Think of online conferences in the same way you would an in-person event … and then think again.
Here at Redgate, there’s a strong emphasis on learning and development that continues in this new world where COVID-19 has stripped away the chance for us to meet face-to-face safely. As Redgate’s Events Marketing Manager, it’s been even more essential for me to dedicate time over the past few months building my knowledge of how to create the best possible event experience.
I’ve been reflecting on what I’ve learned when tuning into a variety of virtual online conferences and want to share some food for thought that I hope you’ll keep in mind for your next online event.
Consider the ROI
While an online conference will likely be a lot cheaper than it would be if you were attending in person, there’s still a key hidden cost – time. I’m a big believer in the saying that you get out what you put in. Registering for the event is only the tip of the iceberg, and if you want to get valuable insights from the speakers and content delivered, you’re going to need to work for it. Don’t expect that just because you’re not flying to the event, you can show up in your PJs. Dress for business, roll up your sleeves and get to work. This is work time, not downtime.
Prepare in advance
Know what you want to get out of the experience – what are your goals, for example? What do you want to learn? What problems are you hoping to solve? Write down the questions you want to be answered to help you discover how best to spend your time while tuning in.
Also, think about the particular sessions you really want to listen to live. Do you have a question that you want answered, maybe from a certain speaker or company? Is the platform offering the chance for you to network with peers or vendors? Should you allocate time for that and, if so, which session could you skip or catch up on later?
Prepare a calendar reminder for the event, outlining the sessions on the agenda you want to see. Or get yourself organized and set up a OneNote in advance with tabs, a checklist and space to add in notes from sessions.
Get set up
Ahead of the date, make sure you know how to log on and join the online event by checking your confirmation email for the right link to get access. Look at the tech that’s required and ensure you have what you need to hear or see things when they go live (decent internet is essential). Aim to log in early to avoid being held in a queue (if the event is reaching thousands of people, this is a reality). Maybe open up a separate browser window to follow the event hashtag and the event organizer on Twitter, in case you want to follow along with the social activity or ask a question outside of the platform.
Every platform is different, so if you haven’t used it before it’s worth checking the Help section to be sure you’ll have a smooth experience.
Activate your out-of-office auto-response and stick to it. Close down work and personal email and mute other communication channels like Slack or anything else that you think could distract you. Avoid the temptation to multi-task, unless it’s related to the event – it’s okay to watch a session and type a question to the speaker, but think twice before you join a team Zoom call while listening to the keynote speaker. You wouldn’t do this if you were at an in-person conference, so avoid doing it virtually.
Take regular breaks and maybe walk to the end of the garden in between sessions to imagine that you’re there in person. This could help you digest one session and go through what you’ve learned before you start the next one. Consider not watching sessions back-to-back by perhaps taking the time to engage with speakers directly after their session, or connecting with vendors who have solutions that might help solve your challenges. You can always watch the next session at another time, and this will allow you to finish one task before immediately starting another. It will also give your brain the time it needs for processing, and that’s when the big ideas sink in.
A massive part of the discovery and learning from face-to-face events comes from talking to others and connecting with like-minded peers who are going through the same challenges. If you only watch the sessions presented at a live conference and stay seated in the same session room for the duration, you miss the networking opportunities as well as the food and drinks.
It’s the same at online conferences. Networking might not come naturally, and you may prefer to dedicate 100% of your time to listen to the experts, but you’re actually missing a trick. Introvert or extrovert, online events can help you here. They do away with any social awkwardness because you don’t have to make small talk at the coffee machine. Instead, there are probably Q&A tabs you can open to start a discussion with anyone and everyone. Some platforms even offer to set up ‘hallway style’ meetings.
Use these to your advantage – take the temperature, ask the stupidest question, be the person with their hand up. It’s your time to get your questions answered, and by doing this, it will get your ideas flowing. If the conference offers a way to connect with attendees, speakers and vendors, use it to get acquainted. Everyone else is probably keen for a little interaction too. Remember we’re all in this together.
Consider what you’d be doing if you were at the conference in-person. You can probably simulate that experience and do some things even better than you might have done before. Because the event has gone virtual, you’re likely to be joined by hundreds, even thousands, more peers than you would have been if you were restricted to a conference center or a hotel ballroom.
Think of the possibilities! What’s your company’s policy on attending online conferences – do they even have one? Have you had to put in a request to attend this virtual event? If not, you might likely be stuck being in two places at once (refer to ‘Be present’). Can you still submit expenses?
Get in event mode. Beyond making the most of the more natural ways to connect with people, consider ordering breakfast pastries from a local bakery, or a lunch panini from a local deli. Helping to support local companies who aren’t currently serving business people in your local area feels like the right thing to do. Whatever you treat yourself to during the virtual event will cost much less than what you would have spent on the train/flight, hotel room and evening meals if time had stood still and it was still 2019.
More importantly, it will make the event an event, not a few hours staring at a screen.
I’ll end this post on a high and encourage you to remember what life is all about: fulfilment, helping others, gratitude and discovery. Remember that there are faces behind the screens; people are making this happen, humans invented the tech, and everyone has feelings. Be thankful of others, as well as yourself and the rest will come.