The online world is a mecca for learning, with a seemingly unlimited number of opportunities to expand your knowledge base. One online trend that’s starting to gain some real traction is that of the web-based conference. In addition to an education component, these typically feature opportunities for networking and, in some cases, online vendor “booths” and sponsors.
Designed as an alternative to professional conferences, some online conferences are held 100% over the Internet – often termed “summits” – while others are held online in conjunction with a live, in-person component. For instance, the EDUCAUSE Annual Conference will be held live in Indianapolis, Indiana, but you can also attend online.
What Are Online Conferences?
As opposed to online webinars or e-learning classes, where an individual participates in a multi-hour course on a specific subject matter, online conferences are more closely aligned to professional conferences. They usually cover a broad subject matter – for instance, blogging, education, or medicine – and then delve deeper with individual workshops and programs.
Like in-person professional conferences, online conferences are education-building resources packed with sessions, interviews, panel discussions, and sometimes social media events. They’re typically geared toward a certain field or subject matter, and they’re often priced at a rate equal to or less than in-person professional equivalents. Some online conferences offer continuing education credits for those who need to accumulate them for certifications.
Online conferences are virtual, which means you can access them from anywhere – as long as you have an Internet connection. However, they are not yet an accepted standard. Many in-person conferences do not yet offer an online version in conjunction with their traditional components – EDUCAUSE does, for example, while the National Recreation and Parks Association does not. You may have to seek out smaller, lesser-known conference opportunities if your favorite in-person conference hasn’t branched out to a virtual event.
Online conferences offer many benefits – namely, they’re much more cost-effective than most in-person events, and if you use them wisely, you can garner much of the same value from the experience. That said, a lot like other online learning venues, they may not be right for everyone.
Advantages of Online Conferences
- Cost Effective. In-person events usually require travel, hotel accommodations, and food expenses, all of which can add up to hundreds or thousands of dollars, not including the cost of registration. Online conferences and events enable you to skip the extraneous expenses and pay only the conference fee. These cost savings are especially helpful if you’re also footing the bill for your own continuing education.
- Convenient. Conferences can be a lot of fun, but they’re not always convenient. Traveling by car or plane, missing family events, and trying to get work done from your hotel room or an Internet cafe can throw you off your groove. In some cases, if scheduling conflicts arise, you may not be able to go at all. With online conferences, you can attend education sessions and social media events from the comfort of your own home – or anywhere, really, as long as you have access to an Internet connection and a smartphone, tablet, or computer. In the majority of cases, online content is available permanently, so as long as you’ve made your conference pass purchase, you can access it at any time.
- Sometimes Free. I worked with Rita Barry from Blog Genie to put together a virtual blogging conference for health and wellness bloggers, the Blog Well Summit. The first summit was held October 17, 18, and 19, 2014, and the content we provided was available for free to anyone during that weekend only. Each day’s education sessions and videos were available for 24 hours to anyone who registered for the event. Then, after each free 24-hour window, the content was available to those who purchased the full conference pass. We worked for months to put together the interviews, live panels, education sessions, and blog reviews. The content was amazing, and the fact that it was available for free made the event even better. We’re not the only ones who have put together this kind of “freemium” conference experience. Sean Croxton of Underground Wellness also plans and releases conferences a few times a year – the content is always free when it’s released, with a purchase option, and then becomes a packaged online conference product that can be bought at any time.
- Always Accessible. If you buy access to an online event, you’re typically purchasing a membership that gets you specific content on a particular website. For instance, those who purchase the Blog Well Summit information can log into a member page on the website and access all interviews, events, and resources we provided during the conference weekend. This type of permanent access means you can watch and re-watch the sessions that were most applicable to your interests, and access other sessions when you want or need to.
- You Can Access Every Session. Have you ever attended a conference and been disappointed to learn that two of the sessions you wanted to go to were being held at the same time? Many conferences offer attendees the chance to purchase recordings of specific sessions, or even the whole conference – but if you’ve already paid for your ticket to attend, it doesn’t seem right to have to cough up more money for a session you missed due to a scheduling conflict. With online conferences there are no scheduling conflicts. As long as you’ve paid for your ticket, you can digest every session according to your schedule.
- No Stress About Wardrobe. If you’ve ever stressed about what type of clothing is “conference-appropriate,” you can leave those worries behind. No one sees you when you attend an online conference, so you don’t have to think twice about throwing on jeans and a sweatshirt, or kicking back in your pajamas.
Disadvantages of Online Conferences
- No Face-to-Face Networking. One of the biggest draws of in-person conferences is the chance to network with other professionals in your industry and socialize with peers. In today’s email- and text-driven world, these face-to-face networking opportunities are an important part of developing relationships. Online conferences are tough, because even those that provide social networking events can’t necessarily offer face-to-face networking. This could be especially challenging for any extroverts.
