How to Prepare Attendees for a Virtual Conference—and Other Online Learning Options

The modus operandi these days is making the best of a bad situation. Many associations are containing the financial ripple effects of cancelled conferences by converting them into virtual conferences and/or other online learning programs. Even within a short timeframe, they’re managing to register and prepare attendees for a virtual conference.

Shifting to a virtual conference makes the most sense for everyone.

•    Attendees get the education and CEUs they need.

•    Since speakers (theoretically) already invested time in developing content, they can still get paid and receive the marketing exposure they expected.

•    Sponsors achieve marketing goals, such as brand awareness, lead generation, and/or thought leadership.

•    Your association strengthens ties with members and attendees by nimbly serving their needs—and, your budget doesn’t take a revenue hit.

A huge market opens up when you switch to virtual conferences and programs. In an ASAE Collaborate discussion (requires a member login), participants from national associations said only 16 to 27% of their members attend their annual conference. A survey of 12 state societies of association executives (SAEs) found that only 41.5% of their members attended their annual conference, despite the short travel distance.

People who couldn’t afford to originally travel to your conference can now attend from their home or office. If the timing of the in-person event didn’t work for them, now they can view recorded sessions or take an online course when it’s convenient for them.

prepare attendees for a virtual conference

Alternatives for cancelled conferences

You have lots of options for turning a cancelled conference into an engaging online educational experience.

Virtual conference

Many organizations are taking advantage of this opportunity to experiment with virtual conferences. For example, Advanced Solutions International (ASI) turned their iNNOVATIONS 2020 conference program for iMIS users into a virtual event—iNNOVATIONS LIVE—that took place on the same days (March 25 and 26) as the original in-person event but with a 60% increase in attendees. Silver linings, folks!

Since ASI’s original event had several tracks, they streamed some live sessions and recorded the others for attendees to access from an on-demand library. Deborah Willis from ASI described other aspects of their approach in a recent ASAE Collaborate discussion (requires a member login).

A transformation like this is doable if your learning management system (LMS) is integrated with a web-conferencing platform. For example, our TopClass LMS has an end-to-end integration with Zoom and GoToWebinar.

Your conference registration could include a two-day live stream, plus access to a library of on-demand presentations and live stream recordings, like ASI’s. Or, you could organize content by tracks with tracks A, B, and C on Day 1 and the rest on Day 2, and give attendees the option of registering for one or two days.

Online courses and webinars

NIGP: The Institute for Public Procurement had more than 100 in-person courses scheduled between March and May 15. In just a few weeks, they’ve converted more than half of those courses to virtual delivery.

Work with speakers to record their presentations for online learning programs. If you have a series of presentations that build upon each other, turn them into a learning pathway made up of several modules that lead to a digital badge or certificate. Or, convert the presentations into a series of webinars.
If your LMS permits, when you record online programs, add subtitles, bookmarks, and interactive exercises, such as polls or questions at key points in the video. If learners must prove they watched content to fulfill requirements for compliance training, certification, or maintenance of credential programs, with TopClass LMS, you can track the amount of time they spent on the content.


In a Collaborate discussion (requires a member login), keynote speaker and virtual emcee, Thom Singer described an association client that hired him to interview their keynote and breakout speakers. They plan to turn this content into 50 episodes for the association podcast.

prepare attendees for a virtual conference

Prepare attendees for a virtual conference

Think about the attendee experience from start to finish for a regular face-to-face event. How can you improve upon that experience in the virtual setting? An attendee mapping exercise helps you spot places that need extra care and provide opportunities for delight.


Some attendees might participate regularly in online education—webinars, virtual conferences and summits, or e-learning programs. But others might be new to the experience. Before your event begins, introduce them to your LMS and/or web-conferencing platform.

Put up a few tutorial videos as well as a checklist of technical requirements and suggestions, for example, camera, background, lighting, and microphone advice.


Tell attendees what they can expect. Explain all the different ways they can participate in “normal” conference activities, but save a few surprises for them. The “wow-I-wasn’t-expecting-that” factor delights attendees and sparks word-of-mouth marketing too.

Dedicated time

One of the most difficult factors to replicate online is the sense of getting away from it all that you have when attending an in-person conference. Away from the office, an attendee’s time is usually dedicated to the event and people at hand.

How can you help attendees replicate that experience? Suggest they purposely get the day off, even if they are working from home. Make a big hoopla in your online marketing about getting away from it all at your virtual conference. Promote it as if it’s expected that attendees will dedicate time to the experience. Explain how much more they’ll benefit from the education and social connections if they are not distracted by other responsibilities.

Draft a sample “letter to your boss” (and maybe one for spouses/partners too!) about the benefits of treating the event as if the attendee is out of the office. Office distractions will detract from the value of attending—not a good choice when investing the employer’s money and time.

Flipped learning

To ensure attendees get the most from their time with the presenter and each other, ask presenters to assign homework that attendees can do beforehand—i.e., take a flipped learning approach. For example, instead of forcing them to sit through a lecture, they read the material ahead of time. When they meet up at the virtual event, they can dedicate the time to discussion and other interactive exercises.

The coronavirus crisis has created a new and different set of member needs due to its economic and social impact. As a result, many associations have been forced into experimenting with virtual conferences and online learning programs. Take advantage of the opportunity you have right now to take risks. In this atmosphere, members and attendees will give you more leeway (and forgiveness) when you explore new online learning events and programs.

In our next post, we’ll share tactics for engaging attendees during virtual conferences and online learning programs and address the most challenging issue—how to replicate the social connections that take place at an in-person event. In another post, we’ll return to NIGP and how they quickly converted so many in-person courses into online courses.

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