Virtual Conference Components Explained for Event Organizers
Event organizers adapting to new ways of conducting events are experiencing a steep learning curve as the venue to host the event changes from a physical location to a virtual conference platform. Many event planners choose a platform based on high-level features only to realize that there are limitations that do not meet the needs of their audience and event goals.
Types of Virtual Events
Like in-person events, virtual events range in size and complexity. Here are a few common types.
- Webinar: A single online session which can take the form of a speaker presentation, panel, etc. Common tools for Webinars include Zoom, WebEx, GotoWebinar and Webinar.net.
- Online Event (a.k.a. Virtual Event): A series of online sessions, which may or may not include interactive elements (such as audience Q&A) organized in an online portal (potentially in tracks) with engagement features.
- Virtual Conference or Virtual Trade Show: A more extensive virtual event that mimics many of the qualities of an in-person event, including networking opportunities, exhibit hall with virtual booths, and more.
- Hybrid Event: A hybrid event combines both a physical event as well as a virtual experience for remote attendees to join from their computer or mobile device. With the growing popularity and cost-effectiveness of virtual events, hybrid events enable participation by attendees who might be unable to attend physically due to travel or time zone constraints. Hybrid events can be as simple as streaming just certain presentations via a portal for remote attendees or a full 3D version of the physical event with an exhibit hall and booths.
Being versed in both the technical aspects and common vernacular of virtual events will make both your planning experience more seamless and your next event more successful. To help contextualize these terms for a simple review, we have organized them into one of three categories:
- Virtual Conference Platform & Technology
Virtual Conference Platforms & Technology
Administrative Access – Back-end access to make changes to rooms, booths and content. Make sure that the virtual conference platform allows for multiple levels of admin access. For example, super admin (access to change everything), booth only access (so that your sponsors can make changes to their booth themselves) and reporting only access.
Briefcase – A virtual briefcase is akin to a swag bag at a physical event. As attendees navigate the virtual experience, they can click to save content and other items to their own person briefcase to consume and/or download later.
Broadcast Messages – A powerful tool for live day announcements. Broadcast messages can make a big difference in attendee participation. They can be used to notify attendees when the next presentation is starting, promote sponsors, announce winners, etc.
Capacity, Scalability, Concurrent Attendees – This refers to the maximum number of attendees inside the platform at the same time. Find out how many concurrent attendees (max) the platform infrastructure supports or scales to. To key points are:
- Just because a provider uses AWS does not mean there is unlimited scale. The provider has to make investments in hardware (servers), software and bandwidth to scale the capacity of users, chat, and bandwidth consumed by video, etc.
- Even if your event has a smaller number of attendees, capacity and scalability is critical because the virtual conference provider is going to be hosting potentially dozens of other virtual events on the same day and time as your event. If the virtual event platform is not built to scale, other events that day can potentially impact your event (video lag, chat issues, and/or a full crash).
Customization – The ability to change colors, signs, graphics, etc. within the rooms and booths to reflect your brand and appeal to your audience.
Data Security: 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 (data controller) become responsible for ensuring their information is kept securely and used appropriately.
Every provider claims they are secure. How do event organizers validate that a virtual conference provider is secure? There are two options: (a) check if they have any 3rd party data security certifications. The highest international data security standard is ISO 27001 certification. ISO 27001 certification means that a 3rd party has tested technology, systems, processes, and controls for you to ensure they meet the highest international 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; (b) have your IT team conduct a security analysis.
- General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) – If you have just one attendee joining from the EU, then GDPR law applies to you. This is a major policy the EU put into effect in order to protect consumers when their data is captured by any third-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 Consumer Privacy Act (CCPA) – California passed a data privacy law, similar to GDPR, effective Jan 1, 2020 called 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.) with whom that individual’s data was shared. 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.
- Data Processing Agreement (DPA) – 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 data controller (you) and the processor (the virtual conference provider). 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.
