How to Choose the Best Virtual Conference Platform?
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.
Choosing a virtual conference provider reminds me of researching stocks to invest and achieve a return on investment in the future. Charlie Munger (Warren Buffet’s business partner) recommends “you don’t think of what you want, you think about what you want to avoid and invert.”
Charlie has been a big proponent of solving problems by inverting. The way it works is that if you are trying to succeed at something, you figure out all the ways that the project could fail, and then pursue a plan that avoids those things. Applying that to investing, how would you potentially lose money? It would be by investing in bad businesses, poor product or service, with weak balance sheets managed by dishonest or incompetent people. Avoiding all those attributes in an investment is very likely to improve your investing results.
Now think about your virtual conference with employees, customers, prospects or partners attending (and in many cases paying sponsors). What are the potential issues that could stem from your 3rd party virtual conference provider? The attendees cannot connect, an entire platform outage, the company goes insolvent, webinars or videos do not play properly, functionality such as chat does not work, difficult to navigate, the provider shares your attendee data or has a data breach, poor set up support, etc.
Use Charlie’s inverting method to choose a reliable virtual conference provider and mitigate a poor virtual conference result. If you are just comparing features and price, you are rolling the dice.
The two biggest misconceptions that we find in our space are (a) many clients assume that 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. (c) Many clients do not even think about data security. The provider that you choose will be collecting and storing personal information on your attendees (name, email and IP address at a minimum). Your organizations reputation is on the line with sponsors and attendees. Every provider claims they are reliable and secure, etc. It is the buyers responsibility to ask questions and validate the provider claims.
Following 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:
- How and where is the company incorporated? Ask for a copy of their W9, which will have their Employer Identification Number (US based companies). If, for example, it is a shell company based in the Cayman Islands you have no recourse or ability to take legal action if needed.
- 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. D-U-N-S numbers are referenced by lenders, suppliers and customers 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 call their customer service number. Does it ring to voice mail or does someone answer?
- What business insurance do they carry and how much? At a minimum companies should carry $1M Commercial General Liability, $3M Umbrella and $3M Errors and Omissions.
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 the platform 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 Europe and then back across the pond 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?
- Scalability: How many concurrent attendees (max) can the platform infrastructure support? Just because a provider using AWS does not mean there is unlimited scale. The provider has to purchase hardware (servers), software and bandwidth to scale the capacity of users, chat, bandwidth consumed, etc.
- 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?
- Operating systems/browsers supported?
- Mobile friendly? Usability for Attendees? Ease of administration? Customization? Features such as Gamification? Flexibility? Reporting?
- Data security and data retention: This 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 your organization to understand its 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. California passed a data privacy law, similar to GDPR, effective Jan 1, 2020 called The California Consumer Privacy Act (CCPA). The law allows any California consumer to demand to see all the information (and request to be deleted) a company has saved on them, as well as a full list of all the third parties (i.e. your virtual conference provider, event sponsors, etc.) that the individuals data was shared with. In addition, the California law allows consumers to sue companies if the privacy guidelines are violated, even if there is no breach. There are 15 additional states right now that are contemplating legislation along the lines of CCPA.
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 3rd party virtual conference vendor (data processor). Make sure that your provider has proper security controls in place and make sure all rights to your data are maintained by you. Ask about:
- Where (what country) is the platform hosted and data stored?
- 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?
- Is there a published data retention policy? If yes, please provide links/attach documents.
- 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. Anything B+ or higher is acceptable (only 5% of vendors score A).
- 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 a 3rd party has tested technology, systems, processes and controls for you to ensure they meet the highest data security standard. It also means that a 3rd party firm audits the company annually to comply and requires the provider to re-certify completely every three years.
- Who owns the data? Is the attendee data shared?
- Make sure you have a Data Processing Agreement (DPA) in place with your data processor (the virtual conference provider). A DPA is a legally binding document to be entered into between you (the data controller) and the data processor. It regulates the particularities of data processing – such as its scope and purpose – as well as the relationship between the controller and the processor.Why is a DPA important? Data security laws such as GDPR and CCPA require data controllers to take measures to ensure the protection of personal data they handle. If data controllers decide to outsource certain data processing activities, they must be able to demonstrate that their suppliers and sub-processors also provide sufficient guarantees to protect the data and act in a compliant manner.
- 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. Many organizations use an existing 3rd party attendee registration form such as Cvent or Aventri). An API can be used to pass the data from the 3rd party registration form to the virtual conference provider to allow access. 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).
- 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 explain 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 become as an issue if your virtual conference is sponsored and if your sponsor has certain requirements.
- Check to make sure the platform provides features necessary to execute an engaging event beyond just the basics (theater, booths, networking, games). Organizers are often surprised after the sale to find out platform limitations that impact the organizer, attendees and booth sponsors. Examples are:
- Broadcast message feature to make announcements during the live day(s) and to tell attendees where to go and when.
- Ability for booth representatives to proactively chat with attendees.
- Video chat vs. just text chat.
- Language translation for global audiences.
- ADA Compliance (Americans with Disabilities Act): Closed captioning for webcasts and section 508 compliant environment (support screen readers for visually impaired).
- 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 is available?
- What type of support is provided for help setting up the virtual conference (look, feel, locations, nomenclature, signs, navigation, and content consumption)? What is the project plan and roles and responsibilities for the client and the provider?
- What type of support is available during the live day(s)? Can they staff a live help desk chat representative for attendees? Will I have the phone number of a dedicated person to call during the live day(s) in case I need help or do I have to wait for a response to email or chat?
- What support do your speakers receive to help them prepare and execute their webinar presentations?
- Is extra support available to handle other tasks like loading content, graphic design help or working directly with booths sponsors?
- What are the options for Webinar presentations? The Webinar presentations are, in many cases, the most important aspect of a virtual conference. Make sure the provider offers an integrated solution that can scale and has engagement and administrative features to deliver presentations that wow.
- How many max attendees can join?
- What is the maximum number of simultaneous sessions (at the same time) supported?
- Are simulive presentations supported? These are recorded in advance and played as if they are live with audience Q&A.
- Does the platform support streaming a production quality video feed (e.g., RTMP) vs. a simple webcam. This is critical for hybrid events that require streaming video from an onsite camera/production crew.
- Attendee features:
- How is Q&A handled? Q&A is key for attendee engagement. Some virtual conference platforms simple link to Vimeo for presentations, which has no ability for attendees to ask questions.
- Are polls and surveys supported for audience engagement?
- Is closed captioning supported for Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) compliance?
- Is live interpretation available in other languages for global audiences?
- Administration and presenter features:
- Is there a presenter backstage chat feature to enable presenters and admins in different locations to communicate behind the scenes?
- Is there the ability to have a person designated as a “producer” that can disable presenter webcams, etc.? Many times presenters forgot to turn off their webcam when they are finished. Having the ability for a separate producer is critical.
- Is there the ability to edited recordings if needed (chop off parts, replace slides, etc.)?
- Is there the ability to add chapters and bookmarks to recordings so that attendees can skip ahead to different sections?
- What managed services are available for the webinar presentations (speaker prep and training, live day support, etc.)?
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.