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How to Plan a Virtual Conference and Select a Virtual Conference Platform

Hello, my name is Jeff and I’m a part of the virtual conference team here at OpenWater. Since the spring of 2020 there has been a rapid rise in virtual conference demand and the entire industry has moved forward by years if not a decade.

While I’ll admit the last few months have been demanding for our team at OpenWater we’ve learned an enormous amount collaborating with our association partners who have been rapidly migrating to a fully virtual experience vs. a in person event with a virtual component.

As associations have come to expect virtual events to be the focus in 2021 I thought it would be time to pass down the knowledge we have tucked away from speaking with hundreds of associations that are planning a virtual conference.

3 Reasons Why You’ll Succeed at Planning a Virtual Conference

First. We’re All Doing Our Best.
A majority of your members will be open minded to trying new things during the current restrictions. Even better, so far we have seen that a majority of virtual conferences have higher attendance than their in person counterparts. Embrace the opportunity to experiment, gain feedback and spark new creative ways to connect members. This is a chance to accelerate change and convince others of old habits that don’t work.

Second. You Have the Skills.
You have all the fundamental skills needed to create a successful event. Rest assured, if you have been organizing a conference for years a majority of the work does not change. You’ll still spend time processing applications, going through registrations, creating a website and running promotions.

For most event planners 80% of the technical skills are already in place and it’s a matter of narrowing the gap on those new skills that come from a fully virtual conference.

Third. You Have the Time & Budget
When you take away the time it takes to select a venue and hold an in person event you’ll find that you have a lot of time back on your calendar. When you take away all of the costs associated with an in person event this frees up the budget to purchase a virtual conference platform that will be your new conference home. Don’t assume virtual means less revenue, don’t assume your members will find less value.

If You Only Remember One Thing from This Article, Remember This

A lot of success will be driven by the work you’re doing day to day. Try to avoid building up too much uninspiring work. Limit the time your team spends bogged down in mundane administrative tasks, and plan ahead for the amount of time you can responsibly spend on email everyday keeping organized.

Everyone is Worried About Replacing Networking Opportunities, Here is What We’re Learning and What Works

Whereas last year your attendees made connections at the hotel lobby, after sessions, during breakouts, over happy hour or in the exhibit hall next year at this time they’ll be talking about how they connected over the session comment board, virtual breakouts, a sponsor poll, or on the conference live chat.

A lot of our virtual conference partners at Openwater are running academic focused conferences or symposiums where niche networking opportunities over posters, or in an exhibit hall are paramount.

When we worked with AAG, one of the best outcomes for attendees was coffee session meeting rooms. Coffee sessions are small meetings between presenters and attendees.

We’re also hearing from attendees that networking virtually is less intimidating than approaching someone in person, one attendee remarked it was nice to avoid the awkward greeting of, “before you leave.”

The key to recreating a vibrant virtual symposium or poster exhibit hall is to keep your conference website simple. OpenWater uses everyday tools like comment boards and chat rooms to encourage networking on a session or poster basis.

A Simplified Timeline for a Virtual Conference, Securing Your Venue is Now Securing a Platform

Every group we speak with has an existing development timeline for their old conference and is now trying to adapt to virtual. We’re finding that there are very little changes with a virtual timeline vs. one you would have for an annual event held in a physical location.

The most significant change is replacing selecting a venue with selecting a virtual conference platform. Every conference needs a home and that is the role of your virtual conference platform.

Here is a simplified timeline that highlights a few of the larger virtual milestones alongside how typical conference milestones play out.

12 Months Before the Virtual Conference

  • (New) Select a Platform (Last Year Was Select a Venue)
  • (Same) Launch Your Conference Website Homepage
  • (Same) Run Preliminary Promotions & Announcements
  • (Same) Select Your Application & Review Software

9 Months Before the Virtual Conference

  • (Same) Send Invitations to Speakers
  • (Same) Design Your Application & Review Process
  • (Same) Open Registration for Attendees
  • (Same) Publish the Conference Schedule
  • (Same) Promotion, Processing Speaker Submissions

3 Months Before the Virtual Conference

  • (New) Configure Your Virtual Meeting Rooms in the Conference Session Portal
  • (New) Train Presenters, Pre-Record Sessions & Upload
  • (New) Pre-Record In Person Panels, or Keynotes
  • (Same) Staff Up Support for Days of the Event

In summary, the bulk of the administrative workload like building a website, publishing a schedule, registrations, and managing speaker applications stays the same.