- Limited Social Opportunities. Networking is definitely possible during online events, as long as the conference organizers have made it a priority – but not all do. During the Blog Well Summit, we hosted two live Twitter chats, three live Google Hangout panel interviews, a live Google Hangout “Cocktail Mixer,” a virtual 5k, and a live YouTube workout specifically because we knew these types of opportunities would be important to our audience – mostly female fitness bloggers. During these events, attendees could interact with the hosts, guests, and other attendees through social media and chat apps on our website. Not all online events offer these opportunities though. Many conference organizers encourage online attendees to use a particular hashtag on social media, or to leave comments on their websites, but very few actually provide extensive live social events for the virtual attendee.
- Requires Personal Motivation to Attend. If you pay for and travel to an event, chances are you’re going to make an effort to attend the conference sessions. Even if you don’t get to every single seminar, it would be a waste of a weekend if you didn’t follow through on your commitment. Online conferences, much like other online learning opportunities, require a bit more motivation to follow through. When you’re home, surrounded by distractions and opportunities, you may be less likely to sit down and watch an education session, or carve out time to engage during a Twitter chat.
How to Make the Most of Online Conferences
After recently co-hosting my own online conference, watching attendees interact, and reading the feedback forms we received after everything wrapped up, I can definitively say that online conferences are what you make of them. Here are five tips for getting the most out of your virtual experience.
1. Put It on Your Calendar
Signing up for a conference and then forgetting about it is much more likely if you’re not traveling to the event. As soon as you sign up for your virtual conference, circle the dates on your calendar, and set up a few email reminders to alert yourself a few days before the event starts.
Unfortunately, we got a few feedback forms from our conference that said, “I forgot all about it!” This may not be such a big deal if you paid for permanent access to the conference sessions, but if you were hoping to network with other attendees or access free content without purchasing the full event, forgetting about it would be a real bummer.
2. Check Your Spam Email
Once you sign up for a virtual conference, you’re probably going to receive an email confirming your enrollment. If this email doesn’t automatically show up in your inbox, check your spam folder (if you use Gmail, look in your promotions folder). Many companies and organizations use email marketing solutions, such as MailChimp, to send out confirmations, updates, and important notices. Unfortunately, these emails sometimes land in spam or promotions folders, and there’s not much the conference organizers can do about it.
During the week of our Blog Well Summit event, we sent about 15 emails that provided pertinent information about the conference, including info on how to access each session, reminders about live events, and daily release information with links to each of the day’s videos. Many of these emails didn’t make it to the subscribers’ inboxes, and we received feedback forms that said, “I wish you sent email updates.” Of course, we did, but once they were sent, where they were delivered was out of our control.
If you’ve marked an online conference on your calendar and you haven’t seen emails reminding you of the event in the week before its kickoff, keep an eye on your spam and promotions folders to make sure they’re not going to the wrong folder.
3. Make Attendance a Priority
The fact that online conferences are flexible is a double-edged sword. It is possible to work your schedule around a conference, but life has a way of presenting new temptations. When a friend calls to ask you to happy hour, or your spouse asks if you’d like to go out to dinner, you might find yourself putting off a conference for other things.
Carve out time to watch the sessions you want to watch and to participate in live events, if there are any. Note the sessions that are most important to you, and allow about an hour for each – although they may be shorter or longer. Also, if there are live social events, set up email notifications to remind you of start times so you don’t get caught up in other things.
Finally, let your family and friends know that just because you’re at home or in town, you may not be available to answer phone calls or hang out. If you think you may run into distractions from children, consider setting up shop at an Internet cafe so you can concentrate on the conference.
4. Engage in Live or Social Events
I can’t tell you how much great feedback we got from the individuals who participated in our live events. They loved the opportunity to network online, and many even came away with new virtual friends and professional contacts. And because all the conference hosts were so involved on social media during the event, those who participated got to know us better and had the opportunity to ask questions and receive more in-depth feedback.
Even if you don’t actively participate during live sessions, make it a priority to watch them and be a fly on the wall. We received lots of feedback that said, “I watched the live sessions and Twitter chats, but didn’t ask questions.” Many of those same individuals indicated that the social opportunities were the most rewarding.
The fact is, live events and social networking are designed to answer questions from real attendees. This means the content, in a sense, is informed by the participants. Access to these sessions after the event is complete is wonderful, but knowing you can impact discussions by asking questions is a powerful thing.
5. Buy Full Access
Some online conferences require a ticket purchase to attend, but others, like ours, are set up for “freemium” access. If you plan to attend a free conference, I’m all for it – enjoy the content, and don’t pay a dime. If you loved what you watched though, and the ticket price is reasonable, go ahead and pony up for lifetime access. You can always refer to the materials you loved so much, and you may receive bonus materials for signing up. Also, since you didn’t have to pay for travel and accommodations, you’re still getting a great deal. Not to mention, you won’t have to take as many notes while watching each session because you know you have permanent access to it.
If you do decide to attend an online conference, make the most of the experience. Virtual events aren’t for everyone, but the only way to know if they’re right for you is to sign up, show up, carve out time, and engage with other attendees. If you try one and love it, tell people about it. The more satisfied online conference-goers there are, the more online conference opportunities will arise – and that’s good news for everyone.
Have you attended an online conference? What did you think?