Virtual Conferences: The 2021 Guide
Welcome to your guide for virtual conferences in 2021. Discover best practices for launching a virtual conference, engaging your audience, and more.
As a result of the Coronavirus Pandemic in 2020, many event professionals found themselves in a place they never imagined. The industry went dark - but not for long. Event professionals pivoted learning about virtual events and safety. They learned to navigate the crisis. It was an incredibly hard time but the events industry is resilient. We were knocked off our feet but it didn’t take long for the industry to get back up and evolve.
What we saw in 2020 was a renaissance. Within several months, many innovative approaches and tools quickly emerged onto the market. The development of these tools has allowed organizers to closely align their event goals to the virtual channel.
As an industry, we found opportunities to create many of the first virtual events and are still taking courageous steps to shape the next era of events.
2020 was the year of virtual conferences. We predict that event marketers will be leveraging virtual conferences as part of a larger hybrid event strategy. We’re seeing signs that virtual elements are here to stay, and will become more commonplace as a complement to in-person events in the future.
Here's an overview of what we'll cover in this post. You can click the below links to jump to the corresponding section:
Let’s get started!
What are virtual conferences?
Virtual conferences are a category of virtual events. Compared to other categories of virtual events - such as webinars or happy hours - virtual conferences are longer in nature and typically have a larger audience. Virtual conferences can last for days, and even weeks depending on how an event organizer decides to break up the programming.
These conferences are the largest type of virtual event, often drawing larger crowds. They also have more complex content and sometimes have a choose-your-own-adventure format offering many different breakout sessions, keynotes, and networking opportunities to choose from. We’ll dive deeper into the differences later.
Source: SaaStr Annual
For an example of a successful virtual conference, look no further than SaaStr Annual 2020, the world’s largest B2B Software Conference. In 2020 for the first time in the conference's six-year history, they pivoted to a virtual.
To help SaaS executives, founders, and entrepreneurs scale their businesses, they held a two-day virtual experience concentrating on learning, mentorship, and networking. The virtual conference was a great success and consisted of 50,000+ Cloud and SaaS experts, 50+ speakers, 5000+ braindates, and 1-on-1 networking opportunities.
5 Benefits of a Virtual Conference
Since the pivot to virtual, many benefits have emerged. We will cover some of the unique advantages of hosting a virtual conference below.
1. Further Reach
According to our Evolution of Events Report, 80.2% of event marketers were able to reach a wider audience with virtual events. Virtual events take away some of the common barriers of entry that in-person events have. Attendees no longer need to travel or take time away from work and families to take part. Conference capacity is no longer limited to your venue. Virtual conferences have opened up events to a global audience and allowed events to reach a much wider audience than ever before.
2. Prioritizes Safety
We are still amid a global pandemic. Much like event safety before, it’s the responsibility of event organizers to keep their attendees, staff, and other stakeholders safe. Virtual conferences allow people to meet without the level of risk that an in-person event would come with. By keeping attendees at home, you are prioritizing the safety of all your attendees.
3. More Sustainable
Events are widely known to have a big impact on the environment. Virtual conferences have a significantly smaller carbon footprint than in-person events as it eliminates air travel, food waste, ground travel, hotels, and more. This makes them a much more sustainable event compared to their in-person counterparts.
MeetGreen’s sustainability team captured data using their UnCarbon calculator from events that went virtual and compared it to the same event’s in-person carbon footprint. The results were staggering.
4. Improvements in Accessibility
Virtual conferences are more accessible. There are a variety of reasons for this. One reason for improved accessibility is that the cost barrier no longer exists. The overwhelming majority, 80% of virtual event registrations, are free. Even if the conference is not free, the average price paid for a virtual event ($254 USD) is significantly reduced from in-person events.
During our virtual summit, (Almost) HYBRID, Leanne Pittsford, founder at Lesbians Who Tech shared how she improved accessibility for attendees at (Not IRL) PRIDE SUMMIT.
