10 Questions to Ask Your Virtual Conference Provider
From large multinational companies to small non-profits, organizations are actively looking for better ways to engage their audiences and leverage their content and expertise.
Many companies and marketers are attracted by the affordable costs, benefits and ROI of running virtual conferences.
Before choosing your virtual conference platform provider, however, think about; your needs, your budget, your content and, most important, your audience and sponsors (if you’re hosting an event that includes sponsors). Then start researching and comparing different virtual conference vendors.
The two biggest misconceptions that we find in our space are (a) many clients assume that the virtual conference platforms are all the same. At a brochure level, yes. Most virtual conference platforms have similar features such as a lobby, exhibit hall with booths, theater, chat, etc. Beyond the shiny paint job, however, the platforms and providers are vastly different. (b) hosting a virtual conference is just like hosting one giant webinar. This is certainly not the case. Hosting a virtual conference is incredibly more complicated than hosting a webinar. There are booths, presentations, links to content (documents, video’s, website links) networking, games/prizes, etc. Attendees are joining from various locations using a range of operating systems, firewalls, browser and mobile devices. Also, there is a whole user interface and design element to creating a virtual conference that is successful (positive attendee experience and ROI) vs. a dud. The look, feel, locations, signage, and presentation of content that is to be consumed by attendees is critical to a successful event. For example, we recently hosted a virtual conference for an organization in which the attendees where an older demographic. Our project manager suggested making the navigational signs, as well as other content consumption areas, larger than normal. This produced a very positive impact on the events success. We had another client that wanted to do something extra for a subset of the attendees that were “VIP” clients and prospects. We suggested using a feature that our platform offers called Entitlement to provide the VIP attendees access to special content as well as a special custom chat room with company executives. The non-VIP attendees did not have access to this area of the virtual conference. (c) Many clients do not even think about data security. The provider that you choose will be collecting data on your attendees (name, email and IP address at a minimum. For career fairs possibly their resume). Your reputation is on the line with sponsors and attendees. Every provider claims they are secure, etc. It is the buyers responsibility to ask questions and validate the provider claims.
The research does not stop once you have found a potential virtual conference provider, though. You have to make sure that their solution and business model are compatible with what you want to offer your audience and that your return on investment plans can be achieved through that specific virtual conference solution.
One of the goals of this article is to try and identify some of the most important questions that you should consider prior to choosing the virtual conference provider on behalf of your company.
Here are 10 questions to ask virtual conference providers before deciding:
- What type of company am I partnering with to set up and execute the virtual conference:
- Where is the company incorporated? Ask for a copy of their W9, which will have their Employer Identification Number (US based companies).
- How long has the company been in business?
- Office locations?
- Number of employees (total and on the support team)?
- Ask for the companies Dun & Bradstreet D-U-N-S number. Any legitimate business will have a D‑U‑N‑S Number as they are referenced by lenders and potential business partners to help predict the reliability and/or financial stability of the company in question.
- Hours of operation? Do not just take their word for it. Here is a simple way to test the support that you might experience post sale. Call the phone number listed on their website. Is there a main menu to route to sales vs. service or does it just ring to one person (if no main menu, then red flag)? Try to connect to their customer service. Does it ring to voice mail or does someone answer?
- Support SLA’s?
Finally, are there 3rd party validations as to quality of the company and platform (Better Business Bureau rating, product awards, security certifications, etc.)?
- How and where is the virtual conference platform hosted:
- Where is it hosted (country)? If you are hosting an event with mostly North America attendees, make sure that the platform is hosted in North America. Otherwise, there could be issues or delays. For example, if an attendee is in the US and the platform is hosted in Europe, when the US attendee clicks to watch a video, the stream will go all the way from the US to Spain and then back to the US over the public internet. Inversely, if your event is focused in Europe, you will want the platform hosted in Europe for quality purposes as well as GDPR compliance.
- Is it hosted in a single data center or multiple data centers for redundancy?
- Reliability: What is the overall system availability and response time SLA? How is it measured?
- Describe the types of real-time performance & availability monitoring and how they monitor and manage SLA results
- How many concurrent attendees does it scale to?
- Is the software Flash based or HTML5?
- Operating systems/browsers supported?
- Mobile friendly? Usability for Attendees? Ease of administration? Customization? Features such as Gamification? Flexibility? Reporting? Who owns the data? Is the attendee data shared?
