Anybody who has ever planned a conference knows the value of flexibility and engagement. The more inclusive, agile, and captivating your event is, the greater chance you have of meeting your goals and reaching a wider audience. And if that’s what you’re looking for from your next event, you might want to consider planning a virtual conference.

Imagine a situation where your in-person event is all but complete. Your venue is booked, your speakers are prepped, and your schedule is ready to go, but then something goes wrong and you’re forced to cancel.

That’s exactly what 96% of event organizers went through when the pandemic began in March 2020. Ever since, the event industry has been pushed in the direction of a new, more flexible solution: virtual conferencing.

The good news is that in-person events are alive and well, but that doesn’t mean virtual conferences were a temporary fad. In fact, more organizations are leveraging the advantages of the virtual format than ever before.

That said, many event planners are still new to virtual event planning—and that’s ok. To help make that process easier, here’s what you need to know about hosting a virtual conference.

What is a virtual conference?

Virtual conferences are a specific type of online event. Rather than only experiencing session content in person at a physical venue, an attendee tunes into a live broadcast using event technology (i.e. video conferencing and virtual event software). Because online conferences are hosted entirely over the internet, a person can access the session regardless of their location or travel limitations. 

Generally, event organizers try to mimic the structure of an ordinary in-person conference. Participants engage in panel discussions, listen to guest speakers, and interact with presenters all from the convenience of their own living space. 

However, it’s important to note that virtual conferences differ from virtual webinars. A webinar may only last a couple of hours, whereas a virtual conference could go on for multiple days. But the biggest difference? The intention of the event.

If you’re interested in hosting an event where attendees are learning about a singular topic in a succinct forum, your best fit might be a webinar. But if you want participants to discuss multidimensional topics with guest speakers and engage attendees with interactive, immersive activities, you’re better off hosting a virtual conference.

What are the benefits of hosting a virtual conference?

Young businesswoman attending virtual video conference meeting online at home from her couch

Some event organizers might be wary of planning virtual conferences because they assume they can’t provide the same value as an in-person event. But in reality, that couldn’t be further from the truth. 

There are many benefits of hosting virtual conferences, including:

  • Reduced costs: In-person conferences need to factor in travel, hotel accommodations, catering, venues, and other costs that may eat away at your return on investment. On the other hand, an online conference eliminates all of these expenses entirely. Guest speakers are also generally less expensive to book because they don’t require hotels or travel, and may even charge less for virtual engagements.
  • Diversified revenue opportunities: With a virtual conference platform and mobile event app, you can monetize ad space like branded banner ads and splash pages, or include sponsored push notifications. Some platforms even allow you to add sponsorship logos and commercials while you’re live streaming.
  • Smaller carbon footprint: An added bonus of virtual conferences is that there’s no need to travel or waste paper on printed materials. This means the event won’t contribute to fossil fuel emissions and inherently reduce your carbon footprint.
  • Increased accessibility: It’s not always financially or physically practical for every attendee to make the trip to an in-person conference. Online conferences, in contrast, reach a wider audience by allowing people of all backgrounds to participate in the experience. Not only are virtual conferences more inclusive, they also don’t put a limit on ticketing or revenue.
  • Greater flexibility: Unfortunately, things don’t always go as planned. When in-person conferences are no longer feasible, it pays dividends to have virtual event software ready to go. By implementing a virtual component from the very beginning, you can lay the groundwork needed to pivot to a virtual or even hybrid format. In turn, event organizers can salvage their conference, safeguard investments, and put on an engaging show just as they promised.

How do you plan a virtual conference?

Planning an in-person conference is one thing, but pivoting to a virtual format is another entirely. It can feel daunting, especially if you’re new to the game. Fortunately, it’s not about reinventing the wheel.

Remember that planning a virtual conference follows much the same process as an in-person event. However, rather than choosing a physical event space, you’re selecting a virtual event platform. Think of your platform as a virtual venue for your conference—one or many stages where all of your sessions take place. 

For example, take the case of MAD//Fest, the largest marketing festival in the U.K. Originally designed to bring the global marketing community together, MAD//Fest also strived to bring excitement, innovation, and a bit of edginess to the traditional in-person format.

