Since we are all working (and socializing) from home these days, it’s more important than ever to know how to create a virtual conference. Virtual weddings, graduations, and family reunions are the new reality for all of us. To top it off, virtual conferences are becoming the next iteration of business connectivity. Even news anchors are broadcasting from their basements, kitchens and other unexpected spaces. In fact, there’s even a Twitter account that rates virtual Skype rooms called @RateMySkypeRoom. Not only is it hilarious and extremely useful, but it also proves the importance of understanding the nuances of virtual communication. After all, that’s how we humans are living right now — virtually.
Last month, our blog entitled How to Prep for Speaking at a Virtual Conference received quite a bit of positive feedback. While it wasn’t what you would call viral gold, it was popular, and we’re good with that. But there’s more…
After running numerous virtual conferences and our new developer-oriented virtual series called “Shift Remote,” I thought I would share my findings. I hope this information will help others struggling with the common issues of virtual conferencing: the technology, lighting, camera positioning, content and other critical elements that can make or break a virtual conference. When you follow these tips, your virtual conference is certain to be a tour de force.
Just like in normal times, it’s essential to remain relevant to your audience, your tribe, and your customers. Of course, the only way to do that at the moment is virtually. If you keep your message top of mind and provide valuable data, you’re already well on the road to success. But the key to virtual conference victory is how you structure your content.
Virtual Conference ≠ In-Person Conference
First off, we have to accept that a virtual conference is not the same as an in-person conference. In the in-person conference model, the success of a speaker’s talk is calculated by “butts in seats.” However, in the virtual conference business there are no “butts” or even seats for that matter. (Well, there are still butts and seats, but not in the same sense). The audience is connecting from all over the world, watching you through a browser on their computer. So, a better way to calculate the success of a virtual conference comes down to “eyeballs.” (Not as exciting as butts, but let’s roll with it.) Obviously, the “eyeballs” represent your audience. How many “eyeballs” were there, and how long did they watch? This is much like the TV industry’s Neilsen ratings. Obviously, there are differences between virtual conferences and TV, but stick with me here.
Much like TV, people can watch your virtual conference from anywhere: on the couch, in the office, in the backyard or even on the toilet (seriously). Because of this, the audience has a much shorter attention span. Not only do they get easily distracted by crying kids, barking pets, loudly sneezing husbands or chatty co-workers, but there are also virtual distractions. After all, each viewer is just one text or email notification away from leaving your screen.
Now, let’s take a look at how an in-person conference is structured: It usually kicks off in the morning and lasts until late afternoon or early evening (about 6 to 8 hours total). For this reason, attendees usually block off their calendar for the day and rule out any other meetings or activities. After all, they are going to be physically and (hopefully) psychologically present at that conference, listening to talks, meeting people, and being a part of an experience.
At a physical conference, the environment is predictable and patterned. You usually have 3 to 4 hours of content with Q&A, followed by networking breaks, coffee, salty eggs, catch ups and maybe a wind-down after party. (And how I miss my killer after parties. Not to brag, but we are famous for these events. A topic for another time, another blog.)
Imagine you are at a regular in-person conference. You just listened to a great speaker, you’re inspired, and you are freaking ready to take action. Now you’re exiting the auditorium, but what next? Where are you headed now? My guess is you’re going to grab a coffee or tea, and on your way you will walk through an expo section with a sponsor booth. You will probably meet someone there and strike up a conversation.
Here’s where it’s important to understand what can and should be carried over from an in-person conference to a virtual one. Conferences earn the vast majority of money from sponsorships, and the biggest part of sponsorships are booths. So while an attendee welcomes lunch and coffee breaks to refresh, grab some food and mingle, the event organizer uses this time to “lead” you to the expo section where you will (by chance or by purpose) interact with the sponsor booths.
Multi-stage events serve the same purpose. As attendees find themselves walking from one stage to the next, in between those stages there will be — you guessed it — sponsor booths.
With all this in mind, how do you structure your virtual conference? The most common mistake organizers make is assuming they can just duplicate an in-person conference as a virtual one. This is completely wrong and can lead to a failed virtual event and a substandard experience. You cannot directly port content from one medium to another, whether it’s from a book to a movie or a video game to a comic book. It doesn’t work. You MUST adjust the content to the medium.
Below are the fundamentals of organizing a successful virtual conference, although I highly recommend going through them all, but if you only have time to read one, then read 10. Make Chat a Priority
1. Hire a Masterful MC
The Master of Ceremony, MC for short, plays a very important role in any conference. The MC is the host who creates the flow, the mood, the voice and connects your content and messaging in a cohesive manner.
This is true in both in-person and virtual conferences. Similar to a real life host, the virtual MC also handles announcements and other shoutouts when necessary.
There are professional MCs available for hire, which I recommend if you have a budget. But whether it’s you, a professional or a camera-friendly acquaintance, the MC is a critical component to making your event seamless and entertaining.
