With relaxed social distancing restrictions, everyone is expecting more in-person conferences. The question comes here - are virtual conferences still in the game? Before answering these questions, we need to first understand what a virtual conference is.
What is a virtual conference?
A virtual conference is a formal meeting over a certain topic, such as business trends, economic growth, climate change, education, game design etc. Often, experts of the field and sometimes government officials come together to share and exchange knowledge and ideas, helping one another to gain new insights over the topic of interest and get hold of the latest industry trends. Unlike simple virtual meetings and video conferencing, virtual conferences are larger, more formal events that typically span across several days. It hence requires a larger budget to hold, and often involves sponsors. Virtual conferences mainly consist of keynote speeches and panel discussions, punctuated by curated workshops, networking breaks, live entertainment, and sometimes with exhibitions co-held in another space.
Are Virtual Conferences Still in the Game? Event trends of 2023
Everyone is anticipating a return of in-person conferences - in an interview, five top event professionals unanimously predicted a rise for in-person events in 2023. Admittedly, the general event experience and networking opportunities are unmatched in in-person conferences compared to online ones. However, does that mean virtual conferences are going to sink and disappear?
The quick answer is: NO. The pandemic has opened up new event formats: with in-person events being forced to move online, virtual and hybrid event formats become more popular. During the pandemic, attendees are exposed to online options more than ever. Having being used to the comfort of joining events at home, more incentives and stimulating experiences are needed to attract attendees to leave their house for in-person events. In other words, expect an increased budget for in-person events on creative spending and event technologies. In this sense, virtual events would be a much cheaper alternative for an event of a similar scale, at the same time offering the advantages of convenience, saved time and transportation costs.
In addition, virtual events provide the perfect complement to in-person events. In EventMB’s research, as much as 71% of event planners indicate that they would continue to employ a digital strategy even after live events’ return. Interestingly, similar results are shown in a LinkedIn survey with 200 companies - 72% said they would keep virtual events for the long term. Virtual conferences provide another pipeline to reach a wider audience, allowing people to take part regardless of their time zone, location and disabilities. This aligns with global diversity and inclusion initiatives to provide equal opportunities to people from all walks of life.
Most importantly, a huge misconception to clarify here: the event format is not determined by what is trendy at the moment, but is driven by the goals of your events, the needs of your client and audiences. It is always important to bear them in mind to tailor a plan suitable for your client. In the case of conferences, having keynotes as a main feature may make an in-person format more favourable, given that the in-person environment helps to sustain audiences’ attention to the speech. However, since conferences often have global audiences, virtual conferences may be an appropriate choice for global engagement. So ultimately, the choice boils down to the budget and needs of your client and audiences.
Another sustainable initiative that is receiving ever-growing attention is climate action. The increasingly grim outlook for climate change has accelerated demands for eco-friendly events, as stated in our latest white paper. Virtual conferences would be a wonderful alternative to in-person conferences to reduce carbon footprint produced by air flights and other forms of commuting. Coupled with maturing technology on metaverse, VR and AR, virtual events would feel like a real one. These developments of novel technologies are also supporting full digitalization of events. In the near future, virtual events will be normalized.
My points are summarized below:
- The event format depends on the event goals, the need of the client and audiences
- Virtual conferences complement in-person ones
- Virtual conferences provides the incentive of greater convenience
- Virtual conferences support inclusion and sustainability initiatives
- Technological developments, e.g. VR, AR, metaverse, are supporting the normalization of virtual conferences
Now that we know virtual conferences are still here to stay, we shall explore the next prominent question: what makes a successful virtual conference?
3 Objectives and 6 KPIs for a Successful Virtual Conference
The success of an event is always related to the achievement of its objectives. Hence, we should first identify the objectives of conferences. Event objectives can be classified into two big categories: attendee goals and business goals. While the ultimate interest of business events is often on brand awareness and lead conversion (business goals), the major interest of conferences is more on the topic of interest (attendee goals), with the brand awareness only coming next. The main objectives of conferences are:
To raise awareness on and offer insights to a certain issue, be it economic growth, environment, or any academic topic;
To connect people with similar minds for the advancement of the field;
To generate revenue or raise funds for your organization.
As we can see, for conferences, concerns for the event comes before concerns for the event organizer. With regard to the above goals, here are a few key performance indicators (KPIs) that can reflect the success of your virtual conference.