“We kept PRIDE free because we wanted to make it truly accessible in every single way.... Keeping it free was a huge part of accessibility, but also anyone can join online, people from other countries got to be a part of it and feel part of the magic”
Leanne Pittsford, founder at Lesbians Who Tech
Source: (Almost) HYBRID
Lower costs are not the only reason virtual conferences are more accessible. Video captioning has made virtual conferences accessible to attendees who are deaf or hard of hearing. Translations have also made it easier for a global audience to consume the content of the event.
While the opportunity to make events more accessible is there, as an industry we have some work to do. According to a recent inclusion study by RespectAbility only 14% of organizations used video captions to help deaf or hard of hearing people consume their events content. This is a huge missed opportunity! At Bizzabo we know that one of the key benefits of virtual events is accessibility. Bizzabo Stream has the tools to support closed captioning that will allow you to extend the reach of your message and be more inclusive to your audience. Learn more about Bizzabo Stream here.
5. Better Data
Data is a powerful tool. The rise of virtual has helped event marketers learn to leverage data in ways that weren’t possible before. Data helps tell a story about your attendees, from what sessions were most popular to how long people watched, or how many people clicked on sponsors - data tells it all. Once you understand your data, you can base your tactics on information and plan for a better event.
“When we engage digitally in any way, shape, or form with a customer, we’re pulling that information in to better understand them and better understand what they’re interested in… Understanding where people are living digitally, understanding how to get the information to them that they are seeking. The analytics and the understanding, that data is knowledge and power”
Erin McElroy, Program Director, Digital & Event Innovation at IBM
What’s the difference between virtual conferences and webinars?
Virtual events are a valuable channel for connecting with an audience. There are many differences between a virtual event like a webinar and a virtual conference. Below we will discuss some of the key differences.
Uniform vs. Curated:
Webinars and smaller virtual events provide attendees with a single session to attend. Virtual conferences, on the other hand, offer flexibility in single-track or multi-track agendas that span across hours or days. Also, the content is often custom for individual tracks.
For example, INBOUND is HubSpot’s annual marketing conference. The conference is well known for engaging content. Each year they have suggested tracks for different specialties including marketing, sales, and their own HubSpot Academy. Attendees can stay on one track, or choose their own adventure. This allows attendees to curate their experience and determine which sessions they’d like to attend.
Passive vs. Interactive:
Webinars can feature polls, surveys, and Q&As but the majority of webinar interaction is limited to these outlets. In addition presentation tools, virtual conferences feature communities where attendees can connect with one another during and in-between sessions. These same community features make it possible for attendees to communicate with speakers and sponsors, allowing them to get more value out of the experience.
Similar Experience vs. Unique Experience:
Because a virtual attendee has the opportunity to curate their own experience, they can create a unique path at an event. By this same coin, event organizers can better learn about the preferences of their attendees by analyzing their journey across a virtual event. The resulting insights can help organizers send more nuanced follow-up messages to attendees, better tailor both virtual and in-person experiences to their audiences, and drive more personalized touch-points.
7 Elements of a Virtual Conference
Virtual conferences are complex. Many elements that need to be included in your event agenda to make it successful. We’ve included the top seven elements of a virtual conference that organizers are currently using in their content programming to connect, engage attendees, and amplify their brand voice.
Keynotes set the tone for large conferences and summits by weaving together storytelling, insights, and predictions for the future. These presentations can solidify your event’s core theme and messaging. Bringing a keynote speech into the virtual space is a great way to amplify your speaker’s message and reach a broader audience.
Demandbase chose to virtualize their keynote speech from The ABM Innovation Summit, which was moved to a virtual format in March 2020 given the public health crisis. Their CMO, Peter Issacson, provided valuable content to a broader audience of marketers who may not have had the chance to view his speech if it was given at an in-person event.
Demandbase created an intro video featuring images, graphics, and logos to set the stage for the keynote. The video gave the digital experience a more polished feel.
Source: The ABM Innovation Summit
2. Breakout Sessions
Breakouts are smaller, intimate sessions at your virtual conference. When looking to design a virtual breakout session, consider breaking the event into smaller groups. We suggest 10-15 attendees with a moderator in each room to allow for a more personalized virtual experience. Make sure that the sessions are specific to a topic and align your breakouts to the tracks you have created as well as your overall event message.
