The technology has been around for a decade, ever since the advent of live streaming, but virtual conferences really came into their own during the pandemic. Although there’s been a dip in popularity as live events returned, virtual conferences will continue to be part of our lives.
In this article, we’ll talk about what a virtual conference is, the benefits of a virtual conference, and what you need to know for your virtual conference to be a success.
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What is a virtual conference?
A virtual conference is a conference that happens online instead of in the “real world.” In the past, this has meant that real-world conference programming is adapted almost 1:1 to virtual platforms instead, with events—if not centralized on a central platform—taking place across the internet, with events like panel discussions on Zoom and keynotes on Facebook Live. They tend to follow similar formatting as well: keynote speakers, panels, and online happy hours all typically feature on a virtual conference’s calendar of events.
Like virtual events as a whole, virtual conferences are beginning to be more interactive for participants, with organizers taking advantage of events platform features like live text chat and the ability to create breakout groups to foster opportunities for participants to connect with each other.
Looking for an app for your virtual conference?
Benefits of virtual conferences
Conferences are typically used to gather like-minded people in one place over a given time to forward a goal, explore an idea, or develop a set of skills. When done well, they can be amazing!
Here are some of the benefits of hosting a virtual conference.
Accessibility: By hosting a conference virtually, organizers eliminate the logistics involved with in-person events, and it’s easier to include participants whose attendance is no longer limited by distance, time, or cost of travel. This makes your conference more accessible.
Flexibility: Virtual conferences are also far more flexible when it comes to timing: There’s no longer a need to have an exhausting day that begins with a breakfast event and continues until an evening happy hour—and that’s all before you catch up on the office emails. It’s a format that’s no longer possible with many working from home, and moving things online allows for conferences to become spread out over parts of many days or over a couple of weeks instead of consuming several days in a row.
More networking: If done right, virtual conferences can create even more opportunities built in for attendees to connect as well—and that’s where they draw the true value from the conference.
Creative formatting: There’s also a certain freedom in virtual conferences: Because they’re in their infancy, the sky is the limit about what they could be. With so many logistical hurdles out of the way—accommodation, transport, catering—organizers can focus on delivering value to the attendees instead. And there are a lot of different ways to make this happen–here are some ideas.
Ongoing connection: It’s really easy to roll a virtual conference into an ongoing way to connect, like an online community or mastermind group.
Simple conference management: With modern event-planning apps, both in-person and virtual conferences are easier to manage. Rather than bringing home yet another tote bag full of printed leaflets and schedules you’ll never look at again, virtual conferences can be easily organized and you can keep the information in the palm of your hand.
Re-visiting material that matters: The nature of virtual conferences, as well as the capabilities of existing virtual conference platforms, mean conference-goers can access recorded speakers, panel transcripts, and other materials digitally long after the conference is over.
Challenges of virtual conferences
We love to see great virtual conferences, but there can be a few challenges that might push you towards either an in-person or hybrid model. These can be addressed with great planning and preparation, but they’re worth mentioning:
Need to keep people engaged: At an in-person conference, many people will keep their butts in a chair no matter how bored they are. After all, they paid to be there AND they want to be polite. With a virtual conference, you can’t phone it in. The material needs to be engaging and worth tuning in for.
Need to provide value for cost: Pricing a virtual conference can be tricky. With no conference center, workers, or travel to pay for, it can be harder to justify a conference cost. It’s important to be clear on the value attendees will get. But also, you need to charge enough to make it worth their time to show up and keep them accountable. The thing we’ve learned again and again is that people value what they pay for.
Need to think outside the lecture: Your virtual conference doesn’t just need to imitate the speaker format of a traditional conference. There are so many different ways to keep people engaged and present information.
How to create a successful virtual conference?
1. Have an Ideal Member
For a virtual conference to be a thriving, exciting experience, you need to have clear Ideal Members. With a virtual conference, it’s more important than ever to have the RIGHT people there.
A virtual conference full of your Ideal Members will translate into people who are excited to take part and learn, who lean in and have fun. It’s better for everyone: your attendees, your speakers, and you.
Create an Ideal Member for your conference. Make sure you understand clearly who they are and what challenges the conference is going to help them overcome. You can even interview them.
Then you can focus on serving them.
2. Focus on giving your Ideal Member transformation
Once you do the background work, you know why your Ideal Member is coming to a conference. Use all the digital tools at your disposal to help them get what they want.
- If their priority is learning about new advances in the field, make sure there are chances for them to hear from experts and ask questions.
- If they want to network, create opportunities for 1:1 and group networking. You could randomly assign people to small groups or do a “speed dating” type of networking.
- If they want great conversations at the cocktail hour, make sure to set up times to make it happen.
Here are some ways you can deliver a transformation with a virtual conference–some of which aren’t possible in live conferences:
- Offer premium access to the speakers.
- Offer videos of every session after (this is a HUGE bonus).
- Host online forum-type discussions before, during, or after an event.
- Host an event community that goes year round
- Split up the conference into different chunks (for example, over a series of weekends).
- Offer the conference on a premium, branded conference app.
“Our members are super busy. And sometimes it takes a long time for people to engage. They don’t have time, or they have other priorities. So my goal is to make sure whatever we’re offering is relevant and authentic, and valuable. And that’s our path going forward.” Anne Cocquyt - The GUILD
3. Unleash member-led growth
The members are what make or break a conference. That’s why we focus so much on getting the Ideal Member right. Once you do, you can see something called the network effect.