1. Registration and attendance rate
This is the obvious but essential one that helps estimate the popularity and the scale of impact of your event. According to the Virtual Events Benchmarks Report, virtual events show a turnout rate of around 50%. A high registration rate may reflect that the promotion of your event is successful and that your event raised high initial interest. However, if the turnout rate is low, you may need to reflect:
- Is there a discrepancy between the promoted and the finalized event?
- Is the length of the promotion period too long?
- Is your confirmation and reminder campaign effective?
- Is the date and time of the event appropriate?
- Is the chosen virtual event platform accessible and user-friendly?
2. Audience satisfaction
Captured by rates of audiences staying behind, number of views for on-demand recordings and surveys, audience satisfaction is a key component that reflects the overall effectiveness of your conference. Surveys in particular, can show how much the audience find the arrangement smooth and the speeches insightful, providing an effective measure towards the awareness-raising and networking component of the event, and offering actionable insights for next year’s conference.
3. Lead Conversion
Not necessarily aiming for business revenue, lead conversion can also mean a wider reach of your organization’s work and more quality leads to contribute to your field of interest. For instance, in a conference we held with UNICEF, more leads means more people are exposed to your organization’s service, which widens the source for monetary and quality contribution to the equal opportunities of children. New attendees, subscription for newsletters, followers on social media can all be measures for lead conversion.
4. Media engagement and press coverage
This is another way that reflects the reach and impact of your event, assessing the awareness raised for the organization and the issue. The likes, comments and shares for event-related posts, the number of times your event hashtag is used, the online traffic for press releases may give your insights on media engagement and press coverage of your conference.
5. Return of Investment (ROI)
If you are aiming to raise funds or to make revenue, ROI would be a major indicator for your aim. Record all your income (e.g. sponsorship, ticket sales, product purchases) and expenses (e.g. employment of a virtual event platform and studio for filming, recruitment of hosts) to calculate the ROI.
6. Sponsor satisfaction
Sponsor satisfaction is often overlooked as a KPI. Although not directly linked to the event goals, sponsors help us to settle the immense expenditure for conferences. If you can satisfy their needs for the sponsorship, you may be able to secure your source of funding for your conference next time. Given that you and the sponsor are in close partnership, the best way to measure their satisfaction is simply to sit down and chat with them as a post-event follow-up, and definitely take their feedback seriously for consideration.
Features of a Successful Virtual Conference 2023
Virtual conferences place a greater emphasis on tech than in-person conferences, which makes sense as venue and food costs are saved as the conference takes place online. In a budgeting perspective, as much as 75% are placed on tech. Also, unlike a virtual meeting, virtual conferences are larger in scale with a higher budget, and hence require more advanced tech features to carry out. The following introduces some tech features for a successful conference, from the basics to the latest and advanced.
High video quality and stability: often overlooked, high video quality and platform stability are the basis of a smooth conference. Make sure the video platform you are using can share presentation slides, videos and computer audio without lag.
On-demand recording: ensure that the platform allows on-demanding recording for future purposes.
Network accessibility: always consider the location of your audiences before you choose a neworking platform. If you have a large audience from China, for example, you may want to choose a video platform localized in Asia which possesses China streaming liscence and allows the Chinese audience to assess without VPN.
Interactive features: without in-person participation of events, interactive features are one of the keys to sustain audiences’ attention. Reactions, polls, Q&A and chat functions are some basics to help engage the audience more. Some platforms such as Hubilo also offer contests and gamification features.
Networking features: as mentioned, one of the main goals of conferences is to network. Apart from the well-known breakout rooms function where audiences are assigned to different groups by the host, other more advanced networking features are provided by different platforms. For example, EventX offers the feature of a networking lounge, where participants can join different tables of discussion independently. Hubilo allows you to do 1 on 1 smart-matching, while Airmeet provides a fluid space feature where participants can move around freely for networking.
Virtual lobby: A customizable virtual lobby allows people to navigate the virtual space as if they were in a real conference room, which is a feature EventX provides. It is also a great way to showcase your event's sponsors and participating brands, and set up booths and exhibitions if you have one.
Green screen studio and computer graphics: Another way to make virtual conferences more immersive is by filming in a green screen studio, which can be transformed into an animated, 3D virtual conference hall through CG. Using AR, projection mapping, holographic projection and interactive projection technologies, computer graphics can interact with a 3D environment - your audiences and presentation slides can be displayed on virtual walls, or the conference topic can pop up and expand from the background.
