Virtual events skyrocketed in importance in 2020, and 92% of companies plan to host a digital event, meet-up, conference, or other virtual gatherings in 2021.
These virtual or hybrid event settings have a natural appeal given the potential benefits and apparent conveniences. Virtual conferences encourage a greater diversity of attendees and speakers because there is no need for travel. There are measurable environmental benefits that make virtual event experiences a sustainable option. And, not to mention, there are countless types of event technology that can replicate (or even improve) some of the most-loved aspects of in-person events.
To achieve the full potential of digital conferences, though, marketing teams and event organizers must not lose sight of any event’s most critical element—the attendee experience.
Two crucial areas can easily make or break an attendee’s virtual event experience: the quality of event sessions and the availability of networking opportunities. Let’s explore how to approach each of these areas, along with general digital event best practices and ideas, to maximize your virtual gathering’s success.
Best Practices for Virtual Conference Sessions
The quality of your digital event sessions is arguably the most important area to focus on. Sometimes conference sessions do not address the “what’s in it for me” for attendees (a.k.a. WIIFM). In that case, virtual audience members will likely become disengaged with the sessions or skip them altogether (along with any future events that you host).
Many brands seem to liken their virtual events to webinars and employ similar tactics to structure the experience. This is a fundamentally misaligned approach, given that virtual event attendees expect a very different experience than they would get at a webinar.
To build a virtual event schedule that your audience will love, consider these planning elements.
Are Live or Pre-Recorded Sessions Better For Virtual Events?
A key differentiator of virtual events is that the sessions can be live-streamed, pre-recorded, or a mix of both. Each of these options provides unique opportunities for your team and carries a potential consequence to your audience experience.
Pre-Recorded Digital Event Sessions:
- Speakers are available to engage with attendees during sessions.
- You can address captions and other accessibility concerns ahead of time.
- There is no potential for speaker mishaps. If one happens, the speaker can edit it out.
- Recorded sessions may feel lackluster compared to a traditional speaker presence.
- Speakers who thrive on audience engagement and Q&As may fall flat.
Live-Streamed Digital Event Sessions
- Live-streamed sessions may feel more relevant/timely.
- The speaker can adjust the talk based on timing concerns or audience questions (if Q&A is enabled).
- Participants feel like they are having an authentic, one-of-a-kind experience tailored to them.
- Speaker mishaps or technical issues could halt the show.
- Live questions may not be suitable for all audiences.
Your event budget and chosen event technology platform may force your team to explore only one of the above session options. But, a mix of both will likely bring attendees the greatest satisfaction.
Regardless of which session delivery you offer, enable attendees to replay sessions through your event platform (or for anyone to see via YouTube or a similar video hosting service) to extend the value of your sessions.
It is vital to offer session replays during conferences with international attendees. At a physical conference, everyone is in the same time zone. But digital conferences can reach international attendees throughout their typical working day. Replays will maximize the likelihood of attendees gaining value from the sessions, especially for those sessions that are at 2 a.m. their local time.
Virtual Event Session Types
Most session styles from in-person events can be replicated in a virtual format, sometimes with even greater possibilities than before. Your team should first determine how many days or hours your conference will last and then begin to build a template event schedule filled with speakers, activities, and breaks.
A few digital event session styles to consider include:
- Keynotes: Keynote sessions typically go to the biggest names or topics that align with the overarching event theme. In a digital setting, these keynotes may be the only time your entire audience watches the same session (instead of hopping in/out of sessions at their on-demand leisure). Keynote sessions can span anywhere from 30 minutes to more than one hour, but we recommend you keep it to a maximum of one hour and 15 minutes.
- Roundtable or Panel Conversations: Instead of having just one speaker on stage, it is often valuable to gather multiple experts to have a roundtable or panel conversation. All speakers will discuss the same topic, often offering different viewpoints (vendor and client, for example). Keep in mind that a moderator will likely need to facilitate this conversation flow.
- Lightning Talks: Lightning talks are short (often less than 30 minutes) sessions on a hyper-focused topic. Think of them as a mini-keynote. These are usually held concurrently in breakout rooms at a physical event, and some digital event platforms allow for a similar setting.
