Over the past few years, online conferences have gained traction as an alternative or add-on to in-person professional conferences. Many organizations have launched stand-alone online conferences you can attend from anywhere, and some in-person events have added virtual components to let more people participate.
With efforts to contain the COVID-19 pandemic, many conferences planned for 2020 are quickly adapting and moving entirely online.
What can you expect if you attend a conference online? They’re not exactly like in-person conferences, but they can be just as valuable if you know what to look for and take the right steps to make the most of the experience.
What Are Online Conferences?
Online conferences are like a mix between professional in-person conferences and webinars or online courses. While the latter two usually cover a narrow subject, online conferences cover a broad range of subjects for an industry.
Like in-person conferences, virtual conferences offer some combination of keynote speakers, discussion panels, educational sessions, hands-on workshops, and socializing with colleagues.
Sessions can cover a range of topics, but they typically focus on an industry or group of people, like bloggers, medical professionals, or teachers. Some conferences focus simply on learning and development, and some offer sessions that count toward continuing education credits for professionals who need them to maintain certifications.
Up to this point, online conferences typically only existed for professionals in tech, blogging, or content marketing. Private companies or individuals would host them for people in the industry, but attendees were often not connected outside the conference, and social or networking events were rare.
Now that in-person events are on hold, many professional conferences spanning industries have moved online. For example, conferences for professional associations are happening online, making us think differently about the kind of community we can create through a virtual conference.
Getting the Most out of Virtual Conference Sessions
You probably know how to make the most of your time at a conference in person. Lots of advice exists for networking and learning at those events. Virtual conferences are quite a different experience, even though the sessions are similar on the surface.
Follow these steps to put yourself in the right mindset to focus, engage, and absorb information from the online conference sessions you attend.
Put It on Your Calendar
Forgetting you registered for an event is much more likely if you’re attending for free and don’t have to travel to it. Add a virtual conference to your calendar as soon as you sign up and set alerts for a day or two in advance.
You often have access to a recorded session after the event. But you can only ask questions and network with other attendees if you’re available and engaged while the event is happening.
Buy Full Access
A lot of virtual conferences are free because attendees are still getting used to them and — as with a lot of online content — haven’t assessed their value yet.
But if your conference offers a premium registration, you get the most out of your experience by going all in and buying a ticket. That could mean lifetime access to session recordings after the conference, bonus content, or networking groups or sessions.
If you’re hesitant to pay for a conference you’re attending from your living room, know that the price is probably still much lower than the cost of traveling to an in-person conference. Definitely ask your employer if they’re willing to cover it, even if they don’t typically pay for conferences.
Check Your Email
When you register for a virtual conference, they typically send an email confirmation with the information you need to attend. If you don’t see it immediately, check your spam folder or, in Gmail, your Promotions tab.
Many companies and organizations use email marketing tools like MailChimp to send confirmations and updates, and your email service can read those as promotional.
If your confirmation ends up in spam, add the email address to your whitelisted contacts to make sure future emails land in your inbox. If it’s in Promotions in Gmail, move it to your primary inbox, and Gmail learns that’s where you prefer to receive emails from that sender in the future.
During the week of the conference, keep an eye out for reminder emails, even if you think you have what you need to attend. If you don’t see anything, recheck your spam folder, in case information is coming from different emails. Conference hosts sometimes send information about newly added sessions, networking opportunities, or crucial updates nearer the event date.
Make Attendance a Priority
If you register for a virtual conference session, take the event seriously and participate. Block time on your calendar to show up for the live session if you’re available, and don’t book something over it. If you’re registering so you have access to a recording after, schedule time to watch it.
Let your family or other housemates know when you’ll be busy with the conference so they leave you alone. Claim a room or area of your home, and ask them not to disturb you while you’re there.
Similarly, schedule the time off of work just as you would to travel to a conference. Plan to hand off urgent work to someone else, and let co-workers and clients know the days or hours you won’t be available.
Turn Off Distractions
The temptation to react to notifications on your phone or computer while you’re working from home is way stronger than when you’re in a room full of people. Eliminate those distractions to stay focused during online conference sessions.
