July 22, 2020

7 Essentials for Creating Virtual Conference Magic

7 Essentials for Creating Virtual Conference Magic

An event cancellation is the last thing members want right now. Despite the pandemic, your members (and others in your market) still need and want education along with conversations and connections with fellow professionals. They’re desperate for memorable experiences, especially when local sports and entertainment are cancelled, vacations are on hold, and social calendars are bare.

A virtual conference can provide much needed relief from the new daily grind—but not if it’s a recorded replication of the cancelled event. Your virtual event won’t entice or engage anyone if it feels like a series of Zoom meetings or webinars. As Ryan Costello, CEO and co-founder of Event Farm, said recently, “A webinar is not an event. A webinar is an audio/video stream of content.”

You have the opportunity to offer a different kind of virtual event experience—one that provides the essential elements that attendees expect and delivers the intangibles that turn events into memorable experiences.

#1: Specificity

Priya Parker, author of The Art of Gathering, said, “Specificity is a crucial ingredient. The more focused and particular a gathering is, the more narrowly it frames itself and the more passion it arouses.”

The typical annual conference offers something for everyone. The content isn’t focused or particular. On the plus side, these types of gatherings attract a huge audience. Consequently, attendees have access to all kinds of people, not just people in their specialty. But how much passion does that arouse?

Mid- and late-career professionals often complain that conference content isn’t high-level enough. For them, you could plan a virtual event with advanced, cutting-edge programming. You could also dedicate an event to early career professionals who need basic information to get them up to speed and prepare them for promotions.

Or, take a thematic approach. A virtual event could explore a topic from different perspectives with something for every career stage.

#2: Structure

At an in-person conference, each day provides a consistent sense of place and structure:

  • Attendees board a shuttle bus at their hotel for the drive to the convention center.
  • They pick up the show daily and stop at registration or Starbucks.
  • Chat with people in the lobby.
  • Follow the crowd to the keynote.
  • See everyone dispersing to different session rooms.
  • Gather again in the expo hall or at lunch, and so on.

At home, when attending a virtual event, attendees feel isolated. There’s no crowd. There’s no “there” there unless you intentionally create it for them. Your job is to provide continuity and structure that facilitates and enhances the attendee’s experience. A virtual event must be a cohesive experience, not a disjointed series of webinars.

Attendees will feel a sense of place if you host your event in a virtual venue like The Echo. Attendees can easily see and hear what’s coming up, who else is attending, and who else is hanging out nearby—and know where to go if they need more information.

Costello said that avatar-based solutions like The Echo “allow attendees to move around virtual venues and talk/interact as they go. In these environments, attendees are back in the control seat and every single person comes out of the event with a unique, personalized, and memorable experience.”

Parker offers another suggestion for providing structure:

“Create an opening ritual to cleanse their palate from whatever they were doing before… They are no longer walking down a hallway to enter a [meeting room]. It’s even more important that we create opening transition rituals as they enter into your [virtual venue].”

A virtual host or co-hosts can provide continuity and structure. Attendees see virtual hosts at the start and end of each day. The hosts give the lay of the virtual land, make announcements, and provide reminders on how attendees can achieve their event goals.

#3: Anticipation

In the weeks leading up to an in-person event, anticipation and excitement builds.

  • The event hashtag comes to life on social media.
  • Attendees see who’s going.
  • They figure out what sessions to attend.
  • Find places to explore in their free time.
  • Plan what to bring and wear.

Build that same level of excitement for your virtual event. Keep marketing different aspects of the event experience to registered attendees. Share information that will pique their interests.

Schedule a series of virtual meetups focused on specific topics or career stages—or make them purely social.

Another option is to ask attendees to do some session preparation before the event. The more they prepare, the more value they’ll receive. For example, speakers can send out recommended reading, videos, podcasts, and questions to think about.

Surprise attendees by mailing them a package full of event swag, for example, a printed program (structure!), conference badge, snacks, and branded merchandise. You could also turn it into a sponsorship opportunity—more on that topic in our next post.

#4: Content

Attendees need to learn new skills, and keep up on industry trends and best practices, especially in this economic environment. Virtual events provide more content value. Think about it… at an in-person conference, the attendee has to choose, say, 8 sessions to attend out of the 40 offered. At some conferences, this ratio is even more skewed.

But, given enough time, a virtual conference attendee can watch some of the sessions live and the rest of them on-demand—and receive much more value for their registration payment.

Your association can also repurpose conference content (and speakers) for other delivery options:

  • Live and on-demand online courses (as short as 2 weeks and as long as 12 weeks)
  • Interactive webinars
  • Discussion groups
  • Ask-Me-Anythings
  • TED-inspired talks
  • Lunch and learns
  • Podcasts
  • Videos/webcasts

#5: CE credits

Due to the pandemic, many licensing and credentialing organizations are providing extensions on renewals. But even when in-person events return, many people won’t return to them for quite some time. They need to earn their credits online.

If possible, don’t limit the awarding of credits to live session attendance only. Develop quizzes or other assessment tools for on-demand programs. This approach provides accessibility to people whose schedule or personal responsibilities (for example, parenting) don’t allow them to attend sessions live.

#6: Connections

Your job as a virtual event host is to create spaces for attendees to socialize like they would at work or in a convention center or hotel hallway, lobby, or bar. Make it easy for attendees to have conversations. Random or serendipitous conversations are especially missed now when every meetup has to be planned.

Attendees need time and space to decompress together, vent together, and get motivated or inspired about the future together. Offer plenty of opportunities for attendees to mingle with others. Find a virtual solution that lets them:

  • Arrive early for a session and talk with others.
  • Hang out together after a session.
  • Run into each other on your virtual campus or in your virtual venue.
  • Meet for an impromptu group discussion.
  • Eat breakfast, lunch, or dinner together.
  • Enjoy a coffee or drink together.

“Feeling and observing that you are a part of a connected community is a critical part of an event experience,” said Costello. Build a structure that supports conversations and community into your virtual event.

#7: Memories

When attendees go to an in-person conference, they get a sense of getting away, experiencing a new place, and gathering together with their professional community. They create a temporary community with people who get them, understand their language of abbreviations and industry jargon, get their frustrations and concerns as well as their small and big wins.

Your virtual event can create the conditions for attendees to walk away with new actionable ideas, different perspectives, new acquaintances, and budding inspiration.

With careful planning, your virtual event can help attendees achieve their goals, and also help your association achieve yours. You can capture your attendees’ attention, change their minds, and connect them with others—in other words, create long-lasting conference magic.

Evaluate different virtual event solution experiences and features side by side in one place using our Virtual Venue Requirements Checklist.