some widely used CMS.
  • Registration Platform: The registration technology will help attendees book their conference tickets online. The virtual ticketing platform should enable you to set early bird discounts, coupon codes, and tiered pricing.
  • Conference Platform: The tool should also offer session recording for the host, chat and messaging features, interactive surveys, and comprehensive analytics capabilities. Tools like Zoom, Microsoft Teams, GoToMeeting are great tools if you have an assorted stack for different features. Platforms like Cvent, Aventri, Hubilo, Pigeonhole Live provide more consolidated features.
  • Marketing Tools: You will require email marketing, customer support, social media marketing, landing page creation, and analytics tools to streamline your promotional activities. Software solutions like HubSpot and Marketo offer bundled features that make this process seamless.

6. Onboard Speakers and Panelists

When researching prospective speakers, you can send a call for papers (CFP) to find interesting topics while compiling a list of speakers that have spoken at events similar to yours.

When briefing the speakers on the conference and their topic, give them an understanding of the target audience profiles. This will allow them to consider the depth of the topic and whether they should cover the strategic or tactical aspects or a mix of both.

The same goes for panel discussions, workshops, and fireside chats.

7. Invite Sponsors

Define the value and benefit your virtual conference will bring to your sponsors. These values will determine the goals you can lay down for your sponsors and create sponsorship packages. For instance, a sponsor looking to establish thought leadership in the industry can get a speaking slot. A sponsor looking for leads can get appointments. Similarly, you can offer a virtual booth and pre-session video ads to sponsors looking to build their brand.

You can combine these offerings and present them into packages depending on the tangible (leads or sales) and intangible (reach, thought leadership) benefits the conference will bring for them.

8. Let the Promotions Begin

A major benefit of virtual conferences is that your omnichannel marketing strategy can get some attention pretty quickly with a versatile content strategy.

The promotion mix should consist of blogging, email marketing, social media marketing, digital advertising, influencer marketing, and PR, with content being at the center of these activities. Along with text content, experiment with webinars, visual (images and video), gated content, and podcasts to see how they perform.

As you ramp up your promotions, interview your speakers, collaborate with your sponsors to create exclusive content such as ebooks and industry reports to drive more sign-ins. Tying-up with online industry publications can help spread the word in your industry.

9. Personalize the Event Experience

The online aspect makes it easy for everyone to attend the conference. But the abundance of virtual conferences and knowledge shared through them can get pretty overwhelming very quickly. And we haven’t even considered Zoom fatigue yet.

Therefore, delivering a customized experience can make your conference insightful and memorable:

  • Prioritize Customer Support: A positive conference experience depends on your customer service to a large extent. Set up a customer service team to help attendees with registration, attendance, or technical queries. Also, make it easy for them to contact you via chatbots, support emails, and social media channels. When an attendee registers, send them all the relevant information such as the agenda, schedule, how to log in, internet requirements, how to download the sessions, and so on. In short, equip them with everything before they feel the need to ask you.
  • Create Customized Learning Tracks: If your virtual conference hosts multiple sessions simultaneously, there is plenty of knowledge your attendees can miss out on. Although they can access session recordings later, they can’t participate in the Q&A session.
    To combat this, let users pick from pre-defined learning tracks, an approach prevalent among massive open online courses (MOOC) platforms today. This can help them focus on a single skill or allow them to create a customized learning track from scratch.

10. Measure and Optimize

Throughout the conference lifecycle, keep tabs on your analytics tools. Observe what type of content gets maximum attention and which mediums bring in the maximum traffic and registrations.

During the conference, notice how the audience reacts to each session. What type of content makes them participate in the conversation. Sometimes, it helps to get such information explicitly through surveys and feedback forms.

Once the conference is over, take stock of how the promotional activities performed at each stage, what content worked the best, and what worked and what didn’t during the conference. Use this goldmine of information to optimize the next edition of the conference.

6 Tips to Design an Experience-Led Virtual Conference

Virtual conferences lack face-to-face interaction and could result in low participation from the attendees, dulling the overall conference experience. We came up with six ideas for you to include experiential elements into your virtual conference.

1. Design Conference Themed Swag

A theme-based swag bag for your virtual conference can radically improve the attendee experience. For example, the physical swag bag at a marketing conference can contain an assortment of items such as a productivity planner, laptop sticker, desk plant, power bank, and a stationery kit. You can also send out a digital swag bag of virtual gift cards, trials for meditation apps, audiobook, productivity, and sponsor apps, and coupons for online courses.