What’s the network effect?
It means that the value of your product grows more and more with each new member. And it’s true for virtual conferences.
Each Ideal Member you add is someone new for people to network with, someone new to share a perspective or ask good questions.
And by growing your Ideal Members, you can unleash member-led growth. Create opportunities for your members to engage, to create content, and to meet each other. It’s hard to believe, but sometimes the greatest value that comes from a virtual conference won’t be the speakers or sessions. It will be the connections.
Here are some ways to create member-led growth in a virtual conference:
- Open Q&A sessions
- Ask members to write or record their own content to share
- Prompt member discussions or feedback
- Have open-table conversations for members to take part
Getting the members engaged for a virtual conference is more critical than ever. If you create a conference environment that’s one-directional, you’ll see members start to check out (and probably won’t return next year).
4. Start planning early
A virtual conference requires a lot of planning–just because it’s virtual doesn’t make it easy. But with no hotels to book or conference centers to navigate, you can focus on what matters: selecting speakers and planning the perfect format.
Have your conference committee meet as early as possible to create a wishlist for speakers and events, and encourage them to be creative about what the virtual conference could look like. Start contacting potential speakers and lining up a schedule.
5. Choose the right platform
At some level, the success of your virtual conference will depend on the technology you choose for hosting it. And you’ll need to choose a platform that fits with the type of event you envision. Here are some of the common features of virtual conference software you’ll have at your fingertips.
- Video conferencing features
- Discussion forums
- Member profiles
- Breakout groups and spaces
- Sponsor booths
- Virtual lobbies
- Chat & messaging
- Text & video content options
- Live and pre-recorded course features
- Payments and bundling options
- Branded conference apps
You might not need all of these features, so choose the ones that fit the conference you’ve planned.
6. Start the conference a month before
An in-person conference starts the day of. A virtual conference can start… whenever.
Why not invite people into your conference space a few weeks or a month before? Let people get started with creating their profile and networking. Let them ask questions and have discussions.
You might find your members get a ton of value before the conference even starts!
7. Keep the conversation going
And your conference doesn’t need to end at the… um… end. You can keep conversations and value happening long after the conference. In fact, if your virtual conference is a yearly thing, you might just keep a conference community going year-round.
“We knew our virtual conference needed to be even more participatory and two-way than an event in real life. It couldn’t just be a content dump in a live online forum, or (gasp) an attempt at a virtual panel. Instead, this needed to be the kind of experience where attendees could build relationships with each other, have great side conversations, and participate in surprising and unexpected ways that were better than a physical event.” Tara McMullin - The What Works Network
Examples of virtual conference platforms
- Mighty Networks: A community-based platform that lets you bring people together. With livestreaming, discussion forums, chat & messaging, member profiles, dedicated spaces, and a ton of other event features–it’s a great place to host virtual conferences with dedicated communities. You can even get a dedicated conference app under your own brand. Book a call with us to find out more.
- Bevy: A virtual conference platform good for 1-day conferences, with virtual lobby, sponsor booths and breakout rooms, chat & DMs, and livestreaming.
- Stova: Good for 1-day conferences with livestreaming, breakout rooms and networking features, budgeting and planning tools, and marketing options.
Examples of virtual conferences
Any kind of conference has the potential to be online—and some have been in the space for years.
Abundance Digital: X Prize founder Peter Diamandis’ Abundance Digital community hosts a virtual conference on Mighty Networks’ conference platform, and connections between attendees are reinforced by interactions within the online community outside the conference and also through subsequent courses and webinars.
The What Works Network: A membership community for small business owners that’s 700 strong. It’s hosted by Tara McMullin who hosts quarterly virtual conferences for members.
The GUILD: A paid membership where women entrepreneurs and leaders can connect, network, and further advance their personal and professional development. Founded by Anne Cocquyt who loved the energy of live events, but hated how they fizzled the rest of the year. She launched The GUILD network with the SERENDIPITY virtual entrepreneurship summit–last year they had 85 speakers!
Happy Family Conferences: Launched by Cecilia and Jason Hilkey, the modern parenting virtual conferences bring together 25 speakers—from psychologists and psychiatrists to parent coaches and educators—to talk about parenting without punishments and rewards.
Kula: A yoga community created by YouTube’s top Yoga instructor–Adriene Mishler. More than 220,000 members have joined the private community with member-led book clubs, 30-day yoga journeys, and–you guessed it–virtual yoga retreats.
Now Read: 21 Virtual Event Ideas
FAQs - Virtual Conference
How do you do networking at a virtual conference?
*There are a bunch of ways! Members can find each other and message them–for example, one feature in a Mighty Network is that our Mighty Co-Host™ engine will suggest members with similar interests and suggest a conversation. Some conferences assign networking times or you can host virtual drop-in rooms. *
How do you handle sponsorships?
Some virtual conferences include sponsorships as a visual component of a conference space (like a conference booth). You can also be creative, thanking sponsors from the virtual stage, offering sponsor-led events or workshops, or messaging all members with a thank you to sponsors.
How do you manage a virtual conference recording?
You can either offer it free to members, or you can spin it into a course-style space and sell access.*