The virtual conference has become a very popular alternative to in-person conferences, but are they always the best solution?
In some cases, yes, but virtual conferences are not perfect – they do have disadvantages.
Below, we’ll learn about virtual conferences inside and out, including:
- What virtual conferences are
- The pros and cons of hosting a virtual conference
- How to host a virtual conference
- Must-have virtual conference technology
- Tips, tricks, and best practices
To start off, though, let’s explore the basics.
Virtual Conferences 101: What Is a Virtual Conference?
Virtual conferences are business conferences that are held online.
Rather than meeting in person, participants engage over the internet.
This means that every element of a conference is conducted through digital technology, including:
- Speeches and keynotes
- Panels and discussions
There are certainly advantages to holding a conference over the internet, such as decreased costs and low barriers to participation.
Yet perhaps one of the least expected benefits is health and safety.
Virtual Conferences and COVID-19
In 2020, with the outbreak of COVID-19 (the novel coronavirus), a great many offline conferences were canceled.
Among those canceled as a result of the pandemic:
- Google I/O
- Facebook’s F8 Conference
- Adobe Summit
- Mobile World Congress (MWC)
Yet a number of conferences chose not to cancel, and instead chose to go virtual.
Microsoft, for instance, held its Build developer event online, rather than in Seattle, its originally scheduled location.
Also, in light of MWC’s cancellation, WalkMe invited former MWC members to participate in an online version of the event, dubbed Mobile Live.
In a press release, WalkMe acknowledged that the conference was canceled due to safety concerns, but also pointed out that nearly 3,000 companies had invested time and resources into the original event.
WalkMe’s virtual solution, Mobile Live, presented an opportunity for those companies to showcase their innovations and their hard work.
As WalkMe’s CEO, Rafael Sweary, said:
“One of our core beliefs at WalkMe is that technology adapts to you. Sometimes life is unpredictable, but those are the chances to do something revolutionary.”
Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ) About Virtual Conferences
To better understand the ins and outs of virtual conferences, let’s explore some of the most commonly asked questions about them.
What are the advantages of virtual conferences?
Many business professionals are familiar with in-person events and conferences. But virtual conferences are much more recent and they are not as popular.
In part, this may be due to tradition – since most businesses are used to in-person conferences, they are more common.
However, another reason why in-person events are more popular is because they also offer a number of other benefits over their online counterparts.
Today, virtual conferences present a number of benefits over offline events:
- Virtual conferences are cheaper to host and attend. Since virtual conferences are held entirely online, there is no need to organize hotels, event spaces, or many other expenses that are associated with offline conferences. This substantially reduces the costs for both conference hosts and attendees, making it more attractive for those with limited budgets.
- Attendance is logistically easier – participants only need a computer and an internet connection. There are a number of barriers that can prevent people from attending an in-person conference: budgets, busy schedules, buy-in from the leadership, and so forth. These barriers are lowered for virtual events, since those events are less costly and have less of an impact on work schedules.
- Modern communication technology allows participants to stream video or audio, chat in real time, interact with speakers, access conference material on-demand at a later date, and more. Before the internet, virtual conferences were a virtual impossibility. But today, technology enables completely new levels of collaboration in real-time, allowing participants from around the world to network, connect, build relationships, learn, and more. And, in the coming years, these capabilities will only become more robust.
Of course, as technology continues to evolve, so too will the capabilities of virtual conferences.
In the coming years and decades, as revolutionary technology continues to emerge, we can fully expect to see more virtual conferences and fewer limitations.
However, for now, there are a number of reasons why organizations prefer in-person conferences over virtual conferences.
Virtual vs. in-person conferences: which is better?
In-person conferences offer a number of advantages over virtual ones:
- It is easier to network and socialize with other conference participants. Socialization is certainly possible online, but has yet to compare to real-world social interaction.
- Virtual experiences don’t carry as much weight or gravity as real-world experiences. This may change with the advent of VR, AR, and 3D technologies – or it may not. A great many people simply feel more comfortable interacting in the real world, which is one of the biggest advantages of holding offline conferences.
