How to make your next virtual conference a resounding success
Tips and tricks from running VMware’s SHAPE conference
In a pre-COVID world, conferences were a time to get away from the daily grind, meet like-minded people, and discover tricks of the trade. Earlier this year, the VMware Design team was meticulously planning SHAPE, our annual design conference. The purpose of SHAPE is to bring cross-functional team members together and strengthen the design culture at VMware. Colleagues from around the globe would fly in for a four-day extravaganza in sunny Palo Alto, CA, but all of this changed almost overnight, and we were left wondering if we should have a conference at all.
The conference planning team debated whether to cancel this year’s event. But in these trying times it felt more compelling to stay the course and still try to come together as a community to break away from the monotony of daily Zoom meetings.
So, we decided SHAPE 2020 will go virtual. Not to mention that none of us knew anything about putting together a remote conference. There was no playbook for us to look at. This was unchartered territory, but we at VMware are always up for a challenge, and at time when most popular conferences are being canceled, we forged ahead to deliver the ultimate virtual experience. A couple of factors that were instrumental in our decision making were:
- We still wanted our team members to get together and collaborate. This is something many of us look forward to, as it gives us all the opportunity to take a step back from chasing our respective product deadlines and get back in touch with our design roots.
- This event is especially important to us as a design team, because we are not just distributed across different business units, but globally as well.
To re-emphasize, we intentionally didn’t want this experience to be just another collection of Zoom meetings. We wrestled with questions such as:
- How can we sustain virtual engagement over four days?
- How can we effectively communicate and empower the design community and our stakeholders to apply best practices after the conference?
- How can we ensure enthusiastic participation from colleagues from around the world?
We learned a great deal over the past 3 months and here are our top 4 tips to sustaining attendee engagement:
1. Choose the right planning teams and designate clear responsibilities and timeline
“Coming together is a beginning. Keeping together is progress. Working together is success.” — Henry Ford
Organizing a virtual event can be complicated and tangled and can easily go in the wrong direction. Carefully selecting your planning teams and delegating clear responsibilities with clear timelines and accountability can keep the planning wheels spinning like a well-oiled machine.
Our conference core team kicked off its planning months in advance. We held agenda-driven weekly meetings to discuss progress and dependencies. We recommend that you first discuss and agree on a conference theme and messaging. It will unify your teams and will keep everyone, including conference speakers, succinct and to the point. Our planning team breakdown included conference leads, who were overseeing the following teams:
Marketing and communication
Responsible for all branded material, including email and registration templates, banners, website, and messaging.
Keynote speakers and abstracts
Responsible for picking the main-stage speakers as well as the speakers for breakout sessions and workshops.
Responsible for managing with attendance and session signups while gathering key information to ensure they are accessibility complaint.
Logistics and volunteering
Logistics & volunteering were responsible for technology including audio and visual, coordination, virtual session hosting, and overall troubleshooting leading up to, and during the conference.
2. Content is king/queen!
Provide compelling, exciting and relevant content that caters to the theme of your conference and is significantly different than participants’ daily grind. In other words, don’t just make it another zoom meeting.
Since we were going to pull our participants away from their regularly running Zoom meetings, we needed to make this virtual experience comfortably unique and relevant.
Our CEO, Pat Gelsinger kicked off the conference with an opening keynote that talked about the importance of design and it set the tone for the next four days. If there is anything a design community loves, it’s knowing that everyone from your CEO and below is invested in leading with EXPERIENCE first.
We intentionally scoured the interweb looking for unique storytellers to captivate our audience. We were thrilled to have found Bob Baxley who talked about the evolution of design in major companies, which started in garages and are now dominating the world. His presentation included personal stories, metaphors we never thought of mixing together, and emotional advertising campaigns. Most importantly, it was his delivery along with clever amalgamation of his anecdotes and the conference theme that had the audience wanting more.
3. Facilitate fun networking events to add levity
Insert light-hearted networking events between content-focused sessions to help ease tension, bond attendees and balance the overall conference atmosphere.
A core part of the experience of going to any conference is being able to meet people and share experiences. Plan engaging virtual activities to break the monotony of a traditional conference by forming remote groups of diverse individuals who could benefit from forging new relationships.
For instance, our networking team came up with interactive group activities, such as pre-made personal cards in Figma, having the participants work on a collaborative quilt together on Figma, online game sessions, card games to get to know each other, and even a virtual yoga session, all designed for participants to get to know each other through creative collaboration. The main goal was for participants to interact with one another while unleashing their creative juices. After all, this was a design conference, so the sky was the limit. We also made sure there was a virtual “Watercooler Break Room” people could wander into and strike up conversations. Our main objective through all this was to have participants interact with each other and get over digital boundaries to foster ongoing collaboration.
In a post survey, the attendees mentioned they felt a psychological level of comfort with the overall relaxed format. Not shuttling between sessions, rooms, or buildings meant there were fewer logistical considerations, thus making the overall experience less taxing.
4. Ensure inclusivity, session versatility and scheduling flexibility
If your participants are globally dispersed, accommodate their schedules with time-zone sensitive tracks and events. Mix in a few culturally sensitive topics that are relevant to your conference theme. We wanted our attendees to walk away excited about the time spent and lessons learned, and therefore scoured the globe to find relevant storytellers to bring in cultural context and weave E2E theme topics that would resonate with the audience and humanize the experience.
Another major challenge the team focused on solving for was keeping the virtual conference accessible and inclusive. Work in advance with your presenters to make sure all presentations are accessible, with closed captioning available. We also made sure we assigned buddies to participants with disabilities for breakout sessions.
So, how did we fare?
For a couple of days, we reveled in the excitement of concluding our first ever virtual conference. This required extraordinary coordination and meticulous planning. After a few congratulatory Zoom happy hours (I know, still Zooming), we reconvened to reflect on the outcome of our first ever virtual design conference.
Were we successful in communicating our intended theme of building end to end integrated solutions with our cross-functional teams?
Were we able to provide engaging, inclusive and fun virtual content to all participants?
Did the attendees walk away feeling empowered knowing the power of leading with experience first?
The answer to the above questions is a resounding YES, and here are just a few testimonials to back that up. 😊
“SHAPE is essential for this design organization. It’s the best place to get caught up on what our colleagues are thinking and doing, and what new or updated standards and methodologies we should use. Also, I made some great new friends!”
“l learned about executing and bringing E2E stories in my product. I am a PM and I related to the example of waking up problem and immediately going to build an alarm clock UI. cannot believe I never looked at it that way.”
“A super creative virtual conference! I know we had to put things together last-minute, but I really enjoyed the format. The networking sessions were really fun, and the keynote speakers were absolutely fantastic.”
To summarize, tight and diligent planning, contextual and thematic content selection, some light-hearted and tension-breaking networking activities can help you realize a meaningful virtual conference, even during these challenging times.