E173: Are virtual conferences really working? And how about the networking?

Estimated read time: 11 minutes


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RP Singh

RP Singh of the Asia Content Network joins me on this episode to discuss what’s been working and what’s not working when conferences moved online in 2020 during the coronavirus pandemic to create more virtual conferences. Can you really network in a Zoom meeting? We are diving into those and related topics.

Check out more podcast episodes here.

Some notes and highlights from the show:

It’s still unclear how much longer virtual conferences will have to take the place of onsite conferences due to coronavirus concerns. This article says well into 2021.

The physical experience at conferences matters for product demos. How can that be replicated during a virtual conference?

Aren’t virtual conferences just webinars? Something about connecting with others – like at conferences – is missing.

Some virtual conferences have to happen to help the brand continue their presence in the market.

The problem with virtual conferences is the sheer volume. “Looking at your LinkedIn feed there’s like 10-12 webinars a day.”

Even when people sign up for virtual conferences – a.k.a. webinars – that doesn’t mean they’ll make it. I signed up for three the other day and didn’t make one because I got busy.

Webinar fatigue has set in – for some peope after 4 webinars.

Keynote experiences in a virtual environment are not the same. In a virtual conference there is very little difference between a keynote and just a regular session.

There likely will be innovation when it comes to virtual conferences. Virtual reality and augmented reality might be two ways those experience will improve.

You can put on a virtual reality event using a virtual reality iPhone camera but just because it’s produced in VR doesn’t mean the event is worth watching in virtual reality.

The problem with VR can be the internet bandwidth. Also: Will people give a virtual conference speaker streamed in VR full attention?

Virtual conferences have a problem holding people’s attention.

Try shorter sessions for virtual conferences, maybe 10-15 minutes per session.

Virtual conference sessions can be more engaging when the Q&A happens throughout as opposed to formally only at the end.

Useful interactivity of virtual conference sessions is one way to keep remote audiences involved.

Use an online tool to allow virtual conference attendees to submit questions that others can vote on.

Works for virtual conferences, too: Event marketing plans: How to create conference speaker images for better event promotion

The problem with Q&A during a conference session can be that the question asked is only of importance to that one person and not the other 599 people in attendance.

Another reason to get questions submitted in writing at a virtual conference is so you can follow up with the answers to the questions you didn’t get to during the talk. Just do a blog post and/or email out the answers to attendees.

Should your virtual conference sessions be recorded or live? There are advantages to both but when they are recorded there’s no way to have interactivity.

If you’re offering recorded sessions for your virtual conference why even have a scheduled time? Just send people a YouTube video link.

It might hurt trust or credibility with the audience if they figure out that a scheduled webinar is just the replay of a recording.

Cutting deals at virtual conferences isn’t the same as at a traditional conference.

Attention at physical conferences might be better than at a virtual conference. At a physical conference you are already there and committed. At a virtual conference you take the first few minutes to see if it’s worth staying. And leaving is much easier.


The second part of this article discusses how to set up virtual conferences when you have to or choose to.


How to quickly move a cancelled conference to a virtual conference [Your guide to options]

The coronavirus outbreak across the globe in 2020 was cancelling hundreds of conferences. Event organizers had to make a decision whether to cancel, postpone or move it online. As of this writing all of my conferences are still on. Fingers crossed they will happen, but tons of conferences have been cancelled and some cancellations come just days before.

For example, a popular content marketing conference in Munich, Germany, was cancelled on a Saturday when it was scheduled to start the following Tuesday. Had I gone to that conference, I would likely already be in Munich at the time of cancellation.

Many conferences, like IBM Think Tank and Adobe Summit quickly started to work on moving their offline events to online events. IBM shares this info on their event page:

Think 2020 will be an exciting combination of live streamed content, interactive sessions and certifications and locally hosted events, which will highlight IBM’s technology and industry expertise for developers and clients without the risk of travel. We will share updates here: ibm.com/events/think

It’s a mix of online and local events. Hosting local events can take the potential danger of travel out of the equation.

Lonna Whiting

That’s also what Writer and Editor Lonna Whiting ‬recommended. Hold “micro-meetups in real life managed by trusted partners in local regions.” It’s still “a chance for people in similar geographies to meet in person if they choose to – and can do so safely.”

Just don’t shake hands! Personally, I’m currently not cancelling any trips but I have noticed an uptick of virtual meetings. With that let’s take a look at how you quickly can move an event digitally.

The high-level strategies and tools and then we will jump into each a bit more:

  • Use a virtual summit platform like Hey Summit.
  • Run it like a webinar using tools like GoToWebinar, Zoom, etc.
  • Live on social media – like Periscope.
  • Podcast series
  • Local meetups
  • Make it a course
  • Discussion groups or Twitter chats

Keep in mind though that not all conference attendees might be knowledgeable or even interested in online events.

“I think it will be important to help the audience, especially if they are not familiar or comfortable participating in online events, with success tips – from using the technology or platform, to how to network online,” said ‪Jane Tabachnick.

