Early in February 2020, we decided to host a virtual conference. As a growing software company, we had limited resources, but we wanted to host an event that would highlight our product in a vertical market (Salesforce) where a lot of our customers had achieved significant success.  In a nutshell, our product moves data between Salesforce and many other systems, without requiring programmers, and does so at a reasonable cost. Our goal was to raise awareness of our product by creating a conference with compelling Salesforce content and including stories of our own customers’ success using our product with Salesforce.

We began our planning process — brainstorming content, finding customers willing to share their experiences, and locating speakers who might be willing to present on topics of interest to current and potential customers.

We all know what happened in March. Because of the worldwide lockdown, we ended up hosting one of the first virtual technical conferences in the COVID era.  

Since we were accidentally first, we want to share an honest recounting of our experience for others to study and learn from what went well, and what didn’t go so well.  In what follows, we’ll examine the different components of a virtual conference, and provide a sometimes painful accounting of our experience, with a focus on how you can host a successful conference by learning from us.  If you’re a software developer with some time on your hands, you might want to read on because our view is that there are a lot of opportunities to build conference software in this new stay-at-home era. If you’re thinking about hosting a conference, you definitely need to read on to learn from what worked, and what didn’t.  If you want the short list of what we learned, skip to the conclusion.

Table of Contents:

  1. Conference Requirements

  2. Virtual Conference Speakers

  3. Pre-Conference Venue

  4. Virtual Conference Attendees

  5. Virtual Conference Venue

  6. Mixers and Attendee Engagement

Virtual or Real - A Conference is a Conference

We’ve all been to conferences, and any conference, physical or virtual, needs the following components:

  • Speakers - whether virtual or physical, you can’t have a conference without good talks.
  • A venue - in the virtual world, this means a site that can advertise your speakers and their talks, as well as facilitate registration, and communicate with conference-goers.  The venue should also let you exhibit talks and other collateral.  We’ll split our discussion of the venue into two parts - the pre-conference experience, and the during-conference experience.
  • Attendees - what if you held a conference and nobody came?  That would be sad, wouldn’t it?
  • Mixers and Attendee Engagement - people attend conferences to learn and network.  A good conference provides opportunities for both.

Let’s look at what went well, and what could be improved, about each of them.

1) Virtual Conference Speakers

Our journey began with finding people to speak at our conference. We were looking for two types of speakers: subject matter experts (SMEs) and customers. We had a leg up here, since we already had a set of impressive customers who we had previously interviewed. The external speakers — people who didn’t have a direct connection to us but were SMEs — were found through hard work by our marketing team, who went through previous Salesforce conferences to find speakers who had good talks and might be interested in speaking at our conferences.

Once we had identified and followed up via email with speakers, we scheduled the first contact: a short Zoom meeting with the speaker to give them the technical details of how we would record the conference and to learn a little more about the speaker’s presentation.

A quick note on scheduling:  if you are scheduling meetings with a few dozen people, there’s no efficient way to do it without a service like Calendly, which allows the speakers to schedule appointments without exchanging a half-dozen emails.

Our initial Zoom contact was 15-30 minutes long.  During that time, we determined whether the potential speaker had a ready-to-present idea.  Those that did were slotted for a final meeting where we would record their presentation.  Those who didn’t have a ready-to-go talk were set up with a second appointment where we spent time interacting with them to help shape their talk.  Some of our customers had never presented at a conference before, and it was an interesting and rewarding experience to work with them to prepare their talk. A few of the SMEs wanted to build a new talk on a topic in which they had some interest.  One of them recorded their talk for review since she had a conflict for the second meeting.  

Our attitude towards speakers was to take all comers as they are, and adjust our expectations to meet their capabilities.  If the speaker was someone who gives a lot of well-received talks at different conferences, we trusted the speaker to give his or her talk again.  If the speaker wanted to do something new, we gave them the space to do that.  We appreciated that our customers were taking time from their busy day to talk about our product.  At Xplenty, we’re lucky to have customers willing to talk about their experience with our product, and we were happy to showcase their success.

Verdict: We feel that our speaker search went well.  Part of the reason was that our conference focus, Salesforce, is a product with a large conference ecosystem.  Many of our speakers had spoken at other conferences recently, and we were able to find them via their prior talks.  Also, a lot of them were looking for a conference since the cancellations were piling up while we were doing speaker recruitment.  There’s not much we would change here.

2) Pre-Conference Venue

One of the first decisions we made was to pre-record speaker talks.  Our rationale was that there are too many technical issues that could happen on the days of the conference to justify the possibility that speakers and attendees would interact.  Another factor was that our speakers and attendees come from all over the world, and attendees in different time zones would still experience a “live” conference via recordings.

After a little testing, we decided to use Zoom meetings to record sessions.  On the host’s computer, Zoom’s native recording feature will place meeting participants in the corner of the slide if a screen is being shared.  Depending on the settings of the speaker’s computer, the heads are either on top of the screen share or to the side. 

