There are different things to consider when organizing a virtual conference compared to organizing an in-person event.
If you’re organizing your first virtual conference, you’ve come to the right place.
In this guide, you’ll find everything you need to know to help you organize a successful virtual conference in a step-by-step format.
Virtual conferences are here to stay
When Covid-19 hit, health concerns and large-scale lockdowns meant that many people were either unable or unwilling to attend an in-person conference, so most events were transitioned to a digital format.
While in-person events are making a comeback, organizers have learned the value and benefits of virtual events and often still choose that option.
The main benefits of virtual conferences are that they:
- Offer greater flexibility for both organizers and attendees
- Allow reaching more attendees
- Are less expensive to operate and attend
- Are more environmentally friendly
- Are safer from a health and social distancing perspective
- Are less disruptive to the personal lives of conference organizers, presenters, and attendees.
Studies indicate that virtual events are here to stay. In 2021, the global virtual events market was worth $114.12 billion dollars, and it’s expected to see a compound annual growth rate of 21.4% until 2030, hitting an estimated $657.64 billion by then.
According to a recent LinkedIn study, 81% of conference organizers believe virtual events provide opportunities not available with in-person events, and 71% feel that virtual events offer a greater return on investment. Based on the findings of this study, researchers predict that moving forward, 32% of events will be in-person, 45% will be virtual, and 23% will be a hybrid of the two.
Over the last two years, we have helped organize over 500 virtual events for our clients. Keep reading to learn about the specific steps they took to plan engaging, successful, and profitable virtual events.
Step 1: Build an organizing committee
To get started, build a committee of your peers to help organize the event. The size of your organizing committee will depend on the size of your event, but there are key roles that make up many organizing committees to ensure that the finances, marketing, content, and operations are taken care of. Virtual events require more tech so make sure you choose someone savvy for operations.
Graduate students can be great candidates for these roles. They are eager to gain experience planning conferences and make their mark in the industry. During my Ph.D. studies, I was fortunate to be asked to join a few conference organizing committees and it was always a great learning experience, plus it looked good on my CV and offered valuable networking opportunities.
Once you’ve selected your committee members, trust them to handle their areas of responsibility. Plan regular update meetings and create clear lines of communication so that any roadblocks or challenges they face are raised immediately, but don’t be afraid to delegate tasks to your committee members and let them run with it.
Step 2: Identify your audience
It’s important to gather information about the people you’re targeting as prospective attendees and speakers before you get too far into the planning process. This will help you identify a theme based on their interests, and organize your website and outreach materials for your target audience.
While it might seem obvious to target members of your organization, institution, or research groups as your initial audience pool, hosting a virtual event gives you the opportunity to reach a wider range of contacts than normal. With virtual conferences, you can broaden your reach and connect with people outside of your immediate circle.
Step 3: Determine the conference theme
Choosing a conference theme is one of the first decisions to make in cooperation with your newly formed organizing committee. A theme will help create a coherent event with a consistent look, feel and tone with presentations and content that fit together naturally.
There is more flexibility when choosing a theme for a virtual event when compared to an in-person conference. You can be more specific in your theme choice because virtual events offer a wider potential audience. This makes it easier to find attendees that are interested in a narrow topic.
To determine your theme, make a list of topics that are trending in your field and discuss the various website formats, designs, presentation subjects, conference structures and marketing opportunities that would work well with each option.
You can also survey your potential audience to identify their primary interests. Research other events in your fields and avoid using a similar theme to the ones they are using this year.
Once you’ve gathered a comprehensive list of possible topics, put your committee members to a vote.
Step 4: Document your goals
What are the goals of your conference? What are your goals as an organizer and how do these align with the goals of your presenters and attendees?
Is your primary goal to raise awareness on a particular topic? Are you trying to create ways for academics and researchers to present their latest research and build connections? Are you looking for funders that might want to support your future research?
Document these goals as they can play a big part in setting your event schedule and marketing strategy.