- Certain types of events, such as social gatherings or workshops, are easier to hold offline. As with the other points mentioned, being physically present has an impact on people’s ability to interact with one another. As a result, certain types of activities – such as those that involve over-the-shoulder guidance – are easier when held in person.
The bottom line: digital technology has yet to offer an experience that can fully compete with an in-person, real-world experience.
However, as mentioned, online conferences do offer a number of other benefits.
Also, hosting offline conferences is much more expensive and logistically complex.
For instance, among other things, offline conferences require…
- Hotels and accommodations for guests
- Event spaces
- The coordination and investment of conference participants and attendees
All of which can be time-consuming and costly to set up.
Yet despite these downsides, as mentioned, many businesses still prefer the benefits of hosting an offline conference.
With each passing year, though, technology becomes more capable and more effective, making virtual conferences more and more advantageous.
In the future, it is quite possible that VR, AR, IoT, and related technologies will eliminate most of the downsides that, today, are associated with offline conferences.
How do you host virtual conferences?
Hosting a virtual conference is similar to hosting an offline conference, only with fewer moving parts.
Virtual conferences don’t require the coordination of, for example, transportation, hotel accommodation, event space booking, and so forth.
However, virtual conference hosts must still perform other tasks, including:
- Coordinate and solicit participation from speakers and attendees. Hosting a good conference requires a strong lineup of keynote speakers and presenters. Naturally, conference hosts and presenters should be experts in their field in order to add substantive value to attendees.
- Develop a conference agenda. A conference agenda is the schedule of events. Timelines often begin with keynote speeches, then transition into a mixture of expos, presentations, panels, and so forth. The agenda and its contents will depend on several factors, such as the speakers, the length of the conference, and other time restrictions.
- Implement the right technology. Virtual conferencing technology (covered below) includes video streaming solutions, chat apps, surveys, websites, and any other technology designed to streamline the conference experience. Delivering a good conference experience depends a great deal on the technology used, which is why it is so important to choose the right tools for the job.
- Host the conference. A conference is a community event, so it should not focus too heavily on the hosts. Naturally, the conference hosts can deliver keynotes and presentations. But the more that they can help to build the community and invite participation from community members, the more successful the conference will be.
- Evaluate. Once the conference is complete, hosts should evaluate its performance. Metrics, such as attendee engagement and sentiment, can offer insight into what went right and what can use adjustment. This information will prove invaluable when hosting subsequent events.
Below, we will explore these steps in more detail.
Key Steps to Hosting a Virtual Conference
Next, let’s look at a few of the most important steps to follow when developing and hosting an online conference – some of which, it should be noted, are exactly the same steps that should be followed when hosting an offline conference.
Choose the theme
Every conference is built around a specific theme or idea.
The 2020 MWC, for instance, designated “limitless connectivity” as its main theme.
Though a theme is certainly not necessary, having a theme helps…
- Participants know what they can expect to gain from the conference
- Speakers develop appropriate material for their presentations
- All participants and attendees stay centered around a common set of topics and ideas
- The conference itself stay relevant and on target
A conference is much like a meeting – it should have a focus and an agenda, otherwise it may not be very productive. And an unproductive conference will be counterproductive for the business itself.
Naturally, the ideal theme should add value to everyone who attends, and it should be something that falls within the hosting organization’s domain of expertise.
Use technology to craft a user-centered experience
The user experience is well-known within many business fields, such as design and marketing, and it should also be used when developing a virtual conference.
After all, the conference itself – like website navigation, app usage, or retail shopping – is an experience.
For best results, that experience should be designed carefully and intentionally.
Event coordinators should work with marketers, designers, and other relevant personnel to design experiences that are…
- Useful. A product, service, or, in this case, conference should provide content that is useful if it is to add value. Naturally, what is considered useful will depend a great deal on the context. In many cases, that content revolves around practical skills, industry insights, future predictions, and any other information that can help attendees improve their performance.
