The trick to pulling off an online conference in the coronavirus era

On February 13th, 2020, the date of the sixth annual OurCrowd Global Investor Summit, we weren’t sure what would come next re: the growing coronavirus threat. It wasn’t considered a pandemic yet. For weeks leading up to that date, our team had gathered nearly daily to track, brainstorm and plan what would happen in the event Plan B became necessary (or C, D, E…).

Plan B never did; in fact, it was our most successful conference yet. Israel was still clear of the virus and we had delegations and attendees fly in from ~70 countries on six continents. We were standing on a cliff, except we didn’t sense how curled our toes were around the edge.

We’re pretty sure ours was the last international-level business conference in our region, maybe anywhere on the planet, before the epidemic went ‘pan’. The virus showed up in Israel a week later, in an unrelated touring group. In the weeks leading into March, while we were breathing sighs of relief at making it through, we were also becoming hyper-aware that our events calendar for Q2 and Q3 2020 was about to get flipped on its head.

So whereas we were planning to export the Summit format to a few other key geographies this year… we ended up, four months later, doing our first major online conference — the OurCrowd Pandemic Innovation Conference. We planned, promoted and produced it in six weeks. On June 22nd we held it twice to allow for different time zones to participate fully.

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As you consider your own online conference in these remote-living times, here are my takeaways from working on this event.

A few challenges

There are a lot of challenges to putting on any event — let alone an online one. Here are three.

1. Your conference will get mistaken for a webinar.

Before corona, webinars were at times a necessary evil, occurring often enough, but fairly ignored. Now - like masks and hand sanitizer - we suddenly see them everywhere.

But you’re putting on an online conference, not a webinar — isn’t it obvious? No. And even if the distinction is understood — you’re going to have to make up for an assumption of ‘conference quality downgrade’. Especially if you charge for entry.

Be strong in communicating the distinction, and remember, conferences inherently include a lot of features that webinars don’t:

  1. Higher quality visuals: videos, production value
  2. Networking: An interactive component is a must to stand out as a non-webinar, which also includes
  3. Q&A, chat, polling: Make sure participants can actually participate, with moderators and each other.

2. Your content is competing in a saturated market.

There’s a lot of content cropping up in the last three months. Videos, articles, papers, podcasts, events. It’s like corona made everyone remember to water the plants. So more than ever, we have to make sure our content is…

  • offering actual insight and takeaways (no swag giveaways after all).
  • delivered by good speakers who are up to the challenge.
  • displayed in a high quality online consumable format.

3. You’re a conference organizer, not a TV producer.

You may be tempted to assume ‘it’s basically TV, right?” I did at first. That actually should not be the attitude, but the quality should feel top notch. And the mix of types of formats can help keep viewers engaged with a semi-interactive format.

If it is all TV studio feel (like our opening and closing plenaries) it could feel top notch but the viewer may decide they can always catch it later. If it’s all frontal Zoom speaking and panels, the viewer may feel like they are getting a webinar with better marketing. We did a mix; between two polished TV studio plenaries were 20 raw, down-to-earth breakouts to choose from in two short time slots.

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Overcome it

Put on an actionable, targeted online conference. Focus on the following seven areas.

1. An Established Purpose

Before you name your conference, before you start messaging potential panelists — please state, to yourself and to other stakeholders, the purpose of producing this event and the desired outcome. Here’s a little checklist to exercise that thought:

  • Who should be attending this?
  • What will they take away?
  • How will they know they should be taking that away?
  • What are their next steps?

2. The Right Audience

What’s nice about that point above is, unless you’re doing this for ticket revenue, you may have the luxury of not worrying about audience size. The quality of the audience matching your purpose is more important, so your focus on attracting that audience can be targeted and straightforward.

3. Expectations Are Met

Recognize that just as with any conference, attendees seek a combination of different things:

  1. Content: top expert speakers who can actually deliver new information on relevant, actionable topics
  2. Networking: hallway conversations is where business gets done
  3. Freebies, perks: In lieu of t-shirts, coffee and stress balls, what can participants expect to take away with them? What can you or your sponsors offer that will make people feel they were part of something? Access to conference videos, bonus content, product discounts.

4. Clarity in Communications

People are used to buying their ticket, saving the email with parking info, and showing up on the day of. But online — we need to be extremely clear on how to participate and what to expect to get out of this.

For example, our team put together a 3-minute video with the conference MC actually spelling out what to expect and how to participate. That included how to log in and watch, how to participate in the breakout sessions and how to get involved in the networking.

It was also really important to include ‘add to calendar’ items in communications. Without needing to actually get dressed and show up anywhere — online events can be very easy to forget to attend.

5. Packed-in Promotion

Online conferences should have a shorter planning and production cycle, and so too it’s kind of expected the promotion period will be shorter. I think that’s an assumption we are used to; or maybe because less planning is involved for actually attending, we can get on calendars later and still feel confident registrants will show up.

But what we did do was pack the promotion instead of slack on it — we took a month, with the first half being more gradual, and the second half more aggressive, with more speaker announcements, what-to-expect teasers, and more.

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6. Content Mix-and-Match

Compared to in-person events, we actually have a lot more options to get creative with how we deliver content online. And my recommendation is to mix and match, in even smaller bites like we do offline — short breakouts, short speaker times, sprinkled throughout your line up. Keep online participants on their toes so they stick with you. With screen time comes screen attention spans.

  • Include pre-produced videos to set the stage, split segments, support speakers
  • Create a newsroom format to establish authority on your topic, deliver core information, host speakers
  • Panels to create dialogue among experts but also give participants the opportunity to react, submit questions, or chat
  • Social media as a platform for continuing the conversation with speakers
  • Breakout sessions giving attendees the option to choose their focus
  • Networking in ‘backrooms’ where participants can chart their own course

7. More Flexible Experimentation

I found that there’s a lot less pressure with online events — as far as complex ticketing schemes, open door policies. So I had more space to breathe and experiment in ways I wouldn’t have offline.

The conference doesn’t end

Aside from conference follow up communications, there’s something else to remember about online conferences — by their very nature, they were completely recorded and can be chopped up and used for months to come.

  • Lead nurture drip campaigns?
  • Topics for weekly newsletters?
  • Social media sound bites?
  • Pre-sales call intro material?
  • Promo material for your next conference?

You will have it all — it’s just a matter of taking another look at that session, breakout, speaker, panel, and figuring out how to upcycle.

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Written by

Taking notes. I’m curious. This is a series of insightful articles with career and marketing themes. I write (a bit more often) at lizraelupdate.com.

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