I Asked 2 Million People How To Make Virtual Conferences Better

Ryan Holmes
Jun 19, 2020 · 7 min read

Let’s be honest. At the best of times, business conferences can be a little … dull. But now that conferences have gone virtual, the risk of boring people to tears is very real.

But the reality is virtual conferences and events are going to be a big part of our future, definitely in the short term and possibly much longer than that. Nor is that all bad news — in terms of accessibility, cost savings, environmental footprint, etc., virtual events have a lot going for them. We just have to find a way to make them less of a drag.

Some of this comes down to having the right technology and knowing how to use it — everything from the hosting platform to the proper mics and lighting. But it turns out many of the most powerful tactics to add life to virtual events are decidedly low- or even no-tech.

In the interest of crowdsourcing and sharing ideas, I recently polled my 2 million social media followers, including around 1,000 people at my own company, on their most powerful hacks for making virtual conferences better. Here are some of their top tips from the frontlines (edited for length and clarity), with some commentary from me. Some of these are pretty intuitive; others are eye-opening — but I hope they’ll all be useful:

Content is (still) king: “Is it events that are boring or those who facilitate them? I’ve seen people captivate audiences with a piece of written text … I’ve also seen a lot of technological gizmos that are utterly tedious. Most conferences fail because the gist of the content that underpins them is weak, uninteresting and uninspiring.” — Yann Gourvennec, CEO at Visionary Marketing

Preach, Yann! Super obvious, but this idea was the single most-mentioned tip and worth emphasizing. Don’t rely on whiz-bang tech to cover up for boring speakers, presentations, etc. Make sure you know your audience and what they’re expecting to learn. Then give them what they came for … and more.

Perfection isn’t the point: “It’s OK — more than OK, actually — to “break the 4th wall” and have a human moment with the audience. In the past, the expectation was a smooth, curated experience. But now you can and should be much more human and spontaneous.” — Henk Campher, VP of Corporate Marketing at Hootsuite

This is a bit counterintuitive, but the more polished your virtual conference is, the more boring it risks being. People like to see human moments — pauses, stumbles, a little raw emotion. If you edit all of that spontaneity out, you might as well just share a YouTube video, instead. I’m not saying you should be sloppy or unprepared, but don’t worry if you’re not delivering a TED-calibre talk — real has ROI.

Sound and lighting basics matter: “You know what I hate about virtual events right now? Lighting and audio are almost always terrible and the sound levels are often dramatically different from one speaker to the next, even within a single session … At the very least, lavalier or headset microphones and a small amount of post-processing can dramatically improve sound quality.” — Dave Unger, Highly technical sales representative

This might seem to contradict the point about not seeking perfection, but it really doesn’t. If you’re putting on a virtual conference, it’s incumbent on you to ensure speakers and presenters have at least some basic equipment and know-how when it comes to sound and lighting. I’m not saying everybody needs a professional studio setup. Just using a headset mic (vs. the built-in laptop mic) or taking advantage of window light can make a huge difference in the quality of the experience for attendees. Oh, and a reliable Internet connection is obviously table stakes.

Feedback loops during presentations are key: “Virtual events need to be more interactive or user-led to draw the participant into the screen and the event. That’s why successful virtual events draw a large number of comments, part of which keeps the entertainment going and draws people in. The immediate feedback loop for the organizers is also crucial and useful.” — Hanna Peltonen, Business manager, strategic sourcing and CSR

Think about it: in a real-life conference, feedback is constantly flowing between speaker and audience, in the form of body language, clapping and applause, even the occasional boo. That needs to be replicated in some form, virtually — whether that’s a comment stream, emojis or even virtual clapping apps — otherwise you may as well be watching a movie.

Breakout groups are critical: “We find that breaking out into separate rooms from the main group and encouraging discussion within the splinter groups really helps with keeping things exciting and fresh … Once the time is up in the splinter groups, a spokesperson is chosen from each one to report findings to the main group.” — Brian Choongphol, Email Marketing Automation Manager at Pragmatic Institute

Another very popular suggestion here: Virtual conferences need to provide small group settings — workshops, breakout groups, even smaller panel discussions — where participants can truly interact and engage instead of just sitting back and watching. In real life, some of this happens naturally, but when everything is mediated by a screen, these efforts need to be deliberate.