2. Length Matters
With in-person conferences, the length and timing of the event generally correlates with the work day. Therefore, it’s natural to start at 9 am and wrap up by about 5 pm, with lunch and coffee in between. Our minds and bodies are accustomed to this type of schedule. It’s a biorhythm thing.
However, virtual events are different. Attendees are at home or in their office, and their focus is not 100% on the event because they are not physically there. There are distractions. Try to think of a time when you ever did something for 8 hours straight at home that wasn’t sleeping. Exactly.
Therefore, virtual conferences should not correlate with the work day. Instead, they should be similar in length to a football game, a movie or an eSports match. (I believe there are many similarities between virtual conferences and eSports streams, but more on that later). An attendee will have from 1.5 to 3 hours of focus on your virtual conference, max. Anything longer and you will notice a drastic drop in the number of people watching — those much desired eyeballs.
3. Spread Out Content Over Multiple Days
If you have a lot of content to cover, spread it out over multiple days — just like you would for an in-person conference. As we know all too well, having too many great speakers can be an issue as it’s a struggle to fit them into the timeline. This is actually another benefit of virtual conferences. Since there is no actual cost of running for multiple days (think venue and hotel expenses) and there is no perceived cost from the attendees (of being somewhere for multiple days), this issue is very easy to handle with virtual conferences. Plus, by holding a virtual conference, you are reducing your carbon footprint, which can be attractive to sponsors and is overall a good message to share — Again, another blog for another day, but important to note.
If your agenda goes over the 3-hour mark, split it into chunks of two or even three days, if necessary. As for attendees, it is as easy to log into day one as it is to log into day two, and for speakers there really is no difference. It’s a breezy and accessible model.
If you decide to hold a 2-day conference, this doesn’t necessarily mean you have to have 2 full days of content. Focus on key timings and make repeat telecasts or recordings available to the audience as quickly as possible. Don’t forget, it’s not just LIVE eyeballs that count, but eyeballs on the content over a period of time, live or not.
When approaching speakers for a virtual conference, don’t worry about getting too many. Just add a day more to your conference. Yet another bonus to the virtual conference.
4. Get in the Zone: Timing is Everything
Another thing to consider is the timing of your conference, which involves the location of the audience you’re targeting. If you want to capture the relevant audience, it’s important to consider time zones. For example if you are targeting an audience in Europe and the US, the event should take place in a time that works for all — or as much as possible. So, if your conference starts at 8 am in San Francisco, it’s 11 am in New York, 5 pm in London and 6 pm in the rest of Europe.
Also, if your speakers can’t make it “live,” consider pre-recording.
5. Short and Sweet Talks
Like the length of the entire conference, the length of each individual talk in a virtual event also must be shorter. Looking at our survey data and personal experience, the vast majority of audiences prefer virtual conference talks to be 15 to 20 minutes long. Remember: in a virtual setting with multiple distractions, your audience’s attention span is just shorter.
Plus, when the audience is watching on a laptop with notifications popping up, it’s impossible for a human to stay focused for 45 minutes on one talk — even from a stellar speaker.
So, help your speakers get to the point quickly in a shorter period of time.
6. Hold Interest with Q&A Interviews
To keep a nice flow to your conference, we strongly advise doing an interview style Q&A rather than having the speaker pick and choose his own questions from the screen. Sometimes the moderator can perform this role. But the goal is to keep it simple, focused, and clear. To do that, you will need an interviewer to play the part of the journalist. (In fact, you may want to find yourself a good journalist for this job.)
A speaker will have to take time to read through the chat and pick the questions he will answer, and it will look unprofessional while he is doing it. Also, if there are no questions he will just sit there and say, “Ok, so no questions,” and sign out. Again, this will look unprofessional and also make the speaker look bad — you don’t want that.
On the other hand, a designated interviewer can pick questions while the speaker is answering the previous one. Additionally, if there are no questions from the audience, the speaker should have 3 to 4 prepared to keep the flow going. This is very important.
More than 90% of our virtual conference attendees found this Q&A format pleasing. So consider Q&A as an opportunity to create audience engagement and retention. Ask the audience to submit questions during the talk. Pick out the best and ask them during the session.
Furthermore, we found that “Q&A chat” is a must. There are 2 things you can do as successfully, or perhaps even more successful at a virtual conference than an in-person one; first is the talk, the speaker gets on stage (or on screen) and talks — simple. The second is the interaction with the audience, and this is where it gets interesting.
We highly recommend doing the interview Q&A sections above, but even if the speaker does not want to do the interview style, make sure they are available for chat. Having the speaker sign in to the chat section of your virtual conference after their talk is just — AMAZING. The interaction goes through the roof and the attendees get real 1–1 interaction with the speaker. The type of interaction that most attendees never get from an in-person event.
This is one of the few places where a virtual event actually excels in an in-person one, so use it as much as possible.
7. Just Say No to Breaks
Write this down: Breaks will kill your flow in a virtual conference. If you are hosting a 1.5 hour event, don’t even include a break. There is no need. Plus, switching to an empty screen or a static picture will lose your audience’s attention. Once they leave, they are gone for good.
