While restrictions on gatherings due to COVID-19 are beginning to wind down, the popularity of virtual events is only increasing. According to one recent report, more than half (55%) of organizers plan to invest even more in virtual events. Another survey shows that the virtual event market is expected to be worth $504.76 billion by 2028.
It’s easy to understand why—virtual events are more inclusive, safe for your community, and allow organizers to cater to a broader audience. And with the market only growing in the years to come, it only makes sense for your organization to take advantage of this trend.
To help you plan your next virtual conference, we’ve compiled a list of 11 expert tips to guide you from the planning stages to the event post-mortem:
1. Identify your audience
When sitting down with your team to organize a virtual conference, you’ll first need to understand who you want to target as your potential attendees.
Your target audience will inevitably impact the content of your conference, the speakers you select, and how you create your marketing campaign to promote your event. So, it’s crucial to narrow down the kind of people you’ll invite.
While you might normally just invite your members, as previously mentioned, virtual events offer the chance to broaden your audience and increase your reach in the process. You have the opportunity to target prospective members who may join your organization.
Lean on member and prospective member personas to nail down the characteristics of those whom you want to invite—then you can adjust your targeting accordingly.
2. Choose the right virtual event tool
To organize a virtual conference, you’ll need to set yourself up for success with the right tools. And at the top of that list is the right conference management platform.
Not only do you need a virtual event tool to efficiently host your conference on the big day, but it also helps to have software that helps with attendee registration and marketing. This kind of all-in-one platform makes the job of planning and promoting your event that much easier.
When vetting the right conference management software, make sure it includes the following features:
- Registration for attendees. Make it simple for attendees to RSVP for your event online and then sign in on the day of your event.
- Promotion features. The right tool should make it easy to both plan and promote your event. Look for features like email campaign templates to market your event, automated confirmation emails for registrants, and the ability to generate and send promo or discount codes.
- Zoom integration. Since Zoom is one of the fastest-growing apps of the COVID-19 pandemic, ensure your chosen conference management tool integrates with this popular video conferencing platform.
- App for attendees. To engage your attendees, choose a tool that makes creating an event app easy. More than two-thirds (78%) of those who have an app for attendees said it had a positive effect on their event. Use an event app to poll attendees, recognize sponsors, send push notifications, and ensure attendees have their itinerary at their fingertips.
- Sponsor marketplace. Just because your event is online doesn’t mean you can’t cater to valuable sponsors. The right conference platform will have features to accommodate a digital sponsor marketplace that attendees can navigate to find relevant products and services.
- Membership management integration. To make it easy to send invites right to your members, make sure your chosen tool integrates with your membership management system.
3. Create an agenda
Now that you know who you’ll invite to your event, it’s time to settle on your schedule for the day of the conference. You’ll need to consider a few key questions, including:
- Will you host keynote speakers, a speaker panel, or both?
- Will you include a workshop (or multiple) to discuss hot-button issues in your industry?
- Do you want to set up breakout sessions following main speaker sessions to further engage attendees?
- Should you create multiple content tracks (and corresponding agendas) for attendees to “choose their own adventure”?
Once you’ve nailed down what kind of sessions you want to create, set up the sequence for the day. Establish a realistic pace for your audience, including multiple breaks throughout the day. Your team can refer back to this schedule to stay on task on the day of your conference.
4. Prepare your speakers
Once you’ve nailed down your speakers, you’ll also need to set them up for success. They may not have presented at a virtual event before, so they’ll need all the details well in advance of the big day.
That means they should have everything they need for the day of the event. For live speakers, make sure they have the right setup at home—that might mean a ring light, a high-quality microphone, and ensure they understand how to use your conference software to stream their session.
For speakers who pre-record their talk, make sure they have recording software, a good microphone, lighting, and can send you their recording ahead of time so you can ensure it works prior to the event.
Offer all your speakers tips on presenting their sessions through your conference software, and tactics on how to share their screen on camera and add graphics to jazz up their presentations.
The more comfortable your speakers, the better their presentations will be—and the more your attendees will get out of your event.
5. Determine how you’ll engage your virtual audience
Planning your speaker schedule is only one component of organizing a virtual conference—you’ll also need to consider how you’ll keep your attendees’ attention. Almost half (49%) of marketers use attendee engagement as the biggest marker of a successful event. But keeping your audience rapt is no easy feat. While it’s a marker of success, audience engagement is also the biggest challenge organizers face with virtual events.
