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Don't Make These Mistakes When Running Your Next Virtual Conference

We are in an unprecedented time in the world, and companies are dipping their toes into the conference world; or, conferences are quickly working to adapt their physical conferences and bring them into the virtual world. So, wouldn’t you think the question would come up, by those that have been “doing” conferences for so long, or have attended conferences as either exhibitors or participants for years, to fix the model?

Like many of you, I have not only been attending conferences for years as an attendee, keynote presenter and presenter, but also as an exhibitor and organizer. I’ve experienced pretty much each angle of a conference, and the status quo was just what everyone did, from event to event. Yes, there was some new ideas here and there with ways to engage attendees through switching up the model like EdCamps and unconferences, but mostly everything has remained the same. You travel to a venue, you are engaged in full-day conferences that run for 8+ hours, then you head to networking and reception events, all while during that time jumping into the exhibit hall to check out what new innovations there are, or to say hi to your favorite companies. Well, we are going virtual now and this model doesn’t work!

Since the beginning of COVID-19, conferences have been going virtual, and understandably so. However, they are trying to recreate the same-ol’ conference experience. All they have done is taken their schedule, and move it to video chat sessions. If we don’t think its appropriate for our children to be on video for 8 hours a day for distance education, what makes it right for conference organizers to think the same about their attendees? I have organized a very successful virtual summit with over 6,000 live attendees, and have attended a number of different virtual summits or conferences as a presenter, attendee and exhibitor, and wanted to point out some things that are working and aren’t working, so as you are deciding how your next event will run, you can take these considerations into account.

Registration

Congratulations. You have decided to go virtual, and now you’re thinking about how your registration process and how registration costs should look. Your attendees don’t need the same forms collecting all of their personal information that you have been collecting in the past, such as emergency contact information. Take the time to review what this process looks like and what you’re asking. Don’t just post the same form online that you have been using for your physical conferences.

Take the time to learn about how your attendees would like to learn during this process. Ask how long they are willing to spend on a computer each day learning, and how they like to interact virtually, because interaction among attendees is very different in virtual compared to physical attendance. Find out what they are most interested in. THEN USE THIS DATA AND FIX WHAT YOU HAVE BEEN PLANNING. Listen to your attendees and pivot if need be from what you were originally planning to ensure that your attendees are getting the most out of your event.

Registration Costs

Don’t think your attendees will be willing to pay the costs that you were charging for your physical, in-person events. While you may be offering some great presenters and keynotes, and while they cost money to book, your attendees aren’t getting the same experience from their computer at home. Therefore, your pricing needs to be greatly adjusted. Depending on your event, $200 is at the upper end of the funnel for cost. Remember, we are at a time in our economy where people are losing jobs or can’t afford extra costs, and yes, your event will be an extra cost. Even funding from organizations, businesses and schools are being cut, therefore, if someone is attending, then they are paying out of their own pockets. That money they are paying could be going to bills or food for their family. So, keep costs low or consider running it free for this year. Don’t use this as a time to use this as a revenue generator. Use this time as a marketing opportunity to keep your attendees involved with your event and organization. So, when the future comes and you are back to your physical events, they are excited to join you once again.

Schedule

Here is the part that is actually the most frustrating to me. The schedule. This is virtual so why are you planning 8 hour days of non-stop sessions with live sessions, keynotes, exhibitors in booths, and virtual networking and receptions? You have literally done nothing to innovate how your event was run, and if anything, you will lose attendees throughout the day because life is going on outside of your event. Yes, I know that is hard to believe that your attendees aren’t 100% engaged, 100% of the time. No matter what you do, this model will NEVER WORK! It’s bad enough that physical conferences operate under this model.

How many people have you met at conferences that tell you they are exhausted and it is too long of a day, and their brains are ready to explode with information, or their feet hurt? Well, this is exactly the same in a virtual event, except now their eyes hurt from staring at the computer all day, their children are running around, chaos is breaking out around their house, their brains are ready to explode because they are listening and figuring out where to go and figure out your antiquated system running your event, and their butts hurt from sitting all day. See the problem? If not, you really need to rethink what you’re looking to do at your events.

The best part about being virtual is you can get creative with your scheduling. I ran an extremely successful event at Wonder Workshop with over 6,000 live attendees across 10 days. And guess what, we only did one or two sessions a day that were live, and sprinkled in one or two pre-recorded sessions. And the best part is we we received an NPS (Net Promoter Score) of 85.25. That’s higher than Apple with their devices! We listened to our attendees, we learned that they would rather register for sessions that interested them on certain days, they attended at those times, and they absolutely loved our event. The 10 days didn’t deter them, and 90% said they wanted it to be longer!

What I’m trying to get at here is we can’t keep doing the schedules the way we always have, and your physical event isn’t transferable when it comes to your schedules. Listen to your attendees, think about what works for you, and please make a change to make your event more bearable.

Exhibitors and Exhibit Booths

Nothing is longer for an exhibitor than standing around at a booth for 8 hours a day. Well, it’s even worse sitting at your computer for 8 hours a day waiting for people to pop in to your virtual room. Trust me, I have recently done this, and it is literally the worst experience. No bathroom break time, no lunch time, you are stuck on your computer praying someone will come in so you can pitch to them. This is especially worse on some platforms that are being used where an attendee can pop in, not say anything, and just click out. Those people running booths in the virtual world are very different than those running booths at your physical conference. Many of those people that were running physical booths have been laid off because conferences aren’t happening right now, so that means other employees that have other responsibilities within the company are taking these roles, and sitting at a computer in a video chat room for 8 hours a day. I can tell you that this isn’t what will keep your exhibitors from joining you again at your next conference. These employees have other roles they are performing within the organization and are putting their work on hold to attend your virtual event.

