When the pandemic struck, many organizations were forced to quickly choose: switch their events and courses to a virtual format, cancel entirely, or postpone until next year. A lot of brave organizations made the shift to a digital experience. Now a month into 2021, we are still largely virtual, but we know more than we did a year ago. We can be responsive rather than reactive, and plan events that build on what we’re learning.
I attended a lot of conferences throughout 2020. Here are some of my reflections, which I hope will be useful for anyone deciding to host or attend a virtual conference.
As we continue to rely largely on virtual conferences to connect and learn, I offer the following advice for hosts and participants:
Put the time into creating unique content, engaging speakers and creative session formats: While it’s important you have a diverse and engaging set of speakers, you want to secure relevant, on point and unique speakers that will draw your attendees.
Include a networking interaction component: Attendees need time to connect, process and share what they are hearing, consider ways for them to individually connect, speak and share their feedback.
Give us the availability to view content later: It’s important for any attendee for this option as our time can be limited and we want the flexibility to see and view content when we can.
Now, let’s get specific. Here are some conferences that quickly pivoted to virtual in 2020. In the spirit of learning together, we can “borrow” what works, and build on lessons from these experiences. (Many of these are annual convenings that will be available to attend this year, you can find information at the links below).
This was one of the first conferences I attended after the COVID-19 shutdown and I could feel attendees' energy, excitement, and gratitude for the opportunity to connect and to attend for free. The shift to an all-virtual format had advantages: so I appreciated the opportunity to pick and choose sessions based on my availability. I felt less pressure to pack my days and attend every session and event than if I were in person, with expenses involved.
In this case, there were options to view recorded sessions. The community platform made it possible for the nonprofit, government and business sectors to connect around volunteering and service.
At the end of the conference, Points of Light hosted an interactive virtual reception, where attendees met in zoom breakout rooms to recap their favorite virtual moments, drill down on key learnings, and connect with fellow participants. Each breakout room was facilitated by a staff member. This let us meaningfully connect in smaller groups. It also spoke to my heart as an avid conference goer and gave me a chance to share the feedback my brain automatically collects when I attend sessions. You can get information on the 2021 Points of Light conference here.
Takeaway: Try Zoom breakout rooms to bring people together and create opportunities to share feedback.
In October, Independent Sector hosted an on-point conference focused on moving the needle on two critical urgent challenges: fighting racism and ensuring a strong, equitable recovery from the pandemic. As a recipient of the American Express Alumni scholarship, I was amazed by the talent and well-known speakers, from Ibram X. Kendi to Isabel Wilkerson, and the deep insights on overcoming racial bias and activating racial equity work in your nonprofit.
What I appreciated most about this conference was the variety of sessions and breakouts, and the timing of sessions. Already well into the pandemic and working from home, I had less dedicated focus and energy for three-day long conferences, so being able to choose from sessions as short as 10 minutes or as intensive as an hour helped keep my mind fresh and alert.
For interaction, the platform gave attendees an opportunity to randomly meet up with fellow participants for a very short time—so short that many conversations were cut off in mid-sentence, but by the time I met my fifth person, I had perfected my intro into a succinct and crisp elevator pitch.
You can find information on Upswell’s 2021 plans here.
Takeaway: Vary session lengths from 10 minutes to an hour, and facilitate one-on-one virtual meet-up opportunities for networking and connection.
This was my first opportunity to attend SOCAP Virtual, which bills itself as “a convening of the global ecosystem and marketplace” and brings together leaders in social entrepreneurship and sustainable development. For this experience, I joined the conference as a volunteer.
As a routine conference volunteer, I was intrigued by how quickly the SOCAP team created the tools and resources to support a meaningful volunteer experience. My role was to attend sessions, take screenshots of the speakers, and monitor for any technical issues.
A highlight from this conference was the creativity in the session format. In one session, the facilitator opened discussion on climate change challenges by sharing bold statements such as, “We need an Elon Musk to lead climate change.” The speakers then reacted to the statements by holding up printed emoji signs and further explained their response. A nice break from the all-digital world.
Find info on SOCAP 2021 here.
Takeaway: Some easy old-school elements can bring a sense of fun and creativity to a virtual convening.
For the last conference of the year, I attended the annual corporate citizenship conference and awards hosted by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation. Because this conference intersects with the work I do on workplace giving and business development, I was focused on experiencing all the tools that the conference offered. This included incentives to share posts on social media, opportunities to request meetings through the conference platform, and adding comments/questions to the live sessions. (In fact, I was recognized for my engagement on social media during the conference with a sponsor e-gift card—a nice surprise!)
What I most appreciated about this conference was the way it combined sessions with the announcement of its corporate citizenship awards. Following the award announcements, attendees had the opportunity to interact with award winners through AMA (Ask Me Anything) zoom sessions. This was an open format, where the award winners shared details about their stories and successes, and attendees had the opportunity to ask specific questions.
Learn more here.
Takeaway: Hold small-group Ask Me Anything (AMA) sessions to let participants dive deeper with big-name or luminary speakers
What are some of your lessons from 2020? Share your ideas with us: email firstname.lastname@example.org or share on social with the hashtag #amexleads.