- User-friendly. Since virtual conferences are digital experiences, which means that digital engagement should be a top concern. To improve a virtual conference, therefore, host organizations should focus on creating digital experiences that are user-friendly, usable, and simple.
- Simple. If attendees are confused about how to use virtual conference software, then their experience will naturally suffer. When choosing a conferencing technology, the simplicity of the experience should become paramount – after all, if attendees can’t figure out how to participate and use the software, they will become more frustrated and less engaged.
- Relevant. The content of the conference should be as relevant as possible. Understanding the audience demographics, psychographics, and their job areas will help conference coordinators create content that is useful and relevant.
Which virtual conferencing technology gets used will depend in large part on the decisions made regarding the participants’ experience.
As mentioned above, there are a number of technologies that can enable a smooth, streamlined virtual conference.
- Video conferencing software. Video conferencing software is specifically designed for teleconferences and video meetings. This software can be very useful for virtual conferences, since they are specifically designed for real-time video conferencing. However, these solutions are not always suitable for large-scale conferences, since they often limit the number of participants. For small-scale conferences, though, these software packages can be very useful.
- Video streaming software. Video streaming solutions are slightly different from video conferencing applications. One-to-many video streaming is offered by platforms such as Periscope, YouTube, as well as social networks such as Facebook. This is a good way to reach large audiences, while avoiding the headcount limitations associated with video conferencing applications.
- Chat applications. Chat apps, such as Slack, allow participants to interact in real-time. Setting up a Slack channel can act as a networking vehicle, allowing attendees to make connections, hold discussions with each other, and talk to the hosting organization.
- Survey software. Surveys and polls can be a useful way to gain real-time communications from an audience. Slack allows for the easy creation of polls, but for more complicated surveys, other software may be more suitable. SurveyMonkey and GetFeedback, for instance, can be used to gain more in-depth feedback and input. This information, in turn, can be used to make conference content more relevant and useful.
- Social media. Social media platforms, as mentioned, can be used to stream video to large number of participants, free of cost. Using social media – and encouraging its use by participants – can double up as a marketing tool, especially when users actively promote the conference on a given social network. Social media can also be used as chat platforms, though their chat capabilities are not as robust as business chat apps, such as Slack.
When deciding on the exact solutions, consider the best way to replicate a real-world conference.
For instance, many-to-many chat apps, such as Slack, will allow attendees to socialize and interact with one another during the conference. And one-to-many streaming solutions will allow hosts and speakers to stream their content to the entire audience.
Invite participants and decide on a format
Once the logistical details have been determined, it is time to invite speakers and participants.
Naturally, keynote speakers, panelists, and other presenters should all be experts who can add value to the conference and to those attending.
Guidelines, policies and suggestions should be provided regarding the content. And the format of the conference should also be explained.
Common conference activities include:
- Keynote speeches. A keynote speech is the first major speech at a conference. These speeches are headliners that set the tone for the rest of a conference. The speaker and the content should be relevant to the conference theme – and, ideally, the most valuable content of the conference.
- Presentations. Speeches and presentations form a major portion of the conference. For a conference to be worth its investment to the participants, the presentations should provide content that is original, timely, relevant, and unavailable elsewhere.
- Panel discussions. Panels are a group of experts that are brought together to discuss a specific topic, question, or theme. Typically, these discussions are related in some way or another to the main theme of the conference. And, like all other conference content, panel discussions should be high-value and they should offer ideas and content that cannot be found elsewhere.
- Workshops. Workshops and classes are specifically designed to impart knowledge – which, again, should be cutting-edge, valuable, and aimed at increasing productivity. The reasoning for this is simple: if attendees can access the same information and knowledge elsewhere, they have no reason to attend a conference. With the right software, such as videoconferencing software, virtual conferences can offer workshops as efficiently as offline conferences.
