Tonight, I'd like to share my thoughts and YOUR thoughts on what makes a virtual conference not feel like just 'any other' virtual conference. I organised the Women in Tech SEO Festival on March 6th in London, two weeks before the country went in COVID-19 lockdown. I was really lucky to "get away with it" as most conferences that were planned from mid March onwards have been cancelled/postponed. I spent 7 months organising it from start to finish (included sweat and lots of tears!) so I can't begin to imagine how event organisers felt having to postpone/cancel their own events.
Fast forward 3 months and the world has become adjusted to the concept of virtual conferences. I'm sure everyone reading this has attended at least one virtual conference over the past 3 months, if not more. They're taking place in all shapes and forms; free/paid, from 30mins to full day, from private to public and they're being hosted on a range of platforms. At first, it was exciting. Finally, a way to attend global events that we don't get the chance to normally. Now, it gives me and many others fatigue to think of yet another thing that we need to 'tune in'.
Personally, I've been organising WTSVirtual, 1 hour weekly live webinars, for the Women in Tech SEO community and I *think* they've been going well. We tend to get an average of 60 attendees. The format is a 30min talk by one speaker followed by 30min of live Q&A with our attendees. It's quick, it's engaging and it's a way to involve our global community as a whole since our normal meetups used to be held on a monthly basis in London.
Having that said, I don't know what the future holds and whether I'll be able to hold another Women in Tech SEO Festival in the near future. I wanted to start thinking of what a 'virtual' setup could possibly look like to give it justice. So I turned to Twitter and asked a simple question, "What would make a virtual conference not just another virtual conference to YOU?" Thanks to all 32 people who shared their thoughts. I then grouped the suggestions in the following 6 themes and added a bunch of my own thoughts.
1. Attendee Interaction
It won't come as a surprise to anyone that most comments came around attendees interacting with one another; the 'networking' side of an event. Here's a few suggestions on how to make that happen:
- Having a chat room is key for attendees to chat with another during the event but it doesn't need to stop there - consider having organised chat sessions during breaks
- Increase interaction by using polls and Q&A - it'll keep your attendees engaged, you can agree with your speakers to have interactive surveys throughout their talks
- Encourage attendees to introduce themselves. I always start off WTSVirtual by asking everyone to type out in the chat where they're dialling in from; a few introductory questions will get engagement levels up
- Giving attendees a way to stay connected post-event, for WTS it's easy as we've got a Facebook and Slack group but for other events, it might be worth thinking of a 'hub' to keep your attendees connected
2. Break Out Panels
The idea of break out panels feels more 'personal' and there was lots of suggestions about having smaller breakout panels and roundtables. This could be a session within the day that is pre-organised for people to sign up to certain topics or it could be a good idea during breaks. Keep those groups fairly small and consider having a moderator to help guide the conversation.
One of my favourite replies came from Clare Dyckhoff who suggested incorporating a mindfulness activity for 10-15 mins in between sessions/breaks. A few other activity-based suggestions included:
- Organise activities outside talks such as game tournaments, puzzles or quizzes
- Incorporate a sync activity where all attendees can read the same article or book ahead of time then come together and discuss it over chat/small group video
- No one likes the awkward silence while we're waiting to kick start so play some music or have musicians playing on screen before/after sessions
- Guided stretch breaks (love that!)
One of the things people love the most about physical events is swag and it's definitely something that's been missing since we went virtual. Lots of ideas were suggested from water slides to tea & biscuits. Think of ways that you can either ship swag to your attendees beforehand or keep it online, it could be anything from e-books to software trial accounts.
- Live Demos: Think cooking shows! Not everything needs to be slide-based, one of my favourite WTSVirtual sessions was the brilliant Roxana Stingu sharing her screen and teaching us regex in real time. She took questions from live attendees and implemented on the go, it was brilliant and super engaging.
- Panel Discussions: Live panels tend to be interactive and attendees value attending those sessions as there aren't any 'slides' necessarily to catch up on later.
- Short & Snappy: One of my favourite virtual meetups since lockdown has been Authoritas Tea Time. The concept is simple: 3 speakers for 5 minutes each, sharing their top tips on a specific topic. It's difficult to keep attendees attention span when they're sat home all day long so avoid long talks.
Last, but in no way least: Your Speakers! When I asked my question on Twitter, Marie Haynes commented that event organisers need to ask this question to their speakers as well and I fully agree. As a speaker, I know what it feels like to spend months prepping for a talk then presenting it on stage; it definitely feels different presenting it to your laptop in an empty room. How can we, as event organisers, ensure that the experience is fulfilling for our speakers?
Personally, I believe that virtual conferences are a great opportunity to amplify new speakers and give them a voice. It's a way to ensure that our line-ups are diverse and that we're giving everyone a fair opportunity to share their knowledge. Virtual conferences are accessible by everyone around the world to attend so first and foremost, we need to ensure that they're also accessible by every speaker around the world to speak in. I've built the Community Speakers Hub for that exact reason, to amplify brilliant women around the world who are keen to share their knowledge and to make it easier for event organisers to diversify their speaker line-ups.
And with that, it's a wrap! If you've made it this far, then I hope that you found some of these tips helpful; I also want to link out to Mark Scully's brilliant post that he wrote in May sharing tons of tips. On a final note, to all event organisers out there, please know that it might not feel like it but WE are all doing a brilliant job keeping the industry connected with one another in this difficult time.
Thanks to everyone's suggestions on the Twitter post: @SEOJoBlogs, @MovieShowSEO, @AyyyCoco, @ichbinGisele, @RyanTreeFiddy, @AnttiMntm, @cdyckhoff, @JCSEO1, @DaveElliottSEO, @Marie\Haynes, @lisaschneider64, @JamRam33, @moarinternets, @deanleigh, @MrRobzilla, @gfiorelli1, @NatalieJayW_, @ElainePasini, @hilgspritch, @Don_Watkins, @mdeziel, @samphireamps, @KateBour, @Mselfcombusting, @darcyburk, @SEOToddler, @ExBerlinYellow, @wavedgt, @ShowmeData1, @AndrewDigital22, @SarahPixelHappy, @ThomasUnise