With face-to-face events postponed indefinitely, companies are pivoting to virtual conferences. One industry survey in early April found that 7 in 10 event professionals had already moved their events partially or fully online in response to COVID-19—and circumstances aren’t going to change anytime soon.
Such a quick shift unveiled something many event managers have already discovered: you can’t just move an offline event online. It isn’t enough to have Zoom and a headset; running a great virtual event takes a completely different approach. Virtualizing Upwork’s own Work Without Limits summit—an annual event for business leaders—meant rethinking the experience from the ground up.
What does it take to make an online conference work? We interviewed four online event experts to share their insights and strategies for going virtual in this new reality.
The difference between webinars and virtual conferences
Webinars are pretty common, typically short and focused on one specific topic. While some platforms now enable breakout rooms and conversations between speakers and attendees, webinars are often a one-way flow of information with limited opportunities to interact.
Virtual conferences and summits have been less common, until now. Larger and focused around a theme, conferences typically include a program of speakers, presentations, and activities.
Going online offers a lot of benefits to conference organizers, who can:
- Scale and grow attendance by reaching a global audience
- Encourage more interaction through measurable attendee engagement
- Create unique opportunities to learn and interact
- Get better access to speakers and entertainment
- Plan an event that’s more budget-friendly and flexible for participants
There are also drawbacks. Conference-goers expect an event that’s informative and sparks a lot of new relationships through networking. That’s hard to duplicate online.
But that hasn’t stopped anyone from trying. And while there are no easy or clear-cut answers, there are countless experts using their experience and enthusiasm to test and refine potential solutions. Let’s start by looking at how you can put your plans in motion.
How to start organizing your virtual event
Keith Alper, founder and CEO of virtual experience company Geniecast, starts every new event by getting crystal clear on its purpose: “Why are you having the event or meeting and what is your desired outcome?”
Your answers will then guide your content, speakers, activities, timeline, and structure. For example:
- If it’s a leadership and development event, the program will typically be driven by content—often with outside speakers who are subject matter experts.
- If it’s an update event, it’s likely to be filled with insiders and comprehension will be key, with regular check-ins to make sure the right points are getting through.
- If it’s a relationship-building event, the focus will be on interactivity and how the audience relates to each other, which might benefit from a host to keep the conversation flowing.
Then think about the experience you want people to walk away with—and recognize that the logistics aren’t going to be as easy as you might think. Alper highlighted two mistakes that many organizers make:
- They don’t change their strategy when the format changes
- They lose focus on their desired outcome
As you look ahead, Alper recommends leaning into the strengths of going virtual and getting creative:
- Do a virtual meet-and-greet for VIPs
- Take people behind the scenes to a location they wouldn’t normally see
- Plan hosted breakouts—baked-in opportunities for attendees to share information and make connections
- Create a time and place for attendees to interact, such as trivia and virtual coffee breaks
“An online event can get you closer to the content and the speaker,” Alper said. “As a guest, it gives you more access and can be more engaging because you’re no longer one person sitting in a room of a thousand: you might be able to ask a question where the speaker can see or hear you.”
Don’t be “just another video call” for your attendees
For Tim Sanders, VP of customer insights at Upwork and host of this year’s Work Without Limits summit, an in-person conference creates a bubble. “When I go to a live event, it’s a break from my work stream. I leave my office, I travel (usually), I end up in a new city, and the only thing going on for me is that event.”
And then there’s the theatre of it all—the experience that keeps you in a seat for hours at a time. Sanders likened it to a good movie: The suspension of belief that gets you to lean in without criticizing the plot as it’s laid out before you.
This is where an online event can fall short. “They aren’t three-days long, most last maybe a couple hours,” Sanders said. “And when a person attends your virtual event—unless you produce it right—it’s another Zoom call. It’s literally just another Zoom call in a day of Zoom calls.”
What can you do to help your event stand out?
That’s the question event managers around the world are trying to figure out. Drawing on rich experience as an event organizer and speaker at more than 750 events around the world, Sanders distilled the unique aspects down to three main points:
- The format and structure of the event
- The production process
- Networking opportunities
Rethink a virtual event’s pacing and experience
When you host a virtual conference, one of the biggest challenges is getting people to show up. A close second? You’re always one click away from losing them.