- Workshops: Workshops differ from other session types by being hands-on and filled with concrete tips and coaching from the host. These sessions can easily last between one and two hours, which is an appropriate amount of time to meet attendees and address their unique needs.
How to Optimize Your Call for Speakers Process
Your call-for-speakers or call-for-proposals process will significantly impact the quality of your digital event sessions. Allow ample time to collect submissions with a straightforward process that emphasizes the attendee experience.
About the Conference
Include these elements in your call-for-speakers submission microsite so that your team can find the speakers that will bring the most value to your community:
- Conference overview: What is the theme of the conference, and what topic tracks does it include? What makes this conference different from other industry conferences?
- Audience details: Who typically attends the conference? What are their needs or areas of interest?
- Past sessions: Provide examples of standout sessions from past iterations of the event, and explain what made the sessions valuable for the audience.
- Tips for a successful session pitch: Guide prospective speakers through the application with advice on what will make their application stand out.
The Speaker Proposal
A speaker proposal needs to be comprehensive enough to help you decide whom to invite to speak but not so overwhelming as to discourage new voices from raising their hands.
- Session takeaways: What will attendees be able to put into practice after attending this proposed session? Ask for at least three clear session takeaways.
- Resources (articles, examples, guides): What are the supporting materials or resources you will provide to reinforce the presentation’s content?
- Audience Freebies: What templates, guides, or other materials will you provide to attendees to use after the session?
- Past Speaking Experience (With Video): What previous speaking experience does the proposed presenter have? Include the option to upload a recording or link to a replay of the session.
- Video-Recorded Response: Which question(s) should the proposer answer via video? This will give a sense of their virtual speaking energy and presence.
- Why Speak At Our Conference: Why does the proposed speaker want to present at this conference? What about it makes it special to them, or why do they think they are the right fit?
Host these questions in a submission form that is prominently available on your conference site and promoted across any relevant social channels or in pre-event communications. You can use something as simple as a Google Form or SurveyMonkey survey can to host these submissions.
Three Good Methods for Sourcing Conference Speakers
Employ each of these methods to ensure your team receives a diverse range of session options to choose from:
- Open call for speakers: Between four and six months (potentially up to a year) before your event, host an open call for speakers. This will allow anyone to submit a session for consideration and is a valuable chance to find new, eager speakers that your brand may not yet be familiar with.
- Hand-selected invites: Invite notable industry names, partner organizations, and other speakers to submit a proposal for your conference. To maximize your success, follow up with your preferred speakers across channels leading up to the submission date.
- Sponsored sessions: Savvy marketers understand that there is a financial benefit in partnering with other brands to exhibit or speak at their event. Sponsored session slots can help offset some of the costs of hosting your event, while also strengthening your relationship with that sponsor. Keep in mind, though, that your team must hold a similar standard of evaluation for these sponsored sessions. Keep a focus on what attendees will gain from that sponsor’s participation at the event.
Digital Event Networking Ideas
Offering value-rich sessions at your event is an essential element of a crowd-pleasing event. But your event experience does not exist solely within the designated conference time slots.
A truly fantastic event experience weaves a personal element from start to finish—from the second the conference is announced through well past the last day of the event. You can’t do that without enabling networking amongst attendees, speakers, and all participating brands.
Ideally, your event platform of choice should have a live chat tool where attendees can ask questions to the presenter or engage with other members. Your options will depend on the type of session that you have:
- Live sessions: For sessions streamed live, leave 15 minutes at the end of the session for open Q&A when relevant. Ideally, a team member will track the questions asked and moderate the Q&A with the speaker. At a minimum, the event speaker can review the chat window during the Q&A, but this may create a disjointed experience for the attendees if the speaker is not familiar with the layout.
- Pre-recorded sessions: A benefit of virtual events is that you can prerecord your sessions. In this setup, the speaker should be available to engage with attendees during the session.
