How to Host a Virtual Conference
Wondering how to host a virtual conference in 2021? We’ve got the guide for you.
There’s never been a more relevant time to consider hosting a virtual conference than now.
We’re all grappling with how the pandemic has changed our plans. Part of that reckoning is figuring out alternatives to what we thought we’d be doing.
Whether you’re transitioning a physical event into a virtual one or seizing this moment to bring people together online for the first time, choosing a virtual alternative doesn’t have to be downer.
We’ve made a guide on how to host a virtual conference that covers where to start, where to focus, and what you need to know to create a virtual conference today.
The Key Elements of a Virtual Conference
When thinking about how to host a virtual event you will bring together many of the same elements needed for a physical event, only with a bit more technology and creativity, and minus the food (but you’re probably making better food at home than at the convention center anyway).
To host a virtual conference today, you want to start with:
A motivating theme, focus, or purpose behind your virtual conference. While this may seem obvious, it’s even more important with a virtual conference to have a clear purpose or topic that’s motivating to your attendees to tune in.
During a physical event, people are semi-captive. Sure, they have their phones, but when they’re bored, they can head to the lobby to strike up a conversation with someone.
With a virtual conference, you’re asking people to pay attention on a device with a ton of distractions built in by design.
When you are considering how to run a virtual conference, having a motivating purpose will be the glue that connects your attendees together. When everyone is excited about a message, they are more likely to be engaged and interested in interacting with new people.
A well-curated and engaged set of attendees. Whether together online or in real life, it’s the people, not the content that makes an event. In fact, when you create a virtual conference, your attendees are even more important.
Why? Because with a virtual event you have even more ways to connect people to each other creatively and with more impact. Plus, there’s natural momentum for attendees to stay connected after a virtual conference in ways that aren’t the same as a physical one (especially today).
Compelling programming and “main stage” speakers. Once you have your topic and invite list of attendees, you can focus on your programming and speakers. There are two kinds of programming to consider when planning how to host a virtual conference. First, there’s your “main stage.”
Your main stage holds your “one-to-many” conversations, presentations, and fireside chats done over live video. While a typical conference keynote consists of either a person and a presentation or a day of panels, a number of the most successful virtual conferences take a different approach.
For example, Tara McMullin of The What Works Network runs quarterly virtual conferences for digital small business owners on her Mighty Network. She’s found that fireside chats or 1:1 conversations that mirror a podcast interview more than a TED Talk tend to be the most engaging programming for the “main stage.”
Whatever you do, don’t attempt a panel format when you come up with a plan for how to host a virtual conference. Panels have become tired and challenging across even the best run physical events, and virtually, they are a killer.
So many of us are sitting in long video calls for work due to the pandemic. It’s a drag to stare at a screen of people talking and not have a way to interact with others. When you plan how to host a virtual conference think of it as an opportunity to have a more intimate setting where attendees have many ways for their voices to be heard.
Facilitated small group “breakout sessions.” A virtual conference gives you a much bigger opportunity for launching small group discussions, or “breakout sessions” that can build real relationships between attendees that last well beyond the conference itself.
To make these kinds of attendee connections possible, it’s helpful to have a volunteer facilitator or someone on your team guiding the conversation with initial prompts, questions, and a plan for what you want attendees to take away from the session.
Every facilitator should seek to keep people on track, ensure one attendee doesn’t dominate the session (which may feel a little bit more tricky over video, but is totally possible), and seek to strike interesting connections between participants that continue beyond the breakout.
A plan for continuing the conversation after your virtual conference**.** One of the best things about a virtual conference over a physical event is that it feels natural to translate it into an ongoing professional network or resource in people’s lives.
With a physical event, you sell tickets, people pay, show up, and leave. That’s what people expect. While there’s some desire to connect virtually before or after an event, practically these efforts have been hit or miss over the past two decades.
A virtual conference gives you the opportunity to reimagine what you’re building. When planning how to host a virtual conference, you can:
- Translate your conference easily into an ongoing (paid) community. A virtual conference lends itself naturally to connecting people in an online community before, during, and after an event. Having a strong community platform set up before you host your virtual conference means the opportunity to think bigger and more creatively about what your attendees want around your topic over time.
- Expand your virtual conferenc**e into online courses, mastermind groups, and more.** When you create a virtual conference, you can record both your main stage and breakout sessions easily at no additional cost. In doing so, you have some amazing content not just from your speakers and interviews, but the stories and experiences of other attendees as well. You can use this to create additional programs so valuable you can charge separately for them, but also so well-designed that they essentially run themselves.