- Set “Do Not Disturb” or “Focus Assist” on Your Computer. Push notifications (the ones that pop into the corner of your screen) are probably the worst distraction while attending a conference via your computer. Turn them off for the hour or the day to avoid distractions during conference sessions.
- Turn on an Email Autoresponder. Set an email “vacation reply” like you would if you were traveling away from the office. It lets you comfortably ignore your inbox and focus on the conference.
- Limit Notifications on Your Phone. Allow exceptions to the “Do Not Disturb” setting on your Android and iOS devices so you can set it to do-not-disturb but still get a call from your partner or kids in case of an emergency. Or just limit notifications for apps like email, Slack, news, and social media.
Use Interactive Features
Some conferencing services include interactive features, like “raising your hand,” chat, question-and-answer sessions, and polls. Take advantage of them to interact with hosts and other attendees and stay engaged with the session.
Interaction makes the session better for everyone — including the host, who needs a moment to breathe once in a while to keep the session going.
Interacting virtually can help you stand out the same way it can at an in-person conference session. Ask thoughtful questions or share insightful responses to hosts’ questions to let other attendees see who you are.
Take Notes & Review Them
When I attend a conference, I use the evenings after a day of sessions to decompress and let everything I learned soak in. Six or eight hours of online workshops and lectures is a lot to take in.
It’s easy after a virtual conference session to just step back into your life — check emails, wash dishes, make dinner, watch TV. Instead, give yourself the same alone time to reflect that you would have had at the hotel that night if you traveled for the conference.
Networking at a Virtual Conference
One of the most significant drawbacks of virtual conferences is the lack of natural social situations. You aren’t in rooms with other attendees, shaking hands with speakers, sharing drinks with colleagues, or catching up over a meal.
But virtual events can include networking opportunities too. Look for information about them in emails or social media marketing posts from conference organizers — and ask for someone to set them up if they haven’t already.
Join the Social Media Chatter
You can skim conference hashtags on Twitter to discover nuggets of wisdom from people in other sessions at conferences you attend virtually or in person. It’s a fun way to soak up more of a conference than just the sessions you can make. It’s also helpful to share highlights from the sessions you’re in. Distilling sound bites and ideas from a session helps you pull out the most important information you learned.
Plus, it’s a networking opportunity. Especially at an online conference, participating actively online lets you connect with other attendees to share your experiences and lessons.
Share your ideas, ask questions, and reshare others’ posts to engage with fellow attendees. You’ll probably leave these conversations with a few extra Facebook friends and Twitter followers.
Engage in Live Events
Networking opportunities are a critical aspect of conferences, even more important than speakers and educational sessions to some attendees. They can be harder to come by at virtual conferences, but take advantage of them if they’re available.
Virtual networking events can be even better than in-person networking if you’re shy or introverted. You can be a fly on the wall more easily, so you can attend, observe, and get to know people without being quite as social or forward as you have to be at in-person events.
If a conference you want to attend doesn’t include networking events, ask the hosts to add them or connect with other attendees to set them up yourself. Consider events like:
- Virtual Happy Hours. Invite colleagues to bring their own cocktails or coffees and get social through a video chat app like Zoom, Google Meet, or Houseparty.
- Twitter Chats. These scheduled conversations on Twitter, organized around a hashtag, could be formal and educational, or casual and social.
- Virtual Trivia or Game Night. Use Zoom breakout rooms to let attendees form teams and compete in trivia or virtual games.
- Facebook Events. Set up a Facebook event, invite attendees, and interact through posts and comments within the event.
- Virtual Yoga or Workout. Enlist an instructor to lead a workout session anyone can attend from home through a video chat.
Dress the Part
You make an impression over a video call just like you would in person. If you schedule a call with a fellow attendee or join a virtual happy hour or networking event, dress like you would for the real thing (at least on top).
Regardless of how you look to others, putting on clothes you deem appropriate for an event with colleagues helps put you in the right mindset too. Scientific American reported on five studies between 2010 and 2015 that showed what you wear can affect your ability to solve problems, negotiate, and focus.
Loungewear is what you usually put on to relax and watch TV. Wearing it to a professional event could make it harder for you to stay engaged and get the most out of a virtual conference.
