Many online conferences are boring
I am part of the international conference industry. A big part of my activities is performing and chairing at HR conferences around the world. The live conference business has stopped abruptly in March, and part of it has moved online, waiting for better times.
In the past weeks I have participated in various online conferences and webinars, as a presenter or as a participant. Unfortunately, most of these conferences are as boring as the traditional ones. A short introduction by the chairman, a speaker with a Powerpoint that has been prepared some time ago, some Q&A, a short message from a sponsor and on to the next speaker. Technically it is hardly ever flawless, as not everybody is trained to use the features of Zoom and GotoMeeting. The good news: you can sneak out a lot easier than at a live meeting, and you are home immediately.
The transformation from live to online is going on. Some are learning faster than others. The first step often is to transfer the live conferences to an online meeting without too many changes. Shorter days (everybody realises nobody will sit behind her screen for a day), and all the fringe benefits are removed (drinks, excursions, funny acts). You see the frontrunners experimenting and trying to renew the business.
As I have a vested interest in this industry, some of my tips, based on the first months of online conferencing (although of course I had some experience in the past, for example with the annual Bamboo Elevate conference).
12 tips for online conference organisers
1. The informal start, gathering in the lobby
One of the reasons people go to conferences is networking. In an online conference this is not so easy to organise. What can help a bit is an informal start. Open the virtual meeting room 15-30 minutes before the meeting (and make sure participants know that). Ask participants to share their video. If your conference has a host, the host can have some interaction with people when they enter the virtual room. With two hosts is becomes easier, because then the hosts can also talk to each other.
If your conference is longer and has breaks, you can repeat this during the breaks.
Music is hardly ever used during online conferences. You can use music at the beginning and during breaks. You could also use jingles to announce Q&A (“It’s Q&A time! Q and Aaaaaa”), new speakers or a poll.
In Zoom, Skype and probably also in the other solutions it is possible for people to change the background. Ask people to choose a background with their favourite location (you see two of mine above). Also choose a nice background for the host(s), not just the boring logo of the organising company and the platinum sponsors.
4. The host or hosts
The host/ chairperson of the conference is important. One host is good, two might be better. As at live meetings, the host (chairperson/ moderator/ facilitator) can make a big difference. He professional host does not just read the short bio’s of the speakers. She frame the presentation, asks some questions, and involves the audience.
5. Visibility of the participants
You can choose to make the participants visible during the whole or part of the conference. If you do this, it probably creates a better atmosphere and it increases the engagement of the participants. It is a risk, when the number of participants is low.
6. Encourage chatting between the participants
As mentioned, people are often going to conferences to network. You can encourage the participants to use the chat function to reach out to other participants.
Connecting to the audience at the beginning helps to engage the audience, and to get to know the audience better. Who are present? What are their expectations? Chatting a (6) and polling (8) can be used as part of an “icebreaker”, but I am sure there are numerous other ways.
Most applications offer the opportunity to set up polls. If not, you can use Mentimeter or one of the other online polling tools. The use of polls helps to involve the audience, and it generally makes sessions a lot more engaging. There are various natural moments for a poll: of course at the start and end of the conference, and also during presentations. You could ask your presenters to include at least one poll in their session.
9. Introducing the speakers
The simplest introduction is “Here is Tom Haak, and he will speak about what HR can learn from kitesurfing”. I participated in a conference a couple of weeks ago, where speakers were introduced in groups on three (the presentations were only 15 minutes long, which was good as well). The host introduced the three speakers, asked them some questions and the speakers could also react to each other. Not a panel discussion but a group introduction. This certainly added to the attractiveness of the conference.
I haven’t given it a lot of thought, but I am sure you can add gamification elements to an online conference. Give prizes for most attractive background (see 3), question of the day or speaker of the day. Include a quiz with one question after each session. I am sure my friends with more gamification experience can come up with many ideas.
11. Honor the sponsor
No conferences without sponsors. For online conferences the sponsors have even become more important, because the participants are not (yet) willing to pay the amounts for online conferences they pay for offline conferences. Think about how to honor the sponsor. Native advertising might work well. The host can interview the sponsor(s), and ask them why they sponsor the event, and what is so cool about their product services. Giving the sponsors too much time is generally not a good idea, but some sponsors really have cool products/ services and participants might value a good demonstration (not just PowerPoint slides).
12. Professional technical support
Having good technical support is essential. Running a conference smoothly is a skill, and if you leave this to amateurs things can go wrong. Sound is often an issue (forgotten to unmute). Problems with the view are also common (too small presentation, you see the presenter mode, you don’t see the speaker etc. etc.).
This is my initial list. Later in June I will be able to participate in the webinar “No more boring webinars” of Cyriel Kortleven and I hope to learn a lot more!