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How to Transform Your In-Person Conference into a Virtual Event

By April 7, 2020 April 15th, 2020 No Comments

Retool Your Existing Technology to Take Your Event Online

COVID-19 has disrupted the world in ways we couldn’t have anticipated, and as the last few weeks have proved, what we know today could be different from what we know tomorrow. Dozens of industries have been interrupted, including the business conference and event industry.

No events can safely take place for months. If COVID-19 comes and goes in waves over the next year or two – as some experts hypothesize — we may not see some conferences reemerge until almost 2022.

In the meantime, the event industry must innovate to stay alive. And organizations reliant on conferences must adapt as well.

As a result, we’re seeing many organizations contemplating taking their events into the digital space. And while there are many platforms making delivery and engagement possible, there remains a challenge not immediately apparent – adjusting organizational workflows and their underlying technology to manage virtual events in the place of in-person ones.

Retooling Your Processes for a Virtual Event Solution

Transforming an in-person conference into a virtual event can certainly be overwhelming. Consider all of the details and logistics related to planning a typical conference – registration workflows, meal orders, presentation scheduling, AV tech support, and the list goes on. A virtual conference turns these details on their head, and many can’t rely on previous experience to navigate it.

Fortunately, you don’t have to start completely over. You can adjust many of your workflows to fit the needs of a digital conference. Even better, you probably don’t need to make significant technology changes to support this shift to online event management. In many cases, you can make minor updates to your existing systems or integrate with existing products on the market that can do most of the heavy lifting for you. Of course, many organizations will also try to use tons of ad hoc spreadsheets to help them get through these next few months.

We’re helping some of our clients make these organizational tools more efficient to make their lives easier. Here are a few examples:

Session Scheduling

One great thing about a virtual event is the lack of defined physical space – event coordinators don’t need to stress about room scheduling, filling rooms appropriately, attendee flow between sessions, etc. Instead, they must consider these details online. What times make the most sense for the more popular sessions? How can conference leaders encourage attendees to check out less popular sessions? How much downtime do attendees really need between sessions when in the comfort of their own homes? Systems with business logic for room capacity and physical setup can be adjusted to accommodate the different constraints of online events.

Virtual Networking

And how does networking fit into this? Events are a major part of B2B organizations’ marketing strategy. Conferences are where relationships are built and strengthened, where deals are made. How can you incorporate an element of this into your digital event?

We’re currently working with a client who hosts – and heavily relies on – an annual event that brings their 250 members and 100 vendors together. They’ve moved this conference online and still want to include a component that’s proved to be crucial for them over the years – pre-scheduled face-to-face meetings. Before the conference, members and vendors each prioritize who they want to meet, and a system we built for them creates a schedule for each attendee. In the past, the algorithm had to account for a limited number of available time slots. This year, the individual members and vendors need to arrange a time and confirm that their meeting took place.

Reconceptualizing and retooling the systems for this took less than two weeks, and it allows them to retain a centerpiece of their conference. We’d encourage other online conferences to incorporate some networking activities into their events, perhaps as face-to-face meetings like this, or even as virtual “birds of a feather” lunch tables.

Registration

Out the door are the typical registration details – hotel rooms, swag bags, meal preferences – but in their place are other challenges to consider. If multiple sessions are occurring concurrently, attendees must sign up in advance to receive the correct streaming links. Technology enhancements must be prepared for more popular sessions, so getting accurate attendance numbers for each is crucial.

Conference Evaluations

While many post-conference surveys have shifted online or to conference apps, many event coordinators still rely on feedback via paper, particularly for sessions, in which immediate feedback is crucial. For this, you can build a simple and secure survey system and deliver them to each attendee right after each session via email or possibly even somehow through the session delivery system itself.

Sponsorships

As a marketing professional, I’ve been especially curious as to how sponsors are being supported in virtual events. There’s still a big demand for sponsors, but most sign up for exposure that is difficult to translate to an online platform.

Don’t be afraid to get creative with exposure for sponsors. For example, you could ask your sponsors to record a fun 30-second video to show before or during each session. The “screensaver” between sessions could show sponsor logos. Or, consider a virtual exhibit hall, like Salesforce created for its World Tour Sydney event.

Other Virtual Event Tactics & Tips

  1. Invest in good video tools and software. Don’t subject attendees to fuzzy videos that freeze or time wasted at the beginning of every session due to tech issues.
  2. Practice, practice, practice. Eliminate bumps in the road by identifying and addressing issues well beforehand and not just as hosts. Do a dress rehearsal or two with your remote presenters as well.
  3. Prepare your attendees for what to expect. Be honest during your first few events. Communicate that you’re not sure what to expect but will do the best you can. Then take feedback seriously to make your next event better.
  4. Record everything to leverage for future marketing use. This also benefits attendees with kids at home who will want to watch the panels/sessions on-demand, when they can give it their full attention. Recordings support not only your speakers but also your sponsors, who can reuse materials for their sponsored sessions as well.
  5. Cultivate a discussion online to create a sense of community. We’ve seen suggestions of hashtags on Twitter, but if possible, create an online forum – Salesforce Community Cloud is excellent for this — that can allow for continued access. This not only helps create a lasting sense of community but also keeps your organization relevant long after the conference ends.

Time to Get Started

If you have an event planned for this summer, you’re most likely facing the very real prospect of it being canceled. Going digital is a great alternative and one most of your stakeholders will expect at this point. There are many excellent resources out there for delivering content and communicating with attendees. However, if you’re looking for assistance in adjusting your workflows and internal databases and applications, we may be able to help. To speak with one of our consultants about your virtual event, please contact our team.

Allison Arthur

Allison Arthur

Allison is Soliant's Director of Marketing and lives in Charlotte, NC.

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