(Edit: Updated March 26 with tech-guide for speakers link)
On March 12, 2020, we faced a daunting challenge. Our March 19 New York City based in-person conference was 7 days away and people were starting to think the sky was falling. The night before, Trump had just announced a ban on all European flights. The US just hit 500 confirmed cases of COVID-19. We did not yet know how bad it was going to get, but we knew it could only get worse.
For the health and safety of our guests, we knew we could not continue this event in-person.
However, since the epidemic first became public in January, we had put together a backup plan to make the entire event virtual. Fortunately, we had experience running webinars and virtual communities.
The challenge remained that this was not an ordinary conference. It was one of the largest InsurTech Conferences with 7 panels, 20 start competition pitches, 4 TED-style talks, totaling over 60 speakers. As part of the competition, more than twenty judges had to vote on winners in near real-time. We also promised to provide networking opportunities with one-on-one meetings for all the attendees. All that added up to a tall challenge.
The only question that remained was were we able to execute on the new plan? Immediately we went into action. Within 12 hours, we called every speaker and sponsor about the new format. All speakers stuck with us. We immediately went to work and notified our attendees. The end result was powerful, global engagement with attendees eager to exchange information and hear from expert speakers in the field.
Lesson one. A virtual conference is more work than an in-person event. Unlike a physical space where you can control the entire environment, control the complete tech setup, and improvise on the fly, a virtual conference is not so forgiving. If you make a misstep or lose connection, you can lose the audience completely and technology glitches are more obvious. There are many more dependencies and failure points, and require crisp coordination and being on-point with everything. Don’t take this job lightly!
There are five essential elements to a perfect virtual conference (or near-perfect):
The following section will cover tips under each of the essential elements.
At its heart a virtual conference is a technology product. You must treat it that way. We decided to use Zoom for our conferencing platform and Grip for our networking platform. However, you need to do your own research and fit what works for your team and your budget. The following tips should help you get your technology setup.
a) Use a web conference app and be proficient at it. There are a number of virtual conference tools out there including Webex, Bluejeans, Zoom, GoToWebinar among others. Select the tool based on your requirements and go with it. We went with Zoom “Webinar”, as it can handle up to 10,000 attendees. We were also very familiar with Zoom for our normal day to day virtual meetings and felt comfortable with its performance and capability.
b) Use a virtual networking app and be proficient at it. Many people go to events for networking, and so we wanted to continue offering this capability to our attendees. Review all of the options available such as Grip, Brella, and Hopin and pick what suits your audience best.
c) Upgrade internet speed and use ethernet cable: If you are the host, you cannot afford to have bad audio or video. Upgrade your internet and connect your computer using the ethernet cable. In our case, we upgraded to 1 Gigabit Verizon FIOS.
d) Have a dedicated microphone: Your audio as a host is important. A quality dynamic microphone will do the job, but if you are looking for the best audio look into podcasting audio setups that include dynamic microphones. We ended up choosing the Blue Yeti dynamic microphone because we had past experience using it in our online courses and came with a built-in stand and easy to use mute button.
Running a virtual event takes a different type of team than an in-person event. For in-person events, certain traits shine like charisma, situational awareness, and ability to improvise. Virtual events work best with an entirely different set of skills like attention to detail, timeliness, and direct communication. If something goes wrong, there is little time to waste, so the team needs to mesh and work together in a crisis. Some specific tips to build the best team are:
a) Clearly divide roles and explain expectations. It is best if one person keeps the same role throughout the event. There are five roles we found that make things run smoothly.
b) Everyone must understand the technology. Learning the conference and networking software is not optional. All team members must go through training and demonstrate they can handle the detailed and most complex elements of the software. It is difficult to know in advance what will go wrong and who will be needed to improvise. We made sure every staff and volunteers had admin access and training on how to use the tools.
c) Practice, practice, and dry run everything. Make sure your entire team goes through a dry run of the event as if they were going to give a theatrical performance. You need to dry run the entire conference with as close to real conditions as possible including the final presentations and the same technology with the same settings you will use during the show. You must also adjust the team member roles and add support if it becomes clear in practice that one person will not be able to do a certain assigned role. Due to limited time, we only did one dry-run, but in retrospect, we should have had at least one more.