When asked to name companies that are doing it right, Cisco Live—an event reshaped by the 2008 recession—Microsoft, and SAP are top of mind. One perspective from Bob Bejan, who runs global events for Microsoft, came up repeatedly:
“Whereas in-person events are more theatrical in nature, virtual events require a cinematic approach. An on-site conference does not translate to a chatroom,” Bejan wrote in Fast Company.
“When producing virtual events, I like to think in ‘episodes.’ Audiences aren’t captivated by an hourlong stream of a single camera pointed at a person on a stage. Instead, plan that hour in segments. Use multiple cameras and frames to change angles. You can create a dynamic experience for a ‘fireside chat,’ even if your hosts are sitting six feet apart.”
Episodes, segments, and a cinematic approach. Done well, the results can be impactful. If it goes sideways, however, it can become what John Chen, founder of team-building expert Geoteaming, playfully referred to as a “dumpster fire.”
A veteran event planner who’s literally writing the book on engaging virtual meetings, Chen said you have to change the pace: "When’s the last time you spent eight hours online and had a blast?"
A friend of Chen’s attended an all-day meeting that the organizer had tried to move online: same content, same approach. Chen explained that it didn’t go well. “The conference was important but it wasn’t exactly engaging. After eight hours of meetings, she went to her bed and collapsed until the next morning. That [screen] fatigue people are feeling these days? It’s real!”
That isn’t what you want. Your goal is to hook people from start to finish. And you can make that happen—but you need to master the basics, first.
Top-quality audio is the bare minimum
To pull off any online event, Black Tie Media’s Frisco Chavez—a producer of Work Without Limits—prioritizes logistics: Sound quality first, then video.
“We can tolerate grainy videos but not bad sound. The best-quality video doesn’t matter if you can’t hear it,” he said.
This means deciding up-front the “audio line” you aren’t willing to cross, then figuring out how to get great audio from all your speakers.
With a virtual event, that can be easier said than done. That’s why Chavez advised that you quickly figure out how many presenters you’ll have and where they’re located. This gives you time to work with issues that can impact broadcast quality, such as Internet speed or the type of equipment each speaker has access to.
“You can’t have one low-quality speaker and another high-quality speaker,” he said. “The experience needs to be consistent and as high-quality as possible. That might mean sending out—and then testing—better equipment to make sure each speaker is on the same level.”
Once your audio is under control, you can start to set the stage for high-quality live streaming.
Why high-resolution audio and video are magic ingredients
The pursuit of a top-notch broadcast is driven by science. As Tim Sanders explained, high-resolution or dense audio captures the whole range of sound, delivering a much richer experience. And high-definition video helps remove barriers; the clarity and detail reach across the distance to draw you in.
“Do you know why a podcaster uses an expensive condenser microphone?” he asked. “Because density equals presence. When you listen to a podcast, it’s as if you’re in the room with the speaker and they’re talking directly to you.”
How do you bring that same level of quality to your live video feed? Chavez said there are four speaker setups: base, budget, prosumer, and full studio. Within this, there are variations to bandwidth, webcam, lighting, microphone, background noise, and numerous other factors.
Therein lies the next challenge: there’s no standardized Perfect Setup.
“This is still very new. Nobody really knows the ideal way to push audio online: people use Airpods, or stand-alone microphones, or headsets, or whatever is built into their computer,” he said.
For an event planner, Chavez said this can translate into a lot of uncertainty:
“No one realizes how much time we’re going to have to spend with speakers and presenters, and no one realizes that they won’t all be as tech-savvy as they need to be for some of this to be executed properly and successfully.”
And because this is all new, Chavez said event planners often don’t know how to set the right expectations: It’s critical to negotiate and work with speakers and presenters to ensure they set aside the time needed to do audiovisual (AV) checks and test calls to verify that everything works before game day.
This can take a lot of back-and-forth, and Chavez advised that it may be helpful to have professionals on-the-ground to manage AV requirements for you.
Great experiences are engaging—and you’ll need to work harder for it
Content is the crux of a successful event, but how it’s delivered in real-time—and who’s involved—can determine whether or not it fizzles out. That’s why you may want to consider bringing an experienced host on board.
Good facilitation helps guide the flow, energy, and conversation of an event. Keith Alpin’s Geniecast approaches every virtual event as if it’s a TV show, many of which have charismatic hosts to capture the audience.
For example, an event host might open with 5-10 minutes to break the ice, set ground rules, explain the technology, and ask questions to get people chatting and into the right mindset. They can keep things running smoothly if there are any hiccups during the webcast, moderate live Q&As, and tie different themes together as you move through the day.
