Creating an online user conference? Follow these virtual conference best practices to deliver an event that exceeds customer expectations and drives growth for the enterprise.
Enterprise user conferences have multiple goals: educate customers about your services, share best practices for using your products, and build community around your brand. They also tend to be lavish affairs with exclusive parties, a dizzying array of sessions, and incredibly fun networking opportunities. So, user conferences have a reputation to uphold. And that doesn’t change when you go virtual.
Unfortunately, the nature of the enterprise is that it is slow-moving. This was on display last year when smaller organizations pivoted rapidly to virtual events, while many enterprises did not. We’re no strangers to the barriers—large teams, rigid processes, dated technology, and layers of governance—that get in the way of large companies making sharp turns. We made it our business, literally, to help our enterprise B2B customers plan and execute premium virtual events last year.
Along the way, we developed this list of virtual conference best practices. Use it to help guide your virtual and hybrid event planning this year!
Best practices for virtual user conferences.
1. Select a platform or platforms based on your event goals.
Many organizations hope to take advantage of the technology they already have for webinars or virtual meetings for their virtual conference. The reality is those platforms are usually not right for the job because they lack many of the capabilities necessary for a premium experience. Here are some of the things to ask platform vendors about before making your selection:
- Ability (and reliability) of hosting a varying number of attendees, speakers, and sponsors in real-time. You may be expecting hundreds of virtual attendees—but make sure you can provide the same high-quality experience if/when your audience grows to thousands.
- Networking and engagement features that allow attendees to connect with each other, partners, and your executive team.
- Analytics capabilities. Virtual events offer an opportunity to track all kinds of user activities and uncover deeper insights into your audience—don’t miss out on this important advantage.
- Bonus: Look into whether your technology platform can incorporate hybrid event hosting.
2. Think about where your attendees are when planning your schedule.
Normally you can count on everyone at your user conference to be in the same time zone and totally (well, mostly) focused on your content. Not so online. When planning a virtual event, all of those “norms” need to be reconsidered and reconfigured to optimize value in the digital environment.
How to create a digital-first schedule:
- Consider creating a shorter event “day” that starts later and ends earlier to accommodate customers on both coasts, or creating specialized tracks for overseas attendees.
- Attending an event virtually from home comes with a lot of distractions, such as family, pets, and normal workload. Offer a mix of live and pre-recorded sessions, downloadable exercises, and other resources that can be consumed at attendees’ own pace.
- Keeping people’s attention is even harder when sessions seem to drag on forever. Try adhering to a standardized session limit to make all content easily digestible and bite sized, so attendees can watch multiple sessions and not feel like they’ve used up their entire day.
3. Create an immersive experience.
While physical events (usually) have the advantage of being held in a single building or space, online events need extra touches to make participants feel immersed—and engaged—in the experience. Some ways to do this include:
- Create a strong visual and conceptual theme that applies to everything from the event name to the gamification to the experiential sessions.
- Design custom branding for the event, so all of your event experiences are easily identifiable.
- Use branded intros and outros in video content to give every session a cohesive feel. Intros and outros are also great opportunities to feature partner logos and messages.
4. Actively support attendee engagement.
Without signs, info desks and emcees—or the ability to follow other attendees—it can be challenging for online conference-goers to find their way around. Follow these best practices help ensure virtual conference attendees stay on-track and engaged:
- Use tried-and-true digital communication mechanisms such as welcome videos, notifications and chatbots to help customers experience the conference to the fullest.
- Organize your content into tracks to make it easier for attendees to tailor their agenda to fit their needs.
- Incentivize engagement with specific content with points, prizes, or a digital scavenger hunt.
- For a truly personalized experience, create session suggestions based on attendee persona.
5. Create structured networking opportunities.
At physical events, a lot of networking and connection happens spontaneously and organically. Online, these opportunities need to be more planned and structured. For instance, you can:
- Create breakout sessions to allow small groups of attendees to interact and discuss key topics.
- Schedule live ask-me-anything sessions (AMAs) to give customers the opportunity to engage high-level executives.
- Match customers based on their interests and then create a session or networking group where they can interact.
- Offer a post-event happy hour or a Q&A with sponsors to facilitate laid back interactions and give your sponsors additional exposure.
- Bonus: Who else can you invite now that room size is not a factor? Can you offer customers additional value by bringing in key partners in your ecosystem?
6. Create opportunities for customers to interact with your products and people.
Customers come to your user conference to gain deeper knowledge about your current solutions and your roadmap so they can plan how they will use them to innovate their own offerings. Being able to interact with your products and people to create this vision collaboratively is one of the best parts of the user conference, but it takes some creativity to bring it online. Ways to do that include:
- Consider creating an interactive showcase where customers can “touch and feel” your product, ask questions and even offer feedback on the spot.
- Give attendees “behind the scenes” access to your solutions and physical demo spaces by creating a 3D tour for them to explore during the event.
- Allow attendees to have special access to your high level executives, and give them a chance to get to know them and their visions through AMAs or interactive happy hours.
7. Make it feel special.
In-person user conferences are premium experiences. Your virtual conference should be the same. Here are some ideas for creating an experience to remember:
- Don’t skimp on the production value for your keynotes and other high-impact sessions. Not only will you make an impression now, but these can be shared in other channels after the event for additional impact.
- Mix up your content with experiential sessions that encourage attendees to relax, have fun, or do good such as a yoga class, live music experience, or service project.
- Use direct-mail kits and quality prizes to make attendees feel special.
8. Take advantage of the additional analytics available from online experiences.
In a virtual event, you can track user engagement from session views to resource downloads. This is a great opportunity to learn more about what your customers are most interested in. Here are a few ways to use virtual event analytics to increase engagement after the event:
- Identify top-performing content to recycle for a post-event campaign that continues to drive people to consume.
- Use attendee data to better understand your users’ interests and needs, and then create better persona that help you optimize new engagements, improve sales follow-up and move leads through the funnel faster.
- Prove value and ROI for sponsors with data about booth visits, resources downloaded, and requests for follow-up engagement.
- Make sure to provide opportunities to rate and provide feedback on sessions—and use that feedback to improve future events, whether they’re online, in-person, or hybrid.
The Iron Horse insight.
Enterprises that take the plunge to create innovative, exciting virtual user conference experiences this year will not only deepen their relationship with customers and grow the community around their brand. They will also be able to gain new insights that allow them to better serve existing customers and attract new business. And, they will be well positioned to continue this growth as hybrid events become the next new norm.