May 25, 2020
Since virtual conferences are new for most associations, attendees are forgiving—but only to a point. The higher the registration fee, the higher the expectations. But even free or low-priced events have a cost—the attendee’s time. No matter the price, attendees expect to acquire knowledge they can apply at work.
At an in-person conference, attendees are more willing to overlook mediocre content because they’re enjoying the people aspect of the event—all the opportunities to connect with each other in the hallways, on the expo floor, and at session tables, meals, and receptions.
During a virtual conference, without the distraction of people, an attendee’s attention is focused on the content. If you provide an effective virtual learning experience, participants will return for future virtual events and online learning programs.
You don’t have to replicate your in-person conference schedule. People don’t want to spend all day in front of a screen. The virtual format gives you the freedom to redesign your event.
Many associations are reducing the number of live sessions per day or converting a portion of them into on-demand sessions. They’re also breaking their program up into chunks. For example, you could schedule your conference over several afternoons or several weeks.
Provide recordings of sessions to attendees so they can catch up later on any they missed. If CE credits are a concern, make sure credentialing boards will accept credits from recorded sessions. If not, see whether proof of attendee completion will pass muster.
The most effective educational program allows an attendee to:
However, most sessions at in-person conferences are lectures or panels that save five minutes at the end for Q&A—that’s their idea of attendee engagement.
It’s easy for a bored attendee sitting in a hotel meeting room to tune out. It’s even easier for a virtual attendee. Neither of them receives the value promised by the association.
Think like a news channel. Staring for too long at one talking head is boring and exhausting. Speakers must build variety into their presentations.
Chunk information. Attendees can only digest so much before their brain is overloaded with unprocessed information. Take breaks every ten minutes so they have time to reflect, put new information in context, and make learning sticky.
Recall and apply. In the best sessions, the speaker delivers information, then the attendees go into groups to discuss and apply the information.
Encourage interaction. Besides group discussions, use polls, Q&A, and any other interaction tools your platform provides.
Effective virtual learning experiences start in the design phase. For most in-person conferences, presenters are trusted to do the right thing. The problem is they’re not adult learning experts and may not know how to design an effective learning experience. They end up relying on the traditional PowerPoint lecture session with Q&A at the end.
But, at a virtual conference, content is front and center. The typical lecture format is not going to cut it. Your team—staff, trained volunteers, instructional designers and/or adult learning experts—must review presentation outlines ahead of time so you can give feedback to speakers on improving them. For example, you may tell them to break up their talk with polls, group exercises, and/or additional media.
In your request for session proposals, describe the principles of adult learning they need to keep in mind while designing their session. Explain why you’re asking them to comply with these requirements.
Jeff Cobb and Celisa Steele at Tagoras/Leading Learning explain how they prepare speakers for their virtual conference:
“Once we’ve identified session leaders, we hold content calls with them. In those calls, we share our vision for the virtual conference, go over who the attendees will be, and cover logistics, including what tools (e.g., chat and polls) will be available to them, and then we have them share what they’re planning so we can offer feedback. We also hold dry runs and tech checks with all session leaders. It amounts to a lot of up-front investment, but this process helps make the live sessions go as smoothly as possible.”
The main thing virtual conference attendees miss about in-person events is the networking. They don’t just want content—they could watch recorded sessions if that were the case. They want chances to meet and talk with other attendees—people they know and people they don’t know.
Table or group exercises are an essential part of conference sessions because learning is enhanced by social interaction. While getting to know other people, attendees can:
Use your virtual conference platform’s breakout or group discussion tools to encourage these types of activities.
At the end of each session, along with sponsored messages, post a reflection reminder. Encourage attendees to take a few moments, while new information is fresh, to think about the most valuable insights and next steps for applying what they’ve learned.
Schedule plenty of breaks so attendees can leave the event temporarily to take care of business at work or home. Encourage them to stay or return as soon as possible for structured networking and activity breaks. For example, you could promote virtual areas or rooms where attendees can discuss hot topics or take a streaming yoga or wellness class.
Associations that have held virtual conferences are reporting high attendance and high evaluation ratings. These popular events are expanding the reach of their associations to members and industry professionals who normally don’t attend in-person events. So far, the consensus is: virtual conferences are here to stay as a profitable supplement to in-person events whenever and however they come back.
When designing your virtual conference, take a look at The Echo, our virtual event solution for learning, networking, and exhibiting.