The secret to hosting a successful virtual conference

A Red Hat marketing executive shares insights on how to smoothly shift a big in-person event to a virtual one in a short amount of time as her company just did.

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Image: iStockphoto/fizkes

The spread of the coronavirus pandemic quickly ended plans for any in-person conferences for the rest of 2020. While major tech conferences including Mobile World Congress, SXSW, and Google's I/O were all canceled, others were converted to digital events.  

SEE: Video teleconferencing do's and don'ts (free PDF) (TechRepublic)

Conferences slated for as early as March were shifted virtual, such as Apple's Worldwide  Developers Conference (WWDC 2020), Cisco Live, Microsoft Build, SAP SAPPHIRE NOW, and Red Hat Summit 2020

While altering the event format may sound simple, it isn't quite that easy. The unprecedented nature of COVID-19 resulted in many companies having to make the transition quickly, which is especially difficult since most organizations haven't had to host an online conference before. 

Red Hat, for example, had to shift its in-person event virtual in less than two months, said Leigh Day, vice president of marketing communications and brand at Red Hat. 

"Like many, we had a decision to make: To take our in-person summit, which was to be in San Francisco this year at the end of April, and make it a virtual event," Day said. 

"We made the decision to do that in early March, so we had a runway of approximately seven weeks to make the move to a virtual platform instead of in-person," Day said. "Typically, our in-person summit is around 10,000 people, we weren't sure exactly what to expect with a virtual event." 

In those seven weeks, Day said they had to let all of their constituents know they were changing the conference to a virtual format, make sure they could make it free for online attendees, and ensure all speakers had the technological support and infrastructure to successfully hold their sessions.

Despite never having hosted the summit virtual, the event proved to be very successful.

"We gave ourselves the target of 30,000 registrants, and we ended up having over 81,000 registrants and a 65% conversion rate, which means that 65% of registrant's actually attended live during the summit," Day said. 

Now that online conferences have become the norm, viewers know what makes a good or bad event. Tech issues, for example, is one of the quickest ways to lose attendees. SAP's virtual SAPPHIRE NOW 2020, for example, suffered technological difficulties during its opening keynote, preventing many viewers from being able to see the presentation in its entirety live. 

Day outlined some of the challenges Red Hat faced during the process, as well as some of the components that went well. She also offered some words of advice for other organizations having to shift an event online.  

The good and the bad

"The good news is that we had a technology partner that we've had for the last six years, so we already had a strong lead on the virtual platform that we could use," Day said. "But, of course, there was a lot of concern;  a lot of sleepless nights over whether the platform would be able to accommodate all of our attendees and be able to have good functionality, it's just fear of the unknown."

"But then also we had to reimagine a lot, if you've ever been to our summit, we try to make it a very immersive experience," Day noted. "So our main stage content includes lots of different people, it sometimes includes music, it includes lighting and just different aspects that make it a really immersive experience."

One struggle was trying to create that same immersive, engaged experience through a computer screen. A tactic Red Hat used was shortening presentations, Day said.  

"Our keynotes were only about 20 minutes long and [were] highly dynamic; same with our sessions," Day said. "We also staffed our sessions with a lot of different Red Hat people so that the chats were very active and dynamic and people were getting the accessibility they wanted just virtually."

"We actually also added some fun elements. We had gamification for where you won store credit to get Red Hat swag for attending different things. And then we also had virtual happy hours at the end of the day," she added. 

These strategies proved to be effective, since more than 1,500 viewers attended the happy hours each night, Day noted.

However, getting the conference to the point of execution was a journey. 

"The biggest challenge was the quick turn. People that are used to doing in-person presentations are now doing them from their home office and having to make sure connectivity was there and that we didn't have any technical glitches," Day said. "Technical enablement for individuals doing sessions was one of the biggest challenges.

"We did a lot of rehearsals. We did a lot of run-throughs," Day said. "Also, as I said, the fear of the unknown, not having any idea if the platform would succeed or not, not having any idea how many people would attend. But, we definitely had more successes than challenges, thank goodness."

Advice for other companies 

"The advice I would give is that everyone is used to virtual now, so go into it unapologetically. No one is going to in-person events, it's not safe to do that right now. So create a uniquely yours experience," Day said.

"At Red Hat...we wanted our personality to come through. We wanted to add some fun things in and take some chances like that," Day said. "Even though things are virtual, people still need to understand that humans are humans and they like to interact and they like to be around one another and not just look at someone talking to a screen."

She also emphasized the importance of collaboration when it comes to launching a digital event. Without everyone coming together and on the same page, the event won't be successful. 

"This was very much a team effort. It involved IT, it involved our InfoSec team, it involved sales and all of our different marketing organizations; it involved our products and technologies team to come up with awesome, compelling content. I like the word 'enrollment,' and a successful effort like this involves a lot of enrollment," Day said.

"Collaborate with teammates, ask questions to people outside your company and don't try to go it alone," Day added. "People inside your company have virtual event experiences now, everyone's attended a virtual event of some sort and can talk about negatives and positives of what they've experienced to help shape a positive experience going forward."

Day predicted that virtual events might not go away after the pandemic. For Red Hat, at least, she said organizers are planning to implement a hybrid approach in the future. 

"In-person experiences can't be replaced completely, but we will still have a virtual component. We were able to have entire teams from customers attend. We were able to have all these playbacks and get all sorts of information," Day said. "The free virtual aspect of the summit will always exist, even as we return to in-person events."

For more, check out How to conduct professional video conferences on TechRepublic. 

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