Please, clearly think about how your exhibitors are going to participate. So much thought goes in to planning for the attendees, and the exhibitors are left doing the same old thing. They do not need to be online for 8 hours manning a virtual room while your attendees are in sessions. So, think about designated times that your exhibitors are online. This also makes it more urgent that your attendees actually take that designated time and meet with your exhibitors. Otherwise, with it being open all day, your exhibitors may only see a few people an hour and that is not a good ROI for their investment in your event.

Speaking of investment, you need to rethink your cost for your exhibitors. Paying the same amount to be in a virtual room is not the same as being at a physical event. There is zero overhead for you other than the account that was being utilized. I can tell you from experience that your exhibitors are NOT getting the leads that they would originally receive. Not even 10%. That is a scary number for those that are still being asked to pay over $1,000 to be present. Your exhibitors typically cover the costs of your events so your attendees pay less. Well, when the average cost of a platform for an attendee to join is under $10, you better redo the math and pass that saving on to your exhibitors as well too.

Finally, the platform is key when it comes to exhibitors. I just recently attended an event where people could jump in and out of rooms, without ever saying a word to the exhibitor. The exhibitors are in there seeing the people pop in and out by watching a number on their screen, and then the attendee just leaves. You can not imagine how frustrating this is for an exhibitor who is sitting on web cam looking to engage with attendees. The attendee can be in that room, watch you and say nothing for as long as they like, which adds to a certain level of creepiness. Then, they just leave without any engagement. It is extremely maddening watching the numbers of attendees in your room go up, no one say a word, and then they drop down to zero. And this happens for yes, 8 hours. So, rethink how this works. Perhaps set up a “speed-dating” session through a platform that allows attendees to meet with people face to face. Or set up a game that requires your attendees to ask certain questions for points that lead to prizes. Please take the time to educate your attendees on what the etiquette is when joining a virtual exhibit booth. Exhibitors always seem to be overlooked at conferences and it needs to change. Without them, you will have to charge more to your attendees, thus gaining less registrants.

Networking and Receptions

Networking is great, and some platforms do it better than others. But, not everyone wants to be on camera or on microphone when attending from their home, because they could be lounging in their bed, or their home may not be presentable. The reasons are endless, but networking shouldn’t require getting on camera to meet other people. Set up chat rooms with topics and let people join through there. I recently attended an event that had a networking session and the second you enter that page, your camera goes live and you are awkwardly on screen with someone else feeling the same level of awkwardness on their end. You don’t know who they are, what they do, and you are there, sitting on screen with nothing to say. This reminded me of Chatroulette and was afraid of what I would see on the other side. This type of engagement isn’t for everyone, so please rethink this strategy. Make it as a sign up for those that actually want to experience this. Some people attend conferences to network, others attend to just passively participate, and both are fine. Provide better communication to your attendees explaining to them on how they can make the most of their time at your event.

When it comes to receptions, I ask why? Why extend the day even longer with virtual karaoke, or virtual game nights? While I understand you are trying to recreate the “experience,” it’s time to come to terms that it just isn’t the same. Numbers of those that actually attend are extremely low, and it costs you money to put on and run.

The Platform

The platform you decide to use plays a huge part in this. But more-so, the platform is just the delivery vehicle to your event. It ultimately comes up with how you innovate to use the platform. I have used a lot of different platforms that are out there, and will just briefly name a few:
Hey Summit
Hopin’
Virbela
Remo
Big Marker
Zoom

Now, while they aren’t all conference platforms, you can use them in conjunction with nicely designed web pages and still run a virtual summit. There are others that are out there, and even more I’m sure under creation. While each of them have their pluses, they each have their minuses as well, too. The platform is designed to make your life easier in running an event, but you need to be sure you are designing your event creatively.

Final Thoughts

Now is the time to rethink how virtual events should work, and stop assuming you can recreate your physical experience. Physical, in person conferences need to rethink their models as well too, and I have tons of feedback on that as well, but let’s focus for now on running your virtual event. I can not stress enough that you, the organizer, need to listen to attendees and speak with others whom have run virtual events, such as myself. Even if it’s for a few additional tips or ideas, or running an idea past someone, you need to step out of your team’s mindset and go out there and explore. Most of all, if you are planning events that require your attendees to be present for 8 hours a day, you need to stop. While you may receive feedback that they enjoyed their sessions, and the speakers, be sure to ask them how they felt about being online for that long. Ask your exhibitors for feedback and what can be done better in the future for their experience. Learn from others and the feedback you are having shared in your post conference surveys, fix what didn’t work, improve what did, and hold a better virtual conference in the future. But please, I beg of you, do not make your conference the same as it was in-person.

I am here to help. If you have questions, or need to discuss ideas that you have for running your next virtual event, I’m happy to set up a time to collaborate further. If you’re looking for my reviews on some of the platforms that are out there as you’re exploring what to host your event on, let me know and we can chat about that as well. I’m just one person who has experienced a multitude of conferences through the years, and now especially moving virtual, and want to ensure you have the best event possible and your attendees loving every moment of it.

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