- Engage attendees more deeply over time. With a physical event, there’s a semi-tired set of expectations around what you can do. There are speakers, panels, and meals. When you create a virtual conference, you don’t have to worry about food and can instead focus on creating new, fresh ways of engaging your attendees. Specifically, you can utilize polls, prompts, live text chat, small groups, as well as follow up projects and teams.
Peter Diamandis, the founder of the X-Prize, offers a great example of what’s possible when you rethink a physical conference. After running a successful in-person conference for his work around frontier technology, he launched Abundance Digital on a Mighty Pro Network, to run a virtual conference and community for creative technologists and “exponential” thinkers.
Today Abundance Digital has 2,000 members participating not just in a virtual conference but also building a strong professional network of members and highly regarded online courses.
The Technology You Need to Host a Virtual Conference
The bad news is no single software platform today offers everything you need to run a virtual conference in one place. The good news though is that there’s a simple combination of two that work together beautifully to deliver not just a virtual conference, but a conference and community.
Step 1: Set up your virtual conference website. To successfully create a virtual conference, you’ll have to start with a website builder. But not just any website builder. You want a website where you can:
- Offer free and paid memberships
- Run one or more events with RSVPs and messaging
- Build community with member profiles, direct messaging, posts, comments, and more
- Expand to online courses and breakout groups over time, as needed
You also want to make sure that you can offer this all in one place, under your brand, and instantly available on every platform–the web, as well as on an iPhone, iPad, and Android app. When it comes to bringing people together before, during, and after a virtual conference, take advantage of the speed and immediacy of mobile apps. Don’t rely on the web alone.
There are a lot of virtual conference platforms available today, so let’s take a look at a few below:
If you’re holding a one-off virtual conference, then Convene might be a platform to consider. They have the basic features you would want for a virtual conference website and they have live tech support. Just know that they are new players in the world of virtual conferences and don’t have a proven track record for providing results.
Run the World
Another up and comer in the world of hosting virtual conferences is Run the World. They emphasize fun and low stakes interactions on their website. They might be a good option if you’re looking to host a more intimate virtual conference or gathering like a “get to know you” event. Similar to Convene, they have lofty claims but an unproven track record. Their pricing is also pretty high for being so new in the field.
Mighty Networks is a major player in the online community and course creation landscape. We are purposefully designed for delivering virtual conferences, online courses, and paid membership, all under one brand, and instantly-available across every device—web, iOS, and Android apps.
What that means is you’re getting an awesome place to host a virtual conference and a robust set of features to design a website, build a thriving community, and monetize your content.
Recommended Virtual Conference Platform: A Mighty Network. A Mighty Network offers a best-in-class community and event experience, and is unique in offering online courses, sub-groups, and the ability to charge for membership within its website builder. Plus, it offers the entire experience under your brand and available on web, iPhone, iPad, and Android app.
Step 2: Add live video streaming. Once you have your website in place, the next steps in how to run a virtual conference are a stable, scalable live video streaming service to run both your main stage and breakout sessions.
For your main stage programming, you want to set up an “one-to-many” video experience where you and your speakers or guests can be on screen, and your audience can comment via live chat that you can see and respond to in real-time. If possible, assign someone separate from the speaker and host to manage the live chat, offering notes and resources throughout the talk.
For your breakout sessions, you want something different. Instead of the “one-to-many” live stream, you want to enable a “many-to-many” video experience, where everyone in the small group is on video and can speak when called on. In this set up, you want the breakout session facilitator to be able to:
- Record the session for later replay and use
- Mute attendees on entrance (Trust us on this one)
- Let attendees raise their hands to be unmuted and talk
These three simple steps will enable you and your facilitators to have a smooth virtual breakout session.
Recommended Virtual Conference Platform: Zoom. Zoom is the most stable, scalable, and flexible live video platform available to host a virtual conference. For your main stage, you can use Zoom Webinar, which lets you broadcast your Zoom Meeting to thousands of “view-only” attendees.
Then, you can use a Zoom Meeting for each of your breakout sessions.
We know what you’re thinking, not another Zoom! We get it, we’ve all been Zooming a lot since the pandemic started, but it doesn’t have to be a drag. That’s all based on how creative you are with your setup.
If you’re comfortable adding one more service to your mix or want an alternative to Zoom Webinar, Crowdcast is another great option for your “one-to-many” main stage sessions. Crowdcast is a stable service with an elegant user experience great for running live video streaming sessions. Plus, it has a “multi-session” option that lets you use one link for your entire virtual conference.
