How to run a virtual conference
Lessons learned from running the first Learning While Working virtual conference
This blog post is based on our experience of organising the 2018 Learning While Working virtual conference. The event was run over 14 hours and comprised 30 sessions. We commenced at 7am and finished at 9pm, which provided time slots suitable for most of the English speaking parts of the world. Most of the presenters were past guests on the Learning While Working podcast.
About one-third of people who signed up attended the live sessions, which is a lot less than a typical webinar. When this was split across the day the number of people actually online at any one time was a lot less than we expected, especially in the Australian evening time slots. The best attended sessions were in the morning (Australian time) because this overlapped with the USA workday time zone.
The rest of this blog post describes how we went about planning and running the event and some of our lessons learned.
Finding presenters – past podcast guests
Finding presenters was the easy part, because of the podcast. The podcast has been running for over 18 months and we have some great past guests. What I didn’t expect was for so many presenters to say yes and be so excited about the event. This meant the number of sessions and the scale of the event rapidly expanded beyond what we had planned. Past themes on the podcast include learning analytics and continuous learning cultures and the themes of the conference grew from those.
The process of contacting and confirming topics and times with presenters was managed in our CRM, ActiveCampaign.
When I’m presenting, I often find the process of getting abstracts and bios together rather time consuming. It’s usually what the event organiser has to follow up with the presenters. Key to keeping the event as simple as possible was not asking presenters for abstracts and bios, just titles for their sessions.
Deciding on the format of your virtual conference
Designing the format of the event was the single most important component of the planning. We explored lots of innovative formats for the virtual conference, including mixing social learning platforms with the live event, and running the event over a week with reflective sessions and a jam event. We decided to make this first event as simple as possible and just focus on live presentations.
We had planned on running a third room that was more of a panel-based discussion format but we found that this needed more planning than the simple live presentations. Many presenters made their sessions into highly interactive experiences. In the future we would like the format to allow for more live interactions between participants.
One outcome was that in one of the sessions a group of people realised that they were all from Ballarat, a city just east of Melbourne. An L&D meet-up group in Ballarat has been set up.
This is the most like a face-to-face event – but without the lunchtime conversations.
This type of event is simple to organise. It’s a format people understand.
Presenters don't need to pre-record any material.
There are a lot of risks that are outside the control of the organisers, including:
Live over a period of days
This can become like a mini festival, and may be the type of event Sprout Labs moves to in the future.
Can be a mix of more reflective style activities than synthesis sessions.
It has more elements so it takes more time to organise.
With this format all the sessions are pre-recorded and they are released on the day of the event.
I'm not a fan of this format – but it is common in the marketing and sales community.
There is less risk for organisers.
It takes a lot more organising and it’s not really an event because it’s all recorded.
Recorded but with live interaction
In this format the presenters are present during the sessions to run questions and activities.
Presenters can focus on interactions.
It’s a balance of live and recorded formats.
The recordings take more time for organisers.
The Learning While Working virtual conference was a mixture of 30- and 60-minute sessions. Next time we might have 30-minute slots only. Organising the schedule was easier than expected and we were able to develop a few clusters of sessions around topics; for example, in room two before lunch there was a cluster of sessions about social learning.
The challenge was the time zones
We had multiple speakers who were allocated times based on their home location, but they were travelling – we had multiple people from Australia and Canada in the UK. The multiple time zones also created a marketing problem because the date was different around the world; some people become confused about exactly what day the event was on.
Feedback from multiple participants was the need for breaks. We had more people than I expected who wished to attend the whole day. We did have two breaks in room two, partly to give the facilitator a lunch and dinner break. We found that these were the times of day when participation numbers declined, and when room two started again after the break it took a few sessions for the numbers to rebuild.
Technology – Zoom and ActiveCampaign
At Sprout Labs we use WebEx for our virtual meetings and our monthly webinar. For the virtual conference we used Zoom, mainly because of the cost and the ease with which presenters can share their screen. We also found that many of the presenters had used Zoom in the past. The webinar version of Zoom does have some issues, mainly that participants cannot annotate.
The week before the event we encouraged presenters to book in a time with us to test Zoom and talk about their session. This meant that everyone felt confident with the platform.