Alpin also points out that if a speaker isn’t a regular or professional presenter, they may not be comfortable talking for 30 minutes straight: “In that case, a hosted question and answer—the Oprah Winfrey-style chat—works much better. You get an interview rather than a talking head.”
Not everyone has the skills to be an effective host, however. The secret to making this work, especially for larger-scale events, is to find a pro.
Alpin’s team has had success working with broadcast interviewers and media people: Professionals who do this sort of work every day. And even then, Geniecast works with each presenter to ensure they have the skills to be as effective digitally as they are in real life. “The dynamics are different in a virtual space,” he said. “It requires different tactics to build energy and to convey yourself and your idea effectively.”
Boost networking by thinking beyond the main event
John Chen sees big virtual events as the culmination of a series of smaller happenings, rather than a stand-alone occurrence. For example, leading up to the main event you could:
- Share the list of attendees so people can see who’s coming and identify people they want to connect with
- Facilitate online chats or interactive groups for attendees
- Host other events ahead of time in a way that keeps numbers small and the ability to participate high
On the day of the event, Chen suggested two ways to create opportunities for people to interact in a way that’s more meaningful.
One is to encourage people to use chat. “Aside from connecting people beforehand, chat is the second most powerful engagement tool,” he said. Chen suggested you have someone moderate the chat to help the speaker address important threads and issues that come up.
The other tactic is to plan breakouts. “Breakout sessions change the dynamic. They allow small groups to really talk to each other and can be a great way to get to know people in a short amount of time.”
Chen has even created a mnemonic—ENGAGE—to help keep planning on track:
- Engage with everyone. Plan to interact with everyone and acknowledge the people who participate.
- Never lead a meeting alone. Even for a small team event, it’s hard to split attention across duties as a host, chat moderator, tech support, and troubleshooting anything else that comes up.
- Good looks (both background and audio). For Chen, this includes rebooting his computer and having a direct connection to the Internet. While not necessarily visible, both tips can give your computer a fresher and stronger start that will hopefully reduce interference.
- Air traffic control! Find a way to manage the conversation (i.e. the “raise hand” feature)
- Get productive with virtual tools. Know your platform. Understanding the tools you have available leads to better collaboration and interaction
- End on a high note. By highlighting positive moments, reflections, or new commitments, you can help lift the energy of each attendee and reinforce the value of the time spent together.
We haven’t found a way to easily duplicate face-to-face networking yet. But you can create a framework for engagement, and within that are opportunities for each person to listen to each other and connect.
The skills you’ll need for a successful virtual conference
Audio, video, hosting, moderating, marketing… Event organizers can plan events down to the smallest of details and everything in-between. But if you’re new to virtual, do you hold off on an event until you’ve re-skilled or figure it out as you go?
Tim Sanders suggested a happy medium: working with independent professionals or agencies who already have the right skills to help you act fast and learn along the way—without making the event itself a trial run.
That’s what Upwork has done to move Work Without Limits online and maximize ROI. “The majority of the fancy features we’re rolling out around high-quality audio and video are being done with on-demand talent working with Upwork directly,” Sanders said.
What kind of professionals might you want on your team? Here are some suggestions:
- An event planner with virtual event experience can add their expertise to help ensure the event goes smoothly.
- A social media expert to build buzz and visibility while nurturing your online community.
- AV producers, engaged when and where you need them, can work with each speaker to ensure high-quality delivery, which may include setup and day-of support.
- Graphic designers to create marketing assets for your event and polish presentations for a uniform look and feel.
- Copywriters can give your event a consistent voice, from marketing materials to speaker introductions and transitions from one session to the next.
- An instructional designer can maximize the attendee experience by helping you design an event that supports different learning styles.
- Tech support to help troubleshoot on the day of the event—via phone, chat, or email—can save a lot of scrambling around if unexpected issues come up for speakers or attendees.
If an agency is a better fit for your needs, confirm up front which capabilities they can support. While agency support can be robust, you may need to source additional help internally or externally for peripheral activities such as public relations, social media, or booking speakers.
At the end of the day, your goal is to deliver an event that moves the audience to action. There’s no easy recipe for doing that. But by following best practices, planning for the unexpected, and having the right people in place to adapt as needed, you can create the conditions for an event that runs seamlessly and gets the results you’re aiming for.