10 tips to organize a successful online conference

The “new normal” is testing our darwinian ability to face new challenges, just ask event organizers.

A short while ago I helped organize a fully online conference with people participating from all over Europe, and I thought my experience could be useful. I’ve been creating events as part of my job since 2011, but COVID-19 has brought a new environment we have to adopt to.

Is it even possible to offer the attendees of your online conference the same experience as in a physical one?

Time to show your decoration skills. Image courtesy of @dr_thakker.

Let’s get to the tips

  1. Start with a brainstorming session to define your event. What is the goal of the conference? What is the layout you have in mind? How much money are you willing to spend?

My tip: it is extremely exhausting to keep your attention for six hours in a row focused in talks or workshops, especially staring at a screen! My advice would be to include less sessions per day and to always keep a coffee breakout room open during the conference (and of course don’t leave it abandoned!)

2. Benchmark current market solutions for online conferencing tools. How much people are you expecting? Think about your estimate when selecting your software for the conference: Zoom, Gotomeeting, Whereby, Jitsi or even Hangouts. Do you want the conversation to be unidirectional or bidirectional? Are you going to offer a main track and then smaller rooms or just a single keynote stream?

My tip: don’t use a single tool/SaaS for all the conference. There might be sessions with a lot of bidirectional collaboration (perhaps open spaces), where attendees might be very present. The traditional talk format, however, is more likely to be developed in a unidirectional stage, with questions in a chat or at the end of the presentation.

3. Send a (video!)memo and the Code of Conduct along with the registration confirmation. Engage everyone that signed up with a short memo, and preferably set the right expectations by doing it in a video. Make sure the CoC is easily accessible during the conference. Also, address the CoC before every session starts and who to reach out to in case of abusive behaviour.

My tip: attendees should use real names and their cameras have to be on. A good thing of using digital tools is that inappropriate behaviours could be monitored more easily than a 1:1 conversation in a conference hall.

4. Ask your speakers to send you their talks and slides in advance. This would help your planning, and remind the speakers to keep to their timebox.

These past weeks I’ve been in contact with some people I’m crafting a professional video with. We are all working from our homes, so it’s harder to make a video look as professional as it’d be under totally different circumstances.

My tips: Send all of them a series of very specific instructions on the script, background, lighting, sound, video, where they would have to look and even some tips on software.

BONUS: Make sure you work with comfortable deadlines. You should invest more time than usual in reaching out to the speakers in order to be aligned. If the video is not as good as you thought, you might need to ask your speaker to submit it to you again. Naturally, some of them might not be used to being on camera. No worries, talk to them and make them feel as comfortable as possible. Be understanding.

EXTRA BONUS: Some of the speakers might work in a company that supervises the external messages through their Communications team. Reach out to them, they might be handy. Perhaps they already have the means to make their speaker’s talk look more professional.

5. Run TONS of tests days before. If software issues were a thing in physical conferences, imagine now. Start by checking audio and video extensively, and basically every single SaaS you are going to use for the conference. Agree with your speakers on how to contact each other privately during a session, just in case of technical difficulties.

My tip: like in Social Media managing, always have a crisis plan up and ready. Share every slide in advance with the core team in case any key actor’s connection drops.

The Simpsons were used to technical issues

6. Let attendees craft their own conference experience. Offer attendees the chance of selecting the sessions they are interested in, like Sched does. Women in Tech Regatta Amsterdam used their tool last year and it was great not only for schedule management but also for starting conversations via chat even before the session or the conference started. That data can also help you to avoid overlap.

Although this is something conferences have been doing for a while with their own apps (Codemotion, WeAreDevelopers, Google Summits, Droidcons…) keep in mind that now it’s easy to get lost without the flow of walking attendees between sessions.

My tip: encourage chats, days before the conference happens. Some ideas: create public lists (obviously with prior consent of attendees), organize Meetups, suggest open spaces or just simple virtual coffees. You can even tell them to join the technical test in several groups (based on common topics or interests, maybe?)

6. Host every room along with the speaker. Stick to the schedule, make sure the Code of Conduct is respected, collect questions from the chat while the speaker is giving her/his talk and guide the Q&A time. If an open space is proposed, make sure the dynamic works.

My tip: similar to badly managed open spaces, online conference sessions might face the risk of reducing a whole group conversation to a table tennis match with the two louder (or the ones with best connection) participants of the group. In order to avoid that, drive the conversation when necessary and involve the ones that might be a little more introvert. Think on techniques to make it more collaborative while keeping in mind less outgoing people.

7. Supervise the slides of your speakers. Like some others on this list, this is not just an online conference tip but something that is useful offline as well. Make sure the title and the presentation meets the expectations and knowledge of the audience. For optimal engagement, help your speaker adapt the content to the virtual environment.

My tip: in order to make sure your attendees are as satisfied as you are with the level of the talks, include a rating system. I’ve observed that in online conferences appreciation (or lack thereof) is often not shared with the organizers.

8. Don’t be a dictator, nurture organic conversations. Most of the times when a talk finishes, people gather around the speaker and congratulate her/him for the talk. Others have questions and some remain in the room with the speaker for ages.

My tip: Do not drag them out of the room. If they are having an interesting conversation drive them to a coffee corner breakout room.

BONUS: Create a feed where resources mentioned during the conference (slides, links, bibliography, videos, etc.) could be found during and afterwards. If possible, provide a space for attendees to share their notes.

9. Keep an eye on the online discussion, even way before the conference starts. Whether you are using Twitter, Discord, Twitch, Youtube Live… in an online environment this is pretty much the only way to measure your attendees’ experience.

My tip: be prepared to act depending on any needs you see arising, surprise them positively. For instance, some of them might be talking about a specific topic you didn’t have in mind in the first place, so create a room for them talk about it.

10. Weird times are moments to think outside the box. Go wild with the ideas for the evening drinks slot! The last online event I attended, there was an egg hunt in one organizer’s garden! Some conversations lasted until 11 pm in that channel that day. You can even play your favourite playlist and host the networking from your own terrace with a fresh drink.

My tip: create several breakout rooms and allow the attendees to make their own private chats with a select number of colleagues. Have a bunch of aces up your sleeve (look into gamification techniques to keep people interested, like Powerpoint Karaoke) in case the conversation is not as thrilling as you hoped.

• 🎓Journalist • 💼 @PublicCodeNet : Communities & Open Source • ♥️Data, Sociology & Ethics • 🚺 She/her bit.ly/AlbaRoza