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Planning and Hosting a Virtual Conference

By AlexJuly 21st, 2020

Going digital may be viewed as something new but virtual conferences and events have been around for years. They are a popular method of hosting an event and will continue to be long after COVID-19.

The planning and hosting of a virtual conference uses many of the same skills you need for live events and a few new ones too.

This guide will provide a high level overview of planning a virtual conference. It will cover most aspects of planning and hopefully highlight the main areas where the virtual differs from live. All designed to make your next event a huge success!

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Set the theme or goal

Like live conferences, your first step in the planning process is to decide the goal or the theme. A virtual conference needs some kind of overriding purpose in order to keep it focused and to guide your speakers, sessions and overall message.

A virtual conference has to work much harder to maintain the attendee’s attention. Scheduling speakers one after the other isn’t enough. You have to give the conference an overriding theme and weave it throughout the day to keep people focused.

Getting that down first will help you design the entire event to maintain that intent. That core message needs to be threaded throughout the conference. Not only to help attendees know what to expect but to help everyone maintain focus and avoid distractions.

Secure the speakers

Designing a list of speakers for the conference should be next. Careful selection of speakers who work well on video and who can perform to an empty room with just a camera is an essential selection criteria here.

Many public figures can work a room full of energy and people but they can’t all work an empty room with little feedback. Selection should include the ability to work on video as a prime consideration.

Tune your speaker selection to your story arc or goal and have them write their sessions to keep to that goal.

Set the format

Now you have an idea of the overriding theme and who will speak, it’s a good time to work on the format. You could do this before securing speakers but we think knowing who will be appearing at your virtual conference makes the format easier to plan, rather than the other way round.

Avoid panels wherever possible. These are old and tired conference formats. Think more intimate sessions, think a mixture of ‘main stage’ speakers and breakouts or smaller rooms with speakers across the schedule.

You could add one-to-ones, fireside chats, smaller focus groups, podcast-style broadcasts and even TED talk style sessions to add flavour and variety.

Consider a mix of live and pre-recorded too in order to provide different experiences.

Set the schedule

Scheduling is about the time and date of the conference and also the schedule of events on the day.

Scheduling the conference will depend on the time zone of speakers and attendees. Balancing the various time zones will be a continuing theme throughout your planning and is something you need to finalise as quickly as possible.

You will also have to come up with a standard way of communicating the schedule to speakers and attendees in a way they understand too. Set a single time zone and stick to it. Add as many links to time zone clocks as you need but once you settle on a primary time zone, make sure everyone knows what it is and how it relates to their local time.

Scheduling the Virtual Conference

The second part of setting a schedule is the day itself. How long will your conference be? How long should each session be? How many speakers are you planning to have? How many secondary channels will you be running? How many breaks will you factor in and for how long? How many social opportunities do you want to include?

All these elements will need to be included in your conference schedule along with the main speakers and any supplementary channels.

Decide on the technology

Virtual conference technology is quite mature and there are many enterprise solutions already on the market. That said, there is no single application or platform that can do everything.

You will need to bring together the website, video conference app, social media, meeting rooms, recorded streams and chat rooms. Apps like Zoom take care of video and chat. Platforms such as WorkCast, 6Connex, Accelevents and Mighty Networks offer a wide range of supporting tools specifically for online events.

Bring it all together and begin marketing

You now have the basis of a virtual conference. You have the storyline, the goal, the speakers, the technology, the schedule and most of what you need to host a successful virtual event.

Now it’s time to package it all up, brand it and begin marketing it.

Build the website, begin building the marketing content, meet the speaker content, marketing emails, social media posts and all the supporting content you need to begin promoting the event.

Plan for the worst

Much like with live events, you hope for the best while planning for the worst. Have contingencies in place for speaker no-shows, technology issues, connectivity issues and as many technological challenges as you feasibly can mitigate against.

Add a strengthened customer support team to be on hand to help attendees with any issues joining or enjoying the conference and make sure everyone knows how to contact the support team if they need them.

Planning virtual conferences has the same challenges as live ones with a couple of extra ones thrown in. They are still a test of organisational planning and orchestration but with the right approach and the right team, they are definitely achievable!

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