How to plan engaging virtual events

As conference organizers face the daunting task of moving events from in-person to online, what can they learn from virtual events that get it right? Consider 3 keys to success
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Business is anything but usual these days. However, despite massive shifts in business travel, work environments, and schedules, the show must somehow go on. For many tech and business conference organizers, that means shifting from in-person to virtual events.

While there are plenty of online-only events to learn from, the decision to switch formats – in some cases with limited time to plan – brings up many questions. For instance, how do you replace or recreate valuable in-person conference experiences, like the networking that happens in the hallways between sessions?

“Networking is not just a ‘classic conference experience;’ it’s often the raison d’être for conferences,” says Doug Binder, senior creative director for InVision Communications. “Nothing can replace the human interaction of an in-person event.”

Virtual events boast their own unique benefits, such as better learning for attendees.

But virtual conferences boast their own unique benefits as well, says Binder. “I think the greatest benefits are economic and environmental. There might also be better learning and retention because attendees can self-direct and consume at a different, more personal level,” he says. “We also find that virtual events can attract a larger audience, because there aren’t the obstacles or expenses of travel. And for event organizers, these virtual events make it possible to gather really valuable data to validate the success of the program.”

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3 keys to success for planning virtual events

We asked virtual conference attendees and organizers to share what these online-only events get right. If you are organizing, participating in, sponsoring, or attending any virtual events this spring, here’s what to know and expect.

1. Event planning: Adjust your expectations

When it comes to event planning, make sure you have the right team in place, says Derek Weeks, VP at Sonatype. Weeks has run All Day DevOps since 2016, which has been online-only since its inception. More than 39,000 virtual attendees participated in 150 sessions over 24 hours in 2019.

“Many companies are racing to transform their physical events over to virtual events,” says Weeks. “Don’t assume your physical event teams can easily transform into a virtual events team. Hire experts and let them do their job.”

For virtual events, participants often register at the last minute.

Know that you can’t rely on the same metrics you use to track physical events – like registration numbers, reminds Weeks. “Live events tend to see registration numbers grow months ahead of their events. For online events, no travel is required – this means participants often register at the last minute. While event teams should still run promotions and spread awareness in the months leading up to an event, don’t be alarmed by low registration numbers at first,” he says.

In fact, rather than try to exactly replicate an event in a new format, conference organizers should focus on the unique benefits virtual events can offer, and plan from there, says Howard Tiersky, CEO of From.

“In the case of a virtual conference, the location is ‘anywhere,’ which has massive advantages since it does not require travel and it becomes accessible to anyone on the globe. Attendees who can only attend part of the event don’t feel conflicted about incurring the travel cost for perhaps only one day of participation. And there are effectively no capacity limits,” says Tiersky.

“Keynotes, panels, and interactive roundtables are all perfectly deliverable on virtual meeting platforms such as Zoom or GoToMeeting. In fact, these platforms have built in engagement features such as polling, Q&A, and chat, which are difficult to incorporate effectively into live conferences,” Tiersky continues.

Another benefit of a virtual conference is the opportunity to sell it more granularly, says Tiersky. “If an attendee wishes only to see a specific keynote or participate in a few roundtables they can join in that capacity. It’s far less of an ‘all or nothing’ proposition,” he says.

2. Technical considerations: Get the details right

The quickest way for all your virtual event planning to go down the drain? Technical difficulties. Practice sessions with each and every speaker should be mandatory, says Weeks.

“Be sure to host practice sessions with presenters. Make sure they know how to use the conference’s platform, that they know how to share slides, and that organizers have been able to troubleshoot technical difficulties ahead of the big day(s),” he says.

Virtual events should make live talks a priority.

Think through all technical considerations well in advance, advises Weeks. “Live presentations and recorded talks are very different, and online conferences should make live talks a priority. That said, recording every session is critical – this allows attendees to watch presentations they missed and look back at key moments they found interesting. Before the conference starts, decide how long your content will be available post-event, and avoid the hundreds of questions you’ll inevitably get.”

Above all, remember that the audience’s time is precious and vital, says Binder.

“Two things can be barriers to getting the virtual conference experience right, in my experience: Presenters who wander through their material and go on esoteric tangents; and technology that gets in the way, because connections lag or drop, files don’t load, platforms and protocols don’t agree. This is where planning and precision come into play,” he says.

3. During the event: Engagement is key

One team used a "speed dating" model to match virtual conference attendees into pairs for five minutes.

Get attendees together in pairs and/or small groups. Having the right attendees to create an effective networking opportunity is what separates a virtual conference from watching a bunch of TedX videos on YouTube, says Tiersky. His team has used a “speed dating” model to match virtual conference attendees into pairs for five minute “get to know you” meetings, followed by a forced rotation. Attendees can then choose to follow up later with each other to continue the relationship if they wish.

Consider having something for attendees to do every 5-7 minutes. “The most important factor in success is finding ways to involve the audience – before, during and after,” Binder says. “Open lines of communication so that they can have a voice, ask questions, offer ideas and even share content. Depending on your agenda, give the virtual audience an ‘assignment’ every 5-7 minutes. That might involve a poll, a problem to solve, a coordinated conversation with other attendees, or even a refreshing physical activity.”

Think about what attendees could do between sessions. Weeks suggests designing hallway tracks to engage attendees throughout the day. “A common concern about online conferences is that attendees won’t be able to learn from each other face to face – there are several ways around this. Instant messaging platforms, small group workshops, and dedicated one-on-one trainings are all ways to encourage small group learning.”

Finally, think outside your own time zone. Once your event moves to a virtual format, it’s opened up to attendees from across the globe. Have something for everyone – across time zones. “Virtual events make it easy for people from all over the world to attend. This is a huge benefit, but in turn, organizers need to make sure that their schedules serve attendees in their respective time zones, not just that of the organization hosting the conference,” says Weeks.

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Carla Rudder is a community manager and program manager for The Enterprisers Project. She enjoys bringing new authors into the community and helping them craft articles that showcase their voice and deliver novel, actionable insights for readers.  


Love the article Carla! Great advice about engagement and how to pivot in these unique times.