As the doors to the convention center swing open, the hum of conversation and clinking coffee cups fills the air. A sea of attendees from different backgrounds and industries stretches out before you.
There’s a palpable sense of excitement as people exchange business cards and tote laptops, batteries at 100%. 🔋
You can’t deny it. There’s something special about going to a conference. It’s fun. It’s thrilling. It’s a chance to connect IRL.
But let’s be honest. In-person events can also be inconvenient and expensive.
With the video conferencing renaissance of the early 2020s, the business world has witnessed a shift toward virtual and hybrid events. Since then, we’ve made it our mission to help event marketers recreate a dynamic conference experience in a fully digital environment.
Buckle up, because in this guide, we’re covering everything you need to know about planning a stellar virtual conference that ticks all the right boxes. Let’s get started.
The ultimate guide to virtual conferences
A virtual conference is an online event that brings participants together to learn and share knowledge. It typically centers on a shared interest, like a topic, professional role, tool or software used by attendees.
You might be familiar with webinars—that is, web-based seminars. We’re big fans of the webinar, but a virtual conference is so much more.
So what’s the difference between a virtual event vs. a webinar? For starters, a virtual event or virtual conference is more than a virtual meeting. It’s a multi-dimensional experience that allows attendees to engage with each other and with the event itself.
Here are some examples of different types of virtual conferences:
Planning and executing a top-tier virtual conference is no easy task, but when done well, it can drive massive awareness and engagement for your brand.
We’ve already mentioned a couple common types of virtual events, but the truth is they can come in many different forms. The most common is typically a thought leadership summit.
These multi-session events can offer attendees different tracks based on their roles and interests.
Other types of virtual conferences include:
In our Attendee Sentiment Report, we discovered that 81% of attendees are more willing to sign up for hybrid and virtual vs. in-person events. Why? Virtual conferences have a ton of benefits for both attendees and organizers. Here are some of the highlights.
Compared to a traditional, in-person conference, a virtual event provides unparalleled accessibility. Attendees can join from anywhere with an internet connection, making it easier for a diverse range of audiences to participate.
Most event planners and marketers also choose to make sessions available on demand after the conference—ideal for folks with packed schedules or in different time zones. Since 84% of attendees report that access to on-demand content increases their viewing time, on-demand content also deepens your brand experience.
With a range of modern event platforms to choose from, it’s easy to plan accessible and inclusive conferences with features like closed captioning and live translations.💡Learn More: Make your event accessible for a global attendee base through translation, captioning and subtitles in multiple languages.
Virtual conferences save time and resources by eliminating the need for physical logistics like travel and venue management.
This efficiency lets you focus on delivering the most helpful and engaging content to your attendees, instead of getting bogged down in the logistical weeds.
You’ve probably already put two and two together, but increased accessibility and efficiency mean lower costs for both you and your attendees.
Cost savings for you include:
Reduced costs for attendees include:
These savings make virtual conferences an excellent alternative for marketers looking to optimize their event budgets.
When you’re planning a live in-person event, there’s a lot on the line. You’ve made huge up-front investments (see above) and if your event isn’t well-received, you likely won’t get another chance.
For that reason, event organizers are destined to repeat what worked well in the past. There’s nothing wrong with that, but it doesn’t leave much room for innovation.
Because they require a lower up-front investment, virtual events are lower stake. And with that comes the freedom to experiment—music to every marketer’s ears. 🎶
You can experiment with different formats, moderators, speakers, and interactive features. Gamification. Multimedia. It’s all fair game in a virtual environment.
Traveling to an in-person event is a huge commitment. For each attendee, there are travel costs and days away from work. If the conference turns out to be a bust, it’s all for nothing.
When attendees live far away from your event location, it’s just not a risk most companies can take.
Virtual conferences make your brand accessible to audiences near and far. International and coast-to-coast. This expanded reach means wider brand recognition and more potential pipeline.
How do you collect actionable data from your in-person conference?
At best, you’re looking at attendance numbers and a post-event survey. At worst, you might wrap up with no data at all. 😨
This is one of the biggest challenges with physical events because you need data to make continuous improvements and prove event ROI.
