What Have We Learned About Creating Engaging Meetings from Virtual Conferences?

Virtual Meeting vs. In-Person MeetingHeinan Landa (CEO of Optimal Networks) asked me last week: As we’re slowly returning to the office and in-person meetings, what lessons from 15 months of virtual meetings should endure?

It’s a great question. Over the past year, I’ve had many clients bemoan virtual, but I’ve also had many clients express joy over the benefits of virtual. Here are lessons that I hope will endure:

Higher Quality Sessions

It sounds really weird to say this because organizations that put on conferences are devoted to offering high quality education. And yet, a few clients were surprised at how lackluster some of their sessions were. I heard things like, “Gosh, we used to select speakers, tell them when and where to show up, make sure their tech was working, and leave the room.” But with virtual, more thought has gone into the quality of the sessions to make sure people stay engaged and don’t log off. BeSpeake clients have:

  • Paid closer attention to the content and slides.
  • Worked with their speakers to add interactive elements, from polls to contests.
  • Coached speakers to become better presenters.

ALL of these lessons should endure past this pandemic!

Better Wayfinding

I’ve been to countless conferences at the Gaylord Resort in Maryland and every time, I get lost. Maybe I’m just navigationally challenged but better signage and more thoughtful grouping of the sessions and events would help me, and, I suspect, many others. With virtual, we worked closely with clients to make sure attendees always knew where to go next, using tools like:

  • Welcome and tutorial videos that explain the virtual platform and highlight the “not to be missed” parts of the meeting.
  • Putting everything on the program and having sessions disappear (temporarily) from the schedule once they are done. This way, the program always shows you what’s next.
  • Brief but clear descriptions and help text.
  • Guidance from speakers at the start and close of sessions about what’s next.
  • User testing to make sure all of this wayfinding guidance is actually effective.

The next time you’re in person, walk your convention, make sure signage is clear, and coach speakers to tell attendees what’s next!

Intentional Connections and Networking

Conferences are all about connecting with our friends, colleagues and peers. In person, most conference planners organize receptions, some breakouts, and food and drink in the exhibit hall. Virtually, meeting planners have had to work harder to make sure attendees connect with others. We’ve worked with our BeSpeake clients to create opportunities like:

  • Morning Coffee, where attendees get matched up with others randomly for a virtual coffee break.
  • Extended attendee profiles and better searching.
  • Easy to use attendee search and messaging.
  • Giving attendees the chance to meet with others in video rooms.
  • Breakouts by topic or job function to encourage people to be on video and connect with others.

These virtual connection opportunities don’t work for all attendees. Some attendees are content to focus on the sessions. But for others, these connection opportunities have made it easier than ever to expand their networks and horizons.

In person, perhaps you can make in person conferences less terrifying for first time attendees by doing things like:

  • Asking Board and committee members to reach out, walk them through the program, attend a social event with them, and introduce them to a couple of members.
  • Creating a welcome or tutorial video to help attendees get the most out of the conference.

Delightful Touches

We’ve worked hard with our clients to make their meetings interesting and delightful. Some things that have worked are:

  • Interesting, even fun, pre-roll before sessions. At first, we added pre-roll so attendees would have something interesting to watch when they came in early to sessions. Then we realized pre-roll was a great way to entertain and educate!
  • Interesting imagery to evoke a place or theme.
  • Polls and contests to add sparkle to a session or break. One client is now known for a great Jeopardy game where the questions are all about their accreditation program!
  • One client had a virtual bulletin board where they challenged attendees to share what attendees and their organizations are doing to address racism and health inequities.

In person, ask your speakers to show pre-roll, play music, and start the conversation early. Have places where people can post, share and connect, not just virtually, but also in person!

As my friend Lee Gimpel says, in person meetings aren’t necessarily great: it’s hard to meet people if you’re new, the program can be confusing, and we spend way too much in dark rooms looking at screens and passively watching a speaker. 

What have YOU and YOUR ORGANIZATION learned about creating engaging and fun meetings during this pandemic? What lessons will carry over and endure when you go back to in person meetings?