Studies have shown that 80% of people join virtual events to learn, and the next most popular reason is networking. The educational opportunities at a virtual event are similar to those offered by in-person events, but networking can be a larger challenge when people are not physically together. Because of this, if providing networking opportunities is one of your major goals, it’s a good idea to start there when you’re planning your conference agenda.
Step 5: Choose a format
Work with your organizing committee to determine the length and format of your event.
Will it be a single afternoon or one day? Will it be a larger event that takes place over 3-4 full days?
This is information you need to confirm before you can set an agenda, build a budget, and start marketing the virtual conference.
One major challenge faced by virtual conference organizers is maintaining the interest of event attendees. Getting creative with your event format is one way to meet this challenge. Virtual conferences offer much more flexibility in terms of format than traditional, in-person events. You could choose to host an event that takes place every Friday from 2-5pm over the course of a month or two. Formats like this can be great for keeping your audience engaged over a longer period of time and begin to build a community, but they can also require more resources to manage.
Once you’ve chosen the length, it’s time to determine the sessions you want to include.
Here are some questions to pose to your organizing committee when determining your session mix:
- Should you offer live or pre-recorded sessions or a mix of both?
- Will the sessions be recorded? Will the recordings be available for registrants after the event? If so, where will they be posted?
- Will you be live-streaming sessions on the event website and/or social media?
- Will you offer live-streamed Q&A sessions after your presentations?
Some of the best virtual events I’ve attended started with an opening session that explained the goals and theme of the event. The events conclude with a synthesis of what was presented, what was learned, and key takeaways from the presentations and panel discussions.
Be sure to plan a mix of event formats. Traditional research presentations are great, but to increase interest, engagement, and networking opportunities, include interactive options like poster sessions, panel discussions, and virtual roundtables.
Step 6: Set a budget
Setting your budget is the first major responsibility of the organizing committee’s Finance Chair.
There are multiple factors that will help you determine your budget, but as a general average, expect to spend about $2,500-$10,000 for a small virtual conference and $20,000-$50,000 for a large, multi-day event that’s being run by a professional event company.
One of the largest line items on a virtual event budget will be software costs, while an in-person event will invest much more into the venue rental and related costs (like food, drinks etc).
Here are some tips to help you set an event budget:
- If a similar event took place last year, use that budget as a starting point
- If this is the first year you’ve hosted this conference, search out similar virtual events and connect with their organizers to see if they’re willing to share their budget
- There are many government grants available to help fund academic events. Speak to someone who’s experienced researching and securing these grants and see if your event is eligible.
You can always turn to a pre-built conference budget template to get you started. You can access and download one in Excel or Google Sheet here.
Step 7: Plan the agenda
Create an agenda that has multiple breaks aimed to provide networking opportunities. Use software that makes it easy to create interactive sessions that give attendees the opportunity to discuss the work being presented.
To help keep things interesting, include a greater number of sessions than you’d plan for an in-person event, and arrange your timeline so presentations are shorter in length and leave time for virtual discussions afterward. If there is a large group attending the presentation, use your event software to break them up into smaller groups for the discussion portion to allow for more comfortable, engaging conversation.
Keep presentations to a maximum length of 20 minutes. That should be long enough for the researcher to present their work without losing the audience's interest. Then dedicate 10-15 minutes for audience questions at the end. Encourage presenters to include interactive elements like polling in their presentations to maintain interest.
Balance your agenda so there is always an option for attendees to participate in interactive sessions like round table discussions, poster sessions, and panel discussions, instead of a traditional presentation. Each of these formats allows conference attendees to interact with researchers, ask questions about their work, provide valuable feedback, and engage in fruitful discussions that can build long-term professional relationships down the road.
Step 8: Choose a review process
The key to maintaining legitimacy for your academic conference is to ensure that all content presented goes through a thorough, well-executed peer-review process. This helps to differentiate your prestigious event from the predatory conferences that are becoming more common across the globe.