- Password Protection – Password protection allows only those with an authorized password to gain access to certain information. This can protect information accessible via computers from being viewed by users.
iFrame – The HTML Inline Frame enables a nested browsing context, embedding another HTML page into the current one. Virtual conference platforms that support iframes allow event organizers to integrate links to 3rd party surveys, social media walls, video streaming, etc. as part of the attendee experience.
Insurance – Virtual conference providers should carry business insurance just like hotels that host physical events. Physical event insurance help protect event hosts from natural disasters and other issues that may impact the physical event taking place. Virtual events, on the other hand, can have cyber-attacks, errors, and omissions, etc. that impact the conference. Make sure your virtual event provider, at a minimum, carries; $1M Commercial General Liability, $3M Umbrella and $3M Errors and Omissions.
Integration (with 3rd party software) – Organizations typically utilize a variety of hosted software including registration forms (Cvent, Aventri, etc.), CRM software (Marketo, Eloqua), etc. Event organizers often want to connect their virtual conference with 3rd party software.
- API (stands for Application Programming Interface) is a computing interface which defines interactions between multiple software intermediaries. It defines the kinds of calls or requests that can be made, how to make them, the data formats that should be used, the conventions to follow, etc. to pass data from one software platform to another.
- Single sign-on (SSO) – An authentication scheme that allows a user to log in with a single ID and password to any of several related, yet independent, software systems. It is often accomplished by using SAML 2.0.
Gamification – Gamification refers to utilizing typical elements of game playing (like point scoring or competition with others) to encourage engagement with content, sponsors and encourage visiting rooms and booths. There are three components to adding gamification:
- The game structure and prizes – What, how and when they will be awarded. If its a multi-day event, consider resetting to award daily winners.
- Deciding on the activities to earn points and the weighted value.
- Terms and conditions – This is a must have document. When a business runs a sweepstakes or contest the business must (a) structure the promotion to avoid characterization as a lottery under Federal and State law (b) contests are governed by a variety of Federal and State laws prohibiting certain practices, defining limits, etc. Click here for a helpful article.
Graphics – As event organizers pivot to virtual or hybrid events, they need to think about how to stand out and engage the virtual audience with a cohesive, polished look. There are a few ways to elevate your event’s brand with graphics.
- Virtual Environment – Custom event graphic used throughout your virtual environment include: Event banner, Event header, footer, signs, people (cut outs), page headers, graphics to promote your sponsors, etc. Event organizers often do not realize the amount of graphics required to produce a well-designed experience for attendees. If you do not have a graphics team, make sure the virtual conference provider offers the option to provide graphics support.
- Cut outs – Cut outs enable organizers to place images of their actually employees inside the environment and make them part of the attendee experience.
- Webcast Graphics – Make sure the webcast platform supports custom branding of the presentation console vs. a boring Zoom, Team or WebEx presentation. Also, include speaker photos and bios with your presentations.
- Event Marketing – Registration landing pages, confirmation, and reminder email design elements, etc. Also, graphics and videos for your social campaign around your event.
Graphic Size – The size of a graphic refers to its width and height (its dimensions) in pixels or whatever unit you are using. For example, 800 x 600 pixels.
Latency – Latency refers to the time difference between the content source and its streaming—or more simply put, the time it takes for the data to get from point A to point B. The length of latency in a platform is critical, as it will greatly affect engagement. The greater the platform scales, the lower the risk of latency.
Role-Based Access – A feature that allows event organizers to customize the attendee experience with specific permissions. Create entitlement groups who can access specific rooms, booths, webcasts, content items, broadcast message, etc.
Social Media Walls – One reason that engagement at a virtual conferences is a challenge is that it is easy for the attendee to multitask and check social media via another browser tab or device while attending the event. Include social walls (e.g., https://walls.io) inside your virtual environment to keep attendees from going elsewhere. Social walls allow organizers to pull in social media content (hashtags, etc.) from multiple sources and display on a wall. Social walls also help create a buzz about your virtual conference.
Welcome Video – A video that plays automatically when an attendee enters the virtual conference lobby. This can be a sizzle video, an executive welcoming attendees or even a video with navigation instructions.
