In the past two years, we’ve hosted and attended hundreds of webinars, virtual events, virtual conferences, and happy hours. Some virtual events went off without a hitch while others experienced a few bumps in the road. Regardless of what mistakes the event industry has made, we learned a lot about virtual events and have continued to rapidly grow and evolve the entire industry, together.
With all the first hand experience, education, and resource expansion, event professionals now find themselves more equipped to put on better virtual conferences than ever before. But how do you go from planning a run of the mill virtual conference to planning something more engaging, memorable, and exciting for your attendees?
In this article, we’ll dive into what makes a successful virtual conference and how to host a great one. From rethinking event content and technology to strategically aligning with critical business goals, we’ll guide you through how to pull off your best virtual conference yet.
But first, what is a virtual conference?
A virtual conference is an online gathering with multiple sessions and experiences that all focus on a main topic or idea. Multiple sessions expand on the event theme and tell a story. From speakers to networking events, a virtual conference aims to fully engage guests with a deeper look into a single point of focus.
Virtual conferences are often compared to webinars, but it’s important to note the two are very distinctly different event types.
Virtual conferences are similar to webinars in that like-minded attendees share common interests, career types, and social networks. However, a webinar is centered around one specific focus and is typically used for teaching, knowledge sharing, and professional growth. And unlike virtual conferences, webinars have limited options for audience interaction with only Q&As and polls available to connect them with presenters.
Virtual conferences aim to immerse audiences while giving them the option to decide how they want to participate in the experience.
One example of this is custom schedule tracks. With custom schedule tracks, attendees are given the option to create their own single or multi-day schedule of events. They can either select from several different lineup options or choose their own adventure with a DIY schedule.
Virtual conferences also aim to push engagement limits using a wide array of tools. This can look like polling, live Q&A, chat, an event app, community features, and 1:1 chat experiences.
The pros and cons of hosting a virtual conference
Wondering how to host a virtual conference and whether or not it’s the right type of event for your brand?
Let’s be real. While there are many pros to hosting a virtual conference, there are also some cons. Start by taking the following positives into consideration before you begin planning your virtual conference strategy:
Virtual conference pros
- Flexible hosting
- Global reach
- Wide speaker pool
- Evergreen content
- Detailed data and metrics
- Increase in event attendees
- Fewer logistics
The best part about virtual events is that attendees from around the world can participate without leaving the comfort of their homes. Not to mention that streaming sessions can be recorded and repurposed into other marketing content or on demand content for years to come, increasing engagement long after the conference ends.
And with a virtual conference platform collecting engagement data every minute, you have more insights on the audience journey right at your fingertips. This data ultimately helps you to make better business decisions and, of course, figure out how to host better virtual conferences.
Virtual conference cons
- Less opportunity for engagement compared to in-person events
- Lack of human contact/connection
- Limited sponsorship opportunities
- Increase in technical needs
- Excessive data gathering
Human connection and casual collisions are an essential part of event experiences. As much as we’ve tried to recreate human connection virtually, there really is no substitute for getting to know someone in real life. Sponsors know this too, which has the potential to make it harder to bring them on board, especially as in-person events make a return.
In addition to finding moments to connect event attendees, virtual conferences do require more technology and planning which takes time and resources to set up.
Finally, virtual conferences generate a lot of data. And while more data collection can provide better transparency and insights into whether you’ve met key goals or made meaningful impact, it’s just as important to understand how to interpret data, audit for data hygiene, and leverage data to inform decisions. Knowing which virtual conference strategies and KPIs you’re targeting ahead of time will help you get the most out of every hosted event.
5 important virtual conference key performance indicators
Virtual conferences make it easier to capture more data and insights including registrations, attendance, audience engagement, average time viewing content, and more. This is because virtual events platforms allow marketers to not only live stream events, but also connect participants and drive engaging experiences. Your virtual event platform of choice should help you track the attendee journey and give you a mountain of insightful data to achieve your marketing and sales goals.
But what data do you need, really?
As part of your virtual conference strategy, you want to consider your key performance indicators or KPIs. These performance indicators can help you hone in on where to invest time and resources and help you understand if you hit your goals. If you’ve done a virtual conference before, great! Previous events can serve as a benchmark.
However, if you are starting from scratch and need help figuring out how to host a virtual conference, don’t worry! We have a few key performance indicators you should consider tracking at your next event.
Attendee registration vs. attendance
Many attendees sign up for a virtual event to watch it later. In fact, 68% of attendees say they rewatch content from events they’d attended. This Netflix-style of viewing on demand has bled into all other virtual experiences, creating less urgency to watch live. So before you even set the date, determine if total registrations (both live and rewatch) or just live attendance is an indicator of event success.
When deciding if your conference should go the virtual route or hybrid event route, look to your audience for the answer. You know your audience best and just like a TV producer considers their viewing audience before making character decisions, you must consider your event audience before making content planning and production decisions.
To do this, send a pre-conference survey to get insights on what your audience wants so you can deliver exactly that. The same goes for post-conference satisfaction. While your virtual conference is fresh in their mind, have a post-conference survey scheduled to keep responses as timely—and as accurate—as possible.
