Virtual conferences are no longer a novelty. With the help of technology and a stellar list of speakers and sponsors, they’re now a powerful way to deliver learning and inspiration to a wider audience than ever before.
In this ultimate guide, we’ll take you through everything you need to plan an amazing virtual conference. We’ll look at the basics of what to include on your agenda, run through our best planning tips, and look at some creative ways to increase audience engagement.
A virtual conference is simply an event that takes your regular in-person conference into the digital space. You can host the same keynotes, workshops, and breakout sessions — just in an interactive, branded, virtual world.
Like in-person events, virtual conferences can take different forms. Some event organizers invest in a fully immersive digital experience, with a digital conference space that guests can navigate around. For others, their conference takes the form of a series of video conferencing calls or live streams that attendees can jump into and view. It all depends on your budget, goals, and preferences for your virtual event.
Virtual conferences have risen in popularity and continue to be a great way to bring your event to a wider group of people. Without physical location as a barrier, more of your audience can join you to listen to thought leaders in your industry, take part in interactive sessions, and come away with new knowledge or inspiration.
Virtual conferences are big, impressive virtual events that bring together different formats to create something people won’t want to miss. They can catch keynotes from industry experts, take part in interactive activity sessions, and uncover new ideas in workshops.
One thing that differentiates virtual conferences is that your audience can enjoy a mix of activities with just one ticket. Here are the major features and attractions your guests will expect to find at any great virtual conference.
Your keynote sessions set the theme for your virtual conference. At a two day or more conference, you’ll usually find multiple keynote sessions — one for each day. Keynotes are often marquee sessions and feature subject matter experts, industry thought 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 might host a thought leader's keynote at the end of your day to build anticipation and encourage people to stick around throughout the day.
Although plenary sessions can be used as an umbrella term for all types of sessions, we’re focused on looking at seminar sessions, talks, or joint presentations. These sessions feature industry experts, leaders, or practitioners and are focused on one subject or idea.
It’s common for plenary talks and seminar sessions to be sponsored by either the main event sponsor or a relevant partner. While there’s some promotion to be expected, the focus of these sessions should still be on educating your audience and providing them with useful takeaways.
Panel discussions are a great way to involve industry experts in your virtual conference. Invite them along to share their viewpoints on a topic, alongside others in their field. These discussions benefit your audience as they can watch a debate and understand different opinions and perspectives.
Your panel will usually be facilitated by a moderator, industry professional, or MC. The moderator is there to help guide the discussion and give it some structure. Panel discussions also offer your audience a way to interact by asking questions to the experts in a Q&A round.
Breakout sessions allow you to split your audience into smaller groups to cover a topic or discuss ideas. Groups of 5-10 people work best — especially in a virtual format. These sessions can last 15-20 minutes, allowing participants to discuss and debate a topic.
Besides debating, your guests can also share tactical knowledge like best practices, their learnings, or how to solve a challenge. Another alternative is a roundtable discussion where a smaller group gets together to discuss and debate a topic in detail.
Fireside chats are one of the most popular features at in-person conferences, so it’s no surprise they surface in virtual ones too. These sessions have a casual, informal vibe and give your audience the kind of access to a guest they wouldn’t normally get.
Your fireside chat will be hosted by an interviewer or moderator and your guest. Often that’s a keynote speaker, or it could be an industry expert or celebrity. This informal chat is designed to be more open, honest, and laid back than a regular presentation — with time for questions from the audience. They often take place as the last event on an agenda to finish off the day.
Workshops are one of the best ways to get people truly engaged with your virtual conference. Unlike a talk or panel discussion, your audience members can get involved with a session in a more practical way. This helps break the monotony of one-sided communication that can happen at virtual events.
You can theme your workshops around formal or informal topics. For example, you might decide to invite a sponsor to run a workshop that lets people try out their new software tool before anyone else. You could also use your workshops to help attendees find new solutions to their own challenges, or learn a new way of doing things.
Networking sessions give your sponsors and attendees the chance to generate leads, establish industry contacts, and connect with peers. A challenge with virtual events is that attendees lose out on the spontaneous networking opportunities that in-person events offer. You can’t strike up a conversation with the person sitting next to you or suggest grabbing coffee with an exhibitor.
