Shifting From A Physical Conference To An Online Event

Shifting From A Physical Conference To An Online Event
Image: iStock

With indoor events all but banned because of the coronavirus pandemic, many businesses are scrambling to find ways to convert physical conferences in to online events. Last week, I was meant to be MCing the Digital Utilities 2020 held by Monkey Media. But six days before the face to face event was meant to occur, the organisers faced a challenge; do they pull the pin and cancel the event, defer the event or look for a different way. The company’s CEO, Chris Bland, decided to find a way to keep the event running but move it online.

Bland told me his team had spent many months putting together the event and he didn’t want to see all that effort wasted.

“It really revolved around the content, bringing together the speakers and the ideas. We didn’t want to waste that work. Given the uncertainty as to when things would ever go back to normal, we didn’t want all the content ideas to become out of date, we wanted to ensure that could still be shared”.

As a publisher, Monkey Media had already survived a major existential threat – the shift from print to digital. That shift, while not as drastic or rapid as the changes forced on us by coronavirus taught him some lessons.

Know your ‘why’

The well-known organisational psychologist Simon Sinek says that one of the key things businesses need to understand is their ‘why’. Most businesses know what they do and how they do it but understanding their real purpose is harder to define. Bland explained that knowing his ‘why’ helped with bringing the event online.

“We’ve always focused on two main things: on the content and the audience. So it doesn’t matter whether it’s a magazine, a digital platform, a live event or a webinar. It’s all about bringing together a niche audience and giving them the information they’re looking for,” Bland said.

That perspective drove the decision to find a way to create an online event that delivered the content, kept audiences engaged and provided ways for that audience to engage with speakers. While person-to-person networking – an extremely valuable benefit from attending physical events – was lost, he added that he saw this as an opportunity to create an online community.

Bland consulted with all the major stakeholders. He spoke with marquee delegates, major sponsors and speakers, explaining his plan.

“They were extremely supportive,” Bland says.

Making it happen

The decision happened on Friday 23 March, with the event starting the following Thursday. This gave his team a weekend and three work days to find a platform, rejig the agenda to make it more online-friendly, work with speakers to ensure their presentations would work with online delivery and find a suitable tool to actually deliver the content.

Rather than take charge of the project, Bland recognised that his team had the skills and knowledge to make this work. So, once the decision was made to go with an online event, he got out of the way and let his team solve the challenges.

“I didn’t really give people much direction beyond the outcome we were looking for. And, you know, the guys really just found the right platforms and solutions. We tried to break down what people want to get out of an event, and find a way to replicate that online,” he said.

That team was self-managed. No formal leader was appointed. Bland said they simply knuckled down and worked together to bring things together.

Choosing a platform

One of the key decisions was choosing a platform for the event. Several options were considered but a quick consensus was reached, with Zoom the chosen platform. While Bland says he wasn’t a user, he noted that even the “non techie” members of his team said it was easy to use – a key consideration for a platform.

The Zoom Webinar platform supports up to 100 live panelists. While that wasn’t a limit Bland’s team was going to hit – the largest number of simultaneous feeds needed was six – that could be a factor for some. There’s also the ability to simultaneously pump that feed to Facebook and YouTube.

Bland also ensured there was person in control of managing the various feeds. That team member brought speakers in, controlled the mute on their microphones, toggled their cameras on and off and ensured the production was as smooth as possible. Across the two days, there were only two glitches – both caused by connectivity issues with speakers.

Rather that run the event from his office, Bland chose a meeting room at a nearby co-working space. That ensured an interruption-free environment and also meant he had access to more bandwidth than at his office.

Rearranging the conference schedule posed some challenges. With attendees sitting in the comfort of their own offices or homes, there was no need for long tea and lunch breaks. Also, some speakers dropped out. The event’s international keynote speaker became ill the week before and pulled out of the event. While, other speakers had priorities shift due to the unfolding coronavirus situation and needed to drop out.

As for the costs, Zoom Webinar requires that you have a Zoom Pro account. That’s currently $17.49 per month (which is billed annually at $209.90). For up to 100 participants, there’s a $56/month fee but that jumps to $196/month for 500 participants. The latter is the option Bland’s team chose but they cut the cost by searching for an online discount code.

The TL;DR

  1. Decide whether to cancel, reschedule or go online with your event
  2. Get your team together and trust them to do the job
  3. Contact major stakeholders and get them onboard with your plan
  4. Choose a platform that people know about so you’re not starting from scratch
  5. Reorganise your agenda – what works face to face probably isn’t right for online
  6. Make sure you have a suitable place to host the conference with plenty of bandwidth

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