By nature, virtual conferences offer robust data collection. What kind of data? It depends on your event platform.
But with the right one, you can collect all kinds of data, including:
This information can give you attendee- and event-level performance insights to plan an even better event next time. It can also provide crucial context at the account level for more effective sales follow-ups.
You can probably tell we’re huge event data advocates. It’s hard to overstate the value of this information.
In addition to informing future programming and empowering your sales reps, your virtual conference data can also help in one crucial but elusive area: ROI. 💸
Getting a handle on event ROI is a process:
When you get to the third phase, you’re in the money.
Including virtual events in your strategy inherently increases your ROI due to the efficiencies and reduced costs we’ve just discussed. Pair that with robust data, and the sky’s the limit for your marketing ROI.
💡Learn More: Use this calculator to help you understand the revenue impact of running a virtual conference.
You’ve planned. You’ve saved. You’ve engaged, executed, and improved. At this point, it’s time to scale.
And scaling is uniquely possible with virtual events.
Think about an in-person conference. In many ways, scaling a successful event requires a 1:1 increase in investment. Adding another attendee means adding another chair. Another meal. More drink tickets.
With a virtual conference, you can easily scale without a huge additional investment. A few more dollars toward advertising, a bit more planning, and you can expand your audience by hundreds or thousands.
Here at Goldcast, if there’s something we’re even more passionate about than data, it’s getting the most out of your event content. 🙌🏼
As an event marketer, you’ve witnessed the magical, authentic moments that happen during your events. Moments you can’t create anywhere else.
During a conference, where dozens of experts and hundreds of professionals are gathered to collaborate—these content gems practically rain down.
It’s your duty to capture them and feed them into your content flywheel. And going virtual makes this easier than ever. Repackaging your event content can reinforce your brand messages, extend your conference’s reach, and arm your sales team with highly-relevant conversation starters.
When it comes to hosting a memorable event, engagement is everything.
Pulling off a successful virtual conference means going beyond the basics to make attendees feel like an active part of the event.
Weaving a few of these elements into your event agenda will help keep everyone involved and spice up the virtual experience. 🤌🏼
Engage your attendees by incorporating interactive features like chat, live polls, live Q&A sessions, and gamification. Real-time interaction with speakers and fellow attendees brings a social element that attendees often miss with virtual events.
We won’t sugarcoat it, networking can be a challenge with digital events. Facilitating one-on-one connections is key to a successful virtual conference.
Luckily, there are a variety of virtual networking activities you can incorporate into your next conference. From digital photo booths to virtual happy hours, the right engagement features, digital apps, and plug-ins can make the magic happen.
Creating smaller, focused groups within the larger crowd is crucial. Virtual booths and rooms allow you to cater to different interests within your audience and provide another active participation opportunity for attendees.
With the right approach to using your booths and rooms for virtual breakout sessions, you can also deepen attendee learning with hands-on exploration into specific subjects, leaving your attendees with practical takeaways they’ll remember.
It wouldn’t be a conference without at least one exciting headliner. If you can’t afford Gary V. as your keynote speaker, don’t sweat it. An excellent keynote is about knowing your audience. Choose a speaker(s) who can set the tone for your conference with a visionary session on your industry’s current state and what the future holds.
If the main purpose of your virtual conference is education, incorporating product demos might seem a bit on the salesy side. But don’t discount the potential value of offering an optional demo for attendees who are interested.
These sessions might garner lower attendance, but you can expect those who show up to have questions and real buying intent. If you don’t offer a demo, you’re leaving these discussions on the table.
Workshops are similar to breakout sessions, but with an even more hands-on angle. They’re all about participation, collaboration, and knowledge sharing.
Attendees will leave a workshop with something in hand. Think playbooks, step-by-step guides, or any actionable strategy to try as soon as they’re back to work.
For many of us, events wouldn’t be possible without sponsorship.
Yet the virtual environment can make recognizing sponsors difficult. Entice more sponsors and show them love by creating sponsor booths and sponsored sessions within your conference.
