How to plan a diverse and inclusive virtual event: 4 tips

As conferences and meetings went virtual in 2020, we've learned a lot about what makes them successful. Consider this advice when planning your next digital gathering
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2020 was the year of virtual events. Thanks to COVID-19, conference attendees, speakers, and organizers all canceled their travel plans and embraced digital. This shift has produced a wide spectrum of preferences, opinions, and lessons learned.

Whether virtual or in-person, the best events are inclusive and inspiring and enable us to succeed. Fortunately, many virtual conference organizers are asking the right questions: “How do we encourage conversation and interactions?” “What speaker sessions should we select, and how do we select speakers?” “How do we set our conference up for success?”

With lessons learned from organizing Harness’ first user conference, Unscripted, this year, here are four tips to help you plan a diverse and inclusive virtual event.

1. Differentiate from other virtual events

According to the 2020 Virtual Events Research Report, the biggest challenge to organizing a virtual event is digital fatigue. To stand out from other virtual events, consider a wide spectrum of speakers and attendees. There is little value in running your event in the same month with another that features the same messages and speakers.

[ Want to improve your video calls? Read also: Zoom tips: 6 ways to make meetings better. ]

When planning Unscripted, we reached out to people with practical experience and expertise in specific topics who haven’t previously been invited to speak or join a conference event. Reaching out to new and growing communities via Slack or Twitter hashtags and other social or communication channels helped us increase submissions to our call for papers. Our organizers belonged to WomenWhoCode Cloud and (She)DF, for example, so we invited those community members to our call for papers. Of the first twenty submissions, 80 percent were submitted by women in tech.

2. Support conference stakeholders

Virtual events rely on digital platforms just as physical events rely on venues. Ask about accessibility to platforms as you would with physical spaces: How easy is it for attendees to log into the event platform to join a speaker session? Do your speakers have the proper equipment to present? What is the process of moving from one session to the next? How accessible and inclusive are sessions during and after the event? These are just a few of the questions for event organizers to consider.

For our recorded sessions at Unscripted, we offered speakers ring lights to improve the video quality. We also looked at different accessibility features for our platform so attendees could navigate and participate both during and after the event.

3. Build safe environments

Psychological safety is essential, even for virtual gatherings. People are more willing to speak up, share, and network with others when they feel comfortable and at ease. Many conferences are recurring, so building credibility and authenticity among stakeholders is a great way to boost future endeavors and opportunities. As Maya Angelou said, “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

People are more willing to speak up, share, and network with others when they feel comfortable and at ease.

Find ways to implement inclusive language and practices before, during, and after the event. At Unscripted, we introduced a code of conduct, provided contact information and visibility to event organizers the day of the event, and immediately followed up with any issues. It's also helpful to enable conversations based on interests. For example, we created a private Slack channel for event speakers to connect with other speakers in the space. Intentional actions like this help promote a sense of community and belonging, which helps build safe environments to communicate and connect.

4. Cultivate authentic interactions

Interacting with other attendees is one of the greatest benefits of any conference. Creating a sense of community can be challenging for virtual events because it is easy for attendees to limit themselves to the virtual platform and conference agenda. One way to engage attendees and drive interactions is to diversify your communication channels. While event platforms may include chat and messaging capabilities, also consider long-term communications and post-event conversations.

Setting up a Slack channel and encouraging attendees to join is a great way to build community and catalyze conversations. Some event platforms also include social media integrations and social profiles that allow attendees to connect with speakers and other participants during the event. Consider extending the use of these tools after the event to provide and share information for future opportunities.

It's all about intention

Planning a virtual event is not easy, and 2020 has taught us many lessons. The most important one: Adopt a human-centric approach and continually improve the experience for all attendees. Remember that virtual events provide an opportunity to include more voices and to reach out to more people who may otherwise not have the opportunity to attend.

[ Get exercises and approaches that make disparate teams stronger. Read the digital transformation ebook: Transformation Takes Practice. ]

Tiffany Jachja is a Developer Advocate at Harness. Before joining Harness, Tiffany was a consultant with Red Hat's App Dev consulting practice. There she used her experience to help customers build their software applications living in the cloud. In her spare time, she likes to go on walks with her cat Rico and blog about self-development.