Virtual Conferencing from the Attendee’s Perspective

Nikki GoldenOK, I get it. You’re doing a virtual event. We do them here at Association Laboratory too. While the lessons from our planners are great, what really matters is the insight we gain from attendees. With that in mind, I introduce our Strategist Nikki Golden, CAE as she takes over this month’s blog From My Seat at the Bar. Let’s hear about the lessons took away as an attendee at a recent Insights Association virtual conference. Take it away Nikki.

I attended a virtual conference. Here are some things to consider.

Nothing has made me prouder to work in the association world than the nimbleness so many groups have displayed in switching from an in-person conference to a digital one—many, in just a few short weeks. This month, I was lucky to participate as an attendee in a three-day, afternoon-only event produced by the Insights Association. Here are some takeaways to consider, from the attendee perspective.

Prepare your attendees.

Many in-person events hand out programs or have an event app that has the agenda for each day, various housekeeping items such as wi-fi passwords and sponsorship recognition. Outside of the wi-fi password, all of that information is still valuable to attendees, so don’t forget to prepare something to prepare them. For this event, attendees received a PDF program ahead of time, with a welcome note from the president, links to bookmark to get into each day’s program, instructions on how to use the Zoom platform (you will join muted without camera) and ways to make the experience better, like an outline on how the virtual networking sessions would work (because it’s nice to know you WILL be on camera at some point so you can wear your work top). If you already have a mobile app, make sure you provide information to attendees on how they can use it on their computer. For a virtual event, you’re not necessarily using your mobile device the same way you would at an in-person event.

Consider a room host.

For this particular event, most of the sessions were held in the same room, back-to-back and with short breaks. The host’s job was to welcome attendees, outline what was going on for the day, for the next session, introduce the speaker and keep conversation going during the breaks (or in this case, the bad dad jokes). A host can jump in when there’s a tech issue to fill the time while it’s being worked on, and they can pose the questions asked in the Q&A to keep things moving along.

Don’t forget breaks.

At an in-person event, we know people will be checking their emails and returning calls during a break. It’s the same during a virtual event, except there might be more things pulling at attendees’ attention, like kids at home or lunch. Many virtual events span time zones, so consider if some number of attendees might need to make lunch and bring it back to their desks to continue participation. I suggest 10 minutes. The plus side of the virtual event is you can come and go as you please, and we know we can spare an additional five minutes as people make introductions of the next session.

Structure networking to make it easier and less awkward.

In-person networking is organic and awkward at times, but virtual networking is even more awkward because of the forced nature of it. At this conference, networking events were set up in a separate Zoom room, and they somehow shuffled people into smaller groups in private rooms for 15 minutes each, then it sent you back to main room and re-shuffled. Although the technology for shuffling people around was cool to see in action, what would have worked better was to have people in each room who were charged with keeping the conversation going, maybe by having a prompt.

Engage newbies.

Similarly to an in-person meeting, the people who see each other every year are going to be excited to catch up (in this case, via chat), which can be somewhat intimidating for someone new to the event and your association. Consider hosting a first-time attendee chat with members of your key committee or some type of networking session to acquaint those new attendees with the tone of your group so that they might feel more comfortable asking a question during a session or participating in the networking portion. And consider ways to involve them in the chat, as well, by maybe posing some questions in the chat during the presentation.

Make it fun.

This event ended each day with an entertainment session, like a mentalist and comedian or a mixologist who taught attendees who to mix a drink named for the event. Consider how you can morph some of the in-person downtime activities into a virtual space.

Sponsorship opportunities are a must.

Associations are all struggling on how you recognize the sponsors as well as still help them get leads. This association handled it by hosting a drawing, for a $500 voucher from the association, through a drawing. You received more entries to the drawing for each sponsor you engaged with, by going to their page and entering your email. If the prize is something association-related, you are driving more traffic to your sponsors because an attendee wants to engage more with the association—by attempting to win that voucher. Here are some other ideas: If you’re doing an entertainment session, consider a sponsorship for that. Maybe it’s a chocolate tasting and you can send attendees chocolates ahead of time, with personalized wrapping of the sponsor of that event or with a one-pager on the sponsor. Consider having that sponsor introduce the chocolate expert. Or, maybe you’re going to do a wellness event during your virtual conference. Is there an opportunity for a sponsor to brand exercise bands, for instance, that get sent to attendees in advance? When I had to plan an in-person conference for a previous association I lead, I attended other medical conferences to get ideas. Reach out to your colleagues who are planning a virtual conference and ask if you can attend a portion of it. We’re all in learning mode here, so let’s help each other.

Association Laboratory Resources

Thanks Nikki, great effort. If you need additional assistance, Association Laboratory has a several meeting resources, including Planning for the Meeting of Tomorrow and Designing a Compelling Education Event. A year from now we’ll look back at these first events and laugh at how awkward they were. In 5 years, we’ll produce them like we’ve always produced them; without a second thought. Just another idea from My (our?) Seat at the (home) Bar.