How to Plan a Virtual Conference
Before you dive in, if you are interested in conference sponsorship, check out these titles in our “sponsorship for conferences” series:
According to the virtual event platform vFairs, in 2022, 46 percent more companies plan to host virtual events than the year prior. Another 92 percent will stick with virtual events even when physical events are an option. You’d like to plan a virtual conference as well, so how do you get started?
Here’s how to plan a virtual conference:
- Plan the meat of your event – name, theme, and dates
- Identify your target audience
- Select an event planning platform
- Create an agenda
- Pick your speakers
- Find sponsors/partners
- Market your event
- Plan for technical difficulties
This will be your first virtual event, and you’re really hoping it gets off on the right foot. With this in-depth guide, you’ll learn everything you need to know about successfully planning a virtual conference!
How to Host a Virtual Conference
Plan the Meat of Your Event
If you’re converting an in-person conference to a virtual one, then you can move right on to the second subhead in this section, as you’ve got all of this aced already.
For those who are hosting a brand-new virtual event to come this year, then you have to get the basics down first.
To start, what is the name of your conference? You want to select a name that means something to you. Perhaps the name embodies your goals for this event, or you pick a name that’s related to your industry.
The best event names roll off the tongue naturally and are easy to say. You also want a name that people can spell so they can search for you online and find your website and social media pages.
Most importantly, make sure that your virtual conference name has not been taken already!
Next, you have to select the theme for your conference. Is it an event for professionals in your industry? That’s what most conferences are, but not all.
You might select a more niche theme to stand out, but make sure that you don’t niche down so much that you limit your audience.
Finally, you have to choose the dates. Since yours is a virtual conference and you don’t have to worry about renting event space, you can host the event literally anytime you want.
That said, you want to plan carefully. If your virtual conference overlaps with another big event, especially an event in your industry, you’re forcing people to choose. This can seriously hurt ticket sales.
Identify Your Target Audience
Next, you have to determine who will attend your virtual conference.
That’s right, just because your event is not in the physical sphere doesn’t mean you can disregard attendance.
You’re still selling tickets, and the money you earn from those tickets will help pay for the next event as well as pad your company or organization’s bottom line.
As your virtual conference is in its early planning stages, now is the perfect time to learn more about your current audience or determine who would comprise your ideal audience aka your target audience.
For example, there’s a virtual conference called the Canadian Plant-Based Nutrition Conference. From the name alone, we can determine that this event is about a plant-based diet and nutritious eating.
Who would want to go to an event like that? Vegans and vegetarians would certainly be interested. Those who are considering making the switch to a plant-based diet could be another subset of your target audience.
Even meat-eaters who are interested in learning about the plant-based lifestyle are an audience group to consider. You’d also want to target nutritionists.
Based on the target audience groups you come up with, how you go about promoting your virtual conference will vary.
You know you can sell vegans on an event like the Canadian Plant-Based Nutrition Conference rather easily, but those who eat primarily meat are a harder sell.
You’d have to put that group through a longer sales funnel in the hopes that they’ll buy tickets.
Select an Event Planning Platform
Virtual events are very reliant on technology, so having the right platform is everything. While I encourage you to do your own research, here is a list of platforms to get you started.
- Eventzilla: Eventzilla is an event management software, event agenda planner, event website builder, virtual events platform, event mobile app creator, and event marketing solution all in one. It’s no wonder it’s so highly renowned for virtual events.
- GoTo Webinar: For webinar-style speaking arrangements at your virtual conference, GoTo Webinar is a trusted source. You select a date for the event, send custom invitations, set up a registration page, and automate email reminders. GoTo Webinar generates event analytics as well.
- Commuique: The online event platform Communique can help you host your virtual conference with services such as webinars, webcasting, and more. The company’s customer service is top-notch.
- Webex Events: Once known as Socio, Webex Events is an event management platform for enterprises that are ready to take things to a global scale. With event customization, branding, livestreaming, video breakout rooms, and even sponsorship tools, Webex Events is a complete solution.
- Demio: Another webinar hosting platform, Demio promises to increase your lead generation and customer engagement.
- Swoogo: Offering registration, event management, event marketing, analytics, and security features, Swoogo can also help you put on an awesome virtual conference or event.
- Livestorm: Livestorm is video conferencing software for virtual meetings and webinars. You can automate webinars and host live events through this platform, which is why I recommend it.
No matter which of these platforms seems best suited for you based on your virtual conference goals, you should still request a demo before making any final decisions.
Demo a few competitors as well to determine which you like the most. Then request quotes, compare the numbers, and choose the event planning platform that best slots into your virtual conference budget.
Create an Agenda
I’ll talk a little later about what a virtual conference agenda looks like, but it is a step in the process that you would begin planning for once you know what kind of software you’ll use to bring your virtual event to life.
