Lessons learned from hosting a virtual conference

By Melinda Burgess, Elizabeth Raley, and Robert L. Read

“DiscussionImageFinal” (Public Domain) by spwam1

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Hosting an online conference can be a great way to build community and share information around an idea, interest, or brand. No one has to travel to attend (including speakers), which makes it more accessible than a traditional conference. Further, the production budget can be kept very low through the smart use of free or low-cost online tools (depending on your organization’s size and needs). Producing video of your online event is a breeze — no need to hire a videographer when the presentations are virtual to begin with!

However, the online format can make such an event feel more like a plain ol’ webinar — lacking the face-to-face interaction and “hallway conversations” that bring zest and energy to a conference. While there is value in good content and presentations, many people appreciate connecting with others in their industry and forming relationships that last beyond the conference.

For our event, designed to promote learning around the use of agile practices in government, we wanted to build an interested, engaged audience. We hoped to re-create those human connections using the wonderful array of online tools and technologies available today. We also hoped that since the cost to attend was free, the audience would readily forgive any mistakes or technology flubs.

None of us had any experience planning an online conference. So, in the true spirit of agile, we learned along the way, shifted course when needed, and retrospected afterwards on how we could improve next time. We are sharing our learnings to help others who want to try hosting a virtual conference.

Schedule and setup

We batted around the idea of having a two-track schedule, with sessions running simultaneously, similar to the format of a “real-life” conference. In the end, technology concerns caused us to simplify to one fast-paced track: a series of lightning talks and panel discussions designed to keep the audience interested.

An important consideration in a virtual environment is, “How will we make sure the audience knows where to go and how to navigate?” While we did have tools and volunteers in place to help attendees navigate, we knew it had to be super-simple to ensure audience attention. Thus, we settled on having a single “Session Room” which ran continuously for 3.5 hours with all the talks and panels.

To promote engagement, we also ran virtual Q&A rooms following each speaker’s talk. The audience could choose whether to switch into the Q&A room or stay in the Session Room to continue listening to the conference. These Q&A rooms were barely utilized, so perhaps next time we will choose to have questions as part of the speaker’s talk in the main room.

Similarly, we hosted a “Virtual Networking Room” throughout the conference — a place where attendees could video chat with one another and discuss conference topics. This room was also under-utilized, though there were a handful of participants. Part of the reason we hosted these separate virtual rooms was in anticipation of audience size. If we had ended up with several hundred attendees, those rooms may have been more active. Some things are just hard to predict in advance.

Tools and technologies

Modern platforms make it possible to run a large-scale event with minimal manpower. With three conference organizers and a handful of volunteers, we used these tools to power the conference:

Slack

Slack turned out to be super valuable both in the planning and execution of the conference. We already had a Slack team for our organization, so we formed conference-specific channels for internal operations, public conversation, and behind-the-scenes communication with speakers during the conference.

The public Slack channel was used to build excitement beforehand and provide resources for how to navigate the conference. It also served as a group chat for all attendees, creating that “hallway conversation” feeling and sparking discussion that continued beyond the conference. (Bonus: we continued to “feed” this Slack community and will continue to use it as an outreach strategy for our organization.)

One challenge we had to address was the problem of automatically sending Slack invites to attendees as they signed up for the conference — you normally have to specifically invite people to your Slack team, which would have been overwhelming due to the large number of sign-ups. We used a Heroku app to create a link where people could request an invite — which we then heavily promoted in hopes that most of our 450+ registrants would also join our Slack group. About 100 of them did — a majority of the approximately 150 people who actually attended the conference.

During the conference, we assigned volunteers to provide customer service and foster conversation in Slack. About 20 of the attendees engaged with us in some way during the conference, and we have continued to see some interaction in Slack during the weeks following. There was quite a bit of chatter in Slack during the conference, but most of it came from our own organization — preaching to the choir, as it were.

Zoom

We relied on Zoom for video conferencing and presentations, and were very happy with both the performance of the technology and the excellent customer service. We chose to use a license that allowed up to 500 participants in a webinar, which was our only actual cost in hosting the conference. Zoom has a variety of features, and some were helpful to our event:

  • Launching polls at the beginning of each talk to keep the audience engaged
  • Allowing presenters to share their screen and a thumbnail of their webcam simultaneously, which increased the personability of the talk
  • Allowing panelists to speak directly to one another within the chat feature (not to the whole audience), so we could have internal communications as needed
  • Importing lists of who attended and how long they remained in the virtual room
Seeing the speaker’s face in addition to the slides — way more cool than just the slides.

Twitter

Twitter helped us get the message out before the conference and promote engagement during the event. Our approach was to:

  • Schedule tweets in advance (using Hootsuite) to describe the activities of the conference, including our event hashtag. We even posted links to allow people to join the conference spur-of-the-moment.
  • Piggy-back on the networks of our speakers by @mentioning them in advance and during the conference.
  • Engage with the public during the event. We even got a shout-out from a group of attendees enjoying the conference online together from their office!

Speakers and volunteers

We had a great lineup of VIP speakers from the agile government community who agreed to donate their time and expertise. We also had backup speakers in case of an emergency. For an online event, it’s wise to have your speakers attend at least one practice session so they can get familiar with the technology — screen sharing, webcam management, real-time communication online, etc. The practice sessions also allowed us to hone our operations, anticipate problems in advance, and visualize how the recordings would look.

One tricky aspect of a virtual event is to make sure the speakers have easy access to the right links to be in the right virtual places at the right times. This was even harder than it sounds, but we managed to achieve it through diligent attention to detail (read: spreadsheets!) Many of the speakers said they had never felt so “well taken care of,” even for in-person engagements — so we did this part right!

Communications with speakers were best done through personal, individual emails. Wrangling busy, important people for an event can feel like herding cats, but a thoughtful touch and persistence go a long way. We contacted the speakers early and often, ensuring they had all the info they needed to make successful presentations.

No conference is complete without the intrepid volunteers! Mirroring the proceedings of a traditional conference, we had volunteers to help host the virtual rooms, make sure people knew where to go, and resolve any technical issues. The only difference was that it was all remote — our operations team was dispersed from coast to coast! Slack was indispensable for keeping lines of communication open.

By the Numbers

We had over 475 registrants and over 100 participants, trending upward of 120, until the very end of the conference when it dipped into the 90s. We don’t know how many people came and went — it is possible more than 150 people enjoyed at least part of our conference. Since this was the first year of a conference in a relatively specialized area, we feel that this exceeded our expectations.

Our powerhouse conference management crew consisted of 3 people: Melinda as event manager and backstage coordinator of technology, Elizabeth as event moderator and emcee, and Rob as speaker coordinator and panel host. Our duties and abilities overlapped enough that we each felt supported and knew we could handle the conference even if one of us had an emergency on the big day (thank goodness, we were all well and present for the event!)

Tips for a successful online conference

  • Don’t be afraid to shift course if your original ideas are presenting issues.
  • Take care of your speakers and volunteers — they are as important as your attendees.
  • Don’t expect all your registrants to actually attend the event.
  • Require practice sessions for speakers and organizers — a virtual environment doesn’t allow for much wiggle-room.
  • Think of creative ways to retain audience attention.
  • Whatever your problem, there is likely an online tool that solves it — go find it!

About AGL:

Agile Government Leadership is a group of agile professionals bringing government experience and perspective from federal, local, state, and industry. You can visit our website for free resources, news, training, case studies, and more: www.agilegovleaders.org