Advice for Engaging Virtual Conference Attendees

Remember what attending a conference was really like? If you looked around the room during a session, many attendees had their heads down in their phones while the presenter went on and on. However, if time was allowed for a table discussion, everyone reengaged with the world around them.

The same thing happens during virtual conferences, except, at home—or, one day, back in the office—attendees might have even more distractions. You must work just as hard engaging virtual conference attendees.

Advice for engaging virtual conference attendees

Our approach to attendee engagement is based on our experience with online learner engagement. When attendees are truly engaged in the learning experience, they get more value from your conference and are more likely to return for online learning programs in the future.


Your engagement tactics depend greatly on the technology you use. But your choice of technology is most likely limited by two factors—budget and lead time. No one was expecting to convert an in-person conference into a virtual one so you are probably not prepared to invest in a sophisticated virtual conference platform or third-party support. Plus, you may not have enough time to select and implement new technology right now.

These factors are driving many associations to use familiar tools, such as Zoom or GoToWebinar. Our TopClass LMS has end-to-end integration with Zoom and GoToWebinar, so you have more functionality at your fingertips.

Platform capabilities are especially important with large groups. You want to find ways to divide them up into smaller groups in breakout rooms. In these rooms, attendees can get together for “table” discussions and exercises, as well as other networking activities.

engaging virtual conference attendees

Content design that engages virtual conference attendees

Virtual conferences provide an opportunity to improve content design and effectiveness. You can finally get away from lectures that only allow 5 minutes at the end for Q&A. “The way we’ve always done it” doesn’t apply in the virtual world. Take advantage of this opportunity to make the changes you’ve always wanted to make.  

How long will someone sit at a computer? No one really knows how attendees will behave during a virtual conference. But we know that attendees need variety and they need breaks.

Arianna Rehak, co-founder and CEO of Matchbox Virtual Media, said, “Rather than a cut/paste transmission of your content into the virtual, think about ways you might translate it.” In many of the virtual events her company produces, they record sessions with the speaker panel ahead of time. During the conference, speakers are available to chat with attendees. The intent is to “produce virtual events that foster meaningful conversations.”

The Matchbox blog is full of great advice about virtual conferences and educational events. Other good resources are:

•    A recent ASAE webinar Arianna presented with Beth Surmont, CAE, CMP, director of experience design at 360 Live Media—the recording is on ASAE’s COVID-19 roundup page.

•    Tagoras posted a recording of their webinar, Virtual Conferences in the COVID-19 Era.

•    .orgCommunity explained how to get started with virtual meetings and growing association communities.  

Virtual summit. One of the approaches Arianna and Beth suggest is a virtual summit. At the start, a pre-recorded speaker panel frames an issue. Attendees then break into roundtable discussions—a discussion guide or volunteer facilitator helps. Then attendees come back together for a live recap.

Chunking. Arianna recommends chunking content into smaller segments, so attendees hear a new voice every 20 minutes. Take time zones into considerations with morning and afternoon programming, or strictly afternoon.

Flipped learning. An association learning exec on ASAE Collaborate suggested giving attendees access to pre-recorded presentations that they can watch before the virtual event. During the event, schedule live session related to the recordings that dive deeper into each topic.

Spaced content. You could spread content out over a few days, but not everyone will take that much time off for live content. You’ll need to provide access to recordings. Spacing out content provides more opportunities for recall and application of new knowledge—but you could also work that learning strategy into post-conference activities.

Tracking participation for CE credits. When you host session recordings in your LMS, add subtitles, bookmarks, and interactive exercises, such as polls or questions at key points in the videos. With TopClass LMS, you can track the amount of time learners spend watching content if they need that proof to fulfill requirements for certification or credential programs.

Instructor skills

As always, a speaker’s skills determines the effectiveness of the learning experience. Video is a new medium for many of them so provide training and guidelines for online instruction, for example, tips for engaging the audience and increasing participation.

Consider hosting a “train the trainer” webinar and discussion forum where experienced online presenters/instructors can share best practices. We’ll share many of our tips in an upcoming post.

engaging virtual conference attendees

Social connections

The question everyone is struggling with since conversations are more important than ever: How do you replicate the connection aspect of in-person events?

You want to create a close equivalent of hallway, lunch, and reception conversations for attendees who are used to going to in-person conferences. You also want to find a way to facilitate both the planned and serendipitous meetups that take place at conferences. Attendees want to “see” friends and acquaintances, but they also want to meet new people like they did when waiting in a line, eating lunch, or at a session table.

Diehard learners may not care about networking. They’re coming for the educational content (or credits). But maybe they don’t realize the value of networking in uncertain times.

Can you create the conditions for these meetups? We think so. We see all kinds of virtual connections happening these days.

Session discussions. Design educational sessions that provide interactive exercises and opportunities for discussion. For example, use Zoom breakout rooms like session tables. Your attendees must be comfortable and confident using the technology—one of the topics we covered in our post on preparing attendees for virtual conferences. They might be used to interacting with friends and family online, but not chatting with strangers in a professional setting.

Web cams. If your platform and conference design allow, encourage attendees to use their web cam when they break into smaller groups. When people can see each other’s faces, relationships have more potential—plus they’re less likely to check emails, and therefore become more accountable and present.

Breaks. Use breakout rooms for snack and lunch breaks where attendees can talk about aha moments. Or, open some up as drop–in lounges for discussions on specific topics, for example, dealing with the economic impact of this crisis.

Learning circles. Learning circles have been used informally and successfully at ASAE conferences—why not try a virtual version? Ask attendees to sign up for a circle by specialty, career stage, position, or randomly. Encourage them to hold a pre-event virtual meetup on Zoom or another platform where they discuss their event goals and sessions that interest them.

They can plan to split efforts: “You go to this session, I’ll go to that one and we’ll share notes afterwards.” At the end of the day, they meet up to discuss what they’ve learned. After the conference, they can stick together as an accountability group for action steps.

Discussion forums. Take advantage of the discussion forums available in your integrated LMS or online community. You can link forums to specific sessions, groups of learners, or lunchtime conversations on specific topics—professional or personal, since there’s lots to talk about these days.

Extracurricular activities that engage virtual conference attendees

What else happens at your regular conference? Some activities you plan and some you don’t, but these little things add up to a memorable experience. Can you create virtual alternatives for some of them?

Receptions. You’ve probably seen (or participated in) one of the many virtual happy hours going on now—that would be easy to replicate.

Volunteering. Recruit virtual event volunteers who serve as discussion moderators, hosts for happy hours and other events, or reporters who interview speakers during breaks.

News. During breaks you could also make community announcements. Perhaps you could gauge the interest in different career services since so many people are facing layoffs and business failures.

Career services. Help attendees find jobs or prepare for layoffs by providing opportunities for career coaching, job interviews, mentoring, resume reviews, or employer skills advice panels.

Supplier members. Can you host virtual meetings for buyers and sellers? Something that replicates the meetings that take place during trade shows? What about running sponsor video ads in between sessions?

Breaks. Use breakrooms for chair yoga, meditation sessions, self-care and wellbeing talks, product demos, and Ignite-style talks that share personal solutions to some of the challenges everyone’s facing right now.

You have this once-in-an-association’s-lifetime opportunity to rethink your conference for a virtual environment. Take a few chances. Everyone is much more forgiving now and willing to be part of an experiment. Focus on value—both personal and professional—and you will do fine.


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