The Pros & Cons of a Virtual Conference for Community Engagement

Last month, ADG blazed the trail with Henderson County’s first-ever Virtual Conference, which coincided with a live event for Speak Out 2014. We brought together non-profit groups and childcare professionals from around Henderson County to discuss issues facing children in our area and brainstorm ideas to help them. At the end, we were exhausted, mentally drained, and satisfied that we had brought something new and successful to deliver results to our client. Now that it’s further behind us and we have some time to reflect, Erica has some thoughts on the pros/cons of putting on a Virtual Conference (VC), and what you should consider before doing one of your own:

An example of an exhibitor "booth" at the Speak Out Virtual Conference

An example of an exhibitor “booth” at the Speak Out Virtual Conference

Pros:

  • The VC works well for a regional campaign, multi-state or even international network of people who want to gather around a topic and do so over a period of time, rather than gather together physically in a location.
  • A VC can be a great branding and messaging tool, as was the case with Speak Out 2014: delivering a broad message with multiple touch points and subjects, to a diverse audience.
  • The cost for attendees is minimal, other than their time, it’s simply logging on with internet access and enjoying an array of educational opportunities or options. It was also much cheaper to put on a Virtual Conference compared to putting on a live conference.

Cons:

  • Naturally, it lacks the in person, face-to-face interaction that you get from a live conference. The networking after sessions, the breakfast or lunch connections made are all missing from this sort of virtual experience. You know how important food is to me, so of course I would mention breakfast and lunch!
  • For our virtual conference, the attendees had a bit of a learning curve: logging on for scheduled sessions vs. video on demand, and chat features seemed almost out of reach for some folks accustomed to showing up at an event. Once they tried it however, it worked and they came back again.
  • Technical difficulties. Unless your live conference is going to operate solely on solar power, sharpies and flip charts, any conference will experience technical difficulties. Technical difficulties during a VC have the potential to upset the entire experience, even if it was just one moment at one session. Unfortunately, if not handled well with follow up communication and additional opportunities to connect, the result could be a negative impact to the entire event.

How do I know if this is right for my event?

For us, we had to evaluate our audience, our purpose, and desired outcomes. We were charged with amassing 700 people for a one day event. In our current environment where people are busy, busy, busy balancing work and personal lives, we just didn’t see that happening. Instead, we opted to reach that many people (and more) over the course of a 12 week campaign that included PR, advertising, blog posts, a virtual conference, social media shares, a strong live event, and ongoing “viewing parties” that continue to reach people in a meaningful way

If you’re thinking about virtual, make sure that your target attendees are accustomed to webinars and virtual networking platforms like Skype, GoTo Meetings, of Google Hangouts. If they’re not, and many of our participants were not, there will be a learning curve that requires more advance prep and leg work to get them up to speed.

What surprised you about putting on a virtual conference?

Virtual Conference prepThe biggest surprise: just how much speaker prep and work would be involved in getting our virtual panel discussions where we wanted them to be. The outcome was brilliant and we learned a lot from that, but it was a tremendous amount of work in a very tight timeline.

Second surprise: that we could quite possibly do it all on our own next time!  We used a third-party company, Bits on the Wire, as a platform for the Speak Out virtual conference. While it was great to have the experience of that group for our first one, I think there could be slight modifications to format and delivery that we could deliver ourselves.

What do you wish you had known before you started?

The time involved to prepare for a virtual conference and the advance promotion to get the general public to tap into the opportunities. We made it work (we always do) but the relatively short prep time pushed us to our limits.

Any final thoughts?

I absolutely would do it again, but most of all, I will always encourage my team to think beyond the usual format and pro forma for community engagement and do exactly as we did for our clients: deliver a one of a kind experience that delivers unexpected, targeted results. 🙂

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2 comments
3HatsComm
3HatsComm

Wow, love the idea of a VC. The big thing as you mentioned is the audience, people comfortable learning and attending in a virtual environment; I know many who wouldn't be. I see all the upsides you mentioned. Another one that I think could be key from an org standpoint, speakers. You mentioned the travel costs of attendees, the logistics of a space. Well a VC you don't have that budget - so maybe you can bring in more, better, bigger name speakers? Just skipping the expense of the business class flight and hotel room, maybe opens up the budget for those speaking fees. On the cons.. the technical stuff is big; if you're gonna DIY I'd expect an army of techies to be on standby for all the what ifs, many many dry runs to make sure all is up and running. And for meal breaks and the after hours networking (which yes is totally one of the best parts of a conference) ... why can't that be virtual? You could build time into the program, book a 'brown bag lunch' or evening mixer where everyone chats and swaps LinkedIn cards? I could easily enjoy a presentation while sipping a glass of wine, hopefully not spill any on my keyboard. :) FWIW.



EricaAllison
EricaAllison moderator

Davina, only you could make a virtual after-hours mixer work! Love that idea. You're right on several points...we saved money on travel costs, etc and could totally net a bigger name to be a presenter which in turn might bring in more eyes on the screens. The big advantage that I didn't go into here was the evergreen nature of what we recorded. The panel presentations were "live" first, then went to video on demand, and now live on forever with our clients. They're using them for in person, facilitated discussions around larger topics. Those recordings are a great piece of collateral that will be used for fundraising, grants, and collaborative partnerships.

And yes, should we venture out on our own with this again, tech support and logistics will be of paramount importance.

Great to see you here and my apologies for the late reply. I did not realize I had visitors!! ;)


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