May 1, 2020 | by Chelsea Schick Print

Online Conference Management: Steps for Success 

What does it mean to engage and exchange in a world of social isolation?

Conferences are great opportunities to engage with people who share an interest in our professional world. We think about the same challenges, talk about ways to solve them, and find a community of people who are raising the game for all of us to succeed. 

But everything has ground to a halt because of the global need to isolate. We’re physically locked down in our homes, and the idea of congregating with others has changed so radically that event planners like me are rethinking everything we’ve ever known about our jobs. And if you’ve ever gone to an event and found it valuable, you’re probably wondering about how we would ever be able to replicate the value that in-person experiences create. 

If you’re technologically ready to move everything online, you’re way ahead of the game—but let’s lay this out in a way that will help you take the best steps for your company. You can and should anticipate glitches, but being prepared for a wide variety of problems will help you minimize the risks as you capitalize on your successes.   

When the idea of an online conference was introduced in place of our in-person Asia Liberty Forum, it was met with much skepticism—and rightfully so. Will anyone participate and actually be engaged? Will the technology fail? Can we rely on internet connections around the world to pull off a world-class event? 

If we were going to spend the valuable time on building this out, I wanted to make sure we were set up for success. Asking the right questions helped us navigate these waters, and have set us up to create a world-class experience for our partners in Asia earlier this month.

Step One: What value can we create online?

Connection. Engagement. Interaction. Feedback. Brainstorms.

If anything defines the conference experience, it’s these five ideas. Before we started planning our conference, we sent out a survey to our regional partners to see what they were looking for in a virtual event, and their answers were overwhelmingly consistent.

It was important to me that our outcomes and goals aligned with what would best serve our customers. Atlas Network exists to strengthen think tanks around the world and during a time when so much has changed, we needed to make sure we were identifying where we can add the most value and how we can meet our network’s needs.

In a time when we’re more separated than ever and organizations are facing some of the most challenging times they’ve seen in a long time, our partners want the support of their network in a way that goes beyond what you can provide in a webinar. We needed to replicate the kind of interaction that you would get from an in-person event. 

This is where we’ve done something different. Using Zoom meetings we tried as often as possible in our event to include opportunities for attendees to participate directly in the conversation. During many sessions we encouraged attendees to turn on their webcams. Show their face. Ask questions. And interact in similar ways that they might in-person. 

We incorporated the breakout room function into the program to facilitate small group discussions. Zoom has the ability for you to take your larger meeting of hundreds and split attendees into many smaller groups. This introduces new challenges, such as the need for strong facilitators in each breakout to help keep the conversations moving and the realities that many attendees’ webcams or microphones may not work. But its an option that we’re excited about because this really is the closest option to replicating that face-to-face organic networking experience in an online setting. 

Step Two: What is the platform we’ll use for delivery?

Now that we’ve decided that interaction is a priority, we had to select a tool that allowed for as much engagement as possible within the program structure. This immediately ruled out many of the platforms we were considering that provided only content delivery and chat box Q&A.

I’ve yet to find a single platform that does it all. Some platforms are perfect for content delivery and others have the exciting capacity for organic online networking. Many fall somewhere in-between, with some capacities for both. 

But even when you know what you want, it’s not that easy. You also have to determine your internal capability to use the platform (as in, what sorts of technical skills are required to actually use the software and does your team have those skills) and also take a bet on the reliability of the technology you’re choosing. Not to mention as a non-profit, you need to consider costs. 

New exciting virtual conferencing software is launching everywhere. Some have been around for years like Crowdcast and others are just weeks old. Existing software like RegFox, Whova, and Boomset have added virtual conferencing features to their services in recent months and then there are old reliables like Zoom and GoToWebinar. 

This part of the events industry is very exciting to watch grow, but I want to give a word of caution: innovations are not always reliable.  

This is where seeking professional advice from someone who understands tech can help. Dan Compton, Managing Director of Atlas Network’s Information Systems department, helped me see beyond the shiny sales pitches and identify where the technology might fail. At first I thought he was being a bit overly-cautious in his skepticism, but now that the internet is overloaded, these technologies are being put to the test. I’m receiving blast-emails from many companies apologizing for all the glitches they have and promising to work out the kinks. And not just from the up-and-coming programs. We’ve even seen GoToWebinar—one of the most reliable online conferencing tools—crash.

I hope they do work out the kinks and expand their functionality. I’m excited about this market and am keeping an eye for the next best thing, since the reality of being virtual may last longer than we’d like. But for now, we’ve decided that Zoom serves our network’s needs as a reliable platform that provides the opportunity to deliver content and engage attendees through group conversation in breakouts. 

Steps three, four, five…

When we put the priorities of our network together with the right technology—the rest began to fall into place. This article could be a book (and to be honest, there are trainings out there you can purchase for your organization) but I’ll summarize other steps below for your review.

  • Define success for the event and narrow your target audience based on our priorities and capabilities of the platform. 
  • Pivot the program content to address the concerns that are top-of-mind for your audience and considering facilitating group discussion in the format. 
  • Learn about what content translates well from in-person to virtual programs, and prepare to work with speakers and facilitators to help them be successful online. 
  • Identify where we need more trouble shooting and what back-up plans we need to have when something fails and the show must go on. 
  • Run tests with your speakers and where you can, upgrade lighting, webcams, and microphones to ensure quality. 
  • Understand the full capabilities of the platform. How do you kick out unruly attendees? How do you help attendees with last minute tech issues? 
  • If you use Zoom Meetings, be very intentional with your attendees that they should NOT share the links to join the meetings. It’s a little different in a webinar where a Zoom Bomber could do less damage, but in a meeting where you’re encouraging attendees to share their cameras and participate, having the wrong person in the room could be detrimental.

Long term, I don’t think that virtual experiences will replace in-person events—but they certainly will for the next year or so. In the long-run virtual events may be an important complement to in-person events. 

COVID-19 has changed our world, but let’s look at the positive side: as a result, we’re all more aware of the possibilities to connect online. 

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