Putting on the best virtual conference — Part 2: Learning to be more virtually perfect
Tuesday, November 03, 2020
For part one, please click here.
The recent virtual annual meeting for my association, the Society for the Advancement of Consulting, was a great success. We had 34 Zoom sessions and more than 50 speakers over a two-day period. More than three times the number of people attended as the previous in-person event. Feedback from attendees was overwhelmingly positive.
Not everything was perfect, of course. But the event ran smoothly, even in spite of a few behind-the-scenes glitches.
Here are our key learnings — of both what went well and areas for improvement.
Don’t scrimp on support. We brought together a support team that included someone dedicated to helping speakers with Zoom preparation, admins to monitor email and text support issues, and Zoom managers who were responsible for managing the technical aspects of each presentation. Then, we added session hosts who introduced the speakers and managed Q&A sessions.
Clearly document responsibilities. We needed to sort out the roles of a session facilitator (who drove content in the session) from a session host (who managed Q&A) from a Zoom manager (who started the session and was responsible for handling technical issues). In the future, we’ll be more clear about these roles upfront.
Build in redundancy. We wanted to have multiple breakout sessions simultaneously that would also be recorded. That means we couldn’t use Zoom’s Breakout Room function. We also wanted to start the next session before the first was done so that we could get speakers prepped and ready at the top of each hour.
The easiest way to do this was with six separate Zoom feeds, two of which were webinar mode, the others in meeting mode. Each feed was color-coded to make it easier for the team to know which feed was live at any time.
Document the details. We created a master Run of Show schedule on Google Drive and shared it with the team. It included start and stop times, session name, speaker name, their local time zone, session host, assigned Zoom manager, Zoom links, and which Zoom feed would host the session. This was the Bible and we referred to it continuously during the conference. We also had email and cell phone contacts for each speaker in case of emergency.
Remind and then remind again. We sent multiple reminder emails to attendees, speakers, and hosts. We also texted hosts when it was time for them to log in.
Stuff happens. Deal with it. Even with all those reminders, stuff happens. Speakers don’t show up on time (or at all); session hosts oversleep; attendees lose their login credentials. Many of these issues are predictable. We were prepared to jump in and make changes real time when stuff occurred.
Offer incentives for feedback. Attendees had the option to download a free e-book (about virtual meetings) if they answered a quick, five-question survey about the meeting. Some people told us we had too many sessions — others said the content was amazing and they wouldn’t want any less. Some wanted more interactivity — others had specific input for a particular speaker. It was all valuable.
Debrief and share learnings. Ask, what did we do right? Where can we improve? In our case, there were three main areas:
- The actual schedule was in flux until a few days before the event. Attendees told us they would have preferred to have the schedule available a week in advance so they could plan which sessions they wanted to attend live.
- Attendees asked for more networking and unstructured time.
- Some speakers dislike the webinar format because they can’t see the audience. Some audience members dislike this because it does not feel interactive. As time goes by, we expect the technology to improve to better address this.
Will our next event be in-person or virtual? Too soon to know, but our post-event survey revealed that most of the attendees said they would like to attend virtual events in the future — even if they had in-person options. We’ll use what we learned this time to make the next event even more virtually perfect.
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