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Thursday, August 05, 2010

19 Tips for Effective Online Conferences

I was recently asked me about my recommendations for conducting effective online conferences (virtual conference).  They had attended the LearnTrends free online conference.  This conference has been run for a few years now and is tentatively scheduled for November 15-17 this year.

This is my attempt to collect some of what we’ve learned over the years doing those conferences.  There’s some good information back in Online Conferences and In-Person Conferences, Be an Insanely Great Professional Conference Attendee, Online Conference Formats, and Conference Preparation.

  1. Assign people into roles.  For us we have someone who is an overall producer (actually there are three of us, but we split it well), session moderator, recording engineer, speaker prep person. 
  2. Technical Issues.  Prepare for technical issues and decide what you will do about them.  We’ve used Elluminate as our webinar system.  It has issues with firewalls.  So, we ask everyone to test until they find a location where they can connect.  This means that some people need to attend from home. 
  3. Communicate all of the details in great detail.  No matter how much you feel its obvious what to do, there will be confusion.  This is especially true with information like testing the virtual meeting software, getting into sessions, protocols during sessions, time zones, etc.
  4. Closely related to the above, make sure you have a well known way/place to submit questions and some assigned to answer these.
  5. Make it obvious where to access to resources from speakers.  For us, we create a discussion topic associate with the session and attach files or content into that.
  6. Session timing and design is difficult online.  Most presenters are not used to designing for online, so it’s important to help them plan their sessions to be effective.  You definitely need interaction and time for Q&A.  Some of the best sessions have very effective means of capturing the wisdom of the attendees.  Even the length of sessions is challenging.  Long sessions can try to get too much content in and often lose steam before Q&A.  Short sessions often means really superficial.  This is where a good prep person along with a good moderator can really help.
  7. Open discussions have worked, but they are risky.  I often find they meander too much for me.  Of course, I generally am more comfortable with directed Learning Goals.  Certainly, if you are going to try it have a great moderator and interesting audience.
  8. Getting participation outside of the sessions is challenging.  People don’t read things, or enter discussions ahead of the sessions.  No matter how hard we’ve tried, it’s VERY difficult to get an audience to do anything ahead of when the sessions start.  And it’s even difficult to get them to engage through discussion forums outside of the sessions.  It’s best to design things where the discussion forums are an added bonus and have some set questions to spark discussion.  But don’t count on that much participation.
  9. Make sure you have breaks between blocks of sessions.  The conference staff needs it, but so do the attendees, even if you think they will pick and choose sessions.
  10. For us, defining the times for sessions is difficult.  There’s no way to choose time slots where it’s not an ungodly hour in some part of the world.  Not sure we’ve ever figured out an answer.
  11. Text Chat works great during sessions as a Back Channel.  Encourage it and make sure the moderator and/or presenter weave it into the session – see Presentation Backchannel Multitasking.  Also, make sure that the presenter is not distracted by chat.  I always encourage speakers to ignore it and I’ll (as the moderator) let them know when there’s something I’d like them to discuss.  And I’m not a big fan of using multiple back channel tools that effectively split the discussion.  Just keep it in the webinar tool.
  12. Inject fun into the event. Nancy White jumped in to lead a round of Pecha Kucha using slides she had never seen before. The spontaneity and spirit of fun raised energy levels. Need fun stuff sprinkled throughout.  Moderators can help this greatly.
  13. Speakers on a common topic should get to know one another and swap ideas on their approach in advance of the session.
  14. Pictures of speakers make the event more real. Have pictures on session descriptions and on the first slide of each speaker.
  15. Thanks to Scott Skibell, we recorded the sessions directly off the web, i.e., outside of Elluminate and he produced great recordings.  This helps a lot.
  16. We’ve tried a few different ice breakers.  Interaction to learn the webinar tool is always a good idea.  Sometimes a kind of introduction to break the ice with audio can be good.  Especially if you want audio input.  Many people freely text chat, but don’t like to speak online.
  17. Be careful with screen sharing and video.  They require so much bandwidth that they often make the presentation not work for lots of attendees.  Much better to use screen shots.
  18. Some people take online commitments lightly. Several presenters never showed up. Some volunteer moderators disappeared when we tried to pin down times for them to cover.
  19. Online conferences have the advantage of being able to have introductory and truly advanced topics that will appeal to a narrow audience.


Alanah Throop said...

Hey Tony,

Thanks for the tips! This is a great post considering everything is happening online these days. We haven't quite gotten to a full online conference but we have started doing some web seminars. After the first few we are learning how to make them run more smoothly. I am going to share these tips with my team to prepare better for our next one! You can check out the one we had yesterday with David Allen:

Sarah Stewart said...

Hi Tony, thanks for this post which is extremely timely for the participants of the course 'Facilitating Online':

I would agree with everything you have said here. What I would add is that its a good idea for moderators to get lots of practice themselves as facilitators and with the technology...and there is a contingency plan if everything turns to custard.