5 Things to Consider When Planning a Virtual Conference


By Marta Debski

The 2020 spring conference season was one to remember. As COVID-19 spread, organizers of conferences large and small, near and far, scrambled to postpone (and postpone, and postpone again) their events, reschedule for a later date or, in some cases, cancel altogether.

After the world became virtual essentially overnight, so did conference season. In the midst of a pandemic (with months-long shelter-in-place orders in some parts of the United States, entire country lockdowns across the world, and global travel restrictions), organizations were able to take what were once days or week-long in-person events with tens to hundreds of presentations, expansive exhibit halls, social activities, trainings, certification courses, and more, and get them up and running online in short order.

From Okta’s Oktane (March) to Apple’s WWDC (June), we watched organizations of all shapes and sizes take this massive challenge and turn it into an absolute triumph.So, as we approach the 2020 fall conference season, what can organizations do to ensure their virtual events go off without a hitch?

We spoke to our clients about their past experiences and upcoming virtual events, as well as industry experts, to get their thoughts on the matter. Based on their insights, here are five things to consider:  

1. Amp up the keynote. On Sept. 29, Jamf will kick off its 11th annual Jamf Nation User Conference (JNUC), the world’s largest rally of IT administrators — virtually. It’s no secret that the intros to keynotes of JNUC’s past have been things of charm, humor, and beauty (see the company’s recreation of Adele’s “Hello” at JNUC 2017 and its riff on festival culture at JNUC 2019), and this year is no exception. The keynote sets the tone for the rest of the three-day conference, and the stakes are even higher to capture (and keep) the attention of the community, so it’s important to have some surprises in store. “I promise you the team is working on some incredible and creative ideas to make sure JNUC 2020 reflects the experience you all know and love,” said CEO Dean Hager in a video addressing Jamf Nation. I can’t say much more—you’ll have to tune in on Sept. 29 at 7am PT/9am CT to see the keynote for yourself. JNUC 2020 will be taking place Sept. 29-Oct. 1, and you can register here.

2. Focus on attendee engagement. When the 2020 Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) Annual Conference & Expo was canceled as a result of COVID-19, our client and human capital management (HCM) company, Paycor, wanted to provide an alternative for human resources and business leaders to connect and learn. The company held the four-day #MissingSHRM20 Virtual Conference in June. The biggest priority for the organization? Provide attendees with an online virtual experience unlike anything else. To boost attendee engagement, Paycor Marketing Events Planner Kate Ryan suggests prizes for social participation throughout the event, a virtual interactive trade show booth, face-to-face virtual networking with fellow attendees and speakers, and certifications for continuing education credits. 

3. Be charitable. I spoke with Paul Greenberg, founder and managing principal of The 56 Group, best-selling author, and influential person in CRM, to get his thoughts after attending a few virtual conferences this spring. From COVID-19, to civil rights, to natural disasters and more, Paul said that virtual conferences can serve as an opportunity to contribute to the world’s calls for help. “For all registrants, provide a list of 10 charities to which your organization would like to gift a donation, and allow each registrant to vote on which charity they’d like to see receive that donation.” Not only does this action support an area of need, but making this choice together can foster a greater sense of community within the audience.

4. Choose the right platform. Our client UserTesting will be hosting its annual customer conference, Human Insight World (HiWorld), virtually later this year. “Choosing the right platform was paramount to us being able to architect and build an interactive and immersive experience for our attendees,” said Paige Musto, VP of corporate marketing at UserTesting. “After reviewing multiple platforms, we selected Intrado due to its rich-feature set that would allow us to customize the event as we had envisioned, with livestream keynotes, peer to peer networking opportunities, and gamification.” HiWorld is a free event and will take place Oct. 12-14. Learn more and register here

5. Carve out customer time. Open source dashboarding platform creator and current client, Grafana Labs, held its annual GrafanaCon virtually in May (previously scheduled to take place in person in Amsterdam). With more than 19,000 registrations, the company was able to turn what is usually a smaller gathering into a global event. According to a Fast Company article written by Raj Dutt, cofounder and CEO of Grafana Labs, when it comes to virtual events, it’s important to grab time with customers. “Something that worked pretty nicely was having a small group gathering on a ‘Snack N Slack’ private channel, where our executive leadership hosted some of our customers after the opening keynote,” said Dutt. “We sent each external attendee a Grubhub gift card ahead time to handle the snack part.”

The 2020 spring conference season took the virtual conference experience to new heights. It will be exciting to see what the virtual events of fall 2020 have in store. 

Marta oversees account operations and develops strategy for and executes on PR programs such as corporate announcements, customer advocacy, event planning, speaking and awards – with a focus on content creation and media relations. Contact Marta here