Virtual conference platforms help you overcome this challenge by providing dedicated spaces for networking and virtual meetings. Extend this further by creating online communities people can join before the event to discover interesting people. Look for fun ways to recreate that in-person coffee catch up too, by using Hoppier to give your attendees a digital card with credit they can spend to order coffee to their door.
Most successful virtual conferences bring in a major sponsor or a handful of corporate sponsors to help support the event. This comes with two benefits: The financial contribution that sponsors make can help you invest in your event experience, and it’s useful social proof — by securing a top sponsor, people are more likely to consider your event to be high profile.
Sponsors will want something in return, though. Bringing sponsors onboard means you’ll need to plan space for them in your agenda and offer perks like slots on talks or panel discussions, plus the opportunity to connect with your attendees before and after the event.
Virtual conferences give you so many advantages over in-person events, but they can also present challenges. You have new things to consider like time zones, how to handle multiple activity tracks, and balancing technology you might not have used before.
To help you plan an impressive virtual conference and tackle those unique challenges, we’ve put together a ten step framework. Here’s how to effectively plan and manage your next virtual conference.
Before you can jump into calling potential speakers and planning your event design, you first need to decide what your overall goals and strategic approach will be.
Think about what your goal for hosting this event is. What are you looking to achieve? Is it to build brand awareness, establish thought leadership, or generate revenue? Build your agenda, strategy, marketing, and engagement around your goals. For example, if you want to be seen as an industry leader for education in your niche, plan plenty of interactive workshops and include talks by innovative makers and doers.
You’ll also want to think about how your goals align with those of your sponsors, exhibitors, and attendees. Consider what they want to see and how you want them to feel at the end of your conference.
Think about your target audience too, as you’ll want to make sure you design your event to appeal to them. Get really clear about exactly who your event is for, so you can create something that’s more useful and memorable. Buyer personas can be a big help here, as can research into the kinds of virtual events your audience already attends.
Lastly, set your conference date and create a timeline that’ll help you plan each step before the big day. Decide on a standby date too, in case something major comes up in the world of current events or politics. With a date set and a rough timeline, you can begin focusing on which activities you need to do and when — and building a strategic plan to help you succeed.
Like with any physical conference, your virtual event needs a detailed budget if you want to stay on track. Your budget should cover every cost that you expect to incur in both the planning and execution stages.
Typical virtual conference expenses include event technology, marketing and sales campaigns, sponsorship outreach, merchandise and shipping costs, and payments to speakers. You also have vendor payments, personnel expenses, and the costs of additional production equipment to consider.
Understanding the total cost of your virtual conference will help you determine the break-even. This gives you greater clarity on how to price your tickets and which sponsorship packages to sell, and it enables you to make more accurate profit projections.
Next up, you’ll want to decide on your conference theme and format. Let your audience persona and strategic goals guide both, so you can make sure you’re planning an event that people really want to attend.
When thinking about your event theme, listen to people in your industry. Think about what’s relevant to your audience now or what they’ll need to know about in the next year. Consider whether your theme and sessions should be practical, interactive, and filled with tactics — or more strategic and innovation based.
The overall format and structure of your virtual conference is important to consider, too. Think about how many days you want it to run for and over what time frames. Consider where the majority of your audience is and which time zone works best for them, then plan your day around that. Be creative and offer up recordings of sessions so people don’t miss out if they have commitments.
Don’t be tempted to throw too many sessions and talks into your virtual conference. You might not be limited by physical space, but your audience’s attention is limited. Think about how many keynotes, breakout sessions, and networking opportunities your guests can realistically enjoy. If your event theme is wide, create multiple tracks so people can quickly find talks that are relevant to them.
Your virtual conference will find it hard to stand out without a strong, cohesive brand identity. This includes your event name, logo, brand colors, font, and a style guide to keep the event identity consistent.
Don’t just focus on making your event look flashy — think about how it’ll be received. Make user experience and accessibility a top priority, and avoid color combinations that are hard on the eyes. Your goal is to make it easy for your audience to engage with your event.
Look for different ways you can use your event branding, colors, and style across not only your virtual space but your marketing too. Think about your event collateral, emails, social media posts, website, and merch. Use your event identity to personalize your digital experience too — especially if you’re going all in with a virtual conference venue. You can also use it to help create custom Zoom backgrounds, or promotional graphics for your speakers to use.
