How to organise a virtual event

A virtual event is not the same as a live event. In the same way that going to the cinema is not the same as going bowling. A virtual event is a different experience (not inferior! Just different!) and how you plan should reflect that.

 

This guide will help you plan effective and successful virtual events. Please do contact us at any time at hello@legacy-events.com for a free consultation, if you need any help in planning your virtual event.

Getting Ready

Do you even need an event?

As blogger and international development specialist, Duncan Green, confesses:

With the occasional exception, my mood in conferences usually swings between boredom, despair and rage. The turgid/self-aggrandizing keynotes and coma-inducing panels, followed by people (usually men) asking ‘questions’ that are really comments, usually not on topic. The chairs who abdicate responsibility and let all the speakers over-run, so that the only genuinely productive bit of the day (networking at coffee breaks and lunch) gets squeezed. I end up dozing off, or furiously scribbling abuse in my notebook as a form of therapy, and hoping my neighbours can’t see what I’m writing. I probably look a bit unhinged…..

This matters both because of the lost opportunity that badly run events represent, and because they cost money and time.

Setting goals

When you’re considering hosting a virtual event, what are you trying to achieve? Here are a few suggestions:

  • Grow awareness for your business. There are most likely competitors and other companies targeting the same target audience as you. Consider partnering with those other companies, or clearly defining your x-factor.
  • Generate leads and acquire new customers
  • Create a revenue stream from sponsorships.
  • Cultivate relationships with influencers, and current customers.
  • Spread your message
  • Establish yourself as an authority and thought leader in your industry

Target Audience

These are all important aspects to consider before you begin to reach out to event speakers. The better you know your audience, the easier it is to understand the kinds of topics and speakers that they are interested in. If you have a clear range of how many people you expect to register, that will help sell your event to potential speakers, as it will provide them with the expected reach. Facebook ads are often one of the most common ways to promote a virtual conference and reach your specific audience.

In order for your event to be successful, you need attendees, but more importantly, you need attendees that are interested in your event, so make sure you take the time to really narrow in on them.

Speakers

The great thing about hosting a virtual conference is that speakers can participate from anywhere.

Unsurprisingly, the crux of a successful event hinges on attracting the right speakers for your event that your target audience will be excited about. The great thing about hosting a virtual conference is that speakers can participate from anywhere, which eliminates any huge time or travel commitments. For really busy and highly sought after speakers, this increases the chances that they will say ‘yes’.

 

Keep in mind that this is a powerful partnership, as you can provide them with an amazing platform to reach audiences, and they will provide credibility for your brand. It’s also beneficial to seek out experts within your company. When reaching out to speakers, explain the purpose of the event, the benefits of aligning with your virtual conference, anything that you require from them, such as potential topics. It’s also important to create a system where you can follow up with them, and once you’ve agreed, a system where you keep in contact with them. Since everything is typically organized online, it’s important to have systems in place to keep you and your speakers in the loop and on track. This also helps and reminds your presenters to promote the event.

Consider scheduling a couple of calls with speakers in the prior weeks leading up to the event to ensure you’ve provided them with everything they need to be prepared. Talk through the expected points the speaker plans to discuss during the session and provide feedback to ensure each session is engaging, smooth, and successful. This can be achieved in a number of ways, choosing willing attendees to provide feedback during a live session, or collaborating with presenters to deliver part of the session, either pre-recorded or live. The basis of the call is to ensure the material and presentation lines up with the expectations initially set out. The content call ensures the presenters have actively thought about their material, how it is being delivered, and doing so in an engaging and valuable manner. It’s not meant to be a completed presentation at this time, but rather an overview of what the presentation will look like. This call is the perfect opportunity to provide feedback and time to help fill gaps, or revise accordingly based on the ideas you generate and the feedback you provide.

After the call has been completed and the presenter has some actionable feedback to improve or tailor the presentation, schedule a practice presentation. This is great to do about a week or two prior to the scheduled session and once they’ve had time to apply the feedback. This provides both the host and presenters with an opportunity to run through their session, or as much as they deem necessary, get final feedback, and ensure everyone is comfortable with the online platform used during the virtual conference.

Questions to think about

  1. What is this conference about? 

 

  1. Who is the intended audience?

 

  1. What do you hope to accomplish? What do you hope participants get out of the conference?

 

  1. Who will be on your planning committee? Does this group have the expertise, network, and time to get everything done or should more people be added to the committee?

 

  1. Is there anyone else who should be on the planning committee in order to increase diversity or representation?  Think especially about if you have anyone with expertise or experience with accessibility and inclusion. 