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We had both the speaker and the host of the meeting record the meeting, in case there was dropout or lack of synchronization between the speaker’s lips and their recorded voice.  This was a technical conference, so every presentation either had slides, a demo, or both, so there was always a screen being shared, except for the introductory presentation.  Without a screen share, Zoom just puts the person speaking in the full screen.

Every video needed some form of editing, so we used our internal resources as well as contract video editors to do the edits.  Editors did things like cut out mistakes, trim the beginning and end of the recording (since, inevitably, it takes a moment or two for the presentation to get going), and re-locate the speaker’s head to keep it from obscuring content.  We decided to use YouTube to host the videos once they were edited, with unlisted links.

Verdict: Using Zoom and YouTube worked well.  Pre-recorded talks let us avoid day-of-conference presentation glitches.  We can’t stress enough that video editing is crucial -- perhaps more sophisticated recording software would have allowed us to avoid some editing, but that would also introduce risk that speakers wouldn’t be able to install that software correctly.  Since our speakers all had an IT background of some sort, we probably avoided some technical issues that non-technical speakers might have.

3) Virtual Conference Attendees

In addition to recording talks, we needed a way to publicize the conference and register attendees.  After searching through a number of options, we chose HeySummit as our conference platform. (Here’s our site.)  HeySummit provided a complete conference experience:  displaying speakers and talks, handling registration and communication with attendees, providing engagement metrics, and hosting talk content. Signup is handled particulary well by HeySummit - once you’ve agreed to attend, HeySummit just sets a cookie in your browser and remembers you.  We’re assuming that most of the attendees were able to register without even setting a password or doing any account maintenance.

The most pain-free signup is worthless without people who want to sign up.  We had a small marketing budget that we spent on a variety of marketing initiatives:  keyword ads, sending emails to our existing mailing list, and giving our speakers suitable graphics for social media so they could promote the conference to their followers. 

We tried some paid advertising, both purchasing Salesforce keywords and using Facebook and LinkedIn to push ads to qualified recipients.  Because Salesforce keywords are quite expensive, we found that LinkedIn was far more reasonable in producing qualified leads.  We also sourced an email list of people who had Salesforce as an interest in LinkedIn and used an email marketing campaign to try to reach them.

Our post-conference analysis showed that the most successful marketing was via social media sharing, specifically from LinkedIn.  Our conference speakers are influencers, and it turns out that most of them used social media graphics that we had prepared for them to promote the conference.  LinkedIn paid advertising was somewhat successful -- Facebook ads, to our target audience, were not.

One thing to note is that we only began promoting the conference in earnest about 3 weeks prior to the starting date.  This is one of the many ways that a virtual conference differs from a real-world conference.  We had extensive internal discussions about timing and for next time, we would probably start promotion earlier - perhaps two months prior. This would have given us more time to, for example, perform A/B testing on different marketing messages, refine the email list, and better engage influencers.  Another issue that we faced was that our conference website was blocked by Cisco VPNs since it was considered a landing page. We engaged Cisco to remedy this, but we should have “warmed up” our domain by registering it earlier and putting in a basic marketing page that wouldn’t register as a landing page.

Our final registration count of just over 1,300 was a success, in our view, especially considering that our marketing budget was small and that we only began marketing in earnest a few weeks before the conference.

Verdict:  HeySummit was a good platform for conference awareness and registration.  Our modest marketing effort yielded a good number of registrants. We’re generally happy with this part of our effort, though we could have started earlier and done better at cultivating influencers.

4) Virtual Conference Venue

We needed a site to organize and display talks, and we needed to communicate with attendees during the conference.  We chose HeySummit for this, too, though you could obviously split the registration, presentation, and communication components (for example, by using Eventbrite for registration, a Wix site for presentation, and MailChimp for communication.)

Whether you use HeySummit or another tool, since HeySummit is an all-in-one offering, it serves as a good example for setting up a conference presentation. It offered categories, speaker and talk landing pages, and email communication. HeySummit also allowed attendees to choose which talks to attend, and it let us assign time slots to those talks, so each talk could be featured as “happening now” even if they were pre-recorded.

We used HeySummit categories extensively, identifying 14 different categories that corresponded to different interest areas.  Since the categories functioned like tags (each talk could have multiple) we made sure all talks had at least a broad categorization (“Salesforce”) and then we added whichever tags made sense for the particular talk.  

HeySummit speaker and talk pages worked well.  Both of these could be self-edited by the speakers, and most of them did a good job of that.  That not only reduced effort but also increased quality.  As a side note, the HeySummit speaker dashboard, in general, was well-organized and something that wouldn’t be available with generic content management software like Wix or Squarespace. A number of speakers commented on how professional and organized the experience was from their end, specifically mentioning the dashboards.

From the attendee perspective, attendees could choose which talks to attend and when they logged in to the summit site on the day of the conference, HeySummit prompted them about which talk was going on at the time.  Attendees could also choose to watch the presentations later because HeySummit allowed post-conference access for as long as we chose (we decided to go a little over a week).  This allowed attendees in different time zones to view the talks at their convenience.