Running a great virtual event is much easier when you have the right technology behind you. Find a technology stack that features all the tools you need to plan and manage your virtual conference.
When deciding which tools to use, think about how user friendly they are. This goes for both back-end tools that your team will be using, and audience-facing ones too. Look for virtual event platforms and tools that consider accessibility and user experience, and welcome all levels of tech savviness.
Before you invest in software, take it for a trial run and explore a demo of the product. See if you can try a free version first, or ask an expert to show you around. Read user reviews and understand the pros and cons of each option. No one tool will be perfect, but there will be something that makes the most sense for your needs.
Here are some of the main types of tools you’ll need to host a virtual conference.
Content Management System (CMS)
A content management system is a must-have if you’re creating a dedicated event website. This is where you’ll build and update pages that sell, promote, and share information about your virtual conference.
WordPress is a popular option here, but you’ll need some technical knowledge to set up the hosting, installation, and customization — unless you outsource this. Squarespace is another contender that is more beginner-friendly, as is Wix.
There’s no front desk at your virtual event, so people will need another way to buy tickets and check in on the day. Invest in a user friendly registration platform that makes signing up, booking tickets, and checking in as smooth as possible.
You need a way to deliver your keynotes, panel discussions, and workshops to your conference audience. A conference platform will help you do just that with live video, session recording, messaging features, and interactive elements.
Platforms like Cvent, Aventri, Hubilo, and Pigeonhole Live offer a comprehensive approach to conference session management. If you’re on a budget or running a more casual event, video conferencing tools like Zoom, Microsoft Teams, and GoToMeeting give you an easy way to bring live video to an audience.
People won’t just hear about your virtual conference by chance. You’ll need to invest in marketing to help spread the word and attract the right audience to your event.
Look for tools that help you with major parts of the event marketing process, like email marketing, social media, landing page creation, and marketing analytics. Software tools like HubSpot and Marketo offer bundled features that make this process seamless.
It’s not a virtual conference without speakers and panelists, so it’s time to find impressive names to appear at your event. When researching prospective presenters, you can send a call for papers (CFP) to find interesting topics and relevant speakers.
Once you’ve found your speakers, brief them fully on your target audience and goals. This helps them consider the topic in depth and find a way to offer the most value to the people watching and listening. This isn’t just for keynote speakers — take the same approach to panel discussions, workshops, and fireside chats too.
Sponsors can be a useful addition to your virtual conference. They’re a great way to both bring in much-needed funds and help your event reach a relevant, targeted audience.
Define the value and benefit your virtual conference will bring to your sponsors. This will help you create more effective sponsorship packages that offer companies what they’re looking for. For example, a sponsor looking to establish thought leadership in the industry might be more interested in a speaking slot than an interactive booth. A sponsor looking for leads might want to host a VIP networking session.
Work with your team to put together sponsorship packages that offer value to both you and your sponsors. Build packages that mix together different elements and perks at different price points. This way, you can bring more companies onboard and create a better event experience for guests.
One of the benefits of running a virtual conference is you can really make the most of an omni-channel marketing strategy that covers different platforms. Build out a promotion mix that blends email marketing, content marketing, social media, digital advertising, influencer marketing, and PR together for more impact.
With digital events, you can go big on audio and visual content — without running into huge costs involved with displaying this on billboards or running TV ads. Experiment with images, video content, podcasts, and webinars to bring your audience along on the journey and generate interest in your event.
As you ramp up your promotions, interview your speakers and collaborate with your sponsors to create exclusive content like ebooks and industry reports to drive more ticket sales. Look for ways to get features in relevant online press too, as industry publications can be great routes to finding more of your ideal audience.
Online events remove a lot of the barriers to entry that people traditionally face. But because they’re so easy to access, fatigue can set in. Avoid this and help your audience stay interested and engaged by creating an immersive, personalized digital experience.
Make customer support your priority. This all starts with having a smooth, easy-to-use process to book tickets and manage preferences. Have your support team available on the platforms people use, ready to help through chatbots, live chat, email, and social media. Be responsive to your audience’s needs, and think about how you can make their experience amazing — beyond simply sending a welcome email with the agenda.