Adaptive Bit Rate Streaming – Adaptive bitrate streaming is a technology designed to deliver video to the user in the most efficient way possible and in the highest usable quality for each specific user. In other words, it provides for the best possible attendee experience. Without Adaptive Bit Rate the stream for all attendees will match the requirements of the lowest attendee. This is a must have for virtual events and why the quality of webinar technologies (Zoom, WebEx, etc.) are not the same.
Audience Engagement – The average adult attention span has dropped from 12 seconds to 8.25 seconds since 2000. Because we are used to constantly multitasking throughout the workday, it can be difficult to stay focused on one subject. This is especially true during presentations like webinars. To combat short attention spans and keep audiences engaged in your next webcast presentation, use a combination of tools:
- Live Chat or Public Chat – If you are looking for a more immediate medium of interaction with your audience, then you can opt for the Live Chat function. This function differs from Q&A, as it allows your audience to not only interact with the presenters, but with fellow audience members – which really helps to establish a sense of community.
- Polling – Similar to Q&A and Live Chat, polls are a great way to engage your audience. With the option of single choice, multiple choice and open questions, you can use polls throughout your webinar to do the following:
- Review the knowledge of your audience by asking questions at intervals.
- Measure learning during the webinar by asking the same question(s) twice throughout the event to review whether answers change throughout.
- Build a sense of community by asking leading questions, such as how many people are watching the event in each location.
- Review the quality of the webinar by inviting attendees to rate the content and presenters at the end of the event.
- Q&A – Forget the days of passing a microphone around a room. Q&A (question and answer) offers a place for audience members to leave questions for presenters, and for presenters to provide answers. Q&A tools also allow session moderators to screen what is asked to ensure that it’s appropriate for the meeting and conversation.
Chapters – These are bookmarks that are added to webinar recordings that allow attendees to jump immediately to the section of interest.
Downloadable Resources or Handouts – A panel within the webcast console that links to resources that attendees can access while viewing.
Run-Through – A run-through constitutes a full rehearsal in which moderators, presenters, and production teams review their event from start to finish in a live testing environment. The goal is to ensure that all media elements play back properly, that presentations are displaying correctly, technology behaves as predicted, and the speakers are prepared.
Simulive Webcast – Simulive stands for simulated live and refers to replaying recorded content to a live audience, as if the content itself is happening live. The key difference between a live and on-demand webinar or video is engagement. A simulive webinar includes a Q&A and/or chat panel for engagement with the attendees. The pre-recorded video plays before switching to live so that presenters can respond to questions from the audience. Simulive webcasts can incorporate video production to add on-screen graphics (e.g., speaker names and titles, text that appears to transition topics, etc.) and video clips (e.g., a beginning video clip that highlights sponsors, etc.).
Switcher – A device/software that allows users to choose between different video sources and affect what the end user sees. If you have multiple speakers on video there are two options (a) display all of the video sources on the screen at the same time (b) display one video source at a time on the screen using a switcher.
Webcast Production: Virtual events and/or hybrid event organizers that want to stream broadcast quality video of speakers to remote attendees will need a production crew. Organizing and executing a live presentation via the web has all the excitement and potential for problems as producing the evening news, and arguably has even more risks. A lot of things can go wrong, so the production team for a live webcast usually mirrors that of a live TV event, with a few extra people added to manage the unique aspects of a Web production. Most webcasts are produced by a team performing the following roles, though in many cases one person does multiple jobs:
- Physical video production–This crew is responsible for the actual video recording using a high-quality (TV) camera. The production crew can also help set up lighting, staging, sound, etc.
- Encoding and webcasting technology setup–This person is responsible for providing and operating the equipment and network components of the production. (e.g. laptops, cables, etc.).
- Live event director–This person manages the synchronization of the video, PowerPoint,and other interactive elements, such as surveys and polls, using the webcast admin interface.
- Question and answer handler(s)–These are the people who oversee the answering of audience questions, routing them to the correct person for answers, and screening out questions that do not need to be answered.
- The Presenter, or Presenters–Though not part of the team, per se, they are definitely a critical element in the production process. The presenter needs to understand what is going on and be prepared to do his or her part of the webcast in a way that makes everyone, especially the presenter, look good.
