Executive Director and Co-Founder of Cloud Foundry Foundation, with 20 years experience in large-scale computing and open source software.
If you’re reading this, chances are that you’ve had to pivot from a traditional in-person conference to a virtual event at some point in the last half-year — maybe even more than once. Very few of us were expecting to attend, let alone host an online conference this year, but if there’s anything I’ve learned from current affairs, it’s to expect the unexpected.
Now that I’ve hosted a successful virtual conference, I’d like to share my top takeaways from the experience. My hope is that these best practices and words of advice will help you capitalize on the inevitable reality of online events for the foreseeable future.
1. Identify the event’s primary goal.
Before you start planning, it’s crucial to identify the top priority outcome you hope to achieve by hosting a virtual event. It’s easier to achieve multiple goals at in-person events, so I’ve learned that it’s imperative to temper the expectation that you will be able to do the same in a virtual environment.
Open-source event goals typically fall into four categories: education, collaboration, networking opportunities and brand marketing or awareness. It’s quite possible to achieve all four of those goals at an in-person event, but if you try to replicate that at a virtual event, your success will be limited.
Stack rank your organization’s goals and make sure you nail the top one (or, if you’re determined, two) objectives. For the virtual North American Cloud Foundry Summit, we had the dual goal of creating opportunities for education and collaboration. We accomplished our education goal, but we weren’t able to achieve all of our goals on the collaboration side.
As we plan for our next virtual summit, we’re going to devote extra time to developing opportunities for collaboration in order to accomplish that key goal.
2. Be mindful of time zones.
Time zones are a constant challenge for those of us who work at global organizations, but the issue is rendered moot at physical events because attendees gather in a single location. Virtual events are a different ball game. There is a lot of opportunity to significantly increase attendance at online events since organizations do not have to foot the bill for their employees to travel. However, you must be mindful of your key audiences across the world and what will be most convenient for them.
We broadened our reach by splitting the conference over two half-days to allow attendees from across the globe to attend during hours they’re normally awake. Breaking the event in half and tailoring each day to a slightly different audience allowed for more people to participate.
Consider which parts of your event experience need to happen live and center those activities during a time frame that gives you the widest reach in both directions around the globe.
3. Maintain attention spans.
As it is, we’re already spending too much time staring at screens during a normal workday. Passivity is a glaring problem that virtual event organizers must find creative ways to overcome.
Make your virtual event interactive with a chat rooms or a live discussion section that enables attendees to engage with speakers and with each other. Couple that capability with a healthy mix of live and prerecorded videos, and you’ve got the makings of active participation throughout your event.
I also encourage you to break up the agenda to facilitate short breaks and activity from attendees. Heading into our last event, I had assumed a seamless flow would work best as a format. Instead, the platform we used, which required attendees to enter and leave individual rooms to view sessions, fostered lively, ongoing engagement as participants greeted one another and the speakers as though they were walking into an actual room. This approach also gave attendees the chance to pop into a chat room or talk to a sponsor in their virtual booth.
Making people take action, however small, during the course of the event is a meaningful way to keep them engaged.
4. Embrace differences.
Don’t go into your virtual event expecting to replicate everything you managed to accomplish at an in-person conference. Embrace what it is — and what it isn’t. A virtual event can feel even more intimate than an in-person conference. After all, you’re broadcasting into someone’s home.
Virtual events give us the opportunity to completely reimagine how we achieve our goals or at least iterate on the attendee experience. If you try to copy and paste an in-person conference into the virtual realm, you and your attendees will be disappointed. Webinars have long been the standard virtual event experience, but it turns out we as an industry can level up.
Once we are able to travel again, there will be a massive opportunity for event organizers to be more thoughtful about blending virtual access to an event with the in-person experience. Don’t just imagine a future where a livestream checks that box. There’s so much more that we can do now and down the road.