For an audience that loves to connect with featured experts and each other, make sure you take advantage of all your virtual platform has to offer. To get the party started, create environments that can enhance the live and playback experience through activities that require guests to take action.
Chat, polling, and Q&A usually get the job done, but your strategy should really focus on setting the stage for networking to take place too. After all, conferences are also where business connections and exciting new opportunities take place. So make sure you create virtual spaces to support these conversations through engaging activities and features.
Generate leads for sponsorship
As if getting more creative with your event plan year after year wasn’t enough pressure already, virtual conferences force you to think outside the box when it comes to sponsorships, too.
Virtual booths and sponsored sessions are the most common options. But if you really want to enhance the sponsorship presence, you’ll need to include innovative moments in between sessions. This can look like interstitials, which are bite-size videos that can help your transition from one workshop segment to the next. You can even send virtual swag bags with sponsorship offerings that require attendance participation.
No matter what you choose, sponsorship activities should have a call-to-action that moves each guest towards becoming a marketing qualified lead (MQL). And so you know, just because an attendee watched the event live does not make them an MQL. Instead, you’ll need to choose KPIs that reflect what a quality MQL means for your event and go from there.
At the end of the day, it’s all about that return on investment or ROI. When all is said and done, you’ll need to prove that your virtual conference made a profit. Because you’re hosting a virtual conference instead of a physical one, you are already eliminating travel, catering, and vendor booth costs. However, you’ll likely swap those line items for important additions like audiovisual and production teams, not to mention your new virtual platform software subscription.
All of this can add up quickly. Many event planners would rather fund their virtual conference through sponsorships, it’s important to keep in mind that selling tickets is an acceptable and often expected part of the experience. Not only will ticket sales boost revenue, but they’ll also clue attendees into the value your virtual conference can provide.
As long as you deliver on all of your marketing promises, your guests will be thrilled to pay for another ticket next year too. All of this to say, don’t shy away from this aspect of your virtual conference planning. It might be the most important KPI booster you have.
8 virtual conference best practices
Ready to go live? We’ve compiled a list of our best practices to help you launch your best virtual conference yet.
1. Select your tech
To launch a great virtual event, you’ll need to assess your technology and tools to make sure you have everything needed to go live. There are many tools that can help you live stream your virtual conference, but you’ll need to think strategically about how the experience will look and feel for your audience. To help you choose the right virtual platform, try putting yourself in the mindset of your participants.
Ask yourself the following questions:
- How would you picture a best-in-class attendee journey?
- What does your event content look like?
- How will attendees interact with speakers and each other?
- How should sponsors access the event?
- How seamless is it for speakers to join their sessions?
In addition to thinking from your audience’s perspective, you also need a tool that will make the process of planning and hosting a virtual conference easier for your team.
We recommend looking for features that include:
- Attendee registration and tracking
- Event registration and brand customization tools
- Customizable email templates
- A centralized and easy-to-access virtual platform hub
- Audience engagement options (think polls, surveys, chat, Q&A, etc.)
- Browser-based production tool with custom layouts
- Media libraries or storage
- On-demand viewing
2. Consider your conference format
According to a recent Vimeo study, 70% of respondents believe a webinar should be an hour or less. If that’s how audiences feel about a webinar, a virtual conference should also be on the shorter side. Have a lot of content? Held successful, multi-day events packed with virtual sessions and programs? That’s also great. To create a virtual conference experience that holds your audience’s attention, we suggest trimming down your run time to focus on the greatest hits instead.
If you still feel strongly about hosting a virtual conference with sessions longer than an hour (and have data from your other events that prove it works for your audience) we hear you. However, you should keep in mind that audience expectations have changed. Many struggle with digital fatigue after rapidly transitioning to a higher amount of time spent online in these few past years.
Since then, many virtual conferences have even been pre-recorded as opposed to live. While pre-recorded sessions may not have been considered a mainstay in the past, it has now become a preferred and successful strategy for many event professionals. Attendees have more freedom to watch your conference when they’re feeling up to it, leading to better quality experiences and engagement for both parties.
In short, what worked a year or two before may not work this year when it comes to session length.
3. Choose your conference content
We’ve recently seen an increase in pre-recorded videos made exclusively for virtual conferences. And with good reason — they add a nice touch to your scheduled programming, offer plenty of opportunities for rewatching after the conference is over, and they may even offer more opportunities for creative expression than live videos do.
The catch is video content for conferences takes time and a production budget to create. However, we unequivocally believe video is the way to go when it comes to choosing your conference content. Adding a variety of ways to display event content with graphics, slide shows, videos, multiple live speakers, and interstitial content can help create dynamic and engaging experience rather than a single static image or slideshow presentation.
And although tools such as traditional slides are great for informative sessions, at the very least we know that video holds attention spans longer given their run time. They also offer a way to communicate more in-depth information than any single PDF can offer on its own. Not to mention the fact that video conference content can provide a showcase of your exciting speakers, best partners, and favorite clients in a way that an infographic simply cannot.