When COVID-19 forced its planners to close the doors to their in-person conference, they quickly transitioned to virtual. By embracing the capabilities of the virtual venue—powered by an event management platform—MAD//Fest returned to a global audience of 23,000 attendees and 700 speakers. Today, having witnessed the power of the virtual format, MAD//Fest has built a virtual component into their plan and embraced the capabilities of hybrid conferencing.

In any case, achieving that type of success hinges on having your bases covered. And to do that, it’s important to follow a few basic tips and best practices when planning a virtual conference:

Communicate your plan

Communicating your plan is extremely important. Every attendee and sponsor needs to know that the conference is changing formats—after all, some may have already booked travel and hotel accommodations.

Be sure to communicate why you’re changing formats and be prepared to answer questions about networking, attendee engagement, sponsorships, and more. 

Use or repurpose existing content

Why let your hard work go to waste? Much, if not all, of your session content and planning can translate to the virtual format. Guest speakers, for example, are already booked for the time of the event, which means they’re still available to participate. Ensure they’re equipped with the technology they need to tune into the conference and engage in panel discussions with your attendees.

Test your technology

Now that you’re committed to an online conference, it’s important that you ensure your event technology is working according to plan. In fact, 70% of event organizers say good microphones are critical to a successful event. Thus, you should double-check everything, including:

  • Microphones
  • Streaming quality
  • Video backgrounds
  • Internet connection
  • Links and presentation slides

Promote your virtual conference

Make sure your audience knows that the conferencing is going virtual. The last thing you want is for your virtual conference to have subpar attendance. Post the registration link to your social media accounts before the event, promote it daily, and send email blasts to your attendees. 

Choosing the right event technology for your virtual conference

Man in well lit office on left of screen standing in front of a computer displaying attendees of a virtual event on a virtual event platform

The most fundamental element of your virtual conference is undoubtedly the event management platform. It’s where every attendee experiences the conference, consumes your content, and engages with sponsors. And when it comes to attendee engagement, every feature matters—that’s why you need the best virtual conference platform for your specific needs.

It’s best to be aware that there are several technical considerations you’ll need to think about when choosing a solution. Some platforms only support online conferences—but what happens when you want to pivot back to in-person events? Or, if you want to go hybrid? If you’ve invested heavily in a one-sided solution, you may be stuck in a tough situation. For this reason, it’s important to consider a platform with the flexibility to support in-person, virtual, or even hybrid events.

But most importantly, identify a provider that will empower you to engage and delight your audience. Here are a few key features to look for in a virtual conference platform.

Networking tools

The biggest reason anyone attends a conference is for networking. That means your virtual platform needs to make it easy for event attendees to connect with one another, as well as sponsors. A networking component, such as a social wall, allows attendees to upload their own profiles, send private messages, share documents, and schedule follow-up meetings for further discussion. 

Gamification

Add game mechanics to your virtual experience with a platform that allows attendees to participate in friendly competitions. By earning points for completed challenges—such as most connections made during a conference—your audience can rise up a leaderboard and be rewarded with prizes. Other innovative ways to increase attendee engagement include asking trivia questions, hosting online scavenger hunts, or posting live polls for the audience to complete.

Mobile event app

Whether your conference is fully virtual, in-person, or hybrid, a mobile event app is a great medium for connecting with attendees. Not only can attendees tune into the live stream from the app, but they can also engage with fellow attendees and participate in breakout sessions.

The event app is also a great opportunity to promote sponsors using push notifications, banner ads, and sponsor profiles. These tools drive engagement toward your partners and ultimately increase sponsor satisfaction.

Where can you turn for extra virtual conference support?

Even with the advantage of an engaging virtual platform, putting on a successful virtual conference is no easy task—but nobody ever said you had to do it alone.

When you work with Webex Events, you get more than a platform provider—you get a partner. Our professional services team works alongside your own to make sure your virtual conference is set up for success at every step of the process.

From the early stages of planning to production support on the day of the event, our dedicated experts are here when you need them.

Ready to go virtual? Request a free demo of Webex Events to get started.

Olivia VanCuren
Olivia VanCuren

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