It’s probably no surprise to you that many conferences will remain virtual in 2021 and perhaps well into the future.

The ongoing impact of COVID-19 has inspired event planners to find creative new ways to continue to have their conferences in a way that’s safe and still productive. One of the best ways has been to host virtual conferences.

Virtual conferences are a solid alternative in a time when travel is much more uncertain and in many cases more expensive than ever before.

Thankfully, the facts show that they seem to be working.

More than 90% of businesses that featured any kind of virtual event in 2020 said it was a success.

Additionally, one event hosting software platform found that virtual conferences in particular can bring in eight times the number of registrations compared to in-person conferences!

But at the same time, a recent poll by EventMB uncovered that over 60% of event professionals don’t have any experience planning virtual events such as virtual conferences.

If you’re one of those planners who’s just now doing it for the first or it’s still one of your first few times, let us help you navigate the process of hosting a virtual conference in 2021.

From tips to tools, keep reading to learn everything you need to know to make your virtual conference as successful as possible, even without the in-person elements.

Virtual conference vs. webinar: which is right for you?

Before we go any further, let’s make sure you’re choosing the right virtual event type to deliver on your goals and expectations.

What’s a webinar?

“Webinar” is short for “web seminar” and it’s an ideal format for shorter, one-session presentations that don’t require a lot of interaction between attendees or with the host.

Webinars are an efficient solution when it comes to educating a large group, especially one spread across different time zones, all at once. You may see webinars used when it comes to things like employee training, customer onboarding, and new product or feature walkthroughs.

The ins and outs of an engaging virtual conference

A virtual conference, on the other hand, is a large-scale virtual event that essentially takes the key elements of an in-person conference and translates them to an entirely online format.

Virtual conferences often take place over the course of several days and feature sessions of different types presented by different speakers. It’s not rare to see panels, small and focused breakout discussions, live streams, demonstrations, awards ceremonies, keynote speakers, and other session types at a well-planned virtual conference.

Another thing that sets virtual conferences apart from webinars is that virtual conferences strive to maintain the same networking features as their in-person counterparts. Digital networking events organized by event planners, an emphasis on interactive social media usage, and digital applications with attendee profiles and direct messaging capabilities are employed to help build a sense of community around virtual conferences.

A final major differentiator when it comes to webinars versus virtual conferences is the sponsorship aspect. Since virtual conferences are typically much larger events with more attendees than simple webinars, they provide better ROI potential for sponsors. This is why, when it comes to virtual events, planning professionals look for chances to give sponsors branding opportunities as well as virtual profiles that they can use to feature their brand and correspond with attendees. 

When these features all come together, they help create immersive virtual conferences that, when done well, can capture the same spirit, engagement, and effectiveness of in-person events.

The benefits of hosting a virtual conference

Virtual conferences don’t have to be second-rate.

In fact, there are plenty of benefits that can only be achieved with virtual conferences.

Cost savings

Both your organization and your attendees may be able to save a lot of money when it comes to virtual conferences. Attendees won’t have to book flights or accommodations and your organization won’t have to shell out for venues, catering, security, or the cost of physical resources such as signs and swag.

New revenue streams

Not only do virtual conferences typically cost less, but there are also more ways to offset the costs that remain — all while providing value to the sponsors who help cover them.

Virtual event hosting software often offers opportunities to sell ad space, sponsored notifications and messages, and even in-session logos and commercials like those that Webex Events offers.

Reach a larger audience than ever before

Ongoing travel restrictions don’t have to limit your ability to grow brand awareness or generate leads — or hamper your attendees’ ability to grow their networks!

Virtual conferences wipe out the travel, time, and monetary concerns that often limit people from attending the events they truly want to attend.

By going virtual, you’ll be able to cater to all the people who have always wanted to attend your conferences but haven’t been able to before, thus reaching a fresher and larger audience.

reasons to host a virtual event

Challenges associated with hosting virtual conferences

No matter how well-planned your virtual conference is, there are admittedly some downsides when it comes to going fully online.

Replicating the excitement of an in-person event

The truth is that while there are people who are bogged down by the travel aspect of conferences, some people love to travel to in-person conferences! For many, the travel and the experience of walking into a fully-decorated event space is the best way to get that intangible “buzz” that keeps them excited and engaged.

The missing magic of face-to-face exchanges

What new — and old — acquaintances could you bump into? How might a simple lunch conversation evolve into a creative partnership opportunity?

The organic developments that result from rubbing elbows in a physical setting are quite difficult to replicate with a fully digital event. Instead of spontaneously running into someone or getting into an interesting discussion, each one-on-one meeting has to be planned, which can take some of the “magic” out of the experience.

It can be tough to capture attendee attention

If you’re working from home today, how many times have you gotten up to check the mail? Answer the door? Grab a snack? Tend to family or pets?