- Networking events. Offline conferences offer a wide range of networking activities, such as parties and expos. These networking events offer an excellent opportunity for attendees to make industry contacts and meet like-minded individuals. Since these activities are hard to replicate online, virtual conference hosts will need to find online substitutes that perform the same function, such as chat apps and online expos.
The number and types of activities will depend on a number of factors, such as the budget, the number of attendees, and the participants.
Also, of course, certain types of events are more suitable for virtual conferences than offline conferences and vice versa.
Set costs and create an agenda
Online conferences, in most cases, cost less than their offline counterparts, for the reasons discussed above. Namely, online events are less expensive to host and easier to set up.
However, it is also important to remember that a major portion of a conference’s value comes from the information it presents. And if the price is too low, then attendees may subconsciously feel that these low ticket prices are a reflection of the conference’s value.
It is important to avoid a “penny-wise, pound foolish” approach to event planning and to remember that the real value of the event – for the host organization – is not in recouping the event costs.
Instead, the real value lies in the event’s ability to help…
- Establish a reputation as an industry leader. Hosting and participating in conferences helps to establish credibility, authority, and thought leadership. If, that is, the conference is successful and properly executed – which is why it is so important to over-deliver.
- Develop strong long-term connections. Networking is one of the most important aims of a conference, virtual or otherwise. Hosting a conference helps build credibility, trust, and authority, as mentioned. And when these are combined with the plethora of networking opportunities at a conference, conference hosts are in an excellent position to build partnerships and connections that last a lifetime.
- Build community. Creating a community is yet another reason to host a conference. Building a community within one’s field of expertise can serve many other purposes. Not only can a community add to one’s pool of potential clients and customers, it can also be an excellent resource for socializing, networking, and shaping the trajectory of one’s industry.
- Bring together industry heavyweights, so that all participants, including the host company, can grow and learn. Ultimately, people attend a conference in order to learn new ideas, gain expertise, and meet like-minded individuals. In short: conferences are both fun and profitable. For this reason alone, businesses should strive to create a stellar conference that is enjoyable and productive.
When immediate ROI and costs become the primary concern, it is all too easy to cut corners and diminish the overall value of the conference.
And the unfortunate consequence of that approach can be very counterproductive – leaving a bad impression on attendees and partners.
The results of such a mindset can actually run counter to the entire purpose of the event, which is why quality should become the top priority when developing a conference agenda.
Host the conference
Preparation is key to successfully hosting a conference.
It is important to ensure that every aspect of the conference are prepared and tested, including:
- The speakers
- The technology and the infrastructure
- Participants and attendees
Staff tasked with hosting the event should rehearse the event and be sure to provide all participants with instructions, login details, and any other information they need to engage with the event.
Also, practice makes perfect: one good way to ensure that virtual conferences go off without a hitch is to use the same technology and approaches multiple times for in-house meetings and conferences.
Virtual Conference Hosting: Dos, Don’ts, Dangers, and Best Practices
Next, let’s look at some tips that can help businesses host a stellar virtual conference, improve participation, and minimize potential problems.
Do make the most of modern technology
The right software may cost more upfront, but it can deliver more value at the end of the day – cutting corners should be avoided, because, as mentioned, pennies saved can cost much more at the end of the day.
The more that virtual event hosts exploit modern technology, the better the experience will be for attendees.
There are plenty of ways to use technology to promote the event, increase engagement, and so on.
- Social media can be used to promote the event and build awareness, before, during, and after the event has finished
- Video streaming software can record event content, which can then be accessed on-demand at a later date
- Websites can be used as hubs that provide gateways to the conference’s agenda and content, both before and after the event
- Virtual assistants, chat bots, and chat tools can minimize the workload for staff and help improve the user experience for attendees
Ultimately, the focus should be about creating a holistic, virtual, and user-friendly experience for all participants, rather than on choosing a platform based on its cost or its features.
This means that businesses should envision an experience first, then choose the technology that best meets their needs – not the other way around.
