A decent chunk of the world is moving online. From socializing to retail, the internet has opened up a whole new world of possibilities for interaction. The sharing of ideas is no different. From TED talks to full-blown week-long events, professionals are moving online to share insights, ideas, and products.
Virtual conferences, as they’re called, are becoming a viable (even desirable) alternative to real world events. And the best thing? Any site can host one. Plenty of hard work goes into it, of course, but with each passing year it seems more and more worth it. When content is king, being the site where experts share ideas is very valuable indeed.
What are virtual conferences?
Virtual events are to conferences what Netflix is to television: audience autonomy. By giving ‘attendees’ flexibility, they improve overall engagement. Those on the other side of the world simply boot up their computer. Those who can’t watch a three o’clock talk can just bookmark the event and catch up later.
They are a step beyond webinars. There are more moving parts, more speakers and better opportunity to network.
There is a wide variety of online conferences. Below are just a handful of examples:
Events can be free and open, or closed and exclusive. Some keep footage of the talks live as a kind of archive, while others, like BigCommerce, provide a finite window in which to watch talks.
In short, they’re incredibly flexible.
Why do them?
There are lots of reasons people opt for online conferences.
They cost less. Organizing a conference in the real world usually requires tens of thousands of dollars. The event needs to be hosted somewhere. That needs to be paid for. Speakers need to get to wherever it’s being held and have somewhere to stay. This needs to be paid for. When hosted online this often isn’t a problem.
Well run events grow awareness of a brand and reinforces its authority in a given field. People learn about you, and they learn from you. Win win. Well run conferences can become linchpins of an industry.
A step beyond growing awareness is growing a following. If you put on a great event, attendees will be back next year — and they just might bring a friend. Conferences tend to happen annually, and when they’re successful they get bigger.
There is no real cap on the number of people who can attend a virtual conference. Only so many people can fit in a room, but millions can visit a web page. Your virtual conference isn’t going to be raking in views by the millions (sorry) but it’s a fantastic logistic not to have to worry about. A rented space needs X number of paying attendees to pay for itself; a web page doesn’t have the same problem.
Size matters less. There’s a misconception that conferences need hundreds of attendees and big stages with custom sets. Not true, especially online. Conferences are meetings of people who share common interests. That’s it. Ideas and experiences are shared, connections are made, and everyone goes back to their lives.
Virtual events cost less and can be far more ambitious. 20 speakers and 1000 attendees is a nightmare in the real world — not so online. It’s still a lot of work, but the likelihood of things going catastrophically wrong go way down.
David Spinks, founder of CMX, summarises nicely that “the one thing that trumps everything else is the content on your stage and the way you bring attendees together to interact.” The beauty of virtual conferences is that none of this needs to be lost. The tone will be different, the energy will change, but the core value of the event is preserved.
When all is said and done, a great virtual event inspires discussion and goodwill in equal measure, leaving a host of unique, valuable content on your site. When it’s done right, that is.
What goes into them?
Putting on an informative, inspiring, lovely event without having to leave your desk is a nice vision, but let’s not pretend it doesn’t require hard work. Online or off, conferences involve a lot of moving parts.
Not as much as you might think, especially compared to the logistics of an actual conference. We’re not going to do a full-blown ‘how-to’ on this (here’s a terrific one by HubSpot). Rather, we’re going to look at the main elements of a virtual event and how it impacts the site hosting it.
The logistics of putting on a conference don’t go away because you’re doing it online — they just change. Digital events require digital work, and a lot of it plays back into your website.
First things first: speakers! Conferences live and die by the quality of their speakers. Get speakers early and plug them well in advance of the event.
Once the ball is rolling, it is essential to establish a ‘location.’ A conference may not be found on any map, but it still needs a home on the web. Most tackle this by creating sites (or site sections) specifically for the event.
BigCommerce took the microsite approach, housing the conference on their main site with the following URL:
Events then sat on pages within that section. For example, a talk about wholesale could be found at:
Simple enough stuff, but these are important foundations for a well organized event. Designing a clearly structured online venue allows users to navigate events easily. No one likes getting lost.
Videos are key. Your speakers need to be seen and heard, otherwise everything falls apart.
The are a couple of big decisions to make with videos. The first is whether to host them on your site or on a third party platform like YouTube. Hosting on-site means attendees need to visit your site to watch the talks, but it also tends to mean less eyeballs.
The second big decision is whether to record talks ahead of time or broadcast them live. Pre recorded talks can look a lot more professional, but real-time engagement becomes a lot harder. You can’t ask two-week old videos questions after all, not without looking a bit weird.
Live videos serve the community aspects of a conference much better in that sense. Talks may not look as polished, but having talkers responding in real time to audience questions — be they through a group chat or video call — makes it well worth it.
Conferences don’t happen in a vacuum. It’s best not to bank on the voice of god telling people about your conference. You need to promote it.
Email is a great way of getting people signed up to your event, especially if it’s free. If your website has a mailing list, it’s simply a case of sending out emails plugging the event and encouraging people to sign up.
Not everyone has big mailing lists. However, just about everyone has social media. Platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn are ideal for networking with like-minded professionals. A well-structured event with interesting speakers will get traction — people just need to know it’s happening.
It’s crucial that your guest speakers promote the event on their own channels. Conferences bring people together, and exposure to other people’s followings can only be good for everyone involved.
Have a purpose and communicate it clearly and consistently.
And for what?
A good virtual conference is worth running for its own sake if you can pull it off. They cost less, can reach more people, and leave behind a wealth of content for your site. Are they unequivocally better than their real life counterparts? No. They are different, but a lot of those differences work in favor of a website looking to improve its standing.
Great conferences are inimitable. Having one (or several) on your site makes you inimitable. That’s valuable. Chris Coyier, cofounder of CodePen, recently put it better than we ever could.
[movie narrator voice]:— Chris Coyier (@chriscoyier) August 18, 2018
Through the rise and fall of platforms and social networks, one stands alone, shining through the fog.
(Screenshot of sweaty website has battle scars and chains wrapped around its waist)
Content is more than copy. It is expertise, mediation, a commitment to ideas being shared and discussed. Online conferences are an amazing opportunity to create unique value for your site. It’s a lot of work, but when it clicks the results are deeply gratifying. You are contributing something. Your site is a hub.
It’s easy to shrug off modern internet users as entitled, lazy brats with the attention spans of goldfish, but it does no-one any good. Your site is part of a community. People in that community will have common interests and experiences. Online conferences are a fantastic way of bringing those experiences together, and you can be the one to do it.
It may seem like a high-effort, low-reward task, but that’s the wrong way to frame it. The human element eclipses all other factors. We all remember those who went the extra mile.