hosting online conferences

Hosting Online Conferences: How to Plan, Prepare & Execute

Everything is happening virtually nowadays, including conferences. I think that even when we’re fully back in person, there will be an option for attending virtually (or a hybrid model). Having virtual capabilities enhances your audience reach, and allows people to join who otherwise may not be able to. Online conferences are going to be a part of us and the new norm for some time to come. So, I made a list (it’s what I do) of how you can put on and host your own online conference and utilize the resources out there available to you.

Getting Started: Things To Consider

When you’re planning any event, you need to do some planning on paper first. Some questions you need to answer:

  • What is the theme or purpose of the event?
  • The number of people you anticipate joining?
  • Will you have in person capabilities? If not, and it’s fully online, then where will you host the event?
  • Will there be speakers other than yourself for this event?
  • What will be the schedule of events at the conference?
  • Are you going to charge for entry?
  • Do you plan to make this a recurring event?
  • What is your online marketing plan?

Once you’ve answered some of these you can move forward with the logistics. I’ll help you address these questions in this article.

Planning and Preparation For Online Conferences

What Is The Purpose Of The Event?

Is this a conference that includes a panel of speakers? Is it a networking event? If you’re starting something new, what are you going to call it?

When I hosted the Breaking Barriers conference, I thought long and hard about my purpose. I also knew that I wanted to make my conference a recurring event, which further pushed me to come up with a title that I could use over and over again.

What you call your conference does matter, especially if you’re starting something new, as it lends itself to your brand. Be sure to use words, or phrases that you want to be associated with and that speak to your mission. Then use them to come up with a description for marketing and advertising.

The Number Of People Who May Join And Hosting Location

Zoom is a popular app for online conferences that is versatile, easy to use, and includes a virtual whiteboard to assist with imparting information. You have the ability to mute audio and video, and it’s compatible with mobile devices. However, even the business plan has a limit of 100 users at any given time. If you’re anticipating more than that, I suggest looking into SymposiumApp.

With Symposium, the number of people you can engage is limitless. With each virtual event platform, you can record the event, bring up individual speakers to chat, and have a text chat box for those that may not want to show their face. With each, you can also initiate screen sharing so that your speakers can utilize presentations. Symposium goes a step further by allowing you to charge for the event upfront and create an online invite. Using it is free.

If you’re going to do a hybrid conference, then be sure to consider who will be taking care of the online streaming portion. There should be a dedicated person, or team, to handle those logistics and be available for troubleshooting during the conference itself. Plus, there may be video conferencing equipment required. In addition, for a hybrid session, you may consider a live video stream on YouTube.

Another platform to consider is Cisco Webex.

Regardless of the meeting platform you choose, be sure it has good quality video and audio capabilities. Recruit a friend to test run the options before you make a final decision.

Who Are The Speakers?

Lining up your presenters is important. You need to identify the person, the topic they will be in charge of, and the time they will speak. In addition, as host, be prepared to moderate and ask questions to help the conversation move along. For a panel type set up, again be ready to moderate, and have questions prepared to help the audience get started.

Within each speaker’s time slot leave extra time in case they show up late, or if there are questions at the end. In preparation for the event, it can be helpful to create bios of the speakers. This will help the audience know who they are listening to, you as host can use it to help introduce them, and it provides some background and context for the information being given.

How Is the Conference Set Up?

Will there be just speakers? Are there online games or activities? Is there specific Q&A sessions, roundtable discussions? Do you want participation from the audience? Will there be powerpoint slides and screen sharing required?

There is a lot to consider and prepare for. Give all of these questions some thought because it can change the dynamic and make up of the conference. User experience is also key. With these kinds of events, one of the advantages of attending is meeting people and networking. That ability is diminished when it’s all online. So how will you address that?

Will It Be For Free, or Is There a Cost?

Depending on the goals of your conference, you may decide to charge a small fee. There a couple of ways to set this up.

First, you can do this via Eventbrite invitations. You set up your account, create your event, including charges, and place the link to the event within the description so that people know where to go when the time comes. Alternatively, as I mentioned earlier, a service like Symposium allows you to do all of it within their program.