Don’t turn into a potato – that is, avoid technical glitches
Technical glitches can be anything from a minor hiccup to a major problem, and they should be prevented at all costs.
After all, imagine the impact on a virtual conference if any of the following occurred:
- Video streams stop working
- Audio is disrupted
- The virtual conferencing platform goes offline
- Video filters glitch and cannot be turned off
This last problem actually happened during the COVID-19 outbreak, making headlines in the New York Post: during a video meeting, a team’s boss turned into a potato and she couldn’t turn off the filter. In that instance, the team was able to laugh it off and continue with the meeting.
However, if the same problem occurred during a live virtual conference with hundreds or thousands of attendees, it would make the conference hosts look very bad – to say the least.
For that reason, virtual conference hosts should be digitally literate, digitally trained, and fully prepared, as mentioned above.
Don’t forget to market the event
If an event isn’t promoted, then attendance numbers can flounder and the event may not receive adequate recognition.
Since publicity is a primary aim of such conferences, it is critical to get the word out through all of the standard marketing channels, including:
- Social media
- The web
- Networking events
- Press releases
After all, recognition and publicity…
- Increase attendance numbers
- Boost revenue
- Add to the reputation of the event
In short, publicity and promotion help a conference fulfill its main functions: enhancing reputation, building community, increasing thought leadership, and so forth.
Do stay as agile as possible
Staying agile means staying responsive to disruptive changes, real-world conditions, and real-time data, not predetermined plans.
If conditions change, then be ready and willing to make changes to the event.
For instance, when the coronavirus outbreak disrupted businesses and large-scale events, WalkMe switched its offline conference into an online one. In under six days, the digital adoption company pivoted and “virtualized” its entire conference.
Though the circumstances were certainly not ideal, staying agile allowed WalkMe to still add value to conference attendees, who had already committed their time, money, and energy to the event.
Naturally, it is not always possible to make such large-scale transitions in such a short amount of time.
However, digital technology does open up a number of possibilities and allow for a great deal of agility when it comes to virtual business operations.
The Future of Virtual Conferences
Will the future of work be entirely virtual?
And will all conferences be virtual?
Given current trends – and the fact that the world itself is already becoming digital – we can certainly expect digital technology to play an increasingly important role.
After all, workplaces are becoming more virtual and digital technology continues to evolve. New technology will certainly continue to have an impact on the way we communicate and do business.
And thanks to unfortunate events such as the coronavirus outbreak, virtual conferences skyrocketed in popularity.
For instance, certain technologies will almost certainly enhance organizations’ abilities to host virtual conferences:
- Augmented reality (AR). Augmented reality, or extended reality, is a type of technology that overlays digital content on top of the physical world. Today, this technology is being experimented with extensively and it has seen success in certain areas, such as video games (Pokemon Go is an example). Yet with the right wearables, AR could add an entirely new dimension to business conferences.
- Virtual reality (VR). Virtual reality refers to the complete immersion into a digital environment. Today, VR games are becoming more and more common, and the technology is seeing use in a variety of commercial and industrial applications. But in the future, it is entirely plausible that conferences could be held in completely virtual environments, further reducing the limitations imposed by modern-day technology (though it should be noted that some conferences already made the move to VR in response to the coronavirus).
- 5G. Internet speeds will explode with the global adoption of 5G, which offers a great deal of promise for the virtual business world – virtual conferences included. The adoption of 5G will allow businesses to transmit massive amounts of data, which would likely be a prerequisite for certain types of virtual experiences, such as large-scale VR conferences.
- Internet of Things (IoT). The integration of sensors, devices, and other machines into the internet is referred to as IoT. Along with 5G, this infrastructure-level technology layer will enable a further integration of the offline and online worlds.
The state of technology currently imposes certain limitations on virtual conferences, which is why many businesses choose to hold in-person conferences instead.
However, disruptive technology will only continue to erode those barriers.
In the near future, we may see a rise in virtual conferences – as well as “extended” or “augmented” conferences that combine the best of both the offline and the online worlds.