Traditional Breakout Sessions
In traditional breakout sessions at virtual conferences, attendees will interact primarily through Q&A. These are the largest breakout sessions, and usually don't allow for 2-way conversation.
Fireside Chats, also known as campfire sessions, are intimate breakout sessions. Generally, these sessions are very limited in capacity. Because of their small nature, they provide more opportunities to engage attendees.
Fireside chats on a relevant industry-specific topic can be a valuable way to bring people together in a virtual space. An intimate session with a thought leader and a moderator can be a great way to connect speakers and attendees and spark thought-provoking conversations. You’ll want to keep a fireside chat session small, allowing space for attendees to really get into the conversation and ask questions.
Panels are a great way to address complex topics at your virtual conference. A panel often represents many viewpoints and perspectives. By having multiple voices come together and discuss a topic, attendees have the chance to find common themes or explore other ideas they hadn’t considered. Panel discussions are lively, and with multiple people taking part it’s critical that you have a moderator to navigate the conversation.
For example, WISE (Women In Sales Everywhere) created an online panel that included three industry leaders and a moderator to discuss pressing challenges female sales professionals face today. To make the experience interactive, WISE used a live chat for attendees to comment and ask questions that could be addressed live with the panelists.
Demonstrations, more commonly referred to as demos, are particularly valuable for sponsors because they allow them to connect with attendees. Demos are also great for educational moments because of their intimate format. In a virtual environment, presenters can share their screens with attendees to walk them through a particular product or software offering.
Salesforce World Tour, Sydney Reimagined! Created a Demo Jam which brought together AppExchange partners for three-minute live demonstrations of their apps. To increase engagement, Salesforce turned the demos into a contest where attendees could vote on which product they liked best.
Workshops can be educational, or for entertainment purposes. Ideally workshops combine elements of both. Workshops are a great interactive experience for attendees and exceptionally positive for those who do best with hands-on learning.
An example of a fun and entertaining workshop Baking with Kim-Joy, Great British Baking Finalist and Author, from INBOUND 2020. She provided an entertaining and educational experience where the audience got to learn how to bake British biscuits.
Roundtables are an intimate format that allows attendees to have small group discussions. Attendees will form groups based on a topic then discuss and debate together. Due to the nature of roundtables, event organizers need to curate their attendee list to a limited number of guests. A small guest list will ensure everyone can participate in a roundtable.
For example, Bizzabo recently launched Customer Roundtables, a series of virtual roundtables where customers can network and discuss top-of-mind challenges and best practices with their peers. Event attendees are split into smaller breakout groups with a moderator to ensure every participant can contribute.
Check out the detailed event website and instructions Bizzabo provides for attendees below.
3. Sponsorship Opportunities
An important component of many virtual conferences is event sponsorship. Sponsorships can provide much needed financial support. Sponsors can also assist in increasing the reach and credibility of your event. In exchange, they have the chance to engage with your event audience.
Naturally, interacting online is much different than interacting in-person, but there are still great opportunities when it comes to sponsoring a virtual event. Whatever you decide to do be sure it is valuable not only for your event but for your sponsors too. In our recent survey, ranging on a scale of 1-10, 6.5 was the average reported confidence event marketers had in the value of their sponsorship opportunities at virtual events. (Bizzabo, 2020). Based on this data we have room for improvement. Here are several ideas to add value to your sponsorship opportunities.
Sponsored Event Sessions and Event Speakers
Sponsors can add value to a virtual event by creating a sponsored session. Their session can provide education, thought leadership, and actionable takeaways that are relevant to attendees. Sponsors can pitch session content and provide speakers for keynotes, workshops, roundtable discussions, or panels.
For example, Bloomberg Green Festival by Bloomberg Live has sponsored sessions that offer a variety of content for virtual attendees.
Source: Bloomberg Green Festival
Hosting giveaways throughout the event will help keep attendees engaged. Encourage sponsors to participate by providing prizes like gift cards, streaming service subscriptions, non-profit donations, or swag that attendees can keep with them after the event has passed.
Sponsor Placement in Graphics and Banners
Most even success platforms offer the opportunity to have sponsor placement in several places throughout the virtual event. Consider having banners for top-tier sponsors on the main page of your event, you could also place sponsor logos in your streamed sessions in the lower-thirds graphics.