Pick Your Speakers
Does every virtual conference have speakers? No, but many do, and yours may as well.
The sooner you can secure your speakers, the better.
If they’re popular names within your industry, then you can’t say for sure how long a speaker is going to be available. You want them locked in as early as possible.
You can also use your speakers as a promotional point when it comes to marketing your upcoming event, which is all the more reason to secure them early.
Once you’ve found some speakers you’re interested in, how do you convince them to speak at your virtual event?
Well, do be sure to mention the virtual part of your conference right away. You don’t want to give the speaker the impression that they’ll be talking in front of an audience of thousands when everything is going to be virtual.
Even though public speakers love speaking in front of people and excel at it, they should appreciate the low-pressure environment is that your virtual conference.
Find Sponsors or Partners
I’ll talk in the next section about the cost of virtual conferences, but they’re not free. They’re not even close to free.
Just because you, the vendors, the speakers, and your customers never leave your offices or homes to attend the event doesn’t mean that real costs aren’t involved.
While virtual events are usually far more affordable than in-person conferences of the same nature, you might still need some financial assistance via a sponsor or several.
Even if you’ve got the event costs well and covered, perhaps you need some help in the promotional department. In that case, then I once again recommend a sponsor.
Now, I wrote a very in-depth guide about sponsorship for virtual conferences and events on another website of mine called the Sponsorship Collective. I highly recommend you give that article a read as you decide which sponsors to approach.
Once again, you need to be upfront when talking to potential sponsors that your event is not in person. That might cause some prospective sponsors to decline to work with you but keep pushing through.
Eventually, you’ll pique the interest of a sponsor or two that doesn’t necessarily mind that your event is virtual only.
You’re supposed to offer the sponsor assets (which or tangible or intangible items of value) and activations (experiential marketing opportunities) that achieve some of their goals.
Admittedly, it’s trickier to come up with valuable assets in a virtual sphere but by no means is it impossible.
As for activations? Now that you’re not limited to what exists in our physical world, the sky is literally the limit!
Market Your Event
You’ve nailed down most of the details for your virtual conference. Now you have to let the world know that you’re coming to an Internet corner near them.
That requires launching a full-scale marketing campaign.
You can skip any sort of physical marketing avenues such as billboards. Instead, you want to reach your target audience directly.
You should advertise on the kinds of websites that your target audience frequents. Be sure to pay for social media ads on various platforms as well.
Now, before you go hog-wild, you need to set a marketing budget.
The golden rule is that if your company rakes in $500 million in revenue per year, you should spend 8.6 percent of that money on your marketing ventures.
This funding shouldn’t exclusively be used on event marketing, mind you, so spend wisely.
If your earnings are over $500 million, then you’re free to dedicate a larger chunk of revenue to marketing.
Plan for Technical Difficulties
As I said before, virtual conferences are exclusively reliant on technology.
It’s not the same as it would be at an in-person event if your projector failed, or your video didn’t want to play. You could just move right on to the next part of the presentation, and everything would be mostly okay.
If you have problems with your virtual events software, then your entire virtual conference could bottom out.
You must plan for technical difficulties. Hopefully, you don’t have any, but you need to prepare for the worst anyway.
Part of choosing your virtual event software should include poring over the customer service of the company you’re going to purchase from.
That customer service should be available 24/7 or very close to it. This way, if something did go awry during your live event, you could shut down that virtual room or meeting space, send people to another one, and get things worked out.
Your entire virtual conference wouldn’t have to stop because of one tech hiccup. In the grand scheme of things, your attendees more than likely wouldn’t even remember the issue.
How Much Does It Cost to Host a Virtual Conference?
I’ve touched on the fact that virtual events are usually less costly to host than an in-person event, but exactly how much money should you set aside for a virtual conference?
That depends on the nature of your event and how complex it is.
According to TechFruit, a very simple virtual event that’s on the scale of a webinar would cost between $2,500 and $10,000.
For a single-day virtual event with panels, speakers, and breakout rooms, expect to pay $10,000 to $20,000.
If you’re interested in a multi-day virtual event that includes yet more entertainment and panels, your spending would increase to $20,000 and up to $50,000.
Virtual Conference Agenda
If you thought that planning a virtual conference agenda meant leaving behind logistics, you’re going to find yourself very surprised.
You could have more attendees to deal with who are logging in from all over the world.
The following tips will make creating a virtual conference agenda more manageable, especially if this is your first virtual event.
Include Networking, Meetings, and Breakout Sessions in the Agenda
If you can help it, you do not want to have your attendees save the networking and meetings until your virtual conference wraps up for the day.
By then, everyone is going to be tired, and so they might decline to meet with someone who they would have been very interested in chatting with only a few hours prior.
