We’ve noticed a topic cropping up in event planner communities: a growing interest in smaller, niche conferences. Is the lack of enthusiasm for mass gatherings a result of pandemic anxiety? Or are planners realizing that many people in their virtual audience aren’t all that thrilled with large one-size-fits-all conferences and are seeking different options?
At large conferences, many attendees felt lost amidst the crowd. They found it difficult to connect with people on more than a superficial level. Having attended a virtual conference, they discovered how much easier it is to watch presentations online from the comforts of home than take the time to travel and watch them in person.
However, another issue is now getting lots of attention: digital exhaustion. People are becoming more selective about which virtual events they attend. The shine has gone off large virtual conferences that merely offer a webinar-like educational experience with no opportunities for breakout rooms and small group discussions—the chat box is no substitute for meaningful conversations.
The appeal of virtual niche conferences
Many people rather gather with a smaller group of attendees who belong to the same niche. They prefer to be in a crowd of hundreds, not thousands, or dozens, not hundreds. In a smaller crowd, they feel a sense of community as they encounter the same names and faces throughout the experience.
You can still have your big in-person event—it serves a valuable purpose for many attendees, sponsors and exhibitors. But consider offering smaller, specialized virtual events for niche groups—attendees who have a similar job or specialty, or who are interested in the same topic. People are more likely to make the effort to attend a virtual conference when every session is geared to their specific interests, and every attendee does the same type of work or deals with the same issues.
Because they don’t require additional time off and a travel budget, virtual niche conferences also attract people, including recent graduates, who want to explore a new specialty or position. They’re a more affordable option for employers. Employees who don’t have a large professional development budget are more likely to attend a virtual conference targeted to their position or specialty. They get a better bang for their buck when every session is relevant.
Which niches hold potential?
You may already know which niches have promise, but if you don’t, your ability to find out depends on the type of the data you capture in your AMS/CRM, LMS, event platform, email platform, and/or website analytics. If you have data related to a person’s job, specialty, and interests, you can segment your database to see which groups are large enough to merit a niche conference.
Then you need to find out if there is an interest for a niche conference with any of these groups. You also have to assess whether you have the resources to plan and host a niche conference.
• For which niches can you offer strong, deep content?
• For which niches can you find content support from sponsors?
• Which niches would attract enough exhibitors?
What can you do differently with a virtual niche conference?
Because of their size, you have more flexibility when planning a niche conference.
Rethink the schedule
What kind of conference experience does the niche prefer? Don’t assume, ask them. We’ve seen a trend away from all-day virtual conferences. Instead, many associations schedule sessions on a series of afternoons, which is better for west coast attendees.
Try a mix of session lengths—express, regular, and deep-dive. We’ve seen niche conferences that only offer one track of sessions for everyone, and some that schedule an occasional slot for a few concurrent mini sessions.
You could spread out the afternoons over a few weeks, and host discussion groups and social meetups in between. If the conference is a success, consider starting a series of niche “summits” with time in between to promote related online educational programs.
Build engagement into session content
Because of their size, large conferences are generally passive experiences with the session chat box serving as the only source of “engagement.” I think you’ll agree, that’s hardly engagement. With a smaller audience, you can take advantage of breakout rooms and other tools to offer the interactive exercises and discussions that lead to effective learning.
You can aim the conference at a specific level of career experience. With hyper-relevant content, a more advanced niche can go deeper into the nitty-gritty. Virtual allows you to bring in higher caliber speakers at a lower cost. For an early-career niche, you might provide introductory content, personal growth sessions, and coaching and mentoring services.
Keep it interesting by playing around with session formats:
• Solution rooms
• Thought leader Q&As
• Research briefings
• Roundtable discussions
• Product case studies
• Ask the expert sessions
• Brainstorming or ideation sessions
Focus on facilitating connections
This is where niche events excel—conversations. At large virtual conferences, names scroll by quickly in the chat. Only the truly proficient networkers leave a large virtual conference with a handful of new connections. Most people close their laptop and rub the exhaustion out of their eyes.
At a smaller niche conference, attendees keep bumping into the same people in chat boxes and breakout rooms. By the time the conference is over, they have truly connected with people and their faces, not just seen their names.
You can facilitate these relationships by hosting a pre-event meetup. Share the attendee list before and after the conference. Open virtual lounges for coffee chats, lunch breaks and end-of-day meetups. Offer matchmaking services, both one-to-one and group. Schedule topical discussion groups for eight people max in each.
You could also host a backchannel between sessions, either on Slack or your event app, in your online community, or wherever they already hang out. If non-member attendees can’t access your community, you won’t want to do it there.
Invite the most appropriate sponsors and exhibitors
Find sponsors and exhibitors who will receive value from associating with the niche’s market segment. Some niches will be an easier sell than others, so price accordingly. Collaborate with sponsors on ideas for sharing their expertise with attendees, perhaps in sessions and discussion groups, or just sharing their budget via conference scholarships.
If attendees aren’t purchasing decision-makers, it will be a tough sell for exhibitors. Participation will be about brand awareness and relationship-building for the future. Think beyond virtual booths to case studies, demos, and other ways to share expertise.
Plan post-event activities
What other programs and events would interest this niche audience? Provide a promo code for relevant courses or certificate programs. Schedule exclusive “alumni” webinars and social meetups. See if there’s an interest in learning cohorts or communities so they can continue growing together. Ask some of them to participate in an advisory group that helps you plan future conferences and programs for that niche. If you continue to host programs that keep attendees connected with the people they met at your niche conference, you will keep them coming back to your website and education catalog.
With artificial intelligence driving so much of what we see on the web, the world around us is becoming more personalized. With niche conferences, your association can deliver a more relevant and personalized education and relationship-building experience to your attendees—a place where they can share and celebrate their collective intelligence.