12 Tips for Making a High Impact Virtual Conference
Updated: Jan 16
This work was made possible by the generous contributions from multiple professionals. Thanks to all!
With no end in sight to social distancing, some folks heavily involved in conference planning are scrambling to fi
nd a way to change course. Many of our trade organizations in the engineering and environmental spaces rely on revenue from conferences (both sponsorships and registrations) to
keep things up and running.
The conference agendas we have simply do not translate directly to an online event. People get screen time fatigue and being talked “at”, rather than engaged. This creates a new challenge and opportunity to create value for organizers everywhere. Rather than deliver a series of webinars, we aim to deliver a real conference experience.
A group of professionals representing multiple different organizations banded together to hash out these challenges, ideas for adapting, and what new factors we believe have become critical to hosting a successful online event. Here are our 12 tips for hosting a high impact virtual c
Explore Tools – We’re blessed to live in a time when so many virtual tools are available to facilitate learning and engagement over the internet. Here are a few you might investigate:
Short and Long – A conference that was previously held across 3 jam-packed days turned into 3 jam packed days of being talked at for 8+ hours on a screen sounds… painful. We unanimously agreed that this scenario could, however, translate well to a work week (or 5 day) of half-days virtually – shorter days, but spans over a longer period of t
ime. Basically consider your attendee’s screen experience, and what will work for them during a time when many are working remote.
Breaks – The experience of sitting in one place starting at a screen for four hours is nothing like roaming a conference center and getting to sit in on multiple technical talks in different locations in four hours. Your attendees need breaks; schedule them liberally. People need bathroom breaks, snack breaks, and mental breaks. Be sure this is part of the agenda.
Networking Space – Based on discussions with our attendees, one of the most important thing
s people get from conferences is networking. This could be for project/sales leads, finding quality candidates to hire, finding a job, finding a mentor, or any of the other meaningful business reasons we need to connect with other humans. How do we recreate that in a virtual conference? We believe that having multiple rooms (either on the conference platform or a Zoom Room) with assigned topics and facilitators are a must have. *Imagine* you are attending an online conference and after you attend the first two technical sessions. The speakers were pretty good, but the dialogue is mostly one way. During the scheduled break, you a have the option to join a "room" with other attendees. You can choose a room focused on discussing the technical talks you just heard, or you can join a general networking room. No matter which room you choose, there are other engaged attendees present, and a friendly facilitator prepped to ensure the room is lively and engaged. Which brings us to…
Facilitators – There’s something new that organizations need for online events. In addition to moderators, virtual events need facilitators. Facilitators can work in different ca
pacities, including working with presenters/panels to ask and track questions in a chat box and facilitate polls. Equally if not more important, though, we think that facilitators should be the leader in the networking rooms to ensure topical focus and continued communication. With virtual conferencing tools and even Zoom, it’s possible for attendees to go to networking rooms (or breakout rooms) and have open dialogue with everyone in the room. This is a great opportunity to get creative with meeting people. Check out this 1-page guide we developed for training virtual facilitators here.
Levity – Bring some fun and levity to the conference, and the breaks you schedule in particular, by having a virtual DJ play upbeat music. Consider hosting games in different virtual rooms and find a way to tie it to the conference theme.
New Value for Sponsors – Once your conference agenda is set, consider the different types of sponsorships that make sense now. Could a company sponsor a networking break and give a plug about their company/product with the facilitator’s assistance? Think creatively about the new doors that have been opened for sponsors by going virtual.
Sprint Challenge – Consider hosting a challenge that small groups can work on together virtually, and can all come together at the end of the conference to showcase their design or output. This is great way to mix up folks who might not meet one another to create networking and also creates another sponsorship opportunity. Check out these resources for ideas on virtual group engagement. And if supplies are needed for your challenge concept, consider incorporating with #9...
Virtual Conference Survival Kit – Enlist sponsors well in advance of the conference to put together a survival kit or a goodie box to send to ship to registered participants. It could contain swag that vendors typically give away, and you could also work with sponsors to think outside the box. What could attendees use today, or what might enhance their enjoyment of the virtual experience? A few things we came up with were: hand sanitizer or roll of toilet paper (haha), instant coffee packets, mini white boards with markers (a cool tool for design sprints and other group activities), trail mix. What other creative and fun items did you come up with?
Group Watch Party – Depending on your attendee’s jurisdiction and the current state of the pandemic, small groups may be able to meet and do some of their conference consumption together. Definitely acknowledge that folks should follow and take the precautions recommended by their local Department of Health. And if they can meet and want to do a group conference “watch party”, consider how you might offer a group registration and, with the demand, if the organization will provide some additional materials specific for the group registration – for example, question sheet the group can use to lead discussion after specific sessions.
Communicate – Your long-time attendees can’t know what to expect from this new version of the event. Work with communications and marketing professionals in advance to ensure your messaging about the conference is concise, clear, and provides the guidance your attendees need to get the most out of this new experience. For conferences in the water sector, check out Rogue Water for comms assistance.
Even More Fun – If it’s possible, like in Zoom, provide conference attendees with instructions to change their virtual background. They may want to include their company logo or an image with their name and email address. When they’re networking in groups, they might want to have a sign to hold up with their contact info or social media handles. Or they might just want to have a funny hat on hand when they’re going to be on camera. Let them decide, but encourage the engagement. We learn more from one another when we’re having fun together.
One final thought, not specific to whether your event is virtual or in-person... Consider who ends up selected for panels and who you choose for keynote opportunities. "Manels" (all-male, particularly all white-male panels) are all too prevalent in engineering and science spaces. This is not acceptable. As a leader, you can can influence the representation at your events. If you need help locating diverse talent for your technical conference, here are several organizations that you can approach to find expertise (these are just a few):
We wish you the best as you tackle these new organizational challenges. If you have additional ideas for this list or specific examples of how a conference was handled well virtually, please drop me a line here.
Many people came in to contribute to this piece. Special thanks to Haley Falconer of the Pacific Northwest Clean Water Association (PNCWA), David Williams of the National Association of Environmental Managers (NAEM), and Vanessa Velasco from the Society of Women Engineers.