Sponsored Virtual After Party or Happy Hour
Networking is a key component of events. Sponsors can create exclusive experiences during a virtual event by hosting a happy hour or after-party that includes a special guest like a celebrity for an AMA or a musician who can live stream a performance.
Collaborate with Sponsors
Remember, you don't have to come up with all of the ideas yourself! Virtual events offer new and exciting opportunities for sponsors to get creative. Encourage your event sponsors to come up with unique sponsorship ideas for virtual conferences and give them the support and resources they need to make it happen. This will create a sense of buy-in by allowing sponsors to build valuable experiences during the event.
Networking can be a challenge for virtual events. According to our Evolution of Events Report, 68.8% of event marketers believe it is more difficult to provide networking opportunities when hosting a virtual event. What’s missing are the connections and unexpected moments. If you’ve ever been to an in-person event you likely miss the serendipitous moments of meeting a new contact waiting in a line or attending a happy hour.
This challenge can be overcome. There are many exciting ways to create connections and foster communities with virtual conferences. Creating intimate groups with common interests is a sure way to spark conversations.
e180 recognized the need for virtual networking and pivoted Braindates to virtual this year. Braindates help attendees meet and learn from each other through meaningful conversations via video chat.
When an attendee signs up to take part in Braindates they either create or select topics they are interested in exploring, then set up a time to meet. This interaction can be 1:1 or in a group format. Learning concierges take part to help participants navigate the conversation and set intentions. At the end of the Braindate participants have the opportunity to connect with people in your session on LinkedIn and other platforms.
Event entertainment is a great way to add excitement to a virtual conference and keep your audience engaged. To break up the monotony of session after session be sure to plan for great virtual entertainment that will delight your audience.
At (Almost) In-Person we recognized the importance of virtual entertainment. We provided entertainment throughout the event. Below are some examples of how we did it.
A virtual DJ is a great way to get your attendees up and moving. At (Almost) HYBRID, DJ NEEKOLA kicked off the 1-day virtual summit bringing energy to everyone’s morning getting them ready for the summit!
Source: (Almost) HYBRID
Throughout the event, we had entertainment to break up the sessions. Another favorite was a magic show featuring Gary Ferrar. Gary put on a virtual performance that was engaging, full of unexpected moments, and left the audience wondering “How’d he do that?”.
Source: (Almost) HYBRID
6. VIP Experiences
Including VIP experiences at your event is a great way to engage customers and drive revenue. In order to engage a VIP audience, you need to have unique experiences. These experiences at your virtual conference could include early access, a concert, VIP networking lounges, special merchandise, or an exclusive Q&A with an industry thought leader. The sky's the limit when planning these experiences. The key is to limit who has access.
Monique Ruff-Bell, Events Director at Money 20/20 recognized C-suite executives rarely have the chance to relax and learn at conferences because they are constantly being stopped on the show floor. To solve this problem she created a unique experience called “CEO Unplugged”. The experience included learning, networking, and fun offsite experiences such as wine tastings and race car driving.
“[Our program provided] a way for [CEOs] to kind of come in, learn what a person at that particular level is dealing with, learn from each other as well as well…they absolutely loved the fact that they [could] share and debate in a safe space.”
Monique Ruff-Bell, Events Director at Money 20/20
Another great example to take inspiration from is Mastercard and their B2C customer experiences. Mastercard recently launched Priceless. Priceless is digital experiences exclusive for cardholders. Through the magic of AR, cardholders are now able to transport themselves to a 360-degree virtual environment and experience a range of opportunities from art tours to celebrity encounters.
Most experiences are free for cardholders, but Mastercard also offers the opportunity to bid on the most unique experiences. Below is an auction for the opportunity to win a happy hour with Los Angeles Dodgers™ manager Dave Roberts and pitching ace Clayton Kershaw and 10 of your closest friends.
A B2B event could use this for inspiration to hold similar VIP experiences that would maintain and strengthen relationships allowing attendees to pick their own adventure during an event with a unique VIP marketplace of experiences.
