8 things to avoid when planning your next virtual conference

By Mark Jones

November 19, 2020


We’ve run 22 virtual conferences for 120,000 people since 2014, and it’s taught us some valuable lessons. Over the last 18 months alone we’ve run 9 Microsoft 365 virtual conferences.

In this post, I want to share some of my learnings and give you some food for thought when it comes to running your own virtual conference.

Let’s get stuck in…

Don’t have a multi-track agenda

Back in the day, we used to put together massive, multi-track agenda’s. We started out thinking bigger was better! The thinking went like …

“The more sessions I cram into this conference, the more ‘value’ we’re giving to attendees”. 

Mark Jones (in 2014)

After all, this is also what happens with physical conferences, so why not just repeat it at virtual too!

There are 2 big problems with multi-track agendas at a virtual summit, namely:

  1. For attendees, you are forcing them to choose between (sometimes 10 sessions) all running concurrently. For your speakers, you are forcing them to compete with other speakers for attention. As conference organizers we usually want Speakers to at least get “some views” and for attendees to be able to watch all of the sessions. Multi-track prevents this, so what normally happens? We promise to upload all of the recordings to YouTube afterward. And guess what that does? It means that people decide not to show up for the initial event and also (to make matters worse), they never watch on YouTube either (see below).
  2. Unlike their physical brother, virtual conferences usually suffer from the dreaded “drop-off”. People are constantly getting distracted (especially if it’s running in Teams when we normally “work”) and will leave your event in a heartbeat. If you have more than one-track, then you’re going to compound the problem by splitting your dwindling attendee count over several sessions. In other words, it makes the drop-off problem even worse because your last Speakers are fighting for a handful of attendees.

My advice: Always go for a single track to give your Speakers the audience they deserve! Believe me, if you care about your Speakers, there is nothing worse than seeing that no one is in their session. Span your conference over multiple-days if you really have so much to share! Our most recent event is being run over 6 days spread apart by 4 weeks.

Don’t put your sessions on YouTube when it’s over

This really should be a ‘no brainer’. If you say from the word-go that you will “put all of the recordings on YouTube” then guess where people will plan to watch them? On YouTube when it suits them! 

And do you know what’s even worse? They won’t watch on YouTube either. (If you don’t believe me look at some of the viewing figures on YouTube for a conference that’s recently finished and uploaded them). 

My advice: Simply don’t do it. It adds no benefits to the Speaker. Let’s face it, they may as well record the session and add it to their own YouTube channel where they can at least get some subscribers or ad revenue. Consider a “second rerun” or to make them available for “one day only”. After that lock ’em down again.

You may also like this popular post with a different perspective from Mark Rackley: Stop recording sessions for your free virtual summits.

Don’t offer free tickets

This is a strange one for me to say because ALL of our events are free to attend. We are forced to use this approach due to the nuances of the niche we are operating in.

If I were producing conferences for a different niche (we’re in the Microsoft space), I would definitely ask for a minimum charge of something like $9 (or higher).

Why?

When it’s free, people will automatically devalue it in their minds and they are likely never to show up. However, if they put some “skin in the game” (money), there’s a far bigger desire to get some “value for money”.  

Note on why we still offer it free: Working in the ‘Microsoft space’ is quite different from many other industries and niches that I also spend time in. In the Microsoft space, there’s a general trend that online events should be free (or very low cost). I believe this notion of “free” has carried over from physical community events like SharePoint/SQL Saturdays that are free to attend and funded by Sponsors. Microsoft also perpetuates the free model because they offer many events free-of-charge themselves. If you operate in a niche with a huge player like Microsoft, then it’s really hard to be the ‘lone wolf ‘ asking people to cough-up dollars for your virtual summit.

My advice: If you are forced to offer free tickets then it’s going to be really hard to market your conference with just organic posts. Sponsorship isn’t that attractive for a virtual event either. In fact, I wrote my thoughts up in ‘why it’s almost possible to run a free event in 2020‘. If you don’t have (or know someone) with a massive list then you’re in for a tough job getting people to hear about it with little or no budget.

What’s our model? We work around the problem of not funding the event by ticket sales or sponsorship, by offering an All-Access Pass giving people access to the session recordings. We also pay people to write up selected sessions into Ebooks and add extras such as relevant training to the All-Access Pass. We take the sessions down around 20 hours after the event has finished, which then allows only the All-Access Pass people (and our Speakers) to watch the content.

