Attendees 'Were Not Flying Off Early.' After Initial Letdown, There Can Be Much to Like About a Virtual Event.

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"We would've exceeded 2,000 people in New Orleans—we already had more than 1,800 signed up," said Bob Moore, executive director of the American College of Osteopathic Family Physicians (ACOFP), still with a bit of a sad tinge in his voice, even though they pivoted their March annual conference very successfully to virtual. "We would've broken records."
 
As it was, they still exceeded 1,000 attendees. But that sentiment sums up much of what's happening now with events. Many organizations were experiencing huge successes with them and knowing the inevitability of having to pivot to virtual this year carries an obvious letdown. But we are seeing more and more virtual wins as the platforms get better and we are getting more, dare I say comfortable, with the virtual experience.
 

This is kind of a part two from a previous article this week about VentureBeat's virtual pivot. That was more about sponsorships and networking during the event. While Moore took us through what led up to their pivot, the registration options and the content and feel of the event.

Here are some takeaways: 

Decide early. Moore saw back in January what was happening in the world with COVID-19. They have a lot of academic members and the institutions were starting to enact travel bans. Of course now, things are more obvious. The sooner you make your decision to pivot, the better—for cancellation fees, getting space in 2021, booking virtual platforms for this year (really), and for your audience to get used to the idea.
 
Offer a virtual discount (but maybe not that much). ACOFP already had 1,800+ people registered. But what they then offered could still be a blueprint for planning an event this fall—a 25% discount for staying registered. More than 50% of the registrants took that deal. Just over 44% asked for and received a full refund. And 100 people deferred their registration to the 2021 conference. If you can provide similar value to your attendees from the in-person event, then don't be shy about pricing it that way. Remember, attendees are saving huge dollars on travel costs.
 
Keep to one track. ACOFP chose to focus on one track. Moore said that it was just easier to stick with the schedule they already had. "Otherwise, we would have had to remarket, reconfirm speakers, reconfigure time frames. This way we already had the speaker commitments and everything built into our mobile app." He did say in the future that he would shorten the 45-minute sessions and the 8 am to 5:30 pm days and add more breaks.
 
Enhance the virtual experience. "Polling is the most interactive of the various Zoom features," Moore said, because it gets everyone easily involved. The Financial Times is hosting a series of online events called "Digital Dialogues." In the first one, of the 4,600 who watched live, nearly 4,000 people responded to polls during the session.
 
Keep it as simple as possible. As mentioned, they used Zoom's webinar platform and kept the conference session schedule intact. Their sessions were in a recorded format via the learning management system of Blue Sky. (If you do this, try to have live Q&As.) "There are great technology partners that can be leveraged to help host your meetings, moderate and so forth," Moore said. "...we partnered with PSAV to have one of their staff be there for extra help. It was a huge win for us."
 
Have some fun with it. Moore praised his board president for showing up as Elvis and lightening the mood. He would be a little "more intentional" with fun next time, maybe karaoke between the breaks or showcasing some talented members.
 
Spread it out. This seems to be a common sentiment. VentureBeat expanded their annual conference into spring and fall sections. Moore said he will spread content out over two weekends for the next event, providing more opportunities "to reach our audience." Their March conference went Thursday to Sunday and he marveled that for the first time, people attended the final Sunday morning sessions! "They were not flying off early."
 
Post the content after for registrants and refer to it often. It's one thing to post webinars and conference content after the event ends, but it will get more attention if you remind people it's there and actually use it yourself in articles and other content. (And even more if it counts toward some type of certification.) Not only will ACOFP '20 virtual registrants have access to the content, but the recordings will also count toward the most coveted level of continuing medical education credit.
 
Think virtual—there will never be a hard stop. About nine months ago, Moore "implemented a staff reorganization that added a few senior staff positions to a traditionally flat organizational structure. [They still only have a staff of about 17.] Being technology savvy was one of the key attributes I looked for in these new hires." While in-person will come back, the virtual aspects will not go away. There's just too much greater-audience potential in them. 

So what does hybrid look like? Moore said he could definitely see hybrid in-person/virtual events in their future. "We would stagger the content based on time zones. We would lean in more to the experience, offer on-demand content earlier in the day if people want that." The mid-day content would be the topics "that we think will have most appeal so it translates over both mediums. We would imagine more ways for our content to lend itself to the virtual environment."

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Ronn Levine began his career as a reporter for The Washington Post and has won numerous writing and publications awards since. Most recently, he spent 12 years at the Newspaper Association of America covering a variety of topics before joining SIPA in 2009 and SIIA in 2013 as editorial director…