Look Up Particularly Engaged Attendees
Questions you ask or ideas you share in a conference session can make perfect fodder for conversations after. At an in-person conference, that usually means stopping someone as you walk out the door to thank them for their comment or offer insight in response to their question.
You have to do a little more legwork to follow up on those discussions at a virtual conference.
Pay attention to who’s asking questions and sharing insightful comments in a group chat or through social media. Look them up and connect on Twitter and LinkedIn after the conference. Spark a conversation by mentioning the session you were both in.
Follow Up With Email
Conference or session hosts often share their contact information in slides or other materials. Use it!
Follow up after a conference or session you enjoyed to thank the host and let them know what you learned. At the very least, it’s kind to show your gratitude for their effort (often unpaid). At best, it can help you make a new connection with someone who’s well respected in your industry.
Should Online Conferences Become More Common?
Plenty of people are celebrating the forced shift to virtual conferences because they can attend events this year they’ve always had to miss in the past.
Cost, travel, family, work, and special needs keep people from attending conferences and taking advantage of the educational and social opportunities many of us enjoy. Virtual conferences could level the playing field.
But going online has drawbacks. The experience doesn’t mimic its in-person counterpart exactly, and many attendees miss the opportunity for in-person speakers, workshops, and networking.
If you have the option to attend (or host) a conference in person or online in the future, consider these advantages and disadvantages of going online.
- Savings. In-person events usually require travel, hotel accommodations, and food costs, all of which can add up to hundreds or thousands of dollars, not including the cost of registration. Online conferences let you skip extraneous expenses and pay only the conference fee — sometimes nothing at all. The savings is helpful if you pay your own way, but could also help you convince your company to foot the bill instead.
- Convenience and Accessibility. Conferences can be fun, but they’re not an option for everyone. The cost and accessibility barriers of travel, family obligations, and work keep people from attending. You can join an online conference from anywhere you have an Internet connection, and the ease of recording means sessions could be available to view anytime.
- Lifetime Access. Registration for an online conference usually comes with access to recordings or a membership page or site that lets you access content indefinitely after the event. That means you can revisit helpful sessions years down the road.
- Ability to Attend Every Session. Have you ever gone to a conference and been disappointed to learn two sessions you’d love to attend are happening at the same time? They usually record every session at online conferences, so you can schedule time later to watch sessions you missed.
- Comfort. Definitely dress for success at networking events, where you’ll appear on video, but webinar-style conference events usually only put the host on camera. Slip on a pair of jeans and skip the collar — just don’t get so comfy that you fall asleep.
- Networking Challenges. No matter how many virtual happy hours or game nights you attend, meeting people online from the chest up is never quite the same connection as being in the same room and, say, experiencing a new city together. You also miss out on chance meetings — chatting someone up while you wait in a room for a session to start, spotting an old colleague in the hallway, or wandering around at cocktail hour.
- Limited Social Opportunities. Virtual conferences typically haven’t included as many social events as in-person conferences do, but that could change as so many conferences move online unexpectedly. If attendees value socializing during the conference, organizers might prioritize facilitating it — so don’t be afraid to ask.
- Less Accountability. If you pay for and travel to a conference, you’ll likely show up for the sessions to avoid wasting money and time. Online conferences, like other online learning opportunities, require more motivation to follow through, especially if they’re free. With less obligation and way more opportunities for distraction, many people find it harder to pay attention to a conference webinar or take advantage of networking opportunities.
A lot of people who never would have considered online conferences before have no choice this year. Turning attendees on to virtual conferences is yet another way the COVID-19 will likely change society and the economy for good.
With stay-at-home orders keeping us from gathering, we’ll either miss out on annual conferences or figure out how to make the most of attending them virtually.
Take full advantage of what the conference offers by committing time to attend, participating in discussions, joining social events, and actively connecting with other attendees after the conference.
Take a virtual conference as seriously as you take in-person events — especially when it’s your only option. If you’re focused, engaged, and motivated, you can get just as much out of attending a conference from your living room as flying across the country for it.
Have you attended an online conference? What made the experience valuable for you?