Virtual event, real food: “Sending gift cards for people to order their own lunch while watching the event is a nice touch, especially for speakers if you want them to virtually hang out with folks after.” — Thera Martens, Marketing Director, Mid Market at Visier

Deceptively simple suggestion here, but, think about it: food and drink is such a central component of so many real-life conferences — keeping participants energized, encouraging mingling, etc. The absence of those elements in a virtual setting can be a real liability. The gift card concept is a nice stop gap, and also gives participants incentive to attend and stay engaged.

Shorter really is sweeter: “Unlike a real event where you are locked in a room and can’t leave, it’s easy to skip and hard to watch an hour of content. So being concise and thinking of how to get speakers get to their points as fast as possible is important.” — James Mulvey, Head of Content at Hootsuite

Is the real value in your presentation all packed into the last few slides? If so, don’t make your audience hold their breath … or you might lose them altogether. Bigger picture: How much of your conference is just fluff meant to fill out an agenda? Slash it — in a virtual format, a few hours of good content will have far more impact than a few days of mediocre stuff.

Build in networking and connection moments: “A great virtual event feature I experienced was a networking tab that connected you at random with another event attendee. You were provided three minutes to chat about a topic before it ended. It was lots of fun.” — Jon Erskine, Director of Sales at Influitive

Half the reason people go to conferences is to network. Unfortunately, at a virtual event it’s hard for this to just happen naturally. So it’s incumbent on organizers to integrate community-building moments. The random networking app above is a great example. Other popular suggestions: providing virtual “lounge” spaces for attendees to interact between presentations, hosting trivia events and happy hours, and encouraging participants to share pics of their “home offices.”

Don’t forget the entertainment: “Some events are approaching [the virtual challenge] with small vignettes, more entertainment, not just “webinar you to death.” Some are adding in games, quizzes, etc. to make the event interactive. Also, many celebrities, athletes and musicians are available at a discounted price, now that the market has changed.” — Jeremiah Owyang, Industry Analyst and Founding Partner at Kaleido Insights

There’s a reason major conferences pay big bucks to bring in musicians, actors and athletes to perform and speak. Stars generate buzz, increase turnout, energize audiences, and make the event more memorable. The very same principle applies for virtual conferences. People watching an event on a screen still need to be entertained — arguably, even more so — so integrating a concert or celebrity cameo can pay big dividends.

Everybody needs a digital swag bag. “For some fun, offer some digital swag, like animated stickers and wallpapers — easy to create and no shipping necessary … Content is king for digital events, and design is queen. Be mindful of the experience you deliver to people.” — Dianne Semark, Creative Director at Hootsuite

Be honest. Half the fun of going to a conference is seeing how many pens and notebooks and t-shirts and stress balls you can scoop up. There’s no reason that same fun can’t be had in a virtual setting — you just need to find ways to digitize that swag. Options range from virtual gift cards and ebooks to more creative things like animated stickers and wallpaper. But mind the tip above: your swag is a reflection of your brand, so invest the design resources into getting it right.

None of these suggestions are rocket science, and that’s kind of the point. There are lots of tough technical challenges to overcome as we move events into the virtual space for the foreseeable future. (See Alistair Croll’s great “Virtual Event Tech Cheat Sheet” for inspiration.) In terms of using AR/VR and virtual environments to simulate real world interaction. I think we’ll see huge advancements here in the years ahead.

But there’s also lots of basic stuff we can do right now to ensure that online conferences are more useful, more engaging and less mind-numbing. Thanks to everyone who shared their brilliant suggestions. Of course, this list is by no means exhaustive. I’d love to keep the dialogue going — if you’ve got your own hacks for better virtual conferences, please let me know.

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Ryan Holmes

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Entrepreneur, investor, future enthusiast, inventor, hacker. Lover of dogs, owls and outdoor pursuits. Best-known as the founder and CEO of Hootsuite.

The Helm

Business leadership advice, from real business leaders. The Helm is a carefully curated collection of insightful content from the business frontlines.

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