Virtual conference best practices: A recipe for the new normal

Jayden Traoré

Mar 22, 2021

13 min read

The need for social distancing has created “a new normal” in everything we do these days and conferences aren’t an exception. The restrictions on large public gatherings, travel, and more have made it impossible for businesses to host their annual conferences and events. This is where virtual conferences come to the rescue. The virtualization of the Republican and Democratic national conventions in 2020 was just the start of what is to come.

If you were to visit our offices in January 2020, you would have seen us running around, making calls, discussing designs, and arguing about the color of a teddy bear. It was a surreal experience for the Hexnode family – we were going to have our very own stall at MWC in Barcelona, Spain.

This was going to be our first public event, a chance to meet our lovely customers and wonderful partners. Flight plans were ready, goodie bags were packed and we were all set for MWC. Unfortunately, it would only remain a dream as the event was postponed and eventually canceled following the COVID-19 outbreak.

The Hexnode team was adamant to follow through on our plans and decided to host our very own annual conference, Hexcon. It’s been a few months since Hexcon20, as we gear up for our partner summit in April and Hexcon21 in September, here is what we’ve learned and how it can help you create and manage your own virtual conference.

Cooking up a virtual conference the easy way

Much like cooking and enjoying a delicious meal, conferences also have steps and recipes that should be followed. Everything starts with the prep after which we move on to the cooking, plating, and eventually the washing up.

The Preparation

This is the part where you get all the ingredients ready for your dish, the veggies, the meat, the spices, and the plates. Take as long as you can to prepare especially if this is your first time, don’t try to rush things as this could be an annual event that people look forward to or something that is confined to the “ignore” section of their emails.

The first bit of business was to decide on a name for the event. The managers took everyone’s suggestions, selected a few names, and had all the employees vote on the shortlisted names, and… *drumroll* Hexcon was the unanimous decision. Now we had to decide on a hosting platform for the event. We chose Hubilo as our solution after some strong recommendations from our beloved partners.

Once the name is decided we move on to theming and designing the event. If “content is king” then “design is queen”, invest in the design aspect as much as you do for the content. Come up with a cool logo, template, and themes that reflect your brand identity while delivering a fresh spin on it.

A major advantage of hosting a conference virtually is the unlimited capacity you can hold. You are no longer limited to a 500-seater auditorium. We decided to make the event entry free for our customers and partners while an entry fee was charged for anyone else interested in attending. This helped us limit the audience in attendance making it easier for us to connect with them and provide a better experience.

This doesn’t necessarily mean that you should make your first event a small one, charging a nominal fee for entry will help you keep the event premium as people love to be a part of something exclusive. The elimination of travel expenses, hotel expenses, and more will certainly enable more small businesses and individuals to be a part of the event.

The expenses associated with setting up a virtual conference are significantly lower than a regular conference. If you can, reallocating the resources into making the event as big as possible should be a part of your plan. If this is the first time you are hosting an event then Murphy’s law shouldn’t be taken lightly but it doesn’t mean you shouldn’t give it your all. Hosting a smaller kickoff event can be a good decision if you are planning to go all-in with the main event.

Talking of expenses, you can save a good deal of money on guest speakers. You don’t have to fly them in and put them up for a few days and you don’t have to pay them even close to what they charge for an in-person event but you do need to invest in getting a good session out of them. Send them the proper lighting, recording, and other equipment as per requirement.

A chunk of the marketing team’s efforts went into promotional campaigns that started around 4 months before the event date. Multiple emails, social media, and ad campaigns with event updates were deployed. These updates included event agendas like the topics of the sessions and the external speakers delivering them. We used this period to publish a clear idea of what the attendees can expect and even had some speakers send over promo videos to hype up the potential attendees.

The final step of the prep work is the sponsorships. The need for sponsorships can vary depending on the company and event type, some run events with in-house funding while some use sponsorships as a means of funding. In our case, we used the sponsorship option to help sponsors advertise their brands to a wider audience. The proceeds went directly into making the event bigger and better than what we had initially planned.

The most important thing is to keep the ads subtle. It shouldn’t be too “out there” and irritating for the attendees but it should provide a decent value for the sponsors involved. Once all the ingredients are prepped you are ready to combine everything and cook up your conference.

The Cooking

If all the prep work is done well cooking becomes the easy part. All you have to do is keep an eye on things to make sure that the dish doesn’t get burnt. Just like adding food colors to make the dish more vibrant add an emcee to color up the event. A professional emcee will keep the audience engaged in-between sessions and will give a good flow to the whole event.

Now comes the process of measuring out the ingredients. You want the dish to reflect the exact taste of the dish and nothing else. Add in what is necessary and cut the fluff out. Most conferences are filled with useless info targeted at filling out an agenda rather than being useful to the audience. You don’t need to make it long; in a virtual set up a few hours of quality and interesting content will have significantly more impact than a few days of mediocre stuff.

Be prepared for things that you aren’t prepared for. I know that sounds a little confusing but as the saying goes anything that can go wrong will go wrong along with things that you wouldn’t expect to go wrong. It can be disheartening to see all your efforts go up in the proverbial smokes due to some unforeseen anomalies so always be prepared to improvise.