So, how do you engage your online attendees effectively?
As with membership engagement, you may need to deploy multiple tactics to keep your audience’s attention throughout your event. Some of these tactics could include:
- Encouraging audience members to submit questions to speakers during the conference
- Taking live polls throughout the day asking for attendees’ thoughts and opinions
- Sending attendees push notifications to remind them when it’s time to return after a break or dispatch important updates throughout the day
- Setting up discussions groups on topics speakers touch on and encourage attendees to join
- Using gamification to reward engagement, like awarding badgers or points for asking questions or joining discussions. Reward the “most engaged” person with a prize at the end of the day.
6. Connect with and engage your sponsors
When organizing a virtual conference, you don’t need to go it alone when it comes to financing the event. Contact potential sponsors to discuss funding opportunities in exchange for multiple benefits—including exposure with your audience.
Compile a list of businesses and organizations in your industry and reach out about the opportunity. You can also add more value for sponsors by outlining all the benefits of their participation, including featuring them in a virtual sponsor marketplace, adding their logos to all the conference marketing materials, and creating audience exposure via shout-outs throughout the event.
7. Spread the word
Now that you’ve nailed down most of the planning, it’s time to let everyone know about your virtual event. Make sure you reach your prospective attendees with all the details via a conference marketing strategy that you deploy at least two months prior to your event.
To communicate with potential attendees where they are, you’ll need to take a multichannel approach. In other words, don’t simply lean on just one medium (like sending email invites) to spread the word about your conference.
Instead, let folks know where to RSVP, how to attend, and why they should attend through multiple channels like:
- Posting details of your event on your organization website
- Emailing members and previous event attendees
- Sending event details to your branded social channels
- Including info in your email newsletter
- Getting speakers/prominent attendees to share details with their social networks
8. Create a plan to combat technical difficulties
Technical difficulties are all too common when executing virtual events. A microphone could go out mid-speech, a presentation won’t pull up on screen, or attendees have trouble logging into your conference software—there’s always a chance something could go awry.
To help curb these kinds of issues, create a plan to combat these issues. That may mean considering common issues, like attendees having trouble logging on, and sending them a troubleshooting guide ahead of the event. Consider having a technical expert on hand on the day of your conference can be a great contingency in case any complicated issues arise.
You can also do a dry-run of your event ahead of the big day. Try to log in as a virtual attendee. Make sure you have a copy of all your speakers’ presentations so they’re queued up and ready to go. Ask speakers to log in to run a test on your conference software ahead of time.
Doing a test run this way can help you and your team identify any issues and tackle them before the big day—that way, you won’t be scrambling to correct any problems on the day of.
9. Follow up with participants once the event ends
Don’t drop the ball when communicating with your attendees—even after your event is over.
Follow up with your audience starting from right after your conference is in the rearview mirror. Send a thank you email to both your attendees and your sponsors. Show gratitude to your event staff, volunteers, and fellow organizers with small thank-you gifts.
Next, create and send a post-event survey to solicit attendees’ thoughts on your conference. From their point of view, what could you improve and what were the best parts of your virtual events? You can collect this feedback and use it to iterate on events in the future.
10. Assess your event data
Once your event is over, it’s time to host a post-mortem to understand the success of your conference. Schedule a time to sit down and analyze data from your conference to figure out what worked and where you can improve in the future.
Take a look at critical success metrics like comparing the number of event attendees to the number of people who RSVPed, engagement numbers during the conference, the amount of sponsor funding (and the number of sponsors), and revenue the event generated.
11. Store conference materials in your learning management system
After your event, don’t let your conference materials collect dust. Take those valuable conference learnings and use them to empower those who couldn’t attend your event.
Put together all your conference content and repurpose it as educational modules in your learning management system. Attendees can reference these materials in the future and your other members and followers can learn from the event’s takeaways.
Not only can this content better inform those who couldn’t attend your event, but this could also serve as an additional revenue stream if you charge a small fee to access the content.
Organizing a Virtual Conference: Taking the Next Step
While the COVID-19 pandemic is slowly subsiding, virtual events are here to stay. And now that you have the tools to help you organize a virtual conference yourself, you can huddle with your team and take the first steps to start planning.
Need a little extra help with the planning process? Check out our downloadable virtual event planning resource for more in-depth guidance.