Distraction is one of the downfalls of working from home, and distractions don’t stop for attendees who tune into your virtual conferences from the comfort of their home offices.

Event planners and session hosts themselves have to be especially thoughtful when it comes to strategies for holding attendee attention when it comes to virtual conferences. Which is why, in the next section, we’ll provide several methods to help you do just that!

Bonus: one way to address some of these virtual conference challenges

It’s not all bad news when it comes to virtual conference challenges.

If and when your organization feels it’s safe and sensible to host in-person events again, you should consider hybrid events to help overcome these challenges and reap the unique benefits of virtual conferences.

Hybrid events consist of sessions that cater to both physical and virtual attendees. They ensure that the viewing experience is engaging for both parties and that every attendee is included in seamless networking opportunities, often with the assistance of event tech — something which we’ll discuss in detail in this next section.

Virtual conference tips and tools to make your virtual event stand out

Ready to try out a few new tactics that will assist you in creating a stand-out virtual conference?

Then let’s get things started with a few inspiring new virtual conference tips.

4 Tips for elevating your virtual conference experience

From implementing gamification to practicing until it’s perfect, these tips will help any event planner create an effective and memorable virtual conference experience. 

1. Apply gamification to tap into the natural instinct to compete

Gamification is the process of injecting game mechanics into something that isn’t traditionally a game. It works because of our natural attraction to entertaining and competitive experiences.

When it comes to event platforms, gamification can look like challenges, drawings, scavenger hunts, points and prizes, a leaderboard, and even a celebratory session at the end of the event that rewards everyone who participated — and perhaps inspires those who didn’t to play along next time.

Learn more about implementing gamification in your virtual conference with this quick guide.

2. Get creative with audience engagement methods

Like we mentioned earlier, distractions can make it harder for at-home attendees to get and stay fully engaged in a virtual conference.

But that doesn’t mean it’s impossible. All it means is you might have to come at it from a few different angles.

Having attendees respond to something on a regular basis is one promising way to keep them focused. Integration of features like live polls, chats, and Q&A sessions can generate more attention to the topic at hand.

Interested in getting creative? How about a few short sessions that play into engagement by actually taking a break from the focus? A virtual class that teaches attendees a magic trick or a “show-and-tell” session where each attendee displays their baking, painting, or whatever skills is an inventive way to beat burnout and keep attendees fresh for their next session. 

In addition, stirring up a little friendly competition by using the gamification tip we just mentioned is another way to keep attendees engaged throughout the course of your conference.

3. Coach presenters on a variety of visual aids

Presenting at an in-person event isn’t that much different than it is at a virtual one.

Speakers already know how important it is to use lots of visual cues in order to capture attention and increase attendee retention.

But this importance is amplified when there’s a screen between the host and their audience. Virtual hosts need to use more graphic representations, more video clips, more funny memes, and maybe even more “handouts” than they would in person. For those presenters who haven’t experienced a fully virtual conference before, event planners should be prepared to provide some coaching on the visual aspect of their delivery.

And it’s even better if, in addition to some advice, event planners can also leverage an all-in-one virtual event platform like Webex Events that makes it easy for speakers to add and manage all of these extra graphics, videos, attachments, and beyond.

4. Rehearse for the big day

Any time you’re participating in an event that’s running smoothly, you can be sure it took a lot of rehearsals to get it there.

It’s no different for virtual conferences.

Especially if this is your first rodeo, it’s absolutely imperative that you complete as many practice laps as it takes until you, your event staff, and your presenters feel knowledgeable and comfortable.

If there are any concerns about not being able to run through certain sessions without any hiccups, why not just go ahead and pre-record them so that you can edit them to be flawless? We consider the capability to use pre-recorded video at your virtual conference a must-have, which is why we built it into our virtual event software at Webex Events.

In addition, session hosts should run through their presentations at least once to get familiar with the software/hardware and make sure their internet connection is strong and reliable, their lighting and camera positioning is ideal, their audio set up sounds good, they have an understanding of what attire looks great on camera, and so on. If they need any pointers on how to create a professional presentation from home, here’s a virtual event production guide we created just for the occasion.

Next, your own staff should also be familiar with any event tools you’ll be using, know how to troubleshoot them if anything goes wrong, and have a plan for what to do with the audience if a virtual session isn’t working for any reason.

Finally, if you really want some peace of mind when it comes to an important virtual conference, keep experienced production support like Webex Events’ Professional Services team on standby to handle any major malfunctions.

5 Event technology tools you can use for a successful virtual event

According to one event engagement platform, 25% of in-person event budgets are usually spent on technology while 75% is spent on non-technical expenses. But for virtual events, it’s flipped — 75% of the budget is for technology while just 25% is for all other non-technical expenses.