If everything I mentioned above is set and done then it’s all down to the speakers. All good speakers know that reading the room to keep it light and entertaining is a major aspect but with virtual events reading the room through a webcam isn’t feasible. So, the talks must be significantly better than usual to attract the attention and engage your attendees. Focus on quality and attractiveness over quantity It’s easy to lose a room but difficult to capture.

Live interactive sessions like Q&A are done without any previous prep. The questions can be random and at times mildly infuriating so be prepared. Update everything happening at the conference online with live updates so that the “selective” bunch can get their desired dose of the event without having to sit through the rest.

Obviously, 95% of the employees at Hexnode were dedicated in making Hexcon a grand success but as the work mounts, the deadlines get tighter and the feelings of “not my company”, “what’s in it for me”, “my colleagues will handle it”, “why do I need to stress myself out so much”, “will I get anything for my hard work” comes in. It’s a kitchen, it can be hot, it can get tedious and the long waits for the food to cook can have its toll. This can mess up employee morale and affect our co-workers and even destroy the team spirit you’ve worked hard to build.

Team leaders should be able to make sure that it never gets to this point by keeping morale up with games, pranks or something that can help alleviate a potential meltdown. Rewarding employees with a few days of paid vacation and incentives were executed by the Hexnode management to keep the morale high. Incentives shouldn’t be used as a method to get employees to work harder but as a means to give recognition for the hard work an employee does.

The Plating

Food’s ready! Now you are left with something that smells and tastes good but doesn’t look all that appetizing. It’s time to add in that all-important Michelin star chef magic and make this one helluva dish for your starving attendees.

The dish is the central focus and everyone present has come to see all or some of the things you have on your agenda. If the thoughts of your agenda put you to sleep then you can be sure your attendees will feel the same. It is critical that you go above and beyond to facilitate engagement especially since this is an online event.

Keeping the audience’s attention is the main goal, make it appealing and flashy but hold the marketing fluff. Garnish your content with some flair, do things that stand out, and make your attendees feel that they are at “your” event. This is just as new for the hosts as it is for the attendees, you should be brave enough to experiment with ideas that can amplify the audience engagement and encourage them to keep coming back.

The easy way to stand out is with celebrities, musicians, and entertainers that can be hired to do cameos to give your event a “big deal feel”. In a B2B setup, hiring celebrities doesn’t necessarily help out a lot but hiring someone who is popularly related to the field can be a good alternative option.

“Lemme see if that Deadpool guy is available. He runs a gin company, a telecom company, and an ironically named marketing company maybe he could show some 4th wall breaking skills and impress our attendees.”

Another point to be noted is that you shouldn’t hesitate to restructure for the internet. As a member of a team that planned a real in-person event that turned into a virtual event, I can confidently say that a lot of the “normal” ideas don’t work out. One of the major drawbacks is the deprecation of live demonstrations in favor of virtual demos.

Virtual demos are nowhere close to the real experience but when life gives you lemons you make a lime wedge and call it a martini.

You can turn these demos into 1-1 scheduled sessions after the main conference has concluded, this will act as a better point of contact between you and the attendee and can result in better leads even though it seems a little harder to execute.

Networking is also an area that was hard-hit by the virtualization of conferences. One of the main reasons several representatives attend conferences is to mingle with others in an attempt to forward their business. Integrating group chats and virtual lounges to promote attendee interaction along with an attempt to build a community is worth a shot, it’s not perfect but it’s a start.

Events like virtual conferences act a source of unlimited social media content. Keep the content fresh, engaging and include a few prizes to promote attendee interaction. We had a selfie contest and urged all the attendees to share our hashtags and images of the event. It really does make a difference by boosting the brand’s social media presence.

You can have games and chats in between to facilitate an engaging environment that keeps the audience happy and spirited. We had some rooms of Among us and Pictionary (trending games at the time) that proved to be really effective. These may not sound the most original or creative ways to go but this was our first time and we prioritized other things.

We also sent Hexnode merch to all the attendees to uphold all possible elements of an in-person event. The interaction and results we got from a games break taught us that each and every bit of decoration that goes into plating makes the dish more appealing for the eyes. You eat with your eyes, bring it close to your face and eat with your nose before it enters your tastebuds. Each and every step along the way is just as important as the taste.

Your virtual conference is served. Bon appetite!

The Washing

The dish is cooked served and enjoyed but your work isn’t over yet. You have to wash up all the plates so that they can be reused the next time. It also serves as a time to connect with the main attendees to get their feedback on the meal they had.

The first course of action as soon as the event concludes is to follow up with your attendees. The rule of thumb is to do it in 72hrs after everything is wrapped up with a personalized message. Get their honest feedback on the highs and lows of the event. Guarantee and follow through on the promises of improvement.

The second course of action is to repurpose all the sessions into reusable content like short videos, blogs, posts, and more. The content should be made available after a few days from the event conclusion. The choice of multiple sessions with an array of topics available on-demand will certainly attract audiences who missed the live event and will potentially create a demand for the next edition.

Try to make the event beneficial for everyone involved, the speakers should relish the opportunity, the attendees should leave feeling sad that the virtual conference is over and your business should achieve its plans too. If everyone who attended voluntarily attends the next edition you can be certain that your event was a success.

It’s a team effort!

Jayden Traoré

Product Evangelist @ Hexnode. Sometimes, I have the feeling I live in a story: a magnificent story written by a mediocre writer living off coffee and technology.

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