David Yarde

Offline events certainly have their barriers – which is why event planning is a stressful job. Online events do too. Branding Strategist David Yarde put it this way:

“Have a place where people can get to know each other and receive centralized updates,” David said. “Clear audio is key. Make slides available for download as quickly as possible after the session. Accessibility is key so don’t slack on captions. Breathe.”

And not to make it more complicated: Just because sessions are well attended at a live event at a multi-track conference, that doesn’t mean that is going to work online. I’ve been to conferences with 17 tracks of sessions at once. Do we really need that online? Probably not. One track with sessions back to back is probably fine.

Of course, offline conferences are about way more  than just sessions. I know I spend a lot of my time at conferences networking with people. How can that be moved online? Maybe a Twitter chat?

Stephanie Thum

“Create a litmus test for determining what will ‘sell,’” said Customer Experience Executive ‪Stephanie Thum. “Content has to be social, conversational, and interactive. Don’t just create a bunch of static, one-way webinars. Establish hashtags for branding and following along on social media.”


Let’s dive into some of the online options.

Virtual summit platforms

I’ve done a number of virtual summits now and all this year are using Hey Summit.

“I’ve been doing live video since Google+ Hangouts On Air. But, of course, with live social video, the broadcast is open to all. There’s no email registration or gate to go through,” said Mike Allton, who organized the Agora Pulse Virtual Summit that I participated in with Hey Summit. “My first summit was comprised of a series of stand-alone webinars run on Livestorm.co. I set up a landing page that listed each webinar, but because registration to each was separate, each session listing had its own button linked to that session’s registration page. Overall, the summit was a huge success, but there were more than a few complaints about that registration process.”

Hey Summit allows users to register for all sessions at once, remove individual sessions and you even get an email reminder when a session is live.

 

Sessions can easily be viewed and you can add give-aways and other information.

From a speaker perspective, the dashboard is super easy to use and there are some pre-build images. I didn’t like the Hey Summit ones that much so simply created my own in Canva using the Agora Pulse template as a starting point. The Agora Pulse template was also shared.

 

Webinar platforms

Another option is to use GoToWebinar, Zoom or other similar platforms. Make sure you have the right licenses to accommodate people. Many platforms have limits of the number of attendees for certain licenses. This option might work when you just plan on having an ongoing conference stream, too.

It could look like this:

8 am – Speaker 1

9 am – Speaker 2

10 am – Speaker 3

And so on. You could just keep the stream open and people can join when they can. I would still recommend an email push to attendees from your cancelled event to remind them of the schedule and always send a reminder right before each session.

Related: Should I put my webinar to YouTube, etc.?

Going live on Twitter with guests.

Live on social media

There are now options to do live audio and video broadcasts with others on social media. Periscope and Twitter is one option for audio and video. Facebook Live has that functionality for video and some influencers like Jason Falls can go live with video on LinkedIn.

The biggest disadvantage here might be that you don’t know for sure who is watching or listening. But if you just cancelled a conference for 25,000 people that may not be the most important goal.

This option does allow you to reach a potentially wide audience and new one perhaps as well.

I once had a webinar that was also broadcast to Periscope take off and had 10,000 viewers because Periscope was highlighting it on the homepage.

A podcast series

All kinds of things get published as podcasts now: expert interviews, chapters from books, the news – just to name a few. These options come to mind:

  • Interview speakers and publish those podcasts on an interval that makes sense
  • Ask speakers to audio record their presentation and upload that audio as a podcast episode.
  • Ask speakers to video record their presentation. You can grab the video for YouTube and use the audio for podcasts.

If you don’t have a podcast yet, it’s easy to start. Head on over to Anchor.fm to get going. Podcast expert Max Branstetter offers more tips in this Business Storytelling Podcast episode as well:

Highly technical sessions that need slides to explain topics may not lend themselves for this model.

Turn sessions into online courses

Liron Segev

Liron Segev, The Techie Guy, offered this idea:

“Loads of modules like your event tracks:

  • video presentations
  • PDF downloads
  • closed FB groups with pre-scheduled livestreaming sessions for audience participation.”

”Don’t try replicate real-world, but make an epic online event with loads of extra value,” he said.

A Twitter chat

You could also consider doing Twitter chats on some topics from the show with the speakers as guests. That can encourage participation as well.

Related: How to participate in a Twitter chat


No matter what you end up doing, make sure you communicate clearly, quickly and openly.

”Communicate early and often with speakers and attendees so they can prepare accordingly,” said PR Expert Michelle Garrett. “And spread the word that your event has changed – use social media, email, etc. Consider offering refunds as appropriate.”

 


Postpone the physical event

Some events have just postponed to a later time this year. I’m not really a fan of this option. With airline and hotel bookings are what they are (read: usually non refundable) this may not be a good financial option for some attendees.

If the show goes on

Keep in mind that not all conferences are canceled. Meetings Today announced the “This Show is Open” campaign. Read more about it here.



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