It’s been over a year and a half since the pandemic began, and we’re all (sometimes frustratingly) familiar with virtual conferences being the norm. But let’s face it — virtual conferences and the technologies that power them are experiencing unprecedented growth, and they’re here to stay.
CES 2021 was entirely online. Almost 2000 companies unveiled tech innovations virtually (almost 700 startups from 37 countries), and were still charged between $1,200 and $1,500 to be a “digital exhibitor.” Even their after party with Ryan Seacrest, Dua Lipa, and a performance from Billie Eilish was all done remotely, from SpatialWeb’s platform — it’s more of a virtual “place” (with spatial audio, too, so it feels like a real-life gathering) that promotes much more “remote togetherness” than flat videoconferencing boxes, not unlike other new upcoming platforms like Skittish, Gather Town, Hubbub, and others. Entertainment is still an important part of a virtual conference, so bringing in musicians, actors, etc. can help generate buzz and engagement.
SXSW 2021, normally located in Austin, TX, was also completely virtual. Becky Garrison writes, "It made me nostalgic for in-person connections. Hence, I found myself drawn to those sessions that spoke to ways of re-imagining the community and connections that I long for in a post-COVID world,” highlighting the need for engagement in these online experiences.
Keep in mind that virtual conferences account for 43% of all digital events (at least for those run on the Bizzabo platform — the second most popular event type is meeting and networking, making up 23% of virtual events).
So how do you make the best of your time and money with virtual conferences? Whether your company is organizing one, exhibiting online, or presenting as speakers — here are two key practices to keep in mind for virtual conferences.
Most Important Practices for Virtual Conferences
1. Create and facilitate meaningful networking opportunities for virtual conference attendees.
We all know it — but it must be emphasized. Networking is one of the main things attendees ask for in events, and going virtual hasn’t changed that at all… arguably, it is more necessary than ever. Giving opportunities for attendees to actually connect in a natural way is vital, and will help with their overall interest and engagement. Bizzabo reports that attendees are engaged for just 53% of virtual sessions.
NiemanLab organized one of the largest U.S. journalism virtual conferences last year, and thought deeply on how to best foster engagement and networking in a virtual setting. “We were really worried the networking and engagement that typically happens at our Summit would fade away if we did nothing but ‘present’ for a day and a half. And how boring would that be? (So boring.)”
After surveying 2 million of his followers, Ryan Holmes relayed some of the best hacks to make virtual conferences better. And sure enough, he writes, “Build in networking and connection moments. Half the reason people go to conferences is to network. Unfortunately, at a virtual event, it’s hard for this to just happen naturally. So it’s on organizers to integrate community-building moments. Providing virtual ‘lounge’ spaces for attendees to interact between presentations or hosting trivia events and happy hours can help."
What’s the solution? Proximity chat platforms are an excellent way to create networking opportunities. “You can ‘walk’ around virtual spaces, and move fluidly between groups. As you get farther from someone in the map-based online space, their voice gets quieter. And in some of the platforms, audio is properly spatialized, meaning it more accurately mimics a real-life gathering. The “cocktail party effect” comes into play. Higher quality audio is also statistically more compelling, which makes a big difference.”
What platforms are working on this? Check out the article for more info.
2. Obsess about audio quality and internet connectivity.
These two go hand-in-hand, but the bottom line here is the audio itself (internet is just simultaneously necessary to transmit it): Audio should be high quality and immersive.
Sound matters, period. Ryan Holmes shares what Dave Unger wrote when surveyed about virtual conferences: “You know what I hate about them? [...] Audio is almost always terrible, and the sound levels are often dramatically different from one speaker to the next, even within a single session … At the very least, lavalier or headset microphones and a small amount of post-processing can dramatically improve sound quality.”
Even Stanford’s website includes “Top Tips To Improve Audio Quality in Your Zoom Meetings” — after all, they’ve done a ton of research on why it matters so much. Dr. Jeremy Bailenson says, "Part of the reason we're fatigued by all these Zoom meetings isn't just the presence of video, it is also the audio quality and how voices are delivered to our ears. Think about it: in the physical world, all the sounds we hear and process in our brain come from different locations in a 3D environment.” He continues, “Companies like High Fidelity are replacing conventional [voice over internet protocol] with high quality, spatial audio that makes voices sound clearer and easier for people to understand, similar to being together in a physical space.”
You can also check out this article on how to optimize your sound setup for both virtual conferences and meetings, and here is another one that includes links to specifically the best headphones, headsets, and microphones (budget options included here!).
Ryan writes, “People like to see human moments — pauses, stumbles, a little raw emotion. [...] But if you’re putting on a virtual conference, it’s incumbent on you to ensure speakers and presenters have at least some basic equipment and know-how when it comes to sound. I’m not saying everybody needs a professional studio setup. Just using a headset mic (vs. the built-in laptop mic) or taking advantage of window light can make a huge difference in the quality of the experience for attendees. (Oh, and obviously a reliable internet connection.)”
Make The Best of Your Virtual Conference with Excellent Audio and Engagement Opportunities
There are so many more practices that virtual conference organizers can experiment with to discover what works best, along with complete guides online. Here are a few more helpful articles we’ve found:
- TechRadar’s 10 best practices for running a virtual conference
- Bizzabo’s Virtual Conferences: The 2021 Guide
- Cvent’s Virtual Conference 2021: Ideas, Tips, and Tools
- Vfair’s 15 Proven Virtual Conference Best Practices
- Eventmobi’s Virtual Conference Best Practices for an Elevated Production
- Hubspot’s How to Run a Successful Virtual Event
...Bottom line: There are plenty of different facets to optimize in virtual conferences still, and also many tough technical challenges to overcome as events continue to move into virtual spaces. Platforms are beginning to employ AR/VR environments to help increase immersion, too. Even Zoom is building out their live events product that is launching in summer 2021, attempting to re-create more of the live conference experience.
But it comes back to these two principles — these two very basic tenets that can be focused on and improved right now. Don’t let your audio quality and audience engagement suffer. Virtual events platforms are already starting to integrate high quality, immersive spatial audio, and High Fidelity’s API makes it easy to do so.
Create your free developer account below, and let us know how your virtual conferences go.