If your event is a little longer, you may need to take breaks out of consideration for your audience.
If you do offer breaks, there are a couple things to keep in mind: First, keep breaks under 5 minutes. Secondly, use that time wisely. Breaks serve as a perfect time to run video ads (yes, as in commercials). During this time, the MC could also discuss highlights about the conference thus far or make other announcements. Lastly, during the break keep your chat box active (more on this later). The idea here is to keep your audience engaged.
8. Keep It Simple with a Single Screen
In a live event, an attendee has the freedom (with a badge, of course) to roam around the venue and check out different parts of the event. For an online event, we’re down to one screen. (Even if you have two screens, let’s keep it real here. We all know the second one is for reddit or something.)
There are two main reasons for multiple stages at an in-person conference: First, this accommodates speakers from different fields into a limited number of days or hours. Secondly, it offers variety to different types of attendees (investors, developers, corporate and so forth). However, this doesn’t necessarily apply to virtual conferences unless you have your platform and attendee communication strategy locked in 100%. Even then, it doesn’t necessarily mean everyone will be informed properly about what’s going on. Don’t forget, attendees that you’ve engaged with in the past are familiar with real life conferences. They too are learning the best ways to participate in this virtual conference era.
Having multiple streams may increase the chance your viewing audience will be distracted — and we should never be the cause of distraction. Make no mistake, distraction in a virtual conference is real. Not all attendees will be at their work desk fully immersed in the session. Some attendees could be cooking or working out or meditating while on their iPad. They may choose to leave.
We suggest that you focus on a single stream, but split up talks by themes over different times of the day. Also, because you’re taking the content experience online, there really isn’t a fixed rule to say you can’t hold a virtual conference segmented by themes every few weeks or even month to month. This is kind of like how sports news or talk shows discuss central themes and switch topics from time to time.
In conclusion, don’t feel obligated and pressured to do it all within a day. Try to pace things and provide clear segmentation driven by themes relevant to your audience. Prepare for distraction, but don’t let it bum you out. It’s part of the deal.
9. Don’t Skip the Opening and Close
You don’t need a Pixar-style, super expensive, high-tech masterpiece — but it is important to have an opening ceremony. Take a couple of minutes to welcome your guests and get them engaged. Let them know something special is about to take place. Make some housekeeping announcements, and discuss how the conference tech and process will work. Let the audience know what topics will be covered, what the goals are and how to interact with the speakers and other attendees. Also let everyone know where to reach out if there they are having technical difficulties. Just prepare for that.
At the conclusion of your event, give a short wrap up and thank your audience. People need a closer, not just an, “Okay, that was it. Bye.” This cheapens the experience. Wrap it up with a nice bow. This is important.
10. Make Chat a Priority
Chat is the #1 Internet communication tool. Of course, we have video calls and voice calls, but chat is by far the most popular. If you interact on LinkedIn, it’s a chat. Instagram? Chat. Facebook? Chat. Some people might say, “Yes, but I call my friends and video them all the time.” Yes, this may be true. But have you ever video called someone you’ve never met before? The answer is probably “No.”
The reason is that we humans are not necessarily comfortable doing this. It’s psychological. It is a lot easier and natural to start a conversation with a stranger with a chat. Then we might move on to voice and later to video.
Plus, having any type of discussion with more the 10 people, let alone hundreds and thousands at your event, is not feasible any other way. I mentioned earlier the similarities of eSports streams and virtual conferences, and the chat box at a streamed eSports is definitely one of them.
Again, write this down: No matter what technology you are using to stream, include a chat box and encourage attendees to use it as much as possible. Assign a dedicated person from your team to write in the chat box the whole time, asking questions and just keeping things live. Also, your Master of Ceremony should give the audiences suggestions about what to discuss in chat. As I mentioned before, having speakers join the chat will make the conversation explode. The pro tip here is to create engagement, excitement, and interaction.
Think of it this way: The virtual conference chat is your cafe, your lounge space, your meeting space. It is where you will feel the energy of your conference, and your attendees. If you take one thing away from this article, I hope it is the importance of utilizing chat during your virtual conference. I purposely saved the best for last because this is a critical point. Chat is the essence and the energy of your entire virtual conference.
In a virtual conference, you may not be able to recreate booths, cafes or after parties or the serendipity of running into a random interesting person. The virtual format is not the in-person format. You must embrace the differences and play on the strengths of each to make your event high quality and memorable.
Amazing speakers, to-the-point presentations, an entertaining host and an energized chat: These are the essential ingredients for an excellent virtual conference experience.
If I can ever be of any help, feel free to reach out to me via LinkedIn. Also I want to give a special shoutout to Amy Cosper for her help with setting the tone of this article and to the amazing Gabriel Yang of Blockshow for contributing and ironing out some of these ideas. 🙌
Now, go be fearless, And keep those butts, sorry, eyeballs glued to your conference. We like butts, but in this case keep your eyes where we can see them — right on the screen. Good luck. Have fun with it. And as always, create a memorable experience!