If this is a first-time conference, getting people to pay up can be a bit difficult, especially if you don’t have sponsors to help with elevating your presence. What I’ve done in the past is make a free conference and the charge optional, with the caveat that all proceeds (or a portion) will go to charity. Have a charity chosen so that you can mention exactly where the money will go. Being transparent in this way will make it easier for people to opt in to payment.

Your Marketing Plan

Marketing online for your event requires some creativity and knowledge of social media. Some ideas to get you started:

  • Start talking about your event on social media as soon as possible to get the word out there
  • Create specific social media posts for your event -be sure that the format and styling are consistent with your branding and theme
  • Consider press releases to help promote and amplify your online conference
  • Ask friends to share your posts to reach more followers
  • If you have a website/blog, write a post describing the event and let all of your email subscribers know
  • Ask your guest speakers to share the event online
  • Share your marketing posts and posters on relevant Facebook groups and online forums

These ideas are a starting point. Depending on the theme of your event and target audience you may find other sources online to use for getting the word out there.

Is This A Recurring Event?

If you plan on making this a yearly event, be sure to do these few things:

  • Have a name that can be easily reused each year. I chose Breaking Barriers as that is my goal with each event I put on and the subject of each conference can easily change.
  • Get feedback from your meeting participants; understand what they liked and didn’t and ask them if they would return. This information is very valuable to improve and grow.
  • Keep the emails of your participants. This makes a great starting point to market your next conference/event.
  • Record your event so that you can use it as a reference, and again another marketing tool with each subsequent conference you host.
  • Keep in touch with your speakers and sponsors. It’s all about networking and maintaining those relationships. You never know who else you may get connected to that could help you out in the future.

Doing the above, at minimum, should help you create a scalable event.

Execution of Your Plan

Once you know the nitty-gritty of what to do and your goals, you have to put your plan into motion. I suggest giving yourself 1-3 months of planning time before the conference date. Your to-do list includes:

  • Scheduling your conference
  • Setting up your schedule of events
  • Contacting your speakers and letting them know the plan. Also communicate with them what they should do in preparation.
  • Create a marketing plan including social media posts and posters, consider press releases, write up an article about what you’re doing, and sharing the event with everyone.
    • Consider paying for ad support to help amplify your posts
    • Start as early as possible!
  • Research and make a final decision regarding a charity (if you choose to go that route)
  • If you are a moderator, then prepare questions, introductions, and comments to help keep things moving.
  • Setup follow-up emails to be sent out once the online conference is over. This keeps people engaged, can be a source of traffic for your website (if you have one), and you can gain their feedback.

Benefits of Online Conferences

While virtual meetings and online conferences became popular because of the pandemic, they may be here to stay due to some key benefits they provide. For instance,

  • Anyone from anywhere can join in remotely
  • Participants and speakers don’t need to take a lot of time off of work to attend, and you eliminate travel costs
  • You can reach a national and international audience more easily
  • For online-only events, it’s cheaper to plan and execute
  • You can record the event for later use or playback, and/or use the recording to stay in contact with the conference attendees and it allows for content sharing

Some Road Blocks With Online Conferences

If you are putting on something for the first time, it can be hard to gain traction and get people interested in actually joining. Be sure to start planning early and plan out your marketing strategy.

Additionally, there is always a chance people will come in and out of the conference, not show up at all, or just not participate. Utilize the chats in your streaming program to help engage people, try to mix up the conference with different personalities, short breaks, jokes/tidbits to help keep things interesting.

Some Incentives For Your Audience

Some ideas to keep people engaged, interested, or inspire them to show up and participate:

  • Have giveaways planned where you draw winners at the end of the conference
  • For those that stick around, plan a social media post giving them a shoutout, or share one of their posts (this is especially helpful if your audience has any bloggers or online business people)
  • Allow people in the audience to help choose the charity to which you donate at the end of the conference (if you do this)
  • Start asking questions yourself in the secure chat of your streaming platform to help encourage involvement

Final Thoughts

To host and plan online conferences can be daunting. It’s a bit outside the norm, but it seems like this trend is here to stay (or at least some hybrid version of it). Be comfortable stepping out of your comfort zone to make the experience different and fulfilling for your audience.

Online conferences are a great way to grow your brand, get your name out there and network with like-minded people. It takes a little bit of extra work, dedication, and unique planning, but is completely doable.

Happy Planning!