Like us, you’ve probably attended a few virtual events recently and discussed them afterwards with colleagues. The same complaints about virtual conferences keep coming up in our conversations—maybe they’ll sound familiar to you too.
Some of these complaints could be resolved by a different approach to program design. If it’s in your power to address these issues, you’ll provide an even better learning and networking experience at your next virtual conference.
The 10 most common attendee complaints about virtual conferences — and how you can resolve them
#1: Why is the registration fee so high?
ASAE’s free, one-day virtual Membership Marketing & Communication Conference attracted three times the usual attendance. But associations can’t always afford to make their events free and shouldn’t have to.
Compare the value attendees will receive at your virtual event to the value they would have received at the in-person event as well as your costs for both. Because they come to in-person events for content and connections, make sure you’re providing sufficient networking activities at your virtual event to merit the cost of registration. Explain the rationale behind the price, like the American Alliance of Museums did.
Assess why different audience segments attend in-person events. Some come for CE credits and expect to earn them virtually. Others come to in-person events primarily for networking, not the education—maybe sessions are too basic or don’t apply to their niche. Consider offering virtual events with specialized or advanced tracks so they’re willing to spend their money.
Provide more value by including access to conference recordings. Some organizations include promo credits for other online learning programs or webinars in their registration package.
#2: I can’t sit that long.
Some virtual conferences replicate their in-person schedule, but this approach may not work for people attending from home. Sitting in the same place all day, staring at a screen, is exhausting. Plus, you have distractions: chores, emails, Slack notifications, and kids that need attention.
Survey your audience so you understand their preferences. They may prefer attending a conference on a series of afternoons over a week or over several weeks, like The L&D Conference.
Build breaks into the schedule. Make them long enough so attendees have time to eat something, walk the dog, or deal with a temper tantrum.
Record sessions and include access in the registration fee. Post an unedited video as soon as possible so attendees can watch what they missed later that evening and still participate in conference-related conversations. You can edit the videos later for the archive.
#3: There’s no sense of place here.
Virtual conferences don’t have a home base, like an in-person venue. Make your LMS the conference hub—The L&D Conference calls it their “welcome lobby.” Attendees need a place they can go anytime to check on the agenda; session descriptions, links, and resources; videos and transcripts (sessions and chats) as they become available; links to Google Docs if you’re encouraging community note-taking; and exhibit “booths.”
An event emcee or host can help tie an event together. Set aside networking breakout rooms that are always open as a place to hang out, like lounges and break areas at an in-person event—and make them a sponsorship opportunity.
#4: I can’t listen to the speaker and read the chat at the same time!
I thought I was the only one who had trouble listening and chatting at the same time until I heard others saying the same thing. Don’t make your attendees choose sides: the presenter or the streaming chat. They end up in a half-listening, half-reading mode, and not getting full value from either.
At an in-person event, you listen to the speaker, take notes, reflect, and think of ways to apply what you’re hearing. During virtual events, you try to go back and forth between the presentation and the chat. When you try to listen, you know you’re missing out on good stuff in the chat, and vice versa.
Listening/reflection and chatting don’t have to compete with each other at in-person events. In a session, you sit down at a table, introduce yourself, and make small talk. The same thing happens virtually but it intrudes on the speaker’s time. Instead, open the chat 15 minutes before the session begins so attendees have a chance to introduce themselves, catch up with friends, and talk about life—that’s the networking they’re looking for.
Ask presenters to break content up into 8-minute (or so) chunks. Take a break after each chunk so attendees can do a speaker-directed exercise, share insights, and discuss and apply information—the activities that make new information stick.
Keep the chat open after the session ends so attendees can hang out and keep the conversation going during the next break.
#5: I’m not getting my money’s worth because I keep spacing out.
Every virtual conference needs an attendee engagement strategy. Review speaker presentations to make sure they align with best practices for adult learning. Most people don’t want to sit through 50 to 60 minutes of someone lecturing—an ineffective way of transferring knowledge online and in-person.
Provide training for speakers so they understand how adults learn—don’t assume they know it. Speaking is a privilege not a right. Virtual conferences come with new conditions and, therefore, new expectations. If speakers don’t want to comply, replace them.
Shift some sessions from the “talking head” format to the “talk show” format. It’s much more interesting to listen to someone interview an expert than hear an expert drone on and on.
Build in breaks for attendee participation. Polls and Q&A are fine, but you also need group activities where they can discuss and apply what they’re learning.
#6: I want to talk to the speaker after the session.
After a session at an in-person conference, people head to the front of the room, wanting a word with the speaker. You can provide this same experience by setting aside sponsored breakout rooms where attendees can go for speaker Q&A. Or, ask speakers to hang out in the chat after the session ends.
#7: This doesn’t feel like a conference, it just feels like content.
At an in-person conference, you get away for a few days and are immersed in the experience—learning, socializing, eating, drinking, and maybe even sight-seeing. You go not just for content, but to hang out with friends, acquaintances, and strangers who become acquaintances.
People at work and home know you’re away, and don’t bother you. If they do, your out-of-office notification is on. You temporarily escape from reality. Conferences feel like a combo of camp, reunion, continuing ed, and retreat.
But, at a virtual conference, you’re sitting at home. People know where to find you. The scenery doesn’t change. You probably didn’t even set up an out-of-office notification.
How can you make your virtual conference a more immersive experience like the in-person version? Focus on a key element of any conference: connecting people. Providing opportunities for them to connect with each other is as important as providing good content. Attendees want to “see” their friends, acquaintances, clients, and leads. They want to meet new people and take home memories.
#8: I miss serendipitous meetups.
Conference attendees love the serendipitous opportunities to meet people at session tables, in buffet and bar lines, and on the shuttle bus. You must build similar opportunities into your virtual event.
Provide an attendee list or directory in your event app or on the attendee-only website. Attendees will rely upon this to message others, and to follow up with those they meet in chats and breakout rooms.
Set aside breakout rooms purely for discussions—personal and professional—hosted by volunteers or sponsors. Share the links on your event hub. You could reserve some for scheduled discussions on hot topics or “birds of a feather” meetups.
Schedule meetups for collaborative coaching. At ASAE TEC last year, a session called the “Situation Room” gave attendees the opportunity to help each other solve challenges.
Match-making tools are becoming popular for arranging one-on-one meetups between attendees with similar interests or mentor/mentee meetings.
Schedule pre- and post-conference activities, such as attendee happy hours, discussion groups, learning circles, and speaker-related book clubs.
#9: I wish I could see the people I know.
Virtual conference networking activities help connect friends from afar. The WAGON conference asked attendees to share via Google Docs which networking rooms they were going to so people could find their friends. An accessible and updated attendee list along with event app messaging could help attendees connect with each other at a virtual event.
#10: Where are my free drinks?
Ok, maybe this isn’t a huge concern, but attendees do look forward to the receptions and parties at in-person conferences. How can you host happy hours and other social activities at a virtual event? Get creative. Perhaps if sponsors (and state laws) are willing, you could mail happy hour goodies to attendees’ homes.
The learning curve has been steep, but associations are discovering the advantages of virtual conferences. They’re more accessible to people who are unwilling or unable to attend in-person events because of disabilities, social anxiety, work and family obligations, or budget limitations. But a virtual conference is a different experience for attendees, so you must put extra efforts into designing engaging sessions and networking opportunities.