The biggest change when transitioning to virtual comes in the initial phase of selecting a platform, then in the final months before a conference when staffing up support, training presenters and pre-recording in person welcoming remarks, keynotes, or panels is important.

2 Critical Questions Your Team Should Answer Before Making a Virtual Conference Plan

First. Are you simply adapting an existing conference agenda to save face and get through the short term challenges of COVID-19? If your team’s virtual goals are to shoehorn this year’s planned in person experiences into a virtual format that is fine.

There are some teams that fully comprehend the value of an in person event and will never want to make a deliberate push into virtual. Teams that need a short term solution will want to spend less on tools, and may simply forgo aspects of their old conference to save time and money. Decide early if this is your strategy.

Second. Does your timeline allow your team to reassess a new conference strategy? Decide now if there is bandwidth to dive back into strategy before committing to any specific dates, or format.

Going virtual has its quirks and opportunities alike. Spending one or two meetings hashing out the long term vision for virtual experiences at your association can create a much smoother process to planning the next event, or even the one after. Defining goals helps shape a budget and with a budget comes faster decisions around tools and scaling up support needs.

If You Have Time to Reassess Strategy, Here is What Matters

Content is Now the Priority & Powers On-Demand Revenue Opportunity
In the eyes of most attendees it’s hard to replace the networking opportunities that come with an in person event. Most of your members simply haven’t experimented enough with virtual networking techniques to know if it can work for them. As a result, attendees will subconsciously weigh the quality of your content with a higher level of scrutiny because they perceive a lower return on networking.

While this sounds frustrating, consider that virtual doesn’t come with the logistical challenges of travel. It will be easier to get attendees to join without the constraints of travel budgets and days away from home. Similarly, acquiring your A list speakers is easier without the constraints of travel as prerequisite to participation.

The virtual experience happens at the desk or the couch. The content of your virtual conference may be watched often at a later time, or be someone who has purchased retro access. All these reasons elevate the importance of enriching content.

What Are Your Goals, Can You Quantify Them in Metrics?
What are the goals of this virtual conference? Is it to generate revenue, prove that members will attend a virtual conference, reach new audiences, or offer members certification training?

No matter what your goals, it is important to have a one page document that clearly states the desired outcomes and makes a reasonable case these outcomes can be achieved within an appropriate budget.

A Framework for Revenue, Expenses, & Sponsorship Offerings
One of the best mindsets to establish before thinking about revenue is to define the ultimate goal of the conference. Associations should decide if the goal is revenue, attendance, participation, in addition to deciding if this will be a one-time virtual conference, or will this become a new offering in the future? You’ll also want to decide if continuing education credits will be incorporated.

Defining the goals ahead of time will make it easier to identify what platform, or set of tools will help achieve that goal.

While you’re evaluating tool sets and learning new administrative practices you’ll also need to consider internal bandwidth. For instance, are the platforms you are considering requiring you to put all the components together yourself? If so, does your staff have the knowledge and bandwidth to accomplish this?

Goals will lead to a strategy which will define a budget and ultimately make budgeting obtainable. Here are the major costs and revenue opportunities to plan for when building a virtual conference.

High level expenses to anticipate:

  • Support
    • Presenter Training
    • Day(s) of Conference
  • Virtual Conference Platform
  • Conference Management Platform for Application & Review
  • Additional Video Conferencing Licenses (Zoom)
  • Additional Tools
  • Promotional Video
    • Panes, Keynote, Opening Remarks>

High level revenue opportunities:

  • Live Attendance
  • On-demand Attendance
  • Sponsorship
    • Dedicated Gallery Page
    • Session Promotion
    • Giveaways Branded
    • Backgrounds
    • Email Promotions
    • Lists of Attendees
    • Live Chat Transcripts

Defining a Conference Schedule, Hidden Opportunities
The upside to virtual events are that without the constraints of travel they can be created and held at a higher frequency for a shorter duration. Diversifying conference content, and niching down is an opportunity to begin bite sizing your virtual conference experiences in order to reduce screen fatigue and enable your staff to streamline its administrative preparation.

