For two days, members and non-members were completely caught up in your association’s virtual conference. The breakout rooms and chat boxes were lively, speakers and exhibitors fielded hundreds of questions, and the social hashtag was buzzing.
But then it’s all over. Attendees resume their work and life returns to business as usual. Their relationship with your association goes back to whatever it was before the conference. Considering the money and staff time you’ve invested in your virtual conference, it’s a shame to think attendees will quickly forget most of what they heard and lose touch with their new LinkedIn connections.
It makes you wonder… what was it all for anyways if there’s no long-lasting impact?
A virtual conference doesn’t have to stand alone as a one-time event. Instead, it can be a starting point for the attendee’s learning journey with your association—a journey that ties them more tightly to your association as a member, prospective member, or loyal customer.
Why the attendee’s learning journey must continue after the virtual conference ends
Most virtual conferences are isolated events. Attendees gather to learn and network together, and then go their separate ways.
Imagine instead if your virtual conference was the beginning of a learning journey. Think of it as a place where attendees find a learning cohort—peers who are interested in pursuing a similar professional development path.
Jeff Cobb of Tagoras/Leading Learning is the one who got us thinking about this new vision for conferences. He said:
“Associations need to view each event as just one touchpoint in the learner’s journey and focus both on helping the individual learner map that journey and on developing the culture and ecosystem in which the learning is supported.”
A new and different goal for conferences (virtual or in-person) would be to encourage attendees to become part of a supportive, collaborative, year-round learning cohort that helps them acquire and retain knowledge. They feel a sense of belonging and camaraderie which keeps them motivated to achieve their goals.
This switch in purpose changes the virtual conference experience for attendees. The conference is no longer a viewing event they purchase from your association. Instead of a limited transaction, the conference becomes the start of a relationship with your association and fellow attendees.
For non-member attendees, this learning journey leads to customer loyalty or membership. For member attendees, it leads to deeper engagement. For the market, it’s a way to differentiate your conference from all others.
To get these learning journeys started, specific virtual conference sessions could serve as the first step of a learning pathway. However, if you don’t have time to plan and design pathways before your conference begins, we have other suggestions below for extending the learning experience.
Design learning pathways that begin with virtual conference sessions
Learning pathways are a series of consecutive modules that help learners build knowledge and acquire skills in a specific competency or group of related competencies. For example, a pathway could begin with a virtual conference session. The learner either attends the session live or views it on-demand. On your website, they see a visual display of the next steps in the pathway, such as articles, videos, podcast episodes, webinars, session recordings, and/or online classes or courses.
To entice learners along, pathways could start with free resources, such as a set of articles, videos, or podcast episodes. Later in the pathway, mix in paid programs, such as webinar recordings or an online course.
Pathways target early-career professionals who need foundational skills and knowledge as well as mid-career professionals who seek more advanced and specialized skills and knowledge.
Learners who successfully complete shorter pathways earn microcredentials and digital badges. Shorter learning pathways could also be components in career pathways. More extensive pathways could lead to certificates.
If you identify content gaps while designing pathways, request conference session proposals to help fill those gaps. When promoting the conference, let prospective attendees know which sessions are part of learning pathways. This information will help them make session decisions too.
Learning pathways aren’t only valuable for conference attendees but for anyone in your industry. They show people how to achieve their learning goals by participating in your educational resources and programs.
Help attendees form learning cohorts
People attend conferences not only to learn but to hang out and chat with fellow attendees. Whether virtual or in-person, attendees want to share advice, hear lessons learned, and exchange new ideas.
Before the conference, educate attendees about your learning pathways. Encourage them to join a cohort of people who are pursuing the same goals.
Create an online community for each pathway. During the conference, schedule a virtual meetup for each learning cohort. After the conference, host live discussions on pathway content and related resources. Bring in speakers and other guests to facilitate conversations.
The learning cohort acts as an accountability group. Participants apply what they’re learning back in the workplace, then return to their cohort to discuss results.
How to keep conversations and learning going beyond the virtual conference
Designing learning pathways takes time but it’s a great way to repurpose and promote educational resources and programs. If you’re short on time, these other options can help you extend the attendee’s learning journey.
Think of ways to involve your sponsors in these programs, for example, as hosts and/or facilitators, or providers of resources such as white papers, research reports, and blog posts.
Send a 30-day letter
Ask attendees to complete a form that generates and sends an email to them 30 days after the conference ends. In the form, ask them to describe how they want to apply new information and which attendees they want to connect with. You could repeat the exercise at 60 and/or 90 days too.
Get speakers involved
Hire speakers who are willing to commit to an extended engagement. Ask them to facilitate group discussions, present a follow-up session, assign exercises, and/or share resources.
Host online discussion groups and virtual meetups
Encourage attendees (and speakers) to sign up for online discussion groups that focus on conference topics. Host “birds of a feather” discussion groups for attendees in the same position, specialty, or career stage.
Schedule occasional social meetups for these groups too, for example, coffee chats and/or happy hours.
Encourage book clubs
For speakers with pathway-related books, arrange for attendees to get a discounted purchase so you can host book club meetings.
Offer session recordings
When establishing your virtual conference pricing, offer registration fees that includes limited (30, 60, or 90 days) and unlimited access to session recordings. Award CE credits for viewing these videos by making them interactive. For example, add polling or questions at key moments, and track time spent watching them.
Promote a learning subscription
Another registration option is selling the virtual conference as part of a learning subscription. Subscribers get full access to the conference and recordings as well as a specific number of learning pathways or purchase credits.
After attendees complete pathways, ask them for testimonials about the impact of the virtual conference and learning journey on their career. Their stories about the experience is the best marketing material for next year’s virtual conference.