The Future of Technical Conferences

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On the long list of items lost this year is in person conferences. While certainly not as important as hugging family and friends  it can leave a huge void in the advancement of skills and networking. I personally find conferences an indispensable way to learn about the latest techniques, news and updates, connect without like-minded individuals and get inspired and generate ideas. Fortunately, many organizations have opted to host virtual versions of their events this year.

I recall my first virtual conference years ago. I was super excited to attend as the topic was one I was really interested in and I could learn about it from the comfort of my own office without having to sacrifice the time and money to travel. In addition to prepared presentations, this particular conference promised a virtual expo hall and networking opportunities. I honestly thought it would be very educational and simulate a real event.

I was wrong. Imagine my disappointment when I found it difficult to pay attention and fully engage in the conference. Not only was the end user experience confusing as to what to do in the expo hall and how to network it was not clear how and when to join breakouts.  Once in the breakout I found myself staring at a powerpoint while I heard the voice of the presenter drone on. It was not entirely the conference’s fault. Even with the most engaging content it is hard to pay attention when watching presentations. After all there is a reason that Ted Talks are 10-18 minutes. Throw in the fact that inbound phone calls and email pop-ups couldn’t be stopped and next thing you know you’re not even paying attention to the conference.

Since that was about a decade ago I was hoping that with new technologies things might have changed for the better. Surprisingly there are many virtual conferences that are still falling short. Since April I have attended several online conferences and based on my experiences as a participant I have compiled a list of best practices for virtual conferences.

Here are a few tips if you are hosting a virtual conference:

  1. Do a time check. When sending reminders about events or listing the schedule use the recipients time zone  where possible or make it very clear what time zone the events are listed in. Day of the event use a countdown clock to indicate when a session ends and the next session starts.
  • Use split screens. No one want to stare at a boring powerpoint. So use the latest technology to show BOTH the presenter AND the slides or demos on the same screen.
  • Keep sessions short. To avoid losing people’s attention breakouts should be shorter than they would be in person. Additional detail and resources should be shared in downloadable links.
  • Have a moderator. Designate someone to handle questions in the chat in real time and save them for the Q&A to ask the speaker at the end. A moderator can also assist with networking and virtual expo halls. They can find out what you are interested in and suggest different vendors to ‘visit’.
  • Keep it engaging. There are many ways to keep an online presentation engaging. Polls, surveys and chats make the event interactive. Another way is to have two presenters that way they can have a dialogue and introduce more variety into the talk.

Follow these five tips for virtual conferences and attendees will get more out of them. While important now, my hope is that after COVID-19 is under control virtual conferences will continue to be offered as many people have geographically and financial barriers to attending them in person.

Susan Thayer

About

Susan is an experienced CRM and digital marketing consultant with nearly 15 years of managing discovery, implementation and strategic use of CRM solutions and related programs. Prior to joining the consulting world, she served as director of marketing and other leadership roles for leading businesses in both the B2B and Consumer Goods industries. Past corporate employment includes digital marketing and e-commerce for a leading global auto parts corporation, medical products and a website design firm. Susan is a current board member for the Junior League of Lincoln and President of her HOA. She is a past board member for the American Marketing Association of Lincoln and past Public Relations Officer for the state of Arizona Toastmasters.

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