HeySummit was clearly architected for simplicity.  For example, as far as we could tell, you couldn’t insert links or other HTML in the talk descriptions. The emails it sent could track unsubscribes but not opens. We’re hard-pressed to name a critical feature that wasn’t part of Hey Summit, but each feature was mostly the basics.

In general, HeySummit got the job done for a reasonable price, but unfortunately, it failed to send out scheduled emails on time.  The HeySummit emails, when they worked, were exactly what you’d want from a conference -- they had blocks listing the talks to which the attendee had subscribed, but they also allowed us to customize the emails.  But, when they were late or failed completely, we were left to download the attendee emails and use our own mail service to send emails we created in-house.  That delay was a big negative that made us pretty dissatisfied with the whole HeySummit experience.  We might use it again, but if we did, we’d use our own email service.

Verdict:  An all-in-one summit site is probably better than building your own, but be ready with a backup plan if something goes wrong with conference communication.  We’d probably use HeySummit again, but we’d first want to be sure that they’d solved their email issues, and we’d be looking for more robust features.  We understand why HeySummit is trying to be an all-in-one, but we’d be willing to pay a few bucks more to have a little better service.

5) Mixers and Attendee Engagement

While we felt good about the content, the whole team felt that we struggled with engagement during the conference.  Our strategy was to use Slack to host a workspace for attendees and presenters to interact in a series of AMA channels during the conference, and to have a Zoom virtual happy hour at 4 PM on the first day, with the conference MC and one of the speakers hosting. 

We promoted the Slack channel via conference emails sent to all attendees. The open rates on our conference emails were over 40%, so we know that at least 400 people read the emails.  

(We’ll leave the discussion of the technology of determining whether an email was opened to the experts, but suffice it to say that open counts generally undercount the number of emails read).  We had over 150 attendees and presenters sign up for the Slack channel.  A good number of that 150 introduced themselves in the #intro channel.  

The Slack AMAs were run by the MC and the conference speakers with related topics.  We used Slido to gather questions prior and during the AMAs, and the Slido integration with Slack allowed us to pin those questions to each AMA channel.   We thought the content of the AMAs was good, with a lot of good interaction, mainly between the Slack hosts and speakers. One of our marketing team highlighted the 90-9-1 participation rule as something to consider when hosting AMAs and other chats. 

The Zoom happy hour was lightly attended but fun. We used the Zoom breakout feature to allow small groups of attendees to interact.  That was a key find - one of the speakers noted that a user group he had hosted the day before had devolved into 80 people chatting with each other in one Zoom room. 

As mentioned above, the emails from HeySummit were either late or completely missed, which certainly didn’t help with engagement, since the instructions about joining Slack were contained in that email.

Verdict: Engagement was one place where we wish we had a better outcome.  Slack is a well-known and widely-used tool, and we’re glad we used it, but it’s hard to encourage engagement in Slack.  For example, how do you host a virtual mixer in Slack?  Is there a way to pair people up?  We found that the naturally engaged folks engaged on slack, but especially in an international conference of technical folks, that’s a small group.  It would have been nice to have a video along with text somewhere so people could pair off and talk.  Slack is just not built for that, but some plugin or other could probably be built to greatly increase its usability on this platform.  Most people have a Slack workspace (or many Slack workspaces) running on their devices already, so we don’t want to ask attendees to install some tool they don’t already trust.  But we also need a way to engage during the conference.

Conclusion and Lessons Learned

While the conference was in process, Salesforce, which hosts the largest conference in the world (Dreamforce), announced that all of their remaining 2020 events would be virtual.  So, whether or not you want to host a virtual conference, you’ll need to do it.  Our overall experience hosting this conference was very positive. We’ve been frank about our struggles with engagement, but in general, we felt that we had a good event that cost a fraction of what a real-world event would have cost.  Here are our top takeaways from the conference:

  • It’s a big risk to do a virtual conference live, and we were happy with our decision to pre-record the conference worked very well.  But -- be sure to have a video editor to clean up recordings.
  • We found that social media recommendation was our top source of attendees and when we do this again, we will spend more time and effort on using it.
  • Good speakers are obviously important, but they serve a dual role: they provide content that attracts attendees, and they’re also influencers who can help market your conference via social media. 
  • A good conference platform is critical - we used HeySummit, which worked well and impressed presenters and attendees.
  • No matter how well your conference platform works, be ready with backups for critical functions like delivering emails to attendees.
  • Because of the nature of online versus physical conferences, it’s difficult to get conference attendees to engage on the day of the conference.  We tried a Zoom happy hour and a Slack workspace, to limited success. Next time, we’ll try to promote those interaction channels more aggressively and find tools that make it more comfortable for attendees to de-lurk and engage.

We hope that you can learn from our experience, and feel free to reach out if you have any questions.