How To Take Your Conference Online – While Keeping It Friendly

All over the world, in-the-room conferences are being cancelled. Organisers are filling my inbox with a single question: how can we do this online?

Luckily, that’s something I know a bit about. I’ve had several years of running my own “unconference”, Metaphorum, and supporting organisations to take their highly-participative events online. 

With Steve McCann I recently published Webinars That Connect, a guide to staging short online learning events for up to about 150 people online. And the principles will scale. 

How can you take a conference of maybe 1500 people from a big conference centre, with multiple speaker tracks, keynote speakers, sponsors and crucially, the chance for participants to network with each other, and turn it into a great experience online?

Here’s how.

  • The whole event can happen live online, using a good video conference platform such as Zoom
  • Keynote talks can be livestreamed to the web
  • Each speaker track happens in one Zoom space, as if it was using one room of the conference centre all day
  • Delegates can join any of the tracks happening at a particular time, so each speaker has a live audience
  • A room host in each Zoom space manages recording, questions in chat etc
  • If possible, sessions should be designed for participation, with short presentation sections interspersed with breakout activities. See Webinars That Connect for more details
  • Recordings of speaker sessions can be shared with delegates, and offered for sale, on a content platform
  • Additional Zoom spaces should be made available for connection time, facilitated and free-form
  • Facilitators can increase the value of these sessions to organisers, sponsors and participants eg by using Lean Coffee, Open Space or World Cafe type processes
  • Free-form coffee areas can also be provided using Zoom
  • All involved in the conference should be able to contact each other asynchronously, eg via a conference Slack
  • You’ll need a web page where people can find the links to the various Zoom spaces
  • Both speakers and participants may need some familiarisation sessions to get them comfortable with the tech
  • Everyone brings part of the space with them. That means that as the organiser, you’re not in control! But you can influence people strongly: for example, by insisting on headsets, video cameras switched on etc.

Technology matters, of course. Twenty years ago we couldn’t do this: we were stuck with dull “online summits” in which the only people that mattered were the speakers and the sponsors.

But the key to taking a conference online isn’t the technology. It’s about the people, and helping them to truly connect with each other.

By the way, Metaphorum 2020 happens on 4 December. If you’re into Clean Language and metaphor, save the date!

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