Jul 20

How to position and structure a virtual conference

Due to COVID-19, many associations have shifted their event program to online webinars and have cancelled, postponed or delayed making decisions about their face to face conference until the situation becomes clearer.

As those of us based in Melbourne suffering through the ‘second wave’ of COVID-19 restrictions know only too well, the only thing that is clear right now is that the uncertainty around when exactly it will be ‘safe’ to hold a face to face conference will continue into the foreseeable future and at least until a vaccine becomes available.

So for associations who are now biting the bullet and planning to shift to a virtual conference, we thought we would share some of our hard-earned experience gained over the last few months successfully delivering vALTACON for the Australian Legal Technology Association (which featured 40+ speakers, three streams of content, a virtual expo with 30 exhibitors for 500+ delegates from 19 countries all delivered in just 7 weeks!)  and from our current work delivering LawFestLive.

Positioning a virtual conference

It is worth remembering that just as most associations and conference organisers have never organised a virtual conference, few people have actually ever attended a virtual conference – and they don’t know what to expect.  That is why how you position your virtual conference to members and sponsors is so important.

I want to start by stating the obvious:

A virtual conference is not the same as a face to face conference.

Despite this obvious truth, many associations are planning to replicate their face to face conference online as best they can – positioning it as the same conference, just delivered online. This approach is especially tempting for associations who have already sold tickets or sponsorships for their (now postponed) annual conference – and don’t want to have to offer refunds.

From our perspective, this is a risky approach.

Even with the best technology and planning in the world, it is simply impossible to replicate a good face to face conference experience online for delegates or for sponsors. The whole experience is just different.  Saying that it will be the same (or just as good) is promising something that everyone intuitively knows that you cannot deliver  – which puts you on the back foot from the outset.

A virtual conference is also not the same as a webinar or Zoom meeting.

A webinar is typically a one-hour presentation by one or several speakers. Most of us are now suffering from webinar and online meeting fatigue, so your virtual conference needs to offer a much richer experience than a webinar (or even a series of webinars strung together) for both delegates and sponsors.

This means that as well as re-thinking how to deliver a conference virtually in the middle of a pandemic, you also need to re-think and clearly articulate a whole new value proposition for attending and exhibiting at your conference – the why of your virtual conference.

To deliver a successful virtual conference, you need to structure the program differently, run the exhibition differently, position the conference differently, price it differently, use a whole range of new technology, and market it differently. It is no wonder then that this is a daunting prospect for many associations!

Start by considering the delegate and sponsor experience

A successful virtual conference starts by considering the delegate and sponsor experience.

Instead of having everyone all together in your conference venue, your virtual conference delegates will be attending via their computer, tablet or even mobile phone from many different locations (either at work or home) and potentially from many different geographies. Delegates don’t need to organise travel, accommodation and time off work to attend and they know you don’t have any real capacity issues for the virtual conference, so they can afford to wait until the last minute to register.

You are competing for their attention with everything else that is going on around them (and that can be a lot!), so it is not surprising that virtual conference delegates are more likely to ‘cherry pick’ content rather than wanting to attend everything for the whole day. And they can easily leave your virtual conference all together if something urgent or more interesting crops up – and it can be then hard to re-gain their attention.

You also need to consider the sponsor experience in the same way.

Structuring your virtual conference program

With this in mind, we recommend that you structure your virtual conference program to offer as much choice, flexibility and variation as you possibly can to keep delegates engaged and sponsors happy. Here are some tips on how to do this:

  1. Make the conference day much shorter than a normal working day, so your attendees can still deal with other work (they’re going to do it anyway, so make time for this in your program).
  2. The best time in the day to hold your virtual conference depends on your delegate profile and how they work and the potential reach of your conference. Consider times that best suit local and international delegates that now might be able to attend your conference.
  3. Invite national and international speakers to present at your virtual conference you could never otherwise afford or who would never otherwise be willing or able to travel to speak. Aim to make your speaker line-up more impressive than your face to face conference.
  4. Shorten your sessions. The normal one hour conference or webinar presentation is too long – no matter who the speaker is!
  5. Offer a mix of session types – keynotes, shorter TED-Style presentations, panels, interactive Q&A sessions, discussion forums, demonstrations – whatever you can think of to mix things up and keep delegates interested and engaged.
  6. Vary the length of each session by type – your keynote presentation could be 30 mins, while an interactive Q&A with a speaker could be 15 mins, a TED-Talk style session could be run in 10 minutes and demos can be done in 3 minutes!
  7. If you want to cover the same amount of content as you would at your annual conference, hold the conference over several days and/or consider running sessions in parallel – so delegates can chose which session they want to attend.
  8. Be aware that if you spread the conference content out over several weeks, it begins to feel more like a series of webinars, and less like a virtual conference.
  9. Every sessions must start and end exactly on time. There is nothing more annoying than coming back into a virtual conference or changing streams to attend another session and having the previous session run over time.
  10. Build short breaks into the program to allow for smooth speaker-hand over and to give delegates time to get a coffee, have a rest break etc.
  11. Let your sponsors speak. Build in sessions where sponsors can showcase their expertise, thought leadership and solutions, and vary the length and type to reflect the value of the sponsorship. This is critical to creating a powerful sponsorship value proposition.
  12. Consider running short sponsor advertisements at the beginning or end of sessions to help your sponsors’ messages cut though.
  13. If you are also running a virtual expo, we recommend building dedicated time into your program for delegates to visit your expo, so that the exhibition is not always competing with speaker sessions for delegate attention. This could be at the beginning and end of each day and/or over lunch.

Finally, we also recommend that you offer access to all of the sessions on-demand post-event. This helps ensure that even if delegates miss some sessions or don’t attend your live conference at all, they can still access the content at any time – reinforcing the value proposition for delegates.

Don’t be afraid – be prepared!

Getting your conference positioning and program right is just the beginning of the things you need to consider when planning a virtual conference.  Financial modelling, technology platform, risk mitigation, pricing, sponsorship packaging, promotion, managing the live conference delivery….the list goes on. Don’t let anyone tell you that will be easy to pivot to a virtual conference or that organising a virtual conference is much easier than running a face to face conference!

But equally, don’t be afraid to take the plunge.

A successful virtual conference will keep your members and sponsors engaged and informed during a very challenging time. It offers your association the opportunity to reinforce the value of membership, demonstrate your ability to adapt to change and to make-up some of the revenue shortfall that would occur if your conference was cancelled for 2020 altogether.

If you are considering running a virtual conference, then get in touch! We’re always happy to share our experience, have a chat about your plans and discuss how we can assist in the planning and/or delivery of your conference or organise a demo of the affordable platform we’ve developed in partnership with Toro Digital to manage your virtual conference, trade exhibition and on-demand content!

The video below provides a brief overview of the functionality of our virtual event portal as deployed for the Australian Legal Technology Association’s virtual conference, vALTACON.  The portal can be easily re-skinned to support your brand guidelines and quickly customised to meet your specific requirements.