Articles / Running an online conference

The following is a summary of advice taken from a number of sources (links below) on how to run an online conference.

It’s worth noting this key thought from “Learning Revolution”:

You can’t just string together a bunch of Webinars and expect to have a successful virtual conference.

Learning Revolution

Planning

Key questions

Many of these questions will be identical to those asked for an in-person conference.

  1. Who is the conference for? Where are they based? Which time zone? How will they access it? How much bandwidth do they have?
  2. What are the objectives of the conference? What is in it for the conference participants?
  3. What format will work best to support those objectives within the technological and capability constraints of the participants?
  4. What is the over-arching theme that will connect together each of the separate components?

Possible formats

  1. Live presentations and/or workshops from one or more experts
  2. Pre-recorded presentations and/or pre-reading from one or more experts, with asynchronous, text-based discussion
Format Pros Cons
Live - single day Simplest to organise The technology could go wrong on the day. Less time for people to reflect and mingle. High workload on the day.
Live - spread over several days Can mix live presentation with pre-built materials and asynchronous discussion. Works well for multiple timezones Takes more time to organise.
Pre-recorded or pre-reading with live interaction The focus becomes on interaction and workshops Requires work to bring all the pre-built elements together

Credit: Based on Sproutlabs: How to run a virtual conference

Tips

  • First time round, keep it as simple as possible - perhaps a handful of live presentations spread over a week or so
  • Just ask presenters for titles of sessions rather than full bios and abstracts
  • Use a CRM to keep all your communications with presenters stored centrally
  • Consider spreading the conference over a week or two to give people a chance to process, to fit it in, and to contribute to asynchronous discussions (this also helps spread the massive effort required to run a global, one day conference over multiple time zones)
  • Create a communications plan, with dates, key messages and methods.
  • Use sessions at key points in the programme to pull ideas together.
  • Don’t skimp on the planning. It will make the rest a whole lot easier.

Preparation

You won’t need to book a venue, organise food and help people with travel arrangements. But you will need to sort out a booking process, tee up your speakers, get a schedule ready and prepare the software platform.

Tips

  • Hold a short technical rehearsal for each presenter
  • List what could go wrong and find ways, in advance, to deal with each risk
  • Have a backup to your webinar software (eg. a live Youtube stream)
  • Create a checklist for the beginning and end of each day
  • Create a “running sheet” for each day, detailing what was happenning, who was involved, and any special things that might be happening
  • Setup a support email address and phone number so you can deal with technical issues quickly. Ideally use a ticket system like Freshdesk or Zoho Desk to help manage the process and also to handle frequently asked questions.
  • Know what data analytics tools are available in your chosen conference platform and be prepared to use that data during the conference to make quick decisions.

Marketing

Marketing in the 21st Century is about having a conversation. Hopefully that conversation will lead people back to you, wanting to know more, and wanting to become involved.

Tips

  • Be really clear on the time zone if people will be coming from around the world
  • Provide a way for people to see the date & time in their time zone
  • Consider using your CRM to manage communications with delegates. It can give you more control than the webinar platforms.
  • Make sure that you can send out calendar invites, so people can add event sessions to their calendar - either from within your event booking system, or using a service like AddEvent
  • Build the presenters into your marketing. Tag them on LinkedIn/Facebook (or wherever they and your delegates have in common). They will share, like and/or comment, which then pushes the message out to their network. Suggest that the presenters write about their preparation for the event.
  • Consider asking for sponsors from your industry. Organisations who will be happy to pay you a sum in order to have their logo and a link put in front of delegates. Sponsors will have a vested interest in getting the message out about the event.

Delivery

Delivering an online event is a lot simpler if you’ve planned and prepared for each eventuality. If you have a schedule, a running list and a risk management plan then you’ll know how to deal with things on the day.

Tips

  • Choose a platform that allows a “back channel”, for people to network and discuss while a live session is taking place
  • Have someone monitor the back channel to feed things into the person leading the session
  • Get people talking about the conference on open social media as it’s happening. Set a consistent hashtag. And prime people who will contribute by reporting on what’s going on in the conference.
  • Build in regular breaks
  • All live sessions should have a facilitator and a presenter. The presenter can focus on the content. The facilitator focusses on the people - monitoring the back channel, dealing with technical issues behind the scenes, welcoming and wrapping up.
  • Have a back channel (eg. Slack) just for the organisers, so they can be communicating while the event is happening
  • If the event is happening over multiple days, then send an email at the end of each day to highlight the key themes and discussions that have taken place, and to remind people about the next day.
  • Use analytics to help you make decisions in real time.

Follow-up

While people are still buzzing from the conference, get them ready for the next event, and help them see the benefit that they gained from taking part in this one.

Tips

  • Provide access to the recordings, documents and any discussion
  • It you make the content open to Google it will help your search engine results. But you may wish to keep access as a benefit for attendees only.
  • Start talking about the next event as soon as possible

Sources

Sproutlabs: How to run a virtual conference

Learning Revolution: How to Host a Virtual Conference – 10 Tips for Success

Kaltura: 10 tips on how to run a virtual event or virtual conference


Posted: 17 May 2021

Tags: Technology Business Change