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Academic conferences have been a cornerstone of academia for hundreds of years. At some point, almost every graduate student in an academic or scientific field will be given the opportunity to get involved with organizing one.
Technological advances have caused significant changes and innovations in the way many industries operate and communicate, including academia. The Covid-19 pandemic was a catalyst that moved many in-person events online in an attempt to preserve the networking and information-sharing benefits of academic conferences while reducing travel and maintaining a physical distance.
The pandemic, combined with the increasingly digitized world, has made people more accustomed to meeting virtually, and the popularity of virtual conferences has skyrocketed.
While many researchers are critical of virtual conferences because of the lack of camaraderie and networking opportunities, there are many benefits to virtual conferences. They are more cost-effective to operate than in-person events, the reduction in travel means a reduction in environmental impact, and they can accommodate many more presenters and attendees. For these reasons, it’s likely that virtual conferences are here to stay.
There’s a good chance that the first conference you help to organize won’t be happening in person, leaving you wondering: how do I go about organizing a virtual academic conference?
Here are 5 tips that will help you plan a valuable, well-organized virtual event:
1. Keep the sessions short
Whether it’s in-person or virtual, a successful academic conference is filled with sessions that are relevant, interesting, and can keep the attendee’s attention. Keeping the attendee’s attention is an even more difficult task for organizers planning a virtual conference. People attending virtual conferences are often taking part in these events from the comfort of their homes and offices, meaning there are many potential distractions to divert their attention.
Short sessions are much more likely to maintain the attention of those in attendance than long sessions. Whether it’s a keynote, poster, or panel session, make sure that it is short, to-the-point, and engaging.
Short sessions are also helpful in keeping presenters on task and focused. When there is limited time to share a certain amount of information, presenters are less likely to go off-topic and attendees are less likely to interrupt with unrelated questions or conversations that deviate from the subject being discussed.
Most traditional conference sessions are about 20 minutes long. For a virtual conference, we recommend setting the maximum length of sessions to 15 minutes. It is important to determine the maximum length of each session early on in the planning process, as it will impact the maximum length of the papers and abstracts that are being submitted. Be sure to include this information in your call-for-papers.
2. Leave time for interactive sessions where participants can interact with each other, for example, a virtual poster session
One of the main criticisms of virtual conferences and the most common complaint of the academics who attend them is the lack of interaction and engagement compared to in-person events. While it’s true that most researchers attend conferences to share their work and learn about new developments in their field, networking is an incredibly valuable element of academic conferences.
The natural structure of in-person events leaves time between sessions, allowing people to get from one part of the conference venue to another, or take care of personal needs. These periods are also used for networking – connecting with like-minded researchers in your field of study, catching up with people you know, and introducing yourself to people you don’t. Virtual conferences make these interactions difficult.
One way to ensure that your virtual event is interactive and engaging is by including interactive sessions like poster sessions. Poster sessions allow researchers to share their work via a visual poster. At an in-person session, these would be displayed in a large room and accompanied by the researcher who could explain their work, ask questions, and solicit feedback.
Virtual poster sessions operate differently. Rather than packing dozens of presenters and hundreds of attendees into one giant conference room, virtual conference organizers are tasked with setting up multiple digital break-out rooms. It’s a whole new kind of poster session, but if organized properly with the help of software, it still allows participants to interact, network, and provide valuable feedback on one another’s work.
3. Use reliable software
A system crash is the worst nightmare of every virtual conference organizer, and it’s pretty bad for the presenter as well.
For planners of in-person conferences, the physical venue is one of the most important decisions to be made. The venue must be big enough to house all of the attendees. It must be comfortable, it must contain enough separate rooms and enough communal spaces to suit the unique needs of that specific event.
For virtual conferences, your software is your venue, and if there’s one thing that virtual conference organizers must get right, it’s the choice of software.
The software you choose to run your conference must be robust enough to accommodate the number of attendees you expect. It must be user-friendly enough so virtual attendees can navigate the registration, session selection, and interactive components with ease. It must be reliable enough not to crash, and it must provide enough break-out rooms to allow for the number of plenary or poster sessions needed for your event.
There are many software solutions out there, so to be certain you’re choosing the right one, read the reviews and request a demo to see the platform in action. Create a list of all the must-have features and functions you need from the platform and have it handy during your product demo. Keep a list of pros and cons, and refer back to it while you discuss the options with the other members of your organizing committee.
4. Make a practice run with speakers
Setting aside time to get your speakers together for a practice run is a key element of the virtual conference planning process. We mentioned the importance of ensuring the content presented at your event is interesting and engaging, and making sure that your speakers are well-prepared is a critical element of this.
Arranging practice sessions with your speakers accomplish three things:
- It gives your presenters an opportunity to practice their presentations with an audience who has more in mind than just the research being discussed.
- It ensures that each presentation can be conducted within the maximum time frame you set for your presenters. As the organizer, you can analyze the practice sessions by asking yourself (and the presenter) questions like Is this presentation too long? Are there too many pauses? Is every section necessary? Are there elements that can be added to encourage audience involvement and engagement?
- A practice run provides a technology check. Did your software perform as intended? Were there any glitches when the practice attendee logged in or switched presentation or breakout rooms? Did the presenter understand how to operate the conference planning software on their end? Were the instructions you provided clear enough or do they need to be refreshed?
There are a lot of potential errors that can be avoided through a practice run.
5. Clearly communicate instructions with attendees
Strong, clear, consistent communication is an important element in the planning of any conference, but for virtual conferences, it can be the difference between wild success and total failure.
Work with the Marketing Chair of your conference organizing committee to create a thoughtful marketing strategy that includes a variety of communication methods like calls for papers, invitations, registration confirmations, event reminders, and instructions on how to prepare for the big day.
Include regular touchpoints with event attendees in your communication strategy. Provide interesting industry insights and new research that’s related to the subjects being discussed in the event. Providing little tidbits of added value in advance of the event can be a great way to build enthusiasm and get your attendees excited about the conference.
Be sure your attendees are well aware of any technical requirements that may be needed to participate in your conference. If they need to create a login, download an app, or do any advanced research, let them know using brief, clear, direct language.
There are many similarities between in-person and virtual conferences. But there are also many differences. Organizing an academic conference isn’t easy, especially as a graduate student involved in event planning for the first time. It can be a stressful experience, but it doesn’t have to be. Follow the tips above and you’ll be well on your way to creating a successful, and memorable event.
Hope this article will help you.
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