Managing the sign-up process
The sign-up process for the event was managed using our email marketing and CRM system, Active Campaign, with a few Zapier scripts for integration with Zoom. The reason we use Active Campaign for our online events is that messages that come from platforms such as Zoom and WebEx are not particularly friendly.
The sign-up form was just a name and email, and then on the confirmation page people were asked three simple optional questions. About 80% filled out the form. The questions on the confirmation page focused on what sparked their interest in the virtual conference, what content they are interested in, and whether or not they were planning on attending live.
The information we captured was hugely valuable. The results from ‘what sparked your interest’ helped us understand the value proposition for attendees and refine how we promoted the event.
An unexpected technical challenge was organising calendar invitations for the event that worked in all calendar systems. Normally for webinars we just use the calendar invitation links that WebEx and Zoom make, but with the two-room setup this was more difficult.
We found a service called ‘Add Event’ that does all the technical bits for all the different calendar formats to work.
Promoting the event – the network effect
We did a series of tests with different platforms and copy for promoting the event. We used an A/B testing system called ‘Ad Espresso’ that enabled us to test multiple versions of copy on Facebook. This gave us data-driven insights into which copy people clicked on the most. The Facebook ads didn’t work well for getting actual sign-ups, but this testing process did help us refine how the event was promoted.
What we found was that LinkedIn posts, where I tagged the speakers and they shared/commented/liked the post, worked extremely well. It’s what I’m calling the network effect. Two other things worked well for creating sign-ups:
- presenters promoting the event on their mailing lists
- presenters posting social messages about what they were working on for the event.
One of my big learning experiences was seeing how some of the presenters were able to use promoting the event as a way to raise their own profile.
Planning – getting it all right
In the office we started talking about 'what could go wrong'. This led to our doing a full risk analysis of the event. The risk management plan led to a playbook for the day (more on that below).
Below are two of the major risks and how we planned on dealing with them.
Presenters not showing up
One of presenters was expecting their first child on the day of the conference. This meant we had to plan around him not attending. To start with I had planned on having backup sessions ready to run. But we actually decided to do something a lot simpler, which was that if someone didn’t attend we simply displayed a slide saying that the presentation wasn’t happening; please access the other room.
More people attending the live event that what we expected
A big risk was that more people would attend the live event than our Zoom room could cope with. We set up (but didn’t promote) a live YouTube stream from Zoom as a backup. We had a message drafted in ActiveCampaign ready to send if we needed to direct people to this live stream.
The risk management plan informed our playbook for the day. This had three major sections: checklists for the beginning and end of the day, a running sheet for the day, and an ‘if this then that ...’ plan.
The checklists includes tasks we needed to do before the event started, e.g changing around the sign-up messages, changing content on the website and starting the Zoom rooms. The running sheet had notes about which presenters had polls and what web address presenters wanted posted during their session.
Our ‘if this then that’ plan came from the risk management plan. If things went right we didn't have to make decisions – we’d all know exactly what do; if we got 950 people in a room at once we would promote the YouTube stream.
The playbook was in a Google Doc so it could shared and updated easily.
On the day
The event was live for 14 hours, but it was actually a 16-hour day for the core Sprout team in Hobart. To make this easier we organised catering and tried to not drink too much coffee.
Mike Gwyther, the facilitator for Room two, was in Ballarat. Iona, one our designers, is based in Italy at moment, so we used a Slack channel to keep in contact. One of the lovely moments of the day was doing a quick video call on Slack after it was all done to say ‘Yes, we did it.'
Each room had a facilitator and technical support person who was also sending private messages to presenters about how much time they had left. Throughout the day, one team member was posting tweets about what was happening in the sessions.
The recordings are all housed on a password protected site that we built using Glasshouse. The editing of recordings and getting the site ready happened relatively quickly, but for the team it didn't have the same level of excitement and energy that the lead up to the event had.
What we would do differently next time
Finally, a few things we would do differently next time:
- Have just one room running at a time.
- Look at exploring more interactive formats than just presentations.
- Work with a UK partner to promote the event.
- Charge people to access the recordings to drive more people to the live event.