Virtual reality: VR can take your event experience to a whole new level. With VR headsets, audiences from around the world can join the virtual conference as if they were sitting in the conference room themselves. VR headsets may become the next household gadget.
Live captions and translation: live captions and translation is a thoughtful feature to provide, especially when virtual conferences often aim for a global audience. Some video platforms such as EventX integrate with live translation applications such as Interprefy and KUDO.
Event management platform: like any events, a successful conference can never be done without comprehensive event management. Some features of a comprehensive event management platform includes registration, ticketing, attendee tracking, surveys and analytics, badge management, and email marketing.
AI: With a large database of audience demographics and preferences, you could easily design personalized content that best suits your audiences. Picking the perfect virtual environment and suitable keynote speakers can all be automated. For example, EventX provides an attendee generation solution, where potential attendees can be generated by a click of the Magic Button.
How to Engage Online Audiences
Probably many of us would agree - boredom is a major issue for online conferences. Afterall, who has the attention span to sit on the same seat, staring at the screen for a few hours, and for consecutive days? The below are SEVEN tips to engage your audience. Some might seem intuitive, yet often neglected.
1. Content is King
Keynote speech is a dominant component in virtual conferences. It is not surprising, therefore, that keynote content is the single most-mentioned factor when it comes to engaging online audiences. Afterall, everyone coming to the conference is expecting groundbreaking ideas, never-heard-before knowledge, and new insights. As the event organizer, a piece of advice is to choose your speakers wisely. It would be great if your speaker is a prominent leader of the field, and possess some public speaking skills with speech-giving experiences.
2. Check the basics
Your conference should run smoothly with video streaming - no one can sustain their attention when a conference lags and freezes constantly. While video quality and stability is under the control of the video platform, other factors such as sound quality, internet connection and the lighting condition from the speaker's side may not be. Before the event, send gentle reminders to your speakers: ask them to turn on their camera when speaking, film in good lighting and proper camera angle, and use headphones over built-in microphones whenever possible.
3. Create an in-person environment
The biggest difference between an online and a real conference is the environment. A real-life environment helps us to feel involved. A few of the tech features mentioned in the previous section can help replicate an in-person environment, such as setting up a virtual lobby/conference room, filming in a green-screen studio, and using VR technology.
4. Make it appealing and stimulating
We can look into other solutions to complement the loss of an in-person environment, like increasing visual and auditory elements to make your conference more stimulating. The Cisco Video Networking Index shows that video content will account for 82% of all internet traffic by the end of 2022. Therefore, making use of well-edited videos would be a good idea. You can use it to introduce or conclude your conference, make transitions, for keynotes and demonstrations. Also, try to make presentation slides animated, and play music to build up the atmosphere during the opening and closing ceremony.
5. Keep the feedback loop going
To prevent the audience from losing focus, actively draw them in by maintaining a constant flow of interaction with the audience. For example, during the introduction, ask your attendees to use the ‘raise hand’ function to identify themselves. In between speeches, ask them to ‘clap hands’ or add poll sections to regain their attention. During speeches, throwing personal, reflective questions constantly, such as "have you been abroad?", "how would you imagine the future of events?", would help you pull the audience back to your speech. As the event organizer, you may also kindly introduce interactive features of your event platform to your speakers, and ask if they would like to use any so that you can arrange for them.
6. Sprinkle your conference with (networking) breaks
We’ve all been there - sitting back, passive listening for hours and hours of talk can be such a pain. This is why breaks should exist from time to time to help us settle and refocus. Also, since another main purpose of attending conferences is to network, remember to schedule some breaks for networking into your event agenda, whether it is one on one random match-making, joining discussions around the virtual networking tables, or navigating through a fluid networking space.
7. Bring in real food!
Spice up the event with real food! Sending gift cards or offering food delivery services to your attendees not only is a thought practice that energizes your attendees, but also keeps them busy and therefore engaged while watching the conference.
We now know that virtual conferences are not going to easily shrink and disappear from the scene. Some major KPIs to measure the success of virtual conferences, old and new features of an awe-inspiring conference, and some actionable methods to engage audiences have been provided to enhance your next virtual conference.
EventX's video platform offers a lot of interactive, networking and lobby-building features for virtual conferences. Importantly, EventX allows you to access audiences from China at lightning speed and without VPN. Click here to find out more or book a demo from our team. Gook luck for your next conference!
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