Attendees look forward to receiving swag. There are many great digital gift ideas to choose from. If you are looking to delight people, mail your attendees something. Sending direct mail is a great way to add a physical touch to your virtual conference.
Below you can see the virtual swag boxes sent out by Hollis Co. for their first virtual conference. Attendees received branded swag featuring inspirational quotes including a tumbler, notebook, pins, and more.
Source: Gifts For The Good Life
Best Practices for Planning A Virtual Conference
Determine the Goal(s) of your Event
To plan a successful conference, you need to determine the purpose of your event. In other words, what are you trying to accomplish? Once you have your purpose, you can set event goals. Your virtual conference's purpose and goals will act as the driving force behind your planning. Anything you decide from your budget to your content should support the goals and purpose of your event. We dive into this more in the section on KPIs below.
Set a Virtual Conference Budget
Now that you have determined your events purpose, it’s time to think about an event budget. A detailed event budget will allow you to stay on track while planning your event, it will also allow additional stakeholders to quickly see where the money is going.
Make sure to create a very detailed event budget. For example, if you are ordering an event swag box you should detail out which items will be included, the cost of shipping, and a photo of what the swag will look like. The more details you have, the better off you will be.
Pick a “Virtual Venue”
For now, an amazing in-person venue is not an option. Think of your event success software as your “virtual venue”. This is the environment your attendees will experience your brand and your event will unfold.
There are many options out there and virtual environments are not one-size-fits-all. We suggest looking for a streamlined solution that will give your team all the tools needed to create rewarding events. Look for a software that allows you to run events that have a positive impact on your business and event ROI.
On the attendee side, you will want to look for software that has a great user experience including streamlined registrations, and an easy to use software that allows attendees to connect and network across the platform. More on this in a bit, shortly we will dive-deep into choosing the right virtual solution.
Event marketers need to design content with intention and purpose. Your attendees are now tuning in from home, you’re constantly competing with kids, Netflix, and the 10 other browsers attendees have open. You need to tell a great story to keep your audience engaged. Be sure to give the attendees what they want to hear, and deliver it in a way they want to receive it.
In our virtual summit, (Almost) HYBRID, Leon Winkler explains the importance of creating relevant and engaging content that is curated to your audience.
“Content is king…focus on content that is relevant to your audience…You need to have content that captivates the attention of whoever is watching. Then on top of that, you need to create something that is engaging and creates dialogue. It has to be more than passive watching.”
- Leon Winkler, Ubisoft
Source: (Almost) HYBRID
Make Your Virtual Conference Engaging
According to our Evolution of Events Report, an overwhelming 67.7% of event marketers find it more difficult to keep attendees engaged at virtual events. Don’t let this happen to you! As you get a more detailed picture of your ideal virtual audience, you can start the creative process of building the ultimate virtual experience and build it into your event strategy.
Many of the strategies that make event organizers successful with in-person events—delivering exceptional experiences, attracting the right audience, and aligning with different stakeholders—are just as relevant in a virtual environment. To have an engaging experience, you need to not only have great content but interactive and personalized event experiences.
A great example that does all of this is from our virtual summit, (Almost) HYBRID. We brought in North Coast, NYC’s Premiere hip-hop improv team for an interactive performance. Before the show, North Coast asked the audience some questions about their favorite parts of events allowing them to interact and be a part of the show. Before the show even started attendees had a lot of fun reminiscing about special moments from their events in the chats.
Finally when it was time to perform North Coast delivered personalized improv hip-hop pulling from the unique experiences attendees shared.
Source: (Almost) HYBRID
As the age-old saying goes “practice makes perfect’. With the many moving parts of a virtual conference, you must rehearse. Get as many of your speakers into rehearsals as possible. This will give you a chance and your production team a chance to check backgrounds, internet speeds, and get presenters comfortable with the show flow.
Be sure to also have your events team rehearse. Clarify what each person will be doing during the live-event. Make sure to test out chat functions, polling, and more so when your event goes live everyone is prepared.
Choosing the Right Virtual Event Solution
There are a few key areas where you’ll want to review the type of technology to power your virtual event. This includes tools for broadcasting or recording a live event session, creating opportunities to engage event attendees, and solutions to integrate your virtual event data into your event management platform.