If you’re hosting a large virtual conference with multiple sessions on at a time, think about how you can help guide your guests through the experience. Create customized learning tracks and offer your attendees a way to build their own agenda for the day, so they don’t miss something they really wanted to see. Give your guests the chance to catch up on sessions they missed with recordings, and make suggestions on what to attend based on their interests and preferences.
All the way through the conference lifecycle, it’s important to keep an eye on any data that comes in and see what’s working and what isn’t. With this information, you can measure, analyze, and optimize your event for success.
By regularly reviewing your analytics, you can make decisions over which types of content to promote or how much budget to put behind your digital advertising campaigns. You can optimize your marketing and management based on real data.
Keep this up throughout the days of your conference, too. Notice how the audience responds to different talks, so you can understand which were the most popular speakers, formats, and topics. Offer your audience ways to share feedback with you through surveys and forms.
Once the conference is over, bring all your data together and host a post-event analysis session. Look at what worked, what didn’t, and what you can improve on for your next event.
Sometimes it’s hard to encourage event engagement and interaction at a virtual conference. After all, there’s none of that in-person atmosphere. To help you create a fun virtual experience that people can’t help but take part in, here are some of our best activity and engagement ideas.
Conference swag bags are one of those small perks that people love about in-person events. They’re easy to recreate for virtual events or hybrid events too — whether you opt for physical or digital swag.
Popular physical swag bag items include planners, notebooks, laptop stickers, power banks, stationery, and coupons. If you’re hosting a small conference or a high ticket event, you can consider mailing these out to your attendees to enjoy on the day of the event.
A great alternative to a physical swag bag is a digital one. Create a virtual version with a digital gift card, trials for meditation or wellness apps, audiobook codes, software trials, and coupons for online courses. To make this experience even better, send your attendees a survey a few weeks before the event so you can put together a highly personalized swag bag based on their interests.
One way to get people excited about your event and interested in signing up for a premium ticket tier is to offer VIP experiences. This could be in the form of an exclusive meet and greet, fireside chat, or Q&A session with a major speaker or industry celebrity. You could also throw in a VIP lounge for networking, discounts on sponsor products, exclusive swag, loyalty programs, and more.
A 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 an exclusive meet and greet with Alicia Keys. You can easily replicate this by getting a key speaker onboard with the idea.
Getting your audience involved and engaged is a challenge all marketers are facing. It’s especially important to try and build this sense of community before the event, so you’re not doing all the heavy lifting on the day.
Create groups specifically for your event attendees on tools like Hopin, Bizzabo, and Cvent. Share questions, polls, and discussions with your community and get them involved. Take the conversation to other networks too, by hosting a weekly Twitter chat or interviewing someone live on Instagram Stories.
Before the conference, you could set up live video streams where speakers and sponsors can give guests an introduction to what to expect on the big day. This is a great way to continue the momentum and build excitement ahead of the event.
People like to get competitive and earn points that they can cash in for a reward. Introduce gamification to your virtual conference to make the learning experience even more fun.
Polls, surveys, and discussions are useful ways to get people involved, but introducing gamification can help them feel like they’re getting more out of the experience. Leadership boards and badges work great when mixed with incentives and perks like merch or discounts, so people can get both feel-good and tangible results from what they’re doing.
Zenith Live introduced gamification elements in their virtual conference through leaderboards where participants could earn points by performing specific activities. The winners received ranks, gift cards, merchandise, or donations to sponsored charities.
Sometimes your conference guests want to take a breather from learning about a new tactic, technique, or topic. Adding informal workshops to your agenda can give them that space to engage in something a little different.
These workshops could focus on skills that anyone can learn in a short duration. Chocolate truffle making, latte art, or mixology sessions are some great culinary-focused workshop ideas. Curated wine and cheese tasting sessions also make a good food-focused activity when hosted by an expert. For example, HubSpot’s INBOUND 2020 featured Kim Joy, a finalist on the Great British Bake-off in 2018, who taught attendees how to bake British biscuits.
The right vendor can help you organize these sessions – from delivering kits to the attendees to finding an expert to facilitate the session. You can also use Hoppier to send attendees a virtual credit card so they can purchase the ingredients before the event.
Another thing you can do is organize guided mindfulness sessions, progressive muscle relaxation, or imagery sessions to help attendees reorient themselves. This can be really helpful if they’re sitting at their desk for hours watching seminar sessions and talks.