Entertainment like live performances and interactive games give attendees a much-needed opportunity to relax and socialize. These breaks are a breath of fresh air, particularly for longer conferences.
The tricky part is getting your virtual attendees to stick around for these elements rather than using the break to multitask or squeeze in an errand. For optimal turnout, be sure to promote your entertainment throughout the conference.
If you’re interested in offering tiered tickets or a premium experience for select attendees — say, your top customers — VIP sessions are a great addition to your conference.
These sessions offer exclusive content or access to conference speakers. They provide a more in-depth experience and foster a bit of FOMO for those who don’t get to participate.
Now that your wheels are turning, it’s time to put pen to paper (fingers to keyboard?) and start planning your virtual conference.
Here’s a step-by-step guide.
It’s crucial to set clear goals before you get too far into your conference planning.
To start, there are two sets of goals to lay out:
Keeping both these goals in mind will help you plan balanced programming that will leave everyone feeling like they’ve won.
Next, define your conference’s overarching concept and prepare an event brief.
Think of your event brief as a simplified version of your full event plan.
Here are some points to consider including:
If you have big plans for your conference (and since you’ve made it this far, we’ll assume you’re preparing to knock it out of the park ✨)—it’s essential to find an event platform that will empower you to turn those plans into reality.
Ideally, with as little friction as possible. After all, you have too much going on to be on the phone with tech support for hours. Look for a virtual conference platform with most (or all) of the engagement features you need out-of-the-box.
Remember, it’s not that you can’t run a full conference on Zoom. It’s just that you might not want to
High-quality speakers and event content are key to your conference’s success. This will likely be the step that takes the most time, but getting it right will result in an event that’s perfectly on-point with your audience’s needs.
Start planning your content early, and remember that your conference can include a mix of live streaming and pre-recorded content. Finally, pay close attention to design to make sure everything looks sharp and showcases your event branding.
With your speakers and content ready to go, it’s time to approach potential sponsors who align with your conference’s goals and audience.
Be sure to lay out:
Planning an amazing virtual conference won’t mean much if you can’t get anyone there. To boost your success, you’ll need a comprehensive event promotion strategy.
For a large conference, you might start promoting several months ahead of the event. Tactics like email, social, targeted ads, giveaways, and community engagement are all great ways to move the needle on your attendee numbers.
While you can certainly toast a conference well done, you also need direct feedback from attendees on the relevance and impact of specific topics and speakers.
Of course, your attendees just spent their valuable time participating in your conference, so it’s also important to thank them in any follow-up communications. Provide links to on-demand content and be sure to include a CTA with the next step you’d like them to take.
We already discussed evergreen content as a huge benefit of virtual events. But there’s room for one more reminder to ♻️ repurpose that content ♻️ from your online conference.
The possibilities are endless, but here are some of our favorite repurposed formats:
If you’re not using your event analytics to the fullest, you’re missing out on serious business value—and the chance to wow your stakeholders.
Analyze your data and compile key takeaways from your conference. What went well? What can be improved next time?
For reports sent up the chain, try to tell a concise but complete story that includes both qualitative and quantitative insights.
Speaking of analytics, which virtual event KPIs should you be looking at?
The answer depends on a few things. First, what were the goals you identified when planning your conference? Which metrics will tell you how you performed against those goals?
Second, which KPIs are actually available in your event platform? For example, you (and your VP) might love to attribute influenced pipeline to the conference, but if your platform doesn’t have the integrations to support this, you won’t get far.
Here are nine event KPIs that can help you track your conference’s success and ROI:
Did you know? Our ROI Dashboard makes it SO easy to measure your event KPIs that matter most. Take a look!
Hosting a virtual conference is a huge endeavor, but it can also provide a huge return for your brand. When you’re ready to take the first step, our event experts at Goldcast will be there to help you nail it.
Goldcast’s virtual summit functionality empowers immersive and transformative conferences your attendees will never forget.
From next-level engagement tools to deep analytics, Goldcast has everything you need to create a conference experience that’s every bit as memorable as a traditional, in-person event.
We’ll show you how. Request a free, personalized demo today.