How to Create a Virtual Conference: 12 Important Decisions You Need to Make Before You Launch
In December of 2019, I started thinking about what types of summer programs I wanted to create for the summer of 2020. So, I surveyed my audience and asked:
“Other than attending a conference or workshop in-person: When it comes to your professional development and learning more about your work, what do you prefer to do?”
The most popular response was “reading blogs, journals, and books.” This is not surprising considering I mainly work with educators, college professors, teachers, and scholars. And they still love to read! (#booklovers).
But, I was burned out on writing and needed to take a break. I was looking for something new.
The second most popular response was “Viewing and participating in webinars.”
Ah ha! I knew I could create engaging and valuable webinars for my audience, and this was something new! I was excited, but I wanted to offer them something more than just a couple of one-off webinars. I wanted to offer something more valuable, meaningful, and fun.
That’s when I came up with the idea of offering a series of webinars but packaged and carefully designed as a virtual conference. No one in my industry (higher education) was offering virtual conferences at that time, so I thought I’d give it a try and offer something unique and different.
I spent the next 3 months planning the details, researching the technology, and inviting speakers.
Then came March 2020.
COVID-19 upended the world. Higher education shifted and educators were forced to move their courses online. Suddenly, conferences were getting canceled or shifting to virtual formats. So much for my “unique and different” idea!
But, because I had already spent months planning my virtual conference, I was actually ahead of the crowd. I didn’t have to pivot quickly or rush to change my plans. I was ready. I kept pushing forward, determined to create the best event I could for my audience.
My goal was to get 30 participants. I got 352! (WOW!) It was my most successful, meaningful, and rewarding event since launching my business 9 years ago. I met amazing educators, connected with talented scholars, and renewed my energy.
And that’s why I’d like to share my recommendations with you. If you are thinking about creating a virtual conference, maybe my experience will help you create a successful event that takes your business to the next level. Or, maybe you’re looking for something else to offer your audience rather than another course or webinar.
The 12 Important Decisions You Need to Make Before You Launch Your Virtual Conference
Who is the conference for?
You must know who you are serving. Who are your participants? What problem will they solve by participating in your conference? What do they need? What do they want? What are their biggest challenges? And you also need to know if they have the resources to pay the registration fee for your conference (if you are charging a fee).
What is the theme or goal?
You may not need a “theme” but there should be a common mission, goal, or outcome. What is the overall point of your conference? What’s the key takeaway? How will the session connect together to create a cohesive experience? Also, make sure there is a need for this topic and that your audience wants to know more about it.
Who are your presenters or guest speakers?
If you are inviting presenters and guest speakers, you need to know how they facilitate online learning. Are they engaging and interactive? Do they have an online presence that fits with your brand and mission? And then you have to figure out how many presenters you want and what you want to offer them (speaking fee, special offer, sponsorship opportunity, etc.).
What is the format and schedule?
By format, I mean how are you structuring the overall conference experience? How many days? What is happening in the sessions? Are your speakers leading formal presentations? Are they engaging in Q&A and discussions? Are you offering concurrent sessions?
The schedule is very specific and you want to make sure to post it everywhere so your participants know when events are happening and where they are supposed to be. How many sessions? How long are the sessions? When do they start and end? When are the breaks? Who is speaking and what’s the topic for each session?
Do you want to include sponsors?
Sponsors can certainly raise awareness about your conference and increase participation, and a sponsorship program offers another source of revenue if that is one of your goals. Sponsors help support your conference and you help them reach a new audience, so it’s a win-win.
If you decide to work with sponsors, what type of sponsorship package do you want to offer? Who do you want to reach out to? Whose products/services/goals align with yours? What kinds of social promotions and/or shout outs can you integrate into your conference?
Do you want to set up an affiliate program?
Affiliates are partners. They help raise awareness, market, and sell your conference to their audiences. Usually, affiliates earn a commission based on the sales they make. Do you want to work with affiliates? How much do you want to pay them for each sale they make? Do you want to offer other incentives for your affiliates?
What special offers and giveaways can you offer to your participants?
If you’ve attended in-person conferences, you may have stopped by a vendor table or an exhibitor booth to learn more about their products and services (and get a free pen!). What can you offer that is similar to this experience in your virtual conference? Do you want to do raffles or giveaways throughout the conference? Do you want to offer a “swag bag” or coupon book for special offers? Do you want to offer a certificate or digital badge?
Do you want to build a community around your event?
During in-person conferences, there are many opportunities for participants to interact with each other, grab a cup of coffee, or hang out in the halls between events. Do you want to offer this type of experience for your participants? Do you want participants to connect with each other outside of the sessions? Do you want to give access to the community before, during, and after the conference or just during the conference?
Or maybe you want to transition to paid membership or community model after the conference. Do you want to include a time-limited offer to your membership as part of the registration fee or an exclusive offer just for conference attendees?
Do you want to charge a registration fee?
Depending on the type of conference you want to offer, your industry, your goal, and your audience, you need to decide whether or not to charge a registration fee.
If you want to charge a registration fee, what costs and expenses do you need to include per ticket to ensure you break even or generate a profit? What will the registration fee include? Will you offer discounts for groups?
If you are not charging a registration fee, then do you plan to leverage the conference as a marketing strategy to promote your other products and services? And finally, how will people register and pay? Be sure to set up your registration link and payment process before you start marketing.
How do you plan to market your conference?
Once you know who your audience is, what problem you’re helping them solve, and the overall format of your conference, how do you plan to announce it? Where does your audience hang out online? Can you share your conference with your email list and/or your network?
How can you generate excitement and anticipation about your conference? How can you promote it on your website, blog, podcast, and/or social media channels? And, remember, before you start marketing your conference, you’ll need to have a registration link and payment process ready to go for those who are ready to purchase.
What technology and support do you need?
The technology tools you need will depend on the format you choose for your virtual conference and your budget,
Before the conference: What websites, sales pages, and social media platforms will you need to create to promote the conference? What registration and payment processes do you need to set up? How will registration emails be captured and organized? What tools will your presenters need?
During the conference: Do you plan to livestream the presentations? Do you need chat and/or discussion forums? Do presenters need to share documents? Do you want to offer a community-based and/or interactive experience beyond the formal presentations sessions? Do you need a tech support person during the live sessions (highly recommended)? Do you need a helpdesk/support email, text, or phone number? Do you need to provide live closed-captioning and/or transcripts?
After the conference: Will the presentations be recorded and posted for viewing later? Do you want to send a post-conference survey to your participants (and sponsors)?
What do you want your role to be?
And finally, you are the creator of the conference, but what will your role be during the event? Are you the host? Are you a presenter? Do you want to monitor the chat? Do you want to interview your presenter during the event instead of using formal presentations? Do you want to oversee the event planning and management details (registration, marketing, tech support, etc.)? Are you “front and center” throughout the conference or are you working more “behind the scenes”?
Planning a virtual conference can be overwhelming, but it can also be exciting! You can be as creative as you want to be and you can create a memorable and meaningful experience for your participants (and for you!). You have the opportunity to reach new audiences and create new partnerships.
Keep it simple at first, and be sure to stay in touch with your audience so you know what they are looking for and what they need. Use social media, phone calls, emails, and surveys to tap into your audience’s biggest challenges so you can design a cohesive and engaging conference experience that helps them succeed.
Are you thinking about offering your first virtual conference? Send your questions (firstname.lastname@example.org) and let me know what you’re planning! Or, if you’ve already created a virtual conference, tell me how it went and what you learned.