The feedback surveys are still rolling in, but I can say without a doubt that our first virtual conference was a success! Our amazing clients (and our generous CEO who matched contributions) raised enough money for Samaritan’s Feet to provide shoes and COVID kits for 1,200 children. We heard inspiring keynotes and gained insights from client speakers sharing stories on everything from the future of the physical office to the challenges of innovating during a crisis. We had some fun, and we learned a ton—and not just from the content.
Our Breakthrough Conference planning team took on the challenge of converting our in-person event to an online one with some ambitious goals in mind. We wanted to more than double our in-person attendance and provide a first class experience for our guests. We researched best practices, we attended other events, we tested out our assumptions, and we made adjustments along the way.
If you are planning a remote company meeting, your own virtual conference, a strategic annual planning session, or some other large virtual event, here’s what we learned that may help you:
Offer many ways to stay engaged.
We coached our attendees to turn their web cams on and use Zoom’s Gallery view to see each other. We provided engagement signs with pre-printed reactions of “Awesome” or “Breakthrough” to flash at the camera when they heard something amazing from one of the speakers. We showed people how to use the reaction emojis on Zoom and encouraged people to use those, too. We had two people on our team dedicated to engaging people in the Chat—and not just on Zoom technical support or questions for the speakers. We used polling, and in the more intimate breakouts, we had participants un-mute and share. We tried to keep the energy high, and we were pleased to see that most of the people who joined were still with us throughout the whole event.
Vary the content.
We kept the content sessions short (keynotes were 20 minutes each), and we mixed in some interview-style sessions with our client spotlights to keep the format varied. We had different types of breakouts, too. Some of them were mostly working in our software, some were more for participants to share and learn from each other, and some were more traditional presentations. We kept our audience in mind and worked hard to share content we thought would resonate and be helpful. We completely scrapped the agenda we had built for our in-person conference (we’d already selected speakers and session topics for October’s event when the pandemic hit in March), and we pivoted to a shorter, more varied content strategy.
Honestly, we could have done a better job of taking frequent breaks. It was a hard balance to strike between not wanting to lose the audience and wanting to be sure we give people a chance to stretch, move around, check emails, etc. A good rule of thumb for virtual meetings is to take a 10-15 minute break every hour.
Stick to the schedule.
In a live event, if one of the speakers goes a little long, you can just push back the break by five minutes, or shorten the time for housekeeping announcements or even start the networking happy hour a little later than planned. There’s some wiggle room to run long—but on a virtual stage where people are joining perhaps just for one of the 20 minute sessions, we knew it was important to run as close to on time as possible. Every one of our speakers had a handler from our team who watched the clock and sent text or chat updates to help the speaker stay on time. Sticking to the planned agenda is more important on a virtual meeting than it is in-person.
Practice your tech.
We experimented with a few different platforms and landed on Zoom, with which our team was already very comfortable. Thanks to some recent updates, we were able to spotlight speakers for attendees, and we used Canva for our main slides, which has some fun animations to keep the presentations lively. In order to get the timing right and have the polished, professional feel we were going for, we practiced the technology, the timing and the transitions almost as much as we practiced the content. In our in-person events, we outsource this part to an audiovisual crew to make sure the tech works perfectly, so we had to work extra hard to be sure we had this covered.
Have a Plan B and a Plan C.
We’ve all been to virtual events where someone’s internet dropped, someone’s microphone was muted at the wrong time, or the host’s computer died. Everyone has been there, and everyone who has to put on a virtual event stays up at night worried about this. We were very lucky on the day of the event, but we had also talked through possible issues and developed multiple backup plans and redundancies to minimize the risk. We had multiple hosts of our meeting, each on a different internet connection, so we could hopefully not drop the meeting for everyone. We had prepared an email to blast to everyone who signed up for the conference with an alternative meeting link. Every breakout session had a handler there with the slide deck downloaded just in case the speaker was having any technical problems. We had two emcees—Cindy was ready to step in with Barry’s script in-hand, if needed.
In one of our early dry runs, our team couldn’t find the Zoom links to join the breakouts even though we sent detailed instructions on how to join from the app. We decided to err on the side of over communication in advance of the event: we sent instructions on how to join Zoom from the event app website and how to download the sessions to calendars. We also sent an email the day of the event with all the links to sessions people had registered for. Then, we put the Zoom links in the chat for people who were already attending the conference to make it easy for them to find their next session. We didn’t want there to be any unnecessary barriers for attendees, so we communicated those links every way we knew how.
Hopefully, some of these tips will be helpful as you potentially shift in-person events online. I’d love to hear your lessons learned or best practices if you’ve successfully moved to virtual for some major events in your company.
Here are other blogs to help with virtual meetings:
Photo Credit: iStock by Getty Images