Use Prerecorded and Live Sessions
A virtual conference with too many live sessions means you’re at risk of a higher rate of technical difficulties.
Yet if your conference goes heavy with the prerecorded content, your attendees will wonder if they’ve stumbled onto YouTube rather than a live event.
The best virtual conferences will have a mix of both prerecorded and live sessions.
When determining which content to use and when, think about the type of content you’re delivering. Is it something that your audience will for sure want to engage with? Then a live session is better.
Keep Time Zones in Mind
It may be only 12 noon for you, but it could be the middle of the night for your attendees on the other half of the world.
You can’t possibly create an event with a schedule and timing that will work for everyone. That said, you do want to consider when people will be entering the event.
One idea that I like is recording live event content and then offering the option to replay any content that attendees might have missed when the virtual conference happened.
This way, even if someone did have to skip half your event because of time zone differences, they can still catch up on all the awesome content they want to see.
Give People Breaks
I really can’t stress this enough. Breaks are very important at your conference!
I know, I know, it’s a virtual conference, which means people will be sitting in their computer chairs or even on their couches. You don’t have to worry about fatigue to the same degree as you would an in-person conference.
Even still, that doesn’t mean you should schedule a six-hour block of nothing but prerecorded and live content. People need breaks, and if you don’t offer them, then your attendees can easily log off and call it a day.
Virtual Conference Engagement Ideas – How to Make a Virtual Conference Engaging
Of course, your audience can engage with your virtual conference in more ways than simply watching live speakers. Here are my top virtual conference activities for engaging your audience.
As your attendees spend the day listening to speakers and watching prerecorded content, they’ll have lots of thoughts, ideas, and questions.
Perhaps at the end of each block or even the end of each day (if your virtual conference is a multi-day event), you’d allow any interested attendees to sit down for a live Q&A session.
You’d choose a moderator and let people type questions in chat. When the moderator chooses a question, that person could go on camera and ask it.
If you thought real-life scavenger hunts were fun, wait until you try a virtual one.
A virtual scavenger hunt can be literally anything you want. You’re only capped by your imagination.
That said, don’t make a virtual scavenger hunt so complex or difficult that participants can’t figure out where the clues are.
As your virtual conference winds down, why not have some fun? Gather groups of attendees for a virtual trivia night (or day, your choice!).
You choose the theme and the questions. Attendees are grouped into two or more teams with equal members to see who scores the most points.
If you’re looking for high-value sponsorship opportunities for a virtual conference, sponsored trivia (or a scavenger hunt, at that) is definitely a good one.
Okay, so this isn’t for the faint of heart, but some people might feel inclined to burn off some steam after a long day of event-going by singing their favorite tunes. Sponsors can also put their names behind your virtual karaoke bar.
The Benefits and Drawbacks of Virtual Conferences and Events
To wrap up, I want to go over a list of pros and cons of virtual conferences and events. This section most of all will help you determine whether a virtual conference is suitable for your company or organization.
- Virtual events are much more affordable to host compared to an in-person event.
- You have a much higher upper attendance limit considering you don’t have to worry about building allowances.
- Your attendees don’t have to travel, which might make more of them willing to attend the virtual conference since they’re saving money.
- You also don’t have to travel, nor do other members of your company or organization.
- There’s no stress about planning available event spaces and logistics like attendance caps or parking spaces.
- You have the freedom to design every last element of your virtual event from the ground up exactly the way you want to. You also don’t have to shell out major bank to do this.
- You can create fantastical activations and event activities that aren’t done easily (if at all) in reality.
- You can re-air relevant bits of the conference to attendees who missed things the first time around, a benefit you don’t have with an in-person event.
- You still have to find sponsors and possibly even vendors for a virtual event.
- You need to take extra time to procure virtual conference software.
- Planning the timing of your event can be difficult given the various time zones of your attendees.
- You still have to market your event like you would for an in-person conference.
Virtual conferences are on the rise. It’s about more than the convenience and the fact that you can network, listen to industry speakers, and gain insights from your home office (or your workplace office).
It’s the encompassing element of virtual conferences. They can be all at once fantastical in some regards yet completely grounded in reality in others.
By learning the ins and outs of planning a virtual conference now, your company or organization will be well ahead of the curve by the time everyone is hosting virtual events!
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Chris Baylis is the President and CEO of The Sponsorship Collective and a self-confessed sponsorship geek.
After several years as a sponsor (that’s right, the one investing the money!) Chris decided to cross over to the sponsorship sales side where he has personally closed tens of millions of dollars in sponsorship deals. Chris has been on the front lines of multi-million dollar sponsorship agreements and has built and coached teams to do the same.
Chris now spends his time working with clients to value their assets and build strategies that drive sales. An accomplished speaker and international consultant, Chris has helped his clients raise millions in sponsorship dollars.