- The producer–Someone has to be in charge of all this. (Or should be!) That person is the producer. The producer is the “boss” of the webcast production team and is responsible to the client for the quality and success of the webcasts.
The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) – The ADA is a civil rights law that prohibits discrimination against individuals with disabilities in all places that are open to the general public. The purpose of the law is to make sure that people with disabilities have the same rights and opportunities as everyone else. Event organizers who normally work to make sure their in-person events are accessible seem to forget that virtual events need to be accessible for the disability community as well. Accessibility for virtual events should be a priority and central to the planning process from the beginning. There are two components to a virtual conference that need compliance:
- The virtual environment (rooms and spaces) – Make sure that the virtual conference providers platform offers a Section 508 compliant option. Virtual events are graphic intensive by nature. A Section 508 option renders the experience into a text version to support visually impaired attendees by enabling the use of screen readers such as JAWS.
- Webcast presentations – The webcast technology should provide an option to include closed captions (subtitles) for attendees that are hearing impaired.
Breakout Rooms – Breakout rooms area shared space where smaller groups of attendees can meet separately from the entire audience. The Virtual platform should support separate spaces from the general session for smaller interactive sessions and more focused talks or chats.
Chat – Chat can be used to send a message in real-time. It’s a great way to measure engagement and helps promote dialogue among attendees, presenters and sponsors.
- 1:1 Chat – One-to-one chat is just what it sounds like: a meeting between two people, typically within the virtual environment. For attendee-to-attendee networking, make sure the virtual conference platform allows attendees to search and browse other audience members—including your company’s salespeople and your sponsor’s representatives—and chat with them directly.
- Public Chat – A group chat in which everyone sees everyone’s comments
- Moderated Chat – A moderated chat is an online chat for events in which comments or messages by attendees will not be public unless an administrator approves it.
Language Translation – Event organizers with a global audience need to consider its audience language needs.
- Translation – This applies to the virtual environment rooms and spaces. Translation refers to converting written words into another language. This applies to the text inside the virtual environment (registration and login pages, rooms, spaces and navigation). If this is necessary for your audience, make sure that the virtual conference platform supports multiple languages.
- Interpretation – This applies to the webinar presentations. Interpreters translate spoken words to other languages. If this is necessary for your attendees, make sure the Webcast platform allows the option to include interpreters to enable real-time language interpretation. This allows the host to designate participants as interpreters during a session. When the webcast starts, the host can start the interpretation feature, which will allow the interpreters to provide their own audio channels for the language they are translating to. Attendees can then select the audio channel to hear the translated audio in their language of choice.
Time Zone Planning – At a physical event speakers, attendees and sponsors are all on the same time zone. This make setting the agenda and timing for presentations, networking, exhibit hall/booth open hours, lunches, and happy hours a somewhat easy task. Planning a virtual event, on the other hand, with a global audience joining from different time zones can be much more challenging. Here are tips for planning a virtual conference with a global audience:
- Host your event to be optimized in the time zone where most of your attendees are.
- Include downloadable calendar invite links for attendees in your registration system and in confirmation emails. Most calendar applications dynamically update based on the person’s local time zone which does the conversions for them.
- Don’t program time-oriented agenda items (i.e. lunch break at 12pm EDT or a virtual happy hour at 5pm EDT). That’s ostracizing for your audience not in EDT.
- Recognize that anything more than a 6-hour time difference between attendees is going to be incredibly challenging to execute and you should consider breaking up your event into multiple events by region.
- Anywhere you share an agenda you should explicitly list times in all relevant time zones for attendees. Do the time conversions for your audience. There are also quick and easy time zone conversion tools such as comeverytimezone.com and thetimezonconverter.com you can use.
- If you break the event into multiple regional events you can consider delivering the first event live and then offer a pre-recorded simulive (includes Q&A) broadcast for subsequent regions. So it’s sort of a 2nd event but with far less production. Just offering a post event on-demand recording will devalue attending your actual event. Make it feel like a second event just for them that is only available at that specific time.