A photo of a event gift hamper with stationery, event aids, and an agenda
Source: BrandVia

A subtle pre-conference survey can help you segment the audience based on their interests and preferences (such as tech geek, productivity nerd, coffee aficionado, etc.), which can help you deliver customized swag bags for each segment.

2. Create a VIP experience

An exclusive VIP experience for limited seats lets you provide a premium event experience for your top attendees. This could be in the form of an exclusive meet and greet, fireside chat, or Q&A session with the marquee speaker(s), a virtual VIP lounge, massive discounts on sponsor products, exclusive swag, premium content, exclusive community, free annual memberships/subscriptions, loyalty programs, and so on.

A photo of American Express' Unstaged event featuring Alicia Keys
Reward your participants with an exclusive VIP experience | Source: American Express

The most recent American Express UNSTAGED edition featured an exclusive virtual performance by Alicia Keys for Amex card members. The VIP-tier of the program offered an Alicia Keys branded sweatshirt and meet-and-greet with Alicia Keys.

3. Focus on Organic Community Building

Engaging the audience during a virtual event is a challenge all marketers are facing. It’s more prudent to activate the community before the conference so that you don’t have to put in a lot of effort during the conference.

Create conference-specific groups on tools like Hopin, Bizzabo, and CVENT, (secret or private group) and populate them with questions, polls, and discussions. A community manager can moderate all these discussions. You can also host weekly Twitter chats to reach a wider audience.

Before the conference, you can arrange live video streams encouraging speakers to interact with attendees and share what attendees can expect from their session.

4. Gamify the Learning Experience

Polls, surveys, and discussions are useful ways to engage an audience, but introducing a gamification component can help them engage in more goal-oriented and meaningful ways.

Leadership boards and badges coupled with incentives work really well when it comes to gamification because attendees can avail both - psychological and tangible rewards.

Zenith Live introduced gamification elements in their virtual conference through leaderboards where participants could earn points by performing stipulated activities. The winners received ranks, gift cards, merchandise, or donations to sponsored charities.

Part 1 of 3: A screenshot of Zenith Live's gamification screen
Part 2 of 3: screenshot of a leader board on Zenith Live
Part 3 of 3: A screenshot of the rewards page in Zenith Life
Source: Zscaler

5. Organize Informal Workshops

Informal workshops can work as a form of respite and provide the essential sensory relaxation. These workshops could focus on skills that anyone can learn in a short duration. Chocolate truffle making, latte art, or mixology sessions are some culinary-focused workshop ideas. Curated wine and cheese tasting sessions also fall under the same realm, where an expert guides you through these sessions.

HubSpot’s Inbound 2020 featured Kim Joy, a finalist on the Great British Bake-off in 2018, where she taught attendees how to bake British biscuits.

An advertisement promoting Inbound's bake-off session
Source: Inbound

A vendor can help you organize these sessions ­– right from delivering these kits to the attendees to finding an expert and facilitating the session. You can also use Hoppier.com to send attendees a virtual credit card to purchase the ingredients before the event!

Another neat thing you can do is organize guided mindfulness sessions, progressive muscle relaxation, or imagery sessions to help attendees reorient themselves.

6. Live Stream Entertainment Activities

When it comes to entertainment activities, you can schedule a live band performance or stand up comedy set at the end of each day. Instead of letting the band or artist perform from a studio, put up a backdrop of LED screens where fans, i.e., the attendees can enjoy the performance live.

Metallica’s recent concert titled All Within My Hands is one example. The benefit concert was presented by Salesforce where the band performed in a studio, and fans were present in the LED backdrop.

A photo of Metallica's virtual concert
Close your event with a memorable live performance|Source: San Francisco Chronicle

Closing Thoughts

Virtual conferences are here to stay, and this checklist will help you organize one successfully. Even if you pivot to a physical conference, the in-person attendance will be limited, and it will likely be open to attendees virtually, making it a hybrid conference.

To make it simpler, we recommend three key considerations as you plan your next virtual conference:

  • As virtual conferences lack one-on-one interaction, introduce experiential and immersive elements.
  • Personalize the experience. Curated learning tracks will boost audience engagement for you and knowledge retention from the audience’s perspective.
  • Let data guide your decisions. Track KPIs closely and optimize the conference experience for maximum success.

We have covered a lot of ground in this definitive guide to hosting a virtual conference. If you have any questions or questions, feel free to ask away in the comments.

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