If you’re still not sure, look at your audience’s behavior and use that information to choose the conference content that is best for them.
4. Upgrade interaction (for attendees & sponsors)
So you have a chat box. Great! Attendees can submit questions via Q&A. Wonderful! But do the attendees connect with each other? Are they interacting with sponsors? Or even better, are attendees at home part of the virtual conference?
To really immerse your audience and increase engagement, make it a point to bring willing participants on screen. Give them an opportunity to contribute to your event just as they would for an in-person Q&A session. This enhances the basic chat experience and promotes real networking capabilities.
An easy way to improve engagement better, especially for sponsors, is to create a few digital breakout spaces for attendees to access at their leisure during the event. Not only do they help individuals connect one-on-one, but breakout spaces can also be sponsored, run, or attended by your partners, which helps them increase their visibility as well.
In a nutshell, do your best to create open spaces and let attendees choose how to take part.
5. Seek quality speakers
Did you know that 64% of participants agree that seeing high-quality featured conference speakers encourages them to sign up for events? But what is a quality speaker, really?
With an up-close and personal view of speakers in a virtual conference setting, charisma and confidence are key to keeping up that good ol’ engagement. You can have a speaker from a great company with a great title, but if they can’t deliver an electrifying session, you’ll lose your audience.
In many cases, event professionals work with speakers on their virtual content. That includes working closely by answering questions in a timely manner, making revision requests, providing a great speaker experience in addition to getting all speakers ready for the main event.
When you go virtual, the hope is that your conference will create a uniform experience across all speakers no matter how diverse their subject matter. Much like watching back-to-back news segments or a movie with scene after scene, virtual conferences must bring each speaker’s content together into one cohesive storyline. And instead of being a lecture hall’s length away from the speaker on stage, the story is now front and center on a computer screen. That means every little detail is on display. Your team is responsible for shaping each minute element, moment by moment, so that it comes together beautifully.
All that to say, if you want to build the lineup of your audience’s dreams, you’ll need the right tool to streamline the process. That includes sending offers, reviewing presentations, organizing the entire group, and everything in between. This is yet another reason why you need to secure a virtual platform tool that offers streamlined workflows and task automation. That way, you and your team can focus on centralizing speaker communications, making sure your guests and their materials are in the best form, and provide the best content experience possible within your virtual conferences.
6. Invest in event support
This may come as a shock to some, but virtual conferences are not just a plug-and-play situation. In many cases, they require a production team to support remote speakers, attendee bandwidth, and run as a television show would. How do you know if you’ll need a production team? Ask yourself:
- Do I plan to include video as part of or in between sessions?
- Do I have remote speakers that are sharing a presentation?
- Do I plan to mix live and pre-recorded content?
- Do I plan to play music and/or include graphics of any kind on screen?
- Do I need microphones? More than one camera? A teleprompter?
- Do I need someone on standby to troubleshoot streaming?
If you answered yes to these basic virtual questions, then we strongly suggest you invest in a production team to help you set up, troubleshoot, rehearse, and back up every aspect of your event technology.
7. Follow up for feedback
The event ended and the audience seemed to enjoy it. Now what?
If you want to make an even better virtual conference next time (and if you’re reading this, we know you do) it’s time to proactively solicit feedback from all participants. The best way to make this exercise as useful as possible is to ask better questions in your post-event survey.
To ask better questions, focus on getting to know about the attendees, vendors, and sponsors overall experience and perspectives of the event. To make feedback actionable, we suggest moving away from feelings-based questions (ex. “Did you enjoy the event?”) and leaning into practical, nitty-gritty details about how the process was for them.
For example, if your goal is to get more sign-ups or event registrations, consider asking questions related to their registration experience. Was the overall email communication to access the virtual platform easy to follow? These questions may seem a bit technical, but that can help you measure the success of your virtual tools.
We also encourage event planners to ask what needs improvement. As seasoned event professionals, we may naturally resist changing aspects of programs for our own reasons. But with virtual conferences and today’s unique attendee profiles, acting on feedback is essential. Leverage feedback as an opportunity to be open to change, access new opportunities for growth, and kindly follow advice offered by event participants to make it even better next year.
8. Repurpose content with on-demand viewing
Over half of all virtual attendees (68%) share that they rewatch content from events they’ve registered for in the past. That’s what is so great about a virtual conference—it lives on. Unlike in-person events, where the experience is one and done, content from your virtual conference can be rewatched and repurposed for years to come.
To make your on-demand experience better, consider taking your virtual content to supplement or launch marketing campaigns. This includes gated ebooks, white papers, customer case studies and highlights, tips and tricks, LinkedIn video clips to quotes for next year’s event landing page, and much more.
Not sure what’s worth resharing? Take a look at your virtual event data and feedback from attendees. When assessed side by side, these two invaluable sources of information will paint a clear picture of what worked, what didn’t, and what your audiences truly loved.
Who knows, you may even be inspired to create a whole new conference based on these themes alone!
Originally published June 2, 2022 and updated August 23, 2022.