We’re seeing that some associations are keeping their virtual conferences within the spans of 3-4 hours per day to minimize screen fatigue and accommodate time zones.

Now is a good time to ask your members how much time and money they are willing to invest in virtual conferences. Consider your content tracks, should tracks be moved to unique events, if so what would that mean for your planning and how would this impact your budget for tools and support.

The First Day Matters Most
Attendance at a virtual conference is usually highest the first day, with that in mind you’ll want to schedule the best content to take place early. Keep your first day upbeat with pre-recorded welcoming remarks and panels.

Selecting Software Tools, What to Ask First

The right software can cut down the late nights, evening email sessions and mundane endless workdays that often kills internal momentum while planning for a virtual conference.

Associations that are planning a long term shift to virtual experiences should use this as an opportunity to invest in creating underlining efficiencies through a virtual conference software platform paired with a conference management software that can handle the influx of speaker submission and internal review.

Typically conferences have used a combination of an abstract management system to handle the backend work of application submissions, a conference website and an assortment of apps and tools to accompany the in person experience.

A virtual conference just like a physical conference needs a home and your home will now be your virtual conference website (powered by your platform) that configures access to all of your virtual conference rooms. Much like an application and review software tool to manage speaker submission, your virtual conference platform will play a large role in reducing redundant administrative tasks.

Unlike a venue, your virtual conference platform will enable your team to replicate events. Being able to recycle event formats helps build repeatable processes that pull valuable staff time away from a mundane workload.

The Critical Components of a Virtual Conference Platform

Single Sign-on for Attendees – AMS / CRM / Registration Data Integrations
Virtual conference platforms should enable attendees to have single sign-on access to the session they pay for. Integrating with an AMS / CRM or registration data helps ease the administrative burden by limiting duplicate logins.

A Simple to Use Virtual Session Portal
The session gallery is the workhorse of your entire conference. Building an event agenda and publishing it to a website should be straightforward.

One of the interesting things we’ve learned lately is that attendees aren’t excited about virtual reality lobbies and instead respond better to a session gallery from a familiar website look and feel.

Your virtual conference session portal should allow attendees and sponsors to join sessions or watch on demand recordings with one click. Each session should include presenter materials for download, contact information and encourage networking on a session basis either through comment boards, live chat or virtual networking rooms where attendees and speakers can meetup in a small group.

Exhibit Hall for Poster Galleries, and Sponsorship
Similar to the session portal we’re finding that associations are less drawn to virtual reality trade show platforms because they add an abstract layer of navigation to the virtual experience. In other words, it feels like a video game.

Conference Session Manager, Backend Session Admin
Reducing the reliance on email is critical, in order to do that make sure your virtual conference platform allows organizers to set up forms for presenter submissions.

Live Broadcasts at Scale
If you’re planning a live event for keynotes, a virtual conference platform will likely have certain thresholds that require specific steps to avoid crashing a meeting room. Make sure that your platform partner is prepared to scale up attendance if you expect more than 300 participants in a meeting.

A Checklist of Other Typical Requirements We Hear

  • Live Q&A Chat
  • Moderator Support
  • Polling
  • Auto-Mute
  • Conference Chatroom
  • Connecting with Higher Logic Community

Scaling Up Support, & Sourcing AV Support for Presenters

Probably the most overlooked aspect of planning a virtual conference is how to handle training presenters and assisting attendees having trouble the day of the conference.

At OpenWater we’ve assisted associations in a number of ways. First we offer training guides to your staff on helping presenters navigate the session gallery, instructions for uploading presentations.

In certain situations we have provided dedicated live support the day of the conference to attendees and presenters alike. This can include jumping into a session room when something goes wrong, or being there to moderate for an important keynote.

We’re seeing a growing trend in which associations are increasingly interested in a hybrid event with pre-record in person panels, or pre-recorded welcoming remarks. In response we’ve built a small ecosystem of diverse talent that is ready to offer your team a wide range of help.

As time goes on your team may not need as much help as it does today. Our viewpoint at OpenWater has been to offer flexible support to scale up or down with your needs.