Event planning strategies for virtual conferences, online events and hybrid meetingsAfter my blog post What is needed for a good virtual conference from last weekend, I got some feedback. Thanks for everyone replying. The setup listed in the blog post was heavily inspired from the dotfmp conference, but other conferences may have a different and less chaos in the setup.
After over a year of virtual conferences, online meetings and a lot of cancellations, people are eager to get back to normal live. While some enjoy the virtual conferences, others dislike them. When we talked about the user group, it looks like some groups like to stay virtual, but others want to go back to local meetings in-person. Other groups may mix virtual meetings for presentations and in-person restaurant meetings for the social gathers. Like one month virtual and other month in-person. Quite a few people want to travel again, so long term virtual only conferences may no longer happen.
Back to planning a conference:
Having a schedule fixed weeks before the conference is excellent to streamline communication. The un-conference thing to have additional sessions being added on short notice is great, but that may be a separate track. Still people rely on the schedule and setup their alarm clocks to get up early or stay up late to see a session. So don't move sessions.
To ensure quality of sessions, the organizer should set some standards like providing a template for slides and some instructions. A day before the conference you could do training where everyone can verify the streaming software works. Just like with in-person conferences, where everyone can try their laptop on the projector with some HDMI adapter, people may have to learn how to setup things properly. Like switching screen resolution to 720p for demos (better text readability), disabling notifications and quitting other applications. Check sound quality and maybe switch to English for the system language to have people read menus and dialogs.
Technically a conference doesn't need to be free. Since it is virtual and usually the cost is fixed (server, software, staff hours), it doesn't cost much more to host 1000 people compared to 100. Sponsorships may be good to cover the costs like having some companies pay a bit to be named in the sessions and on the website as sponsors. Since usually one of the goals of the conference is to brief users about products from the company, having free attendance is a good choice and so the hosting company may sponsor most of the cost from their marketing budget.
Social media is a key thing nowadays. Have dedicated staff to post about the event before, during and after the conference. Getting people interested to join and talk about the conference helps. Consider posting regularly about the conference, highlighting what is offered. Point to new sessions added to the schedule, or highlight prominent speakers. Tweet a few minutes before a session starts to remind people to join live. Post screenshots (or short videos) from sessions with interesting tidbits or pictures of attendees gathering to watch together.
Next we may think about privacy. The idea to live stream the conference somewhere (e.g. YouTube), may help people to join and watch without showing themselves. If they join the virtual conference room via software, they may choose to not enable their camera. If the session is recorded, an announcement should be made and then all cameras and microphones should be turned off by the moderator, so nobody has them on by accident. This also saves bandwidth. Then the speaker can join with audio and camera to present and this only gets recorded. For Q&A a moderator and raising hands are helpful. People can ask in the chat, if they don't want to be seen (and recorded) themselves, but also choose to be shown to ask themselves.
Finally we hope that most conferences can find a hybrid way. Having people gather for the social get-together is great. You still want to visit nice places, talk to engineers directly in the lobby or at meals and stay away from office for the conference. If you stay at home, you may get disturbed by daily routine or clients calling, but if you are at the conference in-person, you may put that easier on silent. Streaming sessions live for those staying at home is great. Pre-recorded session videos may give a higher quality and lets the speaker fix all bloopers. You could play them and make the session a watch party. In both cases allow questions by the viewers in the room and online. Let the moderator ask them to the presenter in the Q&A section on the end of a session. No more waiting for a free microphone, no more shouting of questions through the room and no more pauses for the online viewers till the question is repeated. Let everyone type questions in the central chat for the session. Attendees in-person may have an additional Q&A time in the lobby, talk to the presenter during the rest of the conference and could have an hands-on area to try gadgets presented. Finally while attendees may go to a dinner party, the virtual attendees may still exchange their thoughts in a central chatroom.
See you at the next conferences!