The most common types of peer-review processes are single-blind, double-blind, and open peer reviews.
Here are the main differences between them:
- With single-blind reviews, reviewers know whose work they are reviewing, but the author does not know who is reviewing their work
- With double-blind reviews, reviewers and authors are unaware of one another’s identify
- With open peer reviews, the identity of both parties is transparent and identified
There are pros and cons to each of these review types. You can read about the difference here.
Step 9: Choose the technology
Selecting a software for your virtual conference is similar to picking a venue to host an in-person event. It is one of the most important decisions you can make because a good or bad software solution can determine the overall event experience.
There are a few different routes that you can take, from purchasing products from a variety of companies that specialize in a single element of event hosting, like registration or peer-review management. Or, you could select a platform that covers every element needed to plan and launch a virtual conference.
Using a single platform is simpler, less expensive, and creates a cohesive experience for attendees and presenters as every element of the platform is designed to work together. It provides you a single point of contact in case you have questions or hit a roadblock, and allows you to view every aspect of your event in one place using a single set of credentials.
Here are the functions to look for in an all-in-one platform:
- Website builder
- Email marketing tools
- Registration and payment management
- Abstract and conference paper submissions
- Management of the peer-review process
- Live streaming options
- Facilitation of breakout rooms or sessions
- Facilitation of poster sessions and panel discussions
- Social media integrations
Do your research to evaluate different software that includes reading case studies and online reviews posted by previous customers. Keep in mind there will always be the odd person with something to complain about no matter how good a solution may be, but watch out for common issues that come up in reviews, such as:
- Unreliability - system crashes, login challenges
- Poor sound quality
- Poor image quality
- Difficulty making payments
- Difficulty with the peer-review process
Step 10: Find sponsors
Because much of your event revenue will come in mid-way through your planning process, securing sponsors early on will help take some of the stress out of planning a conference by covering many of your preliminary costs.
Work with your organizing committee to set up sponsorship packages that are coordinated with your marketing plan. To attract sponsors, build a sponsorship plan that lays out the benefits of supporting your event and how these sponsors will be recognized. Perhaps they’ll be featured in your marketing emails, their logo will be placed in prominent spots on your app or website, or they’ll be asked to speak at the event.
Part of this sponsorship package should include information about the data they’ll receive before, during, and after the event. These data points can include the number of times people see the sponsor logo or interact with their brand. This will help the sponsor calculate the ROI they received through participating in this conference and hopefully encourage them to come back next year.
Then, determine if any committee members have contacts at the companies and/or institutions you’ll be approaching, so the request can be made by a personal connection rather than a stranger.
Step 11: Find speakers
One of the main reasons academics attend these conferences is to network with experts in their field. That’s why the quality of speakers who sign on to present at your conference will significantly impact your registration numbers.
Work with your organizing committee to identify the keynote speakers you want for your event, then reach out to invite them directly.
Create a call-for-papers or call-for-abstracts and post it on conference announcement websites. This is a great way to accumulate multiple applications from researchers and give you the opportunity to choose from a diverse range of potential presentations to find the ones that fit with your theme.
When you make your final selections, choose a diverse range of speakers. Ideally, your presenters will represent a multitude of races, ethnicities, genders, and career states.
Keep a B list or a list of potential presenters you can contact if your first choice declines your offer or gets sick before the event.
Step 12: Train the speakers
Having speakers who are familiar with the software, have all the tools they need, and can keep their audience attentive and engaged is particularly important for virtual events.
Once you select your presenters:
- Organize training sessions to offer tips and best practices on holding the attention of listeners.
- Walk them through how to use the event software.
- Assess where they’ll be presenting from and ensure they have decent lighting, a microphone, and a good camera setup. It’s very important for attendees to see the presenter’s face during the session to make the event feel more personal.
- Before the event, do a dry run with each individual presenter, or get them together to practice as a group.
- Have a list of backup plans you can turn to if something goes wrong during a presentation.
- Provide them with a training video and written instructions on how to use the system.