And really, it’s no surprise. Most of your budget with a virtual conference should go toward making that “virtual” element a help and not a hindrance.

Once you’re ready to accept that, then you’re ready to start choosing the tech that’ll help you host your virtual conference.

1. All-in-one virtual conference platform

For virtual conferences with thousands of attendees, several days’ worth of sessions hosted by different speakers, and a focus on networking and sponsorship; you should really consider an all-in-one solution that accounts for these elements and more. 

Webex Events is a powerful end-to-end virtual event platform that is purpose-built to help you create online conferences that are just as successful as any in-person one ever was. 

All-in-one virtual conference platform

Webex Events’ pre-event features make registration and ticketing easy for your team. Built-in, flexible streaming means you can pull off professional sessions without an AV team, and tons of native engagement features (think chat, social walls, gamification, and more) inspire focus and generate value for attendees.

To add even more value, Webex Events provides attendees a platform from which they can create meaningful connections so they won’t even miss traditional, in-person networking events.

And don’t worry, sponsors will generate plenty of value from your Socio-hosted events, too. Digital advertising opportunities, customizable sponsor profiles, and sponsored push notifications will all boost traffic to each of your sponsors.

To make sure your organization is also generating value and ROI, Webex Events’ analytics dashboard provides metrics that go beyond general impressions to uncover who is engaging with certain elements (like sponsor banners or networking features) and when they’re doing so. This deep analysis provides insights on which you can actually take action.

socio sponsors

There are several ways to work with Webex Events — we can create a custom package of just the features you want or you can engage the professional services team for white-glove event production and support.

But best of all, you can “try before you buy” by requesting a free, customized demo today.

While we know firsthand how difficult it is to pull off large, complex events like virtual conferences without an event management platform, we understand there still might be planners out there who are considering a slightly more DIY approach.

If you’re keen on going in this direction, keep reading to see our top recommendations.

2. Planning platforms

The best event coordinator in the world can’t keep every little detail in their head, nor should they.

Take some of the responsibility off of your own shoulders and help your team do what they’re to do — help you — by using one of the many planning platforms that exist today.

Check out tools like Asana, Trello, or to choose one that best fits your team’s size and delegation needs.

3. Registration service

You can’t have an event without the people who sign up to attend it!

Again, there are plenty of powerful digital event registration tools on the market. You’ll be spoiled for choice, no matter how long or how short your list of must-have features is.

Eventbrite is a registration service that can be configured to allow attendees to register for different sessions on different days over the course of your virtual conference. While Eventbrite is big on helping market your event, Regpack is another great option that’s perhaps a bit more focused on the business aspect with features like report generation and surveys.

For even more recommendations when it comes to the best tech for your events, you have to read “Event Management Tools: 21 Essential Software Tools for Modern Events.”

4. Streaming software

With live streams comes the opportunity for attendees and hosts to have real-time discussions that generate engagement and impart value long after the session is over. 

There are many different tools for live streaming, and the one you choose mostly depends on the features you want and where you think your audience would prefer to tune in from.

Some top options to consider include:

  • Twitch
  • YouTube Live
  • Facebook Live
  • Periscope
  • Vimeo
  • Dacast
  • Brightcove

5. A platform for analyzing success

There are a few ways to go about analyzing the success of a virtual conference.

For a higher-tech solution, you can use an actual analytics platform like Google Analytics and integrate it with the various systems you use for event registration, session hosting, and so on.

Keep in mind that this approach means that you’ll have to make all your other tech decisions based on what Google Analytics — or any other analytics platform — can and can’t be integrated into.

There are also a few lower-tech approaches to tracking the success of your virtual conference. One way to do this is to send out a post-event survey to all attendees (Typeform is a popular survey platform). You could also create a post-event email marketing campaign (using something like Mailchimp) that trickles out for several months after the event. As well as adding value, each of these emails could also subtly ask for event feedback and even promote your next virtual conference.

Whatever route you choose for analyzing your virtual conference, it’s an important final step to take because of all the insights it can provide into what worked, what didn’t, and what you can do to make your next event an even bigger success.

Are you ready for virtual conferences in 2021 & beyond?

Are you ready for virtual conferences in 2021 & beyond

The majority has spoken.

Virtual events are effective, well-attended, and here to stay!

This is especially great news for the businesses that are prepared to invest in the tips and tools that make for more successful virtual conferences.

Speaking of investment, you can make yours right here and now to lock in a future of industry-leading, ROI-generating events — even if they do eventually go back to being in-person or even hybrid!

Just reach out to the Webex Events team or set up a free and personalized demo right now.

Olivia VanCuren
Olivia VanCuren

Content Marketing Specialist @ Webex Events (formerly Socio). Words enthusiast. Passionate about events that foster meaningful connections.