From Conference Events to Virtual Conference Experiences

As companies begin to talk about returning to work, one big decision they’ll have to make is around their customer conference or their year-end events. Big events in second quarter were canceled or shifted to a virtual format. Third quarter events seem to be shifting to virtual, and most fourth quarter events are still on the fence. It’s a tough decision with valid points on either side of it. We’ve been a part of the transformation as many events shifted to a virtual format and just two months in, the shift has generated great discussion, key learnings and a new set of best practices.

Here are seven best practices that we’re using to help our clients reset the conference experience.

1. Shift your thinking from a virtual event to a virtual experience.

When your customers gather on-site for a conference event, you’ve created a total experience from the look and feel of the venue to the added elements of meals, activities and socializing that are woven throughout the event. When the conference goes virtual, you have to recreate the experience as something on a screen.  And you have to help viewers participate in order to keep them active in the event. The shift from attendees to viewers is the best way to rethink the conference experience. And in most cases, it’s best to start with a clean slate and create a different kind of experience.

2. Imagine the viewers setting during the experience.

The predictions are that most people will be back at work by third quarter. So, your viewers are likely to be back in an office setting. Consider whether you’re building an experience for an individual or a team. Can you create activities that teams will do together as a part of the virtual experience or are you focused only on an individual experience? It makes a difference in the viewership you may get with customers. Many companies are finding the virtual setting is a good format to double their attendance because it’s much easier for multiple viewers to attend. And, it may create some live feeds into your event from a customer’s setting.

3. Bring it to life for viewers in advance.

Just like you build hype for attendees, you’ll need to build hype for viewers. Shift your investment in swag from things given away at a conference to things that viewers will receive in advance. Send a box of things they’ll need during the experience. Break them up and send them one at a time to build suspense. Get every viewer intrigued and invested before the virtual experience begins. Consider partnering with a food vendor for coupons or delivery to add something to the setting in advance.

4. Build an experience to pull viewers through rather than disconnected content to push out.

Just as you imagine the big ballroom at the center of the on-site experience, you need to start with the screen and the online experience. Shift the investment in the grand scale of things to the activity and movement of things. Viewers won’t watch for hours, but they will participate for hours. Think of the difference in someone who watches a video versus someone who plays a video game.

Map the experience on a screen.  Think through the interactive components that will keep a viewer involved and interested in what’s ahead. You don’t have to gamify your event, but you will need an interactive role for viewers.

We’ve seen great ideas emerge around games, an animated MC, a chat room on the side, and virtual events that pop-up throughout the day.

5. Limit keynotes and expand the short segments.

The big ballroom presentations are the keystone of big conferences. Virtually, they aren’t as impactful. Simplify and limit the number of keynotes and streamline the messaging delivered in this format. The impact of keynotes comes through with the energy created in a large setting with a large audience. You can’t create that feeling virtually, so don’t try. Instead, focus more on short segments that can be repurposed and leveraged after the conference.

6. Lighten up the format, the content and the visuals.

PowerPoint doesn’t translate well on video. It’s a flat medium; video is not. Avoid the traditional role of presenters and lean into the dynamics of conversation. Video is a great medium for short, succinct and impactful messages. Consider powerful images and music to add energy in a different way.

Viewers prefer the talk show format. It takes energy to pull viewers in, and it helps for communicators to have a partner to help build this energy.

7. Add sizzle, surprise and reward.

You can keep viewers interested with a format that includes surprises and giveaways along the way. If you want viewers to participate throughout the day, incentivize them to do so. You’re competing with things that are happening all around them. You want to keep their focus on the screen or pull it back to the screen repeatedly.

One client knew the virtual format would require breaks. And, they were worried about getting viewers back after breaks. So, they made breaks longer and called them “walk abouts”. They kept talking, but they used light conversation to loosen up the format and keep content flowing. They never really disconnected with viewers, but it made it very easy for someone to leave a desk or chair and wander around for a period of time. These became some of the highest rated elements of their conference!


As we’ve worked on this new format, we’ve seen a lot of creativity and a lot of learning. And, I know we will see companies leverage the virtual channel very differently as we move ahead. We’ve also seen many challenges with this format. It isn’t an easy transition for a communicator, but it can be an impactful one when you learn the skills of structuring for a virtual viewer and connecting with an invisible audience. There’s no doubt, the time is right to add this skill to your toolkit.

Let us know if you need help with a virtual conference or a virtual meeting.

And as always, we’re here when you need us.

Sally Williamson