Events are often dynamic with speakers, sponsors, and agendas changing up until the last minute. Virtual events require more planning and that you lock down the details of the conference as far as in advance as possible. Our general recommendation is to keep the session schedule locked 2 weeks before the event and lock all speakers 1 week before. Beyond timing, here are some tips to make your planning as effective as possible.
a) Architect the event to run continuously. Ideally, a virtual conference should have continuous content with no breaks. Every time you have a break, you give the audience an opportunity to leave the screen and not come back. If you want to plan breaks, make sure you have content on the screen to let the audience know when the break will be over and what to expect next.
b) Design the event so it’s entertaining: Attendees have other options during a virtual conference. It is even more important that you keep them engaged throughout. There are a number of things you can do for entertainment. You can ask poll questions in between and during sessions. You can keep sessions concise so if one speaker is dull it does not ruin the day. You can add special features like a professional comedian during breaks for entertainment (which we ended up doing, and it was a hit).
c) Over-communicate to everyone: Assume only 25% — 35% of the emails you send will be received. That is true for speakers and attendees. Send attendees information about how to access the content through as many channels as possible (e.g. email, LinkedIn, and text). Using multiple email services and multiple domains to maximize deliverability and track opens. Provide an email where people can ask for help if they cannot access your content.
Speakers are the heart of your conference. A virtual conference requires that every speaker be able to communicate effectively and capitate the audience. Attendees are only one click away from their email or the word document with their last project. Do everything you can to vet speakers and if you end up with a dull speaker try to minimize their time or contribution. Here are additional tips to help you manage speakers and content.
a) Simplify everything and build in redundancies for speakers. In the virtual conference, a panel will also trump an individual speaker. If one person drops out of a panel, you will still have other panels who can pick up the slack. Also, wherever possible avoid the use of slides and simplify to talking heads. You should also have backups in place if a moderator is unavailable or has technical difficulties. We put in place a backup plan for an alternative moderator to take over any session with the ability to do it mid-session.
b) Set up content prep meetings with all speakers. This is something we normally do for in-person events as well but it is even more important that you prepare the speakers beforehand. Heave at least one prep-meeting with all of the speakers and hold 1-on-1 pitch feedback sessions with each startup who were pitching. This will be a substantial time commitment. You can optimize your time by having speakers join calls with their co-panelists and keeping startup review calls back-to-back at 20-minute intervals (that way you get 3 per hour).
c) Schedule tech-test meetings with all speakers. Separate from content prep meetings, you need to have a session with all of the speakers to ensure they know how to join the virtual conference and test that their audio and video works. Don’t assume that the speakers will “figure” it out during the conference. A small hiccup will be even more magnified in a virtual setting or ruin an entire session. We nagged until all 60+ speakers did a 10~15 minute tech test with us.
d) Guide for speakers. We also sent the speakers a guide that repeats most of what we reviewed in the tech-test. This document is literally what we sent to the speakers. We also had a similar but different guide for judges.
e) Have phone numbers of all speakers. This will allow you to call them if there are any issues. Text and email are too slow during the day of the event.
f) Have speakers join 30 minutes prior to their session. Do whatever it takes so the speakers join the conference before their session starts. This should include telling them one-on-one, sending multiple email reminders, and sending calendar invites 30 minutes prior to their session. Even after you do this, some speakers will not join on time. When they do not join on time, you must call their cell phone and get them into the session.
As the saying goes, anything that can go wrong will go wrong. The goal is to have all of those things that can go wrong occur in your dry run. After our dry run it hurt our confidence and we were worried about the event. It was that paranoia that helped us get through the day and deal with any issues quickly. The following recommendations are if you hit a snag in the day.
a) Establish backups for everything: Think about the important things that could ruin the event if it went wrong, and then have backups for them. In our case, we had a backup for Zoom (e.g. GoToWebinar), backup for audio access for speakers, back up for different roles, and a backup for internet connection for some of our staff.
If you have any questions on the above or need help or advice on running your virtual conference, please don’t hesitate to contact us. We are more than happy to share what we know. You can reach either Tony or David directly (email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org)