 

  1. What is your timeline? When would be a good date for your target audience to attend? (think about events and deadlines in your discipline like major conferences). What days of the week work best? What time of day works best? How will that work for people in different time zones? 

 

  1. Is your timeline reasonable? Can you accomplish all the steps required in the time proposed?

 

  1. Will you have regular meetings of the organizing committee? How often?

 

  1. Where will these meetings be held? What technology will be used? Who will schedule them? (later in the “technology” section you will need to think about where you will keep notes)

What is the name of your conference?

  1. What is your conference hashtag?
Inside the exhibition tents
SELCE Solar Roller

Prepare your attendees

To create the best possible virtual event, you need your attendees to let go of their expectations from a live event, to get as much as possible out of the experience you craft.

Help them let go by preparing them. To be engaged, attendees have to be able to pay attention. And to be able to pay attention to the ideas and knowledge being shared and the experience of the virtual event, they have to be clear on what’s going to happen, when, and how.

Make sure your attendees know what software is needed and have them download it before the virtual event starts. Give them a way to verify their set-up in advance. This might be a link to a test Web page provided by the platform you’re using.

You could also hold live sessions in the days before the fevent for attendees to join and confirm their set-up was working as desired. Those live tech check sessions also offer a chance to make some more personal connections with attendees.

Will attendees need a microphone, or will they only participate through text chat? Will they use computer audio to hear session leaders, will they call in by phone to hear audio, or do they have a choice? Make sure they’re clear on the experience and their options and that they understand the implications for their set-up.

Logistics include being clear on what’s happening when. You might simply refer learners to the schedule for the virtual conference, or you might up your game and put together a conference planner, as we did for LTD 2020, that spells out decision points (e.g., concurrent session choices) and mixes in some tips and advice for getting the most out of the sessions (e.g., thinking of questions in advance and discussing sessions with colleagues after).

SELCE Solar Roller

Prepare your team

Virtual events are a team sport. If you have breakout rooms, you need a room administrator in each room. You need a host/emcee to welcome everyone, and you need a host/administrator to “personably” manage the technical aspects of the experience for the attendees (this is a combination of customer support and technical administration). And have an extra room administrator in case one of the primary folks lose internet, ditto if you have notetakers in the rooms – have a few extra people!

Create a checklist for room admins (welcome participants, intro yourself, hit Record, take roll off screen, know where to upload screen shots and recordings for post-event), as well as a back channel like Slack, WhatsApp, or another instant messaging tool that isn’t in the virtual event platform’s chat, just to avoid the accidental “message to everyone” mistake.

  • Local” Arrangements: The “venue” of a virtual conference is a platform, or a set of platforms, where social interaction will take place. Accordingly, the “local arrangements” team will now need to include people with specialized technical skills, including audio-visual and streaming expertise, who will be able to choose and manage the platform(s) where interactions will take place. The local arrangements team will also serve as, or interact with, the hosts of conference sessions. 
  • Hosts are responsible for starting and managing the live sessions. Although they are the owners of the sessions, they are typically invisible except to those participating in those sessions during the “green room” period of the sessions (a period before the sessions start). They are the ones saying “3, 2, 1… live” and are the ones with super-powers. Hosts may be volunteers who are part of the local arrangements team or they may be contracted professionals. More on this in the section on On-Site A/V support.
  • Session Chairs: These are the moderators who make sessions of the conference work. Although they can be drawn from the same set of people who would serve as session chairs in physical conferences (e.g., Program Committee members), they require additional advice and training to make sessions successful. Their sessions may also be quite different from the ones we are used to in academic physical conferences, as they may involve bringing in pre-recorded videos and groups of speakers, instead of traditional talks.
    • Session chairs need to join sessions at least 15 minutes before they start, make sure all presenters are there and find them quickly if they aren’t, introduce the session properly (“This is session so and so of conference X”), gather questions from the audience in chat channels, manage the flow of events, and keep track of time. In cases when live presenters go unreasonably longer than their allotted time, session chairs can (and sometimes must) intervene, including by muting the speakers, as there may be strict time limits for the use of the platform or related to time zones. 
    • In very small events, the roles of session chair and host may be played by the same person, but for conferences even as large as 100 participants, this is not a good idea, as those roles require completely different skills.
  • Volunteers: A virtual conference needs at least as many volunteers as a physical conference. Volunteers need to be present in each virtual meeting space, monitor the chat channels, greet participants, staff reception areas, help users test their audio, help train session chairs and speakers, help session chairs gather questions, and interface with the rest of the organizing team when problems arise. They should be easily identifiable through visual cues, naming conventions, etc. Roughly, there should be one volunteer per meeting room or chat channel, plus a few in a “landing” or reception space for newcomers, if the setup includes such a thing. Just as in a physical conference, volunteers need to be trained in advance and someone needs to oversee their activities during the conference.