Don’t ask the Speakers to “go live” unless it’s absolutely necessary

I am hugely passionate about this point. We’ve experienced way too many issues and epic fails when delivering sessions live. Instead, we play out pre-recorded videos as though they’re “live” and ask the Speaker to be in the chat room so they can answers questions. I won’t go into more detail here as I’ve covered this issue in-depth in this post: ‘Live-stream vs pre-recorded which is best for your virtual summit‘.

Don’t run a Summit without a back-up/disaster plan

We run most of our sessions as videos (as “hybrid live”) from Vimeo. Everyone watches the same second at the same time. This gives the same experience as “live” but gives us much better quality. However, you’d think a service like Vimeo would be solid as a rock! It’s not. It’s let us down on more than one occasion. You need to be prepared for all eventualities and be confident that you can resolve the problem as quickly as possible.

Here’s what we do:

  1. We play the video from Vimeo embedded into our own platform.
  2. If Vimeo or our platform fails, we switch to a YouTube Live feed that we’re already streaming out with ReStream. (We often use this for people that can’t watch Vimeo in their own country/office). 
  3. If that stream fails, we also store a backup of the videos privately on YouTube. We can then make the failed video “public” and then send the attendee traffic to it. 

How do we swap links if we need to?

We use a URL shortening service (for all sessions) and Cloudflare page rules to swap from one to the other really fast.

It’s really not hard, or expensive but it is time-consuming to do this. If you’re serious about pulling off a great event, it’s essential. 

Don’t make it hard to register

Registration is one of the hardest and most important aspects to get right. When it comes to sign-up processes and forms, people are unforgiving. If you are paying for adverts to get people to register, then you need to make it as easy and frictionless as possible.

My advice: is to ask for the bare minimum on your registration form and don’t ask them to jump through hoops to complete.

Every input box or step you put in their way will lower your conversion rate and increase your cost per attendee!

Mark Jones

Having a poor conversion rate is a BIG deal if you’ve ever run ads on platforms like Facebook, Google, LinkedIn, and Twitter. Ad costs are only set to get more expensive.

Here’s an example of our form, we ask for the bare minium:

Don’t make it hard to “get in” or “get around”

I’m a big fan of virtual conferences and have seen many different ways of running them. One common problem is that so many make it such hard work to get in on the day, let alone move between sessions. If you want to take the quality level up a few notches, consider using an all-purpose platform like HeySummit.

Run paid ads that tell your registered users that it’s live and to “Enter conference” here. (This is really effective).

Mark Jones

You need to make sure that people get calendar invites as early as possible. Also, think of every possible way someone will try to get in and make sure you have posts pointing them to your front door.

Think about these:

  • People will go to Google and search for your event. Whatever comes top make sure there’s a big “Enter conference” button.
  • People will go to your social accounts so add links to them.
  • Run paid ads that tell your registered users that it’s live and to “Enter conference” here. (This is really effective).
  • People will go to your registration page, add a link there.

Your agenda also needs to be super easy to find and should contain links straight into the room.

If you do force people to “log in” then make sure that the end of the process drops them into your event. When a session is over, be sure to thank the Speakers and drop the link to the next session in the site chat.

(Oh if you don’t have a “chat” client for each session, pick a platform that does. Attending a conference with no active chat is a very strange experience).

Don’t ignore the late arrivals

If you expect your attendees to come in from all over the world, spanning multiple timezones then you can’t really expect someone in Australia to wake up at 2am to watch. It’s unfair on them so make it easy for them to rewatch it when they’re awake.

My advice: We give each session it’s own room. Once the session has played out we then make it play “on-demand”. We also leave the sessions up so that everyone in the world has enough time to watch. If you use one room / video stream for all sessions then you’re making it really hard to go back and watch.

Mark Jones

About Mark Jones

My goal is to help 1000 Microsoft experts have more freedom by selling their skills, working from wherever they choose. To achieve this, I want to help educate via these sites: 👉 Collab365 Summits - Massive virtual conferences for Microsoft products 👉 Collab365 Today - Aggregation site for the best community blogs 👉 Collab365 Community - Huge blog site including plenty of Microsoft content

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