- Have a call with each presenter to make sure they are comfortable and give them the chance to ask questions.
Step 13: Determine how attendees will interact
Virtual events don’t have to be boring. In fact, when they’re well planned they can be even more engaging than in-person events.
Part of creating an engaging event is providing opportunities for attendees to interact with one another easily and frequently.
Here are some different ways to facilitate attendee connections:
- Make it easy for attendees to ask presenters questions via live chat using their microphone or video camera
- Organize a poster session to allow them to discuss recent presentations, present their own work, and network
- Provide opportunities to interact via private messaging in your app
- Provide possibilities to interact before and after the event through a Facebook or LinkedIn group created specifically for the event
- Build a discussion board or a forum allowing them to ask questions asynchronously to presenters
- Live polling
- Offer the chance to upvote questions asked by others
Choose a few methods and stick to them and avoid spreading out interactions through too many channels.
Step 14: Marketing
You should build a marketing plan that includes original announcements and periodic reminders about your event through a variety of outreach methods.
The first step to marketing your event is setting up a professional website where anyone interested in your event can visit to get more information. All of your other marketing materials will link back to this website, which should contain registration links, speaker lists, attendee lists, and more.
Once your website is posted, you can start launching the email campaigns, social media posts, call-for-papers, and other tactics outlined in your marketing plan to spread the word about your event.
Helpful hint: Twitter is very popular with scientists, so promote your event on Twitter and be sure to use a clever hashtag that is well communicated in your marketing materials.
Find influencers or top speakers and ask them to promote your event in an engaging way that goes beyond just announcing the event. To keep your messaging consistent, provide them with the content you want them to share, like images or ideas of the copy they should use in their posts.
Finally, announce the event to sister societies and university departments.
Step 15: Create a website support section or a FAQ
Virtual events usually generate a lot of questions from participants. To ensure your message is clear and consistent, create a list of the most frequently asked questions and carefully craft the answers.
Post this information to your website to create a centralized knowledge base, and link to it in your marketing materials. You can even record and include videos that will help attendees find answers easily. You can then refer to this knowledge base whenever you’re asked a question about the event or the technology used to host it.
Step 16: Have fun during the event
Don’t forget to have fun.
You’ve put a lot of time, effort, and energy into planning this event and you have the opportunity to gain many of the same benefits as the other participants. This is also a chance for you to learn about new advancements in your field and make important connections with other academics, so take the time to learn, connect, and enjoy.
Step 17: Gather data
Once the event is over it’s time to gather feedback so you can make it better next year. Don’t let too much time pass before you reach out to attendees for their feedback – it’s best to gather information when it’s still fresh in their minds.
This process will help you understand how user-friendly others found your software selection, which session formats were the most engaging, and which topics were the most popular.
Aggregate this information and make some data-driven decisions that will lead to improvements for your next event.
Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ)
What is the best platform to host a virtual conference?
It’s important to choose a virtual conference software platform that takes care of multiple functions like the creation of your website, registrations, and payments, organizing your call-for-papers, and facilitating panel and poster sessions. Fourwaves does all of this, saving you time and money in planning your event.
How do you host a virtual conference on Zoom?
First, sign up for a Zoom events account and make sure that the version you purchase can accommodate the number of participants and sessions you’re expecting. Next, follow the prompts from the platform and use the Zoom links to promote your event through your marketing emails and social media posts. You can also read our detailed guide on how to use Zoom for virtual poster sessions.
What is a common mistake when organizing a virtual conference?
Recognize the differences between virtual and in-person events. Plan many short sessions and networking opportunities. And remember that the experience people have at your event depends largely on the software you use, so evaluate your options carefully and choose a platform that’s comprehensive, reliable and easy to use.
One thing I love about virtual conferences is that they are accessible to a greater number of speakers and registrants from across the world because they are online and usually less expensive to attend.
Follow the steps outlined above to host a smooth, engaging, successful event that will build a loyal community of researchers who come back year after year.