Attending a conference in your field or industry puts you together with others who enjoy the work, face the same challenges and sometimes just need some encouragement. Educational sessions, networking events and shared meals present many options to start up a conversation. And everyone knows that badge ribbons serve as great ice-breakers – “Oh, you’re a new member? Welcome!”
What about during a virtual event? How do you welcome all attendees, and create a feeling of community? How do you include your exhibitors and sponsors?
Many of the virtual conference platforms we’re hearing about have capabilities for chat rooms and hosted happy hours. Is that enough? When an attendee is at a conference, they are your captive audience – they will see it as important to attend a networking event or spend time speaking with exhibitors. But attending a virtual conference requires their time, and in this current environment with so many working from home, it may be easy to skip a happy hour or group chat if there’s a need to focus on dinner or jump on a conference call. Distractions are everywhere, and there’s nothing you can do about it.
A few ideas that we’ve either heard of, or developed, in the past few weeks include:
- Social Media: Create group-specific hashtags to help attendees connect with others that may work in their specific area or are focused on one educational track. Geographic hashtags could help too. You could also use social media to drive traffic to chat rooms. Interested in xx? Meet us in the chat room at 2 pm.
- Message Boards: Unlike chat rooms, message boards aren’t time-dependent. Post questions about education sessions, or encourage those with a common interest, or in the same area, to post when they can.
- Digital Publications: It’s unlikely that virtual conference attendees will be able to attend every session, and if there are concurrent tracks, they will need to choose. Publishing a daily digital publication that’s shared via email, the website and social media will:
- Remind attendees about the upcoming schedule.
- Is there a chat room or message board? Promote it, and share snippets. They may see a topic that intrigues them.
- Share highlights from social media posts – remind attendees of hashtags being used .
- Include session recaps to help attendees read about what they missed. Include a hashtag for the session or post about it on the message board – they may want to learn more from attendees they did attend, or tell them how they will be able to view the session at a later date.
- Sponsorship Activations: Virtual events present different sponsorship opportunities: holding a sponsored happy hour or snack break – mail participants something that will start discussion, and involves the sponsor.
- Host City Gifts: One big “loser” in the cancellation of live events are host cities. Some often spend years working to bring an event to their city. Offering the opportunity to send a small gift or token may keep that city top of mind when an attendee’s planning a vacation, or considering a future event in that city. Ask attendees to post photos with their gifts on social media – it will provide the host city with a chance to interact.
What works for one organization may not be a good fit for another.The goal is to help attendees form connections – in this current environment, they will definitely need some nudges to do so. You can’t just put them in a room and hope they start chatting.
You never know, the connections they make online this year may lead them to plan to attend next year’s event, so they can meet their new virtual friends!
Trying a few different things will help you see what resonates, and could be something to integrate into future live events.