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Embracing the world of virtual conferences

As a professional services organisation, the lifeblood of our business is building strong relationships, collaborating, and sharing of ideas and insight – both within RSM and ultimately with the middle market businesses we support. Prior to the onset of COVID-19, there was a plethora of opportunities to come together and share these ideas and knowledge, through various RSM member conferences, workshops, and academies. These face to face opportunities, have been filled with warmth, appreciation, and allowed us to celebrate our diverse and innovative culture, while inspiring positive change and transformation.

Sadly, as lockdowns rolled out across the world, this meant that the human interactions which made these events so engaging and beneficial in the first place were no longer possible.

It has been my experience that when one door closes, another one opens - or at the very least you find a new creative way in. For RSM, as with many other organisations, there is still business to do and ideas to share. Rather than simply close the door on all of these events, we set out to adapt our approach and transition this sharing of ideas from a physical forum to a digital experience –  learning new things along the way.

Get the right technology in place

When geographical location is no longer a consideration, virtual events create an opportunity to attract a wider audience. The ability to record the sessions also helps to extend the reach. Digital conferences and events also unlock new opportunities, making it easier to measure sentiment from the audience through polling and Q&A tools which may help inform decision making or planning for the future.

There are a number of great online webcast platforms available, such as Zoom and ON24, and event bespoke conference website platforms. Once the platform has been chosen, it is important to get the right training for all of the key people involved in the technical delivery. Each platform will have different idiosyncrasies, and it is important to pay attention to these and test, test, test. 

Preparing your speakers and scenario planning

We have always prepared a speaker brief for our conferences and events, but ‘going virtual’ requires another level of care:

  • Create specific instructions based on your own experience
  • Set up technical tours for your speakers, prior to the rehearsal of content
  • Check the audio and lighting of your presenters from the audience point of view
  • Once the rehearsal has been done, repeat again, but this time turning someone’s camera and audio off, so the host or the other speaker must deal with an unexpected situation like a speaker’s WIFI dropping out
  • Consider having more than one host to step in, in case the host experiences connectivity issues

Taking the time to prepare your speakers and planning for every eventuality is essential. With the whole world online, it is more than likely that connectivity may be an issue, but if you scenario plan, it will be resolved like a professional.

Make it engaging

The best conferences are those where the organisers consider the audience’s attention span and comfort, and this is particularly important with online events. Ultimately there is more competition from the distraction of emails and other work, if you fail to engage the audience.

Having hosts with good energy can help to maintain the pace and finish on time. Having a mix of content with different duration times, the use of panels, live presentations, audience polling and sessions with Q&A, and using video clips can help maintain the attention from waning.  

Another key element of engagement is interactivity. People can only watch a talking head on a screen for so long, so it is much more engaging if it is a two-way conversation. Inviting our audiences to participate in the presentation and provide input gives them ownership of the content and control of the narrative. That ownership helps them to feel connected to the messaging, and to each other.

And finally, no conference would be complete without a little bit of networking, which is why it is important to give your audience opportunities to connect. Some platforms provide ways of creating that interactive discussions within presentations with the use of ‘break-out rooms’ within the session. This allows a larger audience to have discussions in smaller groups before returning to the main platform and sharing the results of these discussions.

Have fun with it

A conference can be engaging and technologically sound, but it still needs to have light and shade and be entertaining. While it is a bit more challenging to spice up a video conference, there are opportunities to get creative with brainstorming sessions, contests, and quizzes.

Including short playful videos with an element of fun, or asking the audience to send social distancing videos, photos and selfies can help connect people together.

Innovation fuelled by adversity

RSM has been delivering webinars for a number of years prior to COVID-19, but the pandemic has pushed us to think creatively and innovate faster. With the right tools, the right content, and a new disruptive approach, we can still host virtual conferences that are every bit as engaging as our in-person events.