At in-person conferences you’ll usually find some optional entertainment activities tacked on to the end of the agenda. This could be anything from meeting in the bar for drinks, to a live performance by a local band.
You can recreate a similar experience for your virtual event guests. Live stream a band or musician, or bring in a stand up comedian to entertain your guests. Look for ways to make this even more interactive using technology. Metallica’s recent All Within My Hands benefit concert, presented by Salesforce, brought fans into the background on LED screens while the band performed.
Your entertainment activities don’t have to involve big bands or a huge budget. You can easily take your after-event drinks digital by hosting a virtual happy hour and using Hoppier to help your guests order drinks and snacks right to their door.
Trying to plan an online conference can be a challenge, and often one of the hardest things is finding inspiration and new ways to make your event stand out. To help you, we’ve brought together some ideas and case studies from popular virtual conferences.
INBOUND is traditionally a three-day in-person event hosted by HubSpot, but this year they’re going digital with a major virtual conference in October. This event has become a must-see for marketers who want to learn new techniques, ideas, and methods to evolve their career.
In contrast to some online conference websites, the Inbound website is clean and simple. The focus is on encouraging people to register for a ticket with both free and premium options available. Offering a free ticket option is a great way to share your event with more people, while the premium upsell does the job of encouraging people to enjoy a more comprehensive experience at a low cost.
Returning online for another year is MozCon, a popular conference in the digital marketing space. This is the go-to event for SEO professionals and those who want to learn more about content and search.
The MozCon website is more comprehensive and gives you a detailed look at exactly what to expect. You can explore speaker bios, view the full agenda, and find ways to socialize with others in the branded event Facebook group. This is a great way to bring your community together and generate buzz before the event. Something else that MozCon does well is ticket options — there are multiple versions available, including ones that bundle in their popular certification course.
Your virtual conference doesn't have to be in the marketing space to succeed. South by Southwest (SXSW) is a hugely popular cultural event that went online due to the restrictions put in place by the pandemic.
It’s much more challenging to share a wide variety of content like the films, music, and culture you’d find at SXSW than it is to host keynote speeches and seminars. Still, the team managed to put on an impressive show, including film premiers, online exhibitions, and networking opportunities for their audience. Recognizing the importance of catch ups for people that couldn’t make a session, SXSW hosted the content online for a month afterwards for people to enjoy at their leisure.
Digital events don’t have to lack the atmosphere that you find at in-person events. With Hoppier, you can make your event experience feel truly immersive by adding a physical element to your event.
Hoppier makes it easy for your guests to enjoy drinks, food, entertainment, and other perks with a handy digital card. There’s no need to mail packages out to guests — instead, they can choose to order from local vendors and make their own decisions.
It’s really easy to set up a Hoppier program and integrate this into your virtual conference planning. All you need to do is create an account, add a program, and you’re ready to start customizing. There’s no need to manage multiple vendors or look for suppliers in multiple countries — everything is digital and seamless.
We think it’s really important for your customer experience to feel cohesive, which is why there are so many ways to personalize your Hoppier program.
You can edit your digital card design to feature your event logo and colors so it looks and feels like a perfect fit. Personalize your program title and icon, so you can easily find it among your other event programs and so your guests know exactly what they’re receiving a digital card for.
When it comes to vendors, there are hundreds of options available. Keep it simple and select only local food and drink vendors, or leave it open so your guests can spend their funds on whatever would make their conference experience feel a bit more special. Setting a budget and time limit is easy too, and any unspent funds come back to you at the end of the event.
Online events can feel lonely and lack that immersive experience, but Hoppier gives you ways to make your event come alive for your guests.
You could send your attendees a list of ideas on how to use their Hoppier card. Popular ideas include setting up a digital coffee meeting with an exhibitor or attendee, taking part in a themed workshop session that needs in-person products, or simply ordering something delicious for a lunch break.
With more virtual conferences planned now than ever, you need to work a little harder to help yours stand out. Offer an unrivaled customer experience with thoughtful customer support, streamlined booking processes, and an interactive hub where people can access the kind of content they want when they want it.
If you want to make your virtual conference even more interactive with Hoppier, book a free demo. We’ll show you how easy it is to set up and run a program, so you can start thinking of all the ways you’ll use it to delight your conference guests.
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