- Data storage, data security and data retention: This one is HUGE. Consumer privacy and data protection has fast become a critical requirement for attendees that are joining events whether they are physical or virtual. Every virtual event that you host generates a mountain of data ranging from attendee personal details (email address, IP address) to sponsor data. In privacy-conscious times, it is critical for you and your organization to understand your legal obligations with this data. As soon as you collect and store information about someone else, YOU become responsible for ensuring their information is kept securely and used appropriately. In the US, the Data Protection Act (as well as HIPPA and other privacy laws) apply. If you have just one or more attendees joining from Europe, then the new General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) law (effective May 25th 2018) applies. This is a major policy the EU put into effect in order to protect consumers when their data is captured by any 3rd party organization. GDPR applies to anyone collecting data on a European citizen no matter your size nor where you and the platform collecting the data are located. GDPR includes hefty fines of up to €20 Million.
Click here to read an article outlining 4 Steps to Enabling Privacy of Event Data.
Your conference data will be stored and managed by your virtual conference vendor, so make sure all rights to it are maintained by you. Ask about:
- Where (what country) is the data hosted?
- Their policies regarding your data. You’ll want to quickly recover your data if you choose to stop using the service, you’ll want to easily export your data and take it elsewhere.
- Do they support AES-256 encryption for data storage?
- Ask the provider to provide a copy of third-party vulnerability scans and penetration test results from within the last 12 months.
- Is there a published data retention policy? If yes, please provide links/attach documents.
- Provide Security Policy documentation to include disaster recovery, InfoSec policy, incident management, notifications etc
- Ask for a copy of their most recent 3rd party penetration testing. Pen testing helps: avoid financial damage, make sure service is uninterrupted, avoid cyber attacks, access the vendors response time to security threats, protect your reputation.
- Is the platform ISO 27001 compliant? Why is this important? It is like buying a house without a 3rd party home inspection. The purpose is to verify that the house is in the condition that the seller claims as advertised for the price. Every provider says their secure, etc. It is the buyers responsibility to ask questions and validate what the provider claims. ISO 27001 certification gives you peace of mind that your employee data is secure. ISO 27001 certification means that the technology, systems, processes and controls meets the highest data security standard. It also means that a 3rd party firm audits the company annually to confirm all of this and they have to re-certify completely every three years.
- Can the platform integrate with 3rd party software?:
- Most clients want to connect their virtual conference with 3rd party software for a variety of reasons. For internal events such as Benefits fairs, town halls and training events enabling Single Sign On (SSO) from internal systems make it easier for attendees to join and creates a super secure environment (fence out people joining that are external). For external events (clients and prospects) many clients want to pass conference data back to a CRM (who joined the event, what they did, etc.).
- Webinar and Webcast agnostic: you’ll want a provider that does not lock you into one webinar option. Look for a vendor that offers their own webinar service (one-stop-shop) and offers the flexibility to use perhaps your existing webinar service (WebEx, GotoWebinar, Adobe Connect, Zoom, etc.).
- How customizable is the platform? I do not need to go through why branding is important, for any company, regardless of its size. Still, not all virtual conference providers provide the same level of customization. This can come as an issue if your virtual conference is sponsored and if your sponsor has certain requirements.
- Which are the real costs for my virtual conference needs? When it comes to packages, features, and extra features, things can get complicated. But that’s only if you let them. Make sure you know exactly what you want from your virtual conferences and platform and when asking for a quote, state those features and make sure that they are included in the offer.
- What types of reports and analytics do I get? Needless to say that in business KPIs, reports and figures are important. If you are using virtual conferences to promote your content, reach new audiences, engage and generate revenue, you will need data and insights to measure their effectiveness. Also make sure that you can access reports yourself vs. having to wait for someone to pull them for you.
Think about your virtual conference KPIs and about what sort of reports your business would need (attendance, engagement, interaction, chats, webinar views, content views, location, etc.).
- Can you provide different levels of access for my virtual conference? You would be surprised to find out how many people don’t ask about security and access levels when signing up for a virtual conference solution.
We are all aware that security is important. Because there are so many things going on when looking for the right virtual conference solution, you might not realize how important it is to have different access levels when it comes to virtual conferences. If you think about it, it’s quite simple: let’s say that you have 10 sponsors or speakers invited, they all need access and the ability to upload their content. You would not want to give them all admin access or access to your entire virtual conference. You might consider giving them restricted access, which would allow them to use only the features that they need, without interfering with the rest of the virtual conference content.
- What kind of support do you offer?
What type of support is provided for help setting up the virtual conference (look, feel, locations, nomenclature, signs, navigation, and content consumption? What type of support is provided when you get to run the live virtual conference? Where are the support representatives are located (North America, India, Dubai?), Support hours?
Organizations face a daunting task when selecting a virtual trade show platform provider in which the software is hosted on their servers. But looking beyond a product feature comparison and price, to consider factors such as security, performance, customer service and integration experience, can render organizations better equipped to make informed decisions that cover a multitude of bases and keep your organization’s reputation intact.