Entertainment and Social Interaction: Some physical conferences include in their organizing committees a group of volunteers whose task is to set up an entertainment program that may include live music, outings, etc. This task is even more important in virtual conferences. Someone in the organization should be in charge of adding things for participants to do online together. See Fostering Social Interactions below.

 It is strongly advised that organizers set up training sessions ahead of time for speakers and session chairs, so that they can learn how to function in the platform(s) where the conference is taking place and how to interact with people in other roles and with the audience. These training sessions can be as short as 15 minutes. Training speakers and session chairs is a task that can engage many student volunteers.

 

Another issue that organizers should keep in mind is that virtual conferences are even less forgiving than physical ones if something is not working as planned, such as a microphone not working, audio feedback, or the location of a workshop changing. Testing and rehearsing ahead of time mitigates these problems.

SELCE Solar Roller
SELCE Solar Roller
Pilau Pot

Prepare your speakers

Your presenters need to be trained on the controls of the virtual event platform, even if it’s as easy to use as Zoom or Microsoft Teams. Do not let a presenter present if they have not met with you to get trained. If they can’t join your mandatory pre-con, ensure you send them a recording of it or have them meet with you individually. The number of virtual events I’ve joined recently where the presenter had to ask someone to help with something basic was painful!

Require speakers to join your pre-conference meeting. Your presenters need to be trained on the controls of the virtual event platform, even if it’s as easy to use as Zoom or Microsoft Teams. Do not let a presenter present if they have not met with you to get trained. If they can’t join your mandatory pre-con, ensure you send them a recording of it or have them meet with you individually. The number of virtual events I’ve joined recently where the presenter had to ask someone to help with something basic was painful!

Pilau Pot

Prepare your sponsors

If sponsors are part of your virtual event, work with them to set appropriate expectations and be clear on what you need from them and when. Getting assets for their virtual exhibits and communicating about their demos requires significant time and project management on your part so assign time for this.

Sponsors may not be prepared to capitalise on virtual conferences, and your virtual conference may be their introduction to the format. They may appreciate guidance on structuring a presentation for an online audience that includes a relevant call to action (versus a generic call to visit their main Web site). Be prepared to put in time working with sponsors to help them get a good return on investment.

On The Day

The Welcome

The welcoming moments into your experience are just as vital to the online experience as they are at your in-person event. Have some background music, have trivia wallpaper going, have someone welcome people, whether it’s in chat or via voice-over as people join to let them know they have been noticed and you’re glad they’re here.

Create a check-in and check-out process,just like you would face to face. Virtually, this could be a simple question such as “What’s the good news?” to check-in, and “What’s one idea you can use tomorrow?” to check out.

Encourage attendees to interact

When weighing the benefits of virtual conference vs in-person conference, virtual conferences run the risk of lacking the same opportunity for networking and interaction as face-to-face events. On the contrary, if you put in the right effort, and take advantage of the unique opportunity online interacting offers, a lively online conversation is bound to happen.

Ensuring the platform you utilize has a chat feature, as well as a Q&A portion of the talk, is an exceptional way to get the conversation flowing. While some attendees may find it nerve-wracking to speak up, most are comfortable using chat as a tool. Encourage conversation with well-thought relevant and provocative questions during sessions and remind attendees that participation is encouraged. Periodically responding to the chat will help keep the conversation going, and ensure it is relevant.

Take it a step further by providing a place for attendees to discuss and interact between sessions. This can be achieved in several ways, including a private FB or Linked-In group that is only open to attendees. This can also be integrated into your website with a discussion board plugin. A great way to direct attendees to discussions and forums is with a newsletter that highlights active discussions on the forum and links directly to them.

  1. Keep participants active with something to do every few minutes. In a training environment, it follows a similar pattern: introduce a concept or a tool, give an activity, discuss learning & application. Even asking for a simple “thumbs up” helps to break a potential pattern of passive listening. Here are a few virtual and visual energizers you can try.

Encourage conversation with well-thought relevant and provocative questions during sessions.

Vary the presentation formats

Just like onsite events, people attend events to learn and network. Putting people in a keynote session for 8 hours doesn’t work in a ballroom, and it sure as heck won’t work in a virtual environment. Make sure some of your sessions are small enough to provide for actual interaction among participants. Fewer than 50 participants is ideal for interaction on tools like Zoom.

Include slides, conversation, and chat. A meeting that is all “Brady Bunch” view is great for conversation, but not for delivering actual content. Participants are looking for someplace for their eyes to go. An event that is all presentation, on the other hand, provides no eye contact or ability to feel the humanity through the screen. Do both.