A Virtual Conference Setup and Schedule–An Example
Now that you have the pieces and technology you need to host a virtual conference, it’s helpful to see a concrete example of a virtual conference schedule and set up.
Tara McMullin and her community manager Shannon Paris of the What Works Network use the following set up to run their successful virtual conferences:
Set the date, reach out to speakers, and announce the virtual conference. Tara and Shannon set the date, reach out to speakers, and announce their upcoming virtual conference to their email list and community roughly two months in advance.
However, with rapidly emerging demand for virtual conferences and the ability to pull them off quickly, as long as you have your virtual conference website, speakers, and a way for people to register (even if it’s just joining your virtual conference website), you can announce a virtual conference in as little as a week or even a few days.
Use a single Event to lay out the schedule for the day. Tara and Shannon set up a single event within their Mighty Network to communicate the schedule for their virtual conference. In this single event, they communicate the time, sessions, and links to the main stage Crowdcast (using the platform’s multi-session feature), as well as the Zoom breakouts.
They’ve found an ideal time frame to run their virtual conferences is 11:00am to 5:15pm eastern time.
Create a “Meet the Speakers” Article to publish speaker bios and get people excited. As they get closer to their virtual conference, they post a single Article on their Mighty Network with the bios of their speakers (who they also encourage to join the What Works community). Adding photos, videos, and beautifully formatted text to this Article starts to bring their virtual conference to life.
Communicate early and often to promote the event. They’ve found that the more they promote and talk about the event, the more people show up. Then 24 hours before the event, they send a reminder, and again remind people on the morning of.
On the day of their virtual conference, here’s the run of show:
Launch with a 20-minute Welcome Session. Tara serves as the master of ceremonies and starts the day with a 20-minute welcome session. In this welcome session, she talks about why this topic matters, offers an outline for the day, talks through a few housekeeping items, and then opens a live chat with a question. She uses slides to visually guide people through what they are going to see that day.
Move into the First Block with two 45-minute speaker sessions. From the welcome session, they move into two 45-minute speaker sessions done as 1:1 interviews (not presentations) with a 15-minute break in between.
Create an “Integration” Session. After the first two speaker sessions, Tara does what she calls an “integration” session. It’s meant to perform the same function that walking between sessions does at a physical conference. She offers questions and prompts specific to the sessions for people to answer over the live chat in Crowdcast.
Move into the Final Block with two more 45-minute speaker sessions. After another 15-minute break following the integration session, they move into the final two 45-minute speaker sessions. During all four sessions, Shannon offers notes, links, and resources both in the live chat, as well as in the community.
End with a 15-minute Closing Session. During the closing session, Tara summarizes the key themes and learnings for the day. It’s a great way to also reconnect with the community and read out observations and contributions from the live chat that Shannon’s been tracking throughout the day.
An alternative structure: replace 2 speaker sessions with breakout sessions. One other structure that Tara and Shannon plan to explore from here (and may work better for you as well) is to swap two breakout sessions via Zoom Meetings for two speaker sessions. This will mix up the structure, get more people engaged and contributing throughout the day, and offer more value to everyone.
Tara and Shannon typically see 25% to 50% of the registered attendees show up live and participate. Then, immediately following the virtual conference, Tara and Shannon take their recorded programming and turn it into a structured online resource via the courses feature in their Mighty Network. This has served as an effective way to create more concrete, valuable content and community connections that they offer as part of the annual subscription to the What Works Network.
Think Bigger With a Virtual Conference
Hopefully, this guide offers a few concrete ways for how to host a virtual conference today when we need this type of programming and human connection the most.
While you may have gotten to this moment of choosing how to run a virtual conference out of necessity, there are real benefits to choosing a virtual conference over a physical event:
- You can attract more diverse, motivated, and interesting people to a virtual conference**.** Without physical logistics getting in the way, you can curate and attract more interesting and diverse people to speak at and attend your virtual conference.
- You can structure more ways for the most relevant people to actually meet each other. Physical conferences assume people will meet spontaneously and serendipitously just by being there. If you have ever attended a conference, you know this is not true. With a virtual conference, you can structure more ways for people to meet each other. For example, on a Mighty Network, attendees can see members near them, members like them, and members who follow the same topics.
- You can transition people into annual memberships, online courses, and more. As we’ve mentioned earlier, a virtual conference naturally lends itself to the benefits of connecting over time more deeply.
The possibilities for creativity, energy, and deeper connection that start when planning how to host a virtual conference most certainly don’t end with a one-day event.
We look forward to seeing where you take your virtual conference from here.
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