Session-specific messaging areas are great for attendees to ask questions, share learnings, and express support of the session content. But your attendees need additional spaces to engage as well.
Consider these other digital conference networking ideas to keep attendees connected:
- Private event groups. Create an event group via a social media network or custom platform, or drive attendees to an existing group that exists across your team’s conferences. These should open a couple of weeks before your event and stay available as long as your team can support them.
- Designated Slack or other messaging channels. Even if your digital event platform has built-in messaging, a Slack or similar messaging service can offer focused channels for attendees to engage. These can include session-specific rooms, rooms grouped by interest or industry, or general rooms.
- Pre-conference morning meetings. At the start of each conference day, offer a video room for attendees to hop in at their leisure and engage with each other. Work with your event sponsors and partners to see if they would like to host some of these rooms.
- Happy hours. At the end of each day, enable a space for attendees to share their takeaways, unwind, and build connections. These can be made even more official if you send attendees conference care packages that include some beverages or snacks to enjoy at the end of the day.
- Roundtable small-group conversations/”Birds of a Feather” rooms. Add structure by scheduling small-group conversations grouped by interest. Either set a limit to how many attendees can enter a specific room, or host a sign-up process to group attendees based on their interests and needs.
- Open networking hours. Encourage speakers, exhibitors, and other event partners to offer open networking hours where folks can hop in/out of rooms at their leisure.
- Exhibitor/Sponsor rooms. The lack of a physical showroom means your team must consider how attendees can engage with exhibitors and sponsors. Create specific rooms and areas for these engagements.
- Social media channels or hashtags. Create and publicize a hashtag that can keep audience members connected across their social media channel of choice. Post to the relevant channels throughout the conference to encourage attendees to share their favorite sessions, ask questions, and connect.
Tips To Maximize Your Digital Event Success
With high-quality speakers and multiple areas for your attendees to network, you have greatly increased the likelihood of hosting a digital event that your audience will love. But the sky is the limit with events, and there is so much more you can do to dazzle your audience.
Explore some of these options as your team matures in its virtual event execution. Not all of these are essentials for a superb attendee experience, but they could be that extra something that sets your event apart from the rest.
- Speaker Coaches: Have a professional speaker coach available to workshop the conference presentations and support presenters. If your resources are limited and you cannot hire an outside expert, consider having a portion of your event team be available to assist with this.
- Conference Swag: Conference attendees love swag that is beneficial or valuable in some way (sorry, that doesn’t mean poorly branded pens that explode their ink all over you on the airplane home). Mail your attendees a swag bag with useful gifts like quality foods and beverages, USB drives with handouts and helpful tools and templates, or other things that align with your brand identity and your audience’s preferences.
- Branding: Part of the spectacle of in-person conferences is the flashy locations, dazzling visual displays, high-energy booths, and a distinct feeling that only the host company could throw something like this. You want your digital event attendees to walk away with a similar sentiment, knowing this event was yours. Consider everything from a conference playlist, branded backdrops, sessions tailored to your brand identity, and more to build this cohesive and delightful experience.
- Conduct Pre/Post Event Surveys: The best way to understand what your audience wants is to ask them. Before your event, survey prospective attendees about what they are looking for in the experience. After your event, survey attendees to see if you met their expectations and explore ways that you can improve next time.
- Get Ahead of Tech Troubles: Digital events are new territory for many teams (and attendees), meaning there is always the potential for something to go wrong. Map out your event journey, including the channels and tools that attendees will navigate, and create detailed how-tos, FAQs, and troubleshooting documents that address any foreseeable issue. And, have a backup plan in case any critical failures happen during the show.
A New Age of Event Experiences
Digital and hybrid events are a new reality of the business world, and we have only just begun to see their full potential. If you are hosting a virtual event this year, start small but keep pushing the limits of what you think is possible. There is so much new technology and creative solutions that make virtual events well worth the effort for not only your team but those audiences you miss seeing in person.
If you need help with any of your digital event needs—including anything from coaching speakers, mapping out a social media plan, creating and maintaining event networking rooms, building your conference website, or more— let us know! We’re here to help.