One of the fastest ways to put off attendees is to have a string of pre-recorded webinars. The live aspect of an in-person conference should still be present in your virtual conference. If you want to make sure your virtual conference checklist is complete, this is important.

There are tons of platforms that can incorporate pre-recorded videos with live videos as part of your virtual conference. Luckily as the demand of virtual conferences has increased, this has become far easier, and it’s extremely beneficial. Even the smallest portion of live videos will help make your virtual conference feel personal and intimate. As a result, it increases the chances of attendee engagement. Consider streaming a live video at the beginning of all sessions to introduce speakers. Once you’ve introduced the speakers, interacted with attendees and encouraged the conversation, transition to the speaker’s actual presentation. This reminds attendees that the event is being hosted by real people, but more importantly, people who value and want to provide value with real teaching, discussion, and learning.

Provide interactivity

Polls, annotating, whiteboarding, Muraling, or even an old-fashioned thumbs up to the camera; make sure you are pausing to involve your participants and get feedback along the way.

Entertain and offer icebreakers

Now more than ever, we are stuck at our computers staring at our screens without a break. Anything to get us moving and laughing. Offer a stretch break with a yoga instructor for 5 minutes before a break. Bring in a magician for virtual happy hour. Do an in-home scavenger hunt and ask participants to grab their favorite kitchen utensil, or grab the nearest human and put them on screen! If you’re doing polls or quizzes, throw in some old-school Jeopardy music to jazz up the dull moments while people are answering. It’s the little touches that make people smile and talk about the experience.

Entertain and offer icebreakers

Now more than ever, we are stuck at our computers staring at our screens without a break. Anything to get us moving and laughing. Offer a stretch break with a yoga instructor for 5 minutes before a break. Bring in a magician for virtual happy hour. Do an in-home scavenger hunt and ask participants to grab their favorite kitchen utensil, or grab the nearest human and put them on screen! If you’re doing polls or quizzes, throw in some old-school Jeopardy music to jazz up the dull moments while people are answering. It’s the little touches that make people smile and talk about the experience.

Questions to think about

  1. Who will introduce the conference?

 

  1. Who will close the conference?

 

  1. Who will introduce sessions and speakers?

 

  1. How will people ask questions? (tip: we had organizers monitoring the chat for questions and collecting them and then giving them to the speakers at the end of each session instead of after each talk. We also put them into the shared note-taking document so if there wasn’t time to address them during the session the speaker or others could answer them there)

 

  1. If you are going to be using Twitter, will someone be monitoring the hashtag for questions and help build a conversation?
Cycle racks
SELCE Solar Roller

Discussion Forums

We’ve used an online community with discussion boards to supplement and extend the session content and interaction with session leaders and other participants. We’ve used WordPress and a variety of plug-ins to create our online community, but you could use a Facebook or LinkedIn group or perhaps leverage existing discussion functionality in your learning management system, association management system, or customer relationship management software.

We also post recordings in the community, which allows the sessions to serve as social learning objects to spark discussion among attendees and the sharing of ideas beyond the confines of the session leaders’ allotted start and end times.

SELCE Solar Roller

Prepare your team

Virtual events are a team sport. If you have breakout rooms, you need a room administrator in each room. You need a host/emcee to welcome everyone, and you need a host/administrator to “personably” manage the technical aspects of the experience for the attendees (this is a combination of customer support and technical administration). And have an extra room administrator in case one of the primary folks lose internet, ditto if you have notetakers in the rooms – have a few extra people!

Create a checklist for room admins (welcome participants, intro yourself, hit Record, take roll off screen, know where to upload screen shots and recordings for post-event), as well as a back channel like Slack, WhatsApp, or another instant messaging tool that isn’t in the virtual event platform’s chat, just to avoid the accidental “message to everyone” mistake.

SELCE Solar Roller

Questions to think about

What needs to be done after the conference wraps up? Reflect on things that will help increase the impact of the conference (having recordings available, having stable URLs and sites available) and that will help with planning future conferences (assessment). 

 

  1. Will you be doing any form of assessment after the conference? 

 

  1. Will you archive materials to a stable location for long term access? (e.g. Open Science Framework, an institutional repository)

 

  1. Will you send thank you emails to speakers?

 

  1. Will you send follow-up emails to attendees with surveys/feedback, links to resources, etc. 

 

  1. Will you need to do any post-production to the recorded videos before posting them?

 

  1. Will you be meeting with the organizing committee again to close the loop on the conference?

Sustainable event management

Legacy - Sustainable Event Management. We help companies run virtual and in-person events that are sustainable.

Cart