For a comprehensive list, check out 10 tools for hosting your next event.
While different tools and technologies can support facets of your hybrid or virtual event, it can be difficult to find a tool that takes a holistic approach to in-person, hybrid, and virtual event experiences.
Bizzabo’s Virtual Experience Solution delivers impactful and engaging event experiences whether your attendees are coming to meet in-person or virtually. Make any event session virtual or create hybrid events using powerful live streaming and on-demand capabilities that are integrated into your larger event marketing solution while features like Q&A, chat, polling, and whiteboard offer a variety of ways for attendees to stay engaged and connected during virtual sessions.
10 Questions to Ask When Evaluating a Virtual Event Solution
As we mentioned above, there are a variety of tools and solutions you can use to produce your next virtualized event. If you’re feeling a little overwhelmed or unfamiliar in the territory, check out these key ten questions to ask to make sure you can get the most comprehensive platform to cover all your virtual event needs.
- Is the user-experience good?
- Can I create gated virtual sessions based on ticket types?
- Can I create multi-track and single track virtual experiences?
- What analytics can I capture?
- Can I host multiple presenters?
- Can we upload content?
- Are there ways for attendees to engage via chat, polls, Q&A, whiteboard?
- Does the solution include breakout rooms?
- Can attendees access virtual events through a mobile device, tablet, or computer?
- Can attendees access virtual events and recordings on-demand through the event?
- How can I brand the event experience?
- What does this software integrate with?
KPIs for Measuring Virtual Conference Success
When determining the right KPIs for event success—regardless if the environment is virtual, hybrid, or in-person—it’s important to understand how your specific business calculates event ROI.
Below are several specific event metrics to consider based on your event goals.
Goal: To Generate Brand Awareness
When looking to measure brand awareness during your virtual event, consider tracking the number of registrations, the number of social media impressions, media placements, website visits, and event website visits. All these metrics can help you determine the demand for your virtual event.
Goal: To Drive Revenue
According to our 2020 Event Marketing Report, more than half (54%) of respondents surveyed expressed difficulty when proving ROI. When looking to increase revenue with your virtual event, metrics that revolve around leads generated, sales pipeline, opportunities created or influenced and deals won can help you determine your event’s impact on the bottom line.
Goal: To Educate and Delight Customers
Events centered around customer and user engagement will want to look at a variety of metrics centered around product usage, survey results, and retention numbers. During the event explore different measurements: the registration to attendance conversion, the retention rate during sessions (average watch time per session), and the session attendance. After your event look at data provided for the number of monthly active users before and after your event, product usage, number of demos given, net promoter scores, post-event survey results, and the number of 1:1 meetings with customers.
Goal: To Satisfy Event Attendees
An important area of focus for any event is attendee engagement and satisfaction. When looking to measure event engagement, consider the following measurements: number of session attendees, number of questions in virtual sessions, number of poll responses, number of highly engaged attendees, and number of networking community check-ins.
Your Virtual Event: Key Takeaways
While the current environment is in constant flux, event marketers are moving forward with creativity and empathy as they tackle new territory in a virtual space.
Hosting a virtual conference is no walk in the park and can be a great opportunity for marketers to expand creative muscles. To make your event stand out from the noise, here are the key areas of opportunity.
- Understanding the key elements of your virtual conference programming from keynotes to networking.
- Use breakout sessions to create intimate gatherings for a more personalized virtual experience.
- Launch a successful virtual conference by identifying events' purpose, understanding your audience, and designing attendee-centric experiences.
- Create an engaging experience with great content, interactivity, a user-friendly event software, and personalized event experiences.
- Ensure valuable sponsorship opportunities by collaborating with your sponsors and creating memorable sponsored experiences.
- Define your key metrics such as reach, registrations, and net promoter scores for virtual success.
- Focus on a comprehensive virtual solution by asking the right questions from user experience and branding, to what integrations work with the software.
Looking for more ways to nail your next virtual experience? Check out our latest ebook, Going Hybrid, to get an in-depth look at how to bring your virtualized experiences to life.
Editor's Note: This post was originally published on April 20, 2019 and has since been updated for relevancy.