6 Things to Think About When Creating a Virtual Conference

Experts discuss approaches to delivering content and attendee interaction

The logo design for Adobe Summit 2020 - The Digital Experience Conference
Going digital is the only option companies have if they're looking to host conferences in the near future. Adobe
Headshot of Ian Zelaya

Key insights:

About 23,000 people were expected at the annual Adobe Summit, the software company’s annual flagship conference in Las Vegas, from March 29-April 2. But the outbreak of COVID-19 forced Adobe, along with countless other brands, to cancel or postpone their in-person gatherings and rethink how they could safely deliver an alternative event.

Alex Amado, vp of experience marketing for Adobe, said the brand had started to reconsider hosting its Las Vegas conference a few months ago, when Covid-19 began spreading across the globe. His team’s plan B was to scale the event down to a broadcast from the brand’s San Jose headquarters, which would involve shorter keynotes delivered to a 200-person audience.

But when that was no longer possible due to safety issues and government stay-at-home orders, the brand realized a digital-only event was the only option to deliver consumers content initially planned for the physical conference. The company launched a free digital version of the experience on a custom landing page on March 31.

“We segued to plan C, and we had to rethink our format,” Amado said. “It involved what is now commonplace: people communicating from home.”

It’s hard to predict when it will be safe to hold physical events again—and what the comeback will look like—so going digital is the only option companies have if they’re looking to host conferences in the near future. Some brands, including Microsoft and Facebook, have already taken long-term precautions by canceling all large company events through the middle of 2021.

So what do brand marketers and event producers need to consider when creating a virtual event? Amado, along with other pros who produced digital conferences under tight timelines in March, discussed what to keep in mind when packaging and delivering content, deciding whether to have speakers go live or pre-record, and interacting with isolated attendees in real time.

Consider your audience’s location when rethinking content delivery

The goal of the Adobe Summit is to offer best practices around customer experience management through keynotes from company executives, presentations from product experts and technology demos. Adobe delivered the virtual event through a “choose your own adventure”-style landing page on the brand’s website, letting attendees choose to watch sessions covering six content areas.

When Adobe launched the digital experience with more than 100 sessions, attendees could decide to go straight to the keynotes or skip to see tech in action with videos of product demos. The brand is still adding sessions to the summit, with visits from more than 400,000 people in 199 countries.

“We decided the best way to do the storytelling was to allow a lot of user choice and not keep them captive,” Amado said. “We felt ‘choose your own adventure’ was the best way for the audience to get more value out of it. When you’re online there are distractions, so we had to play to the situation as best we could.”

Vince Belizario, svp and group account director of brand experience agency Jack Morton Worldwide, was involved in helping a major tech company turn an internal global marketing conference—which normally draws around 6,000 attendees—digital within three weeks of canceling the event. The pivot resulted in a virtual experience that rolled out content to attendees over two days in separate programming blocks. After the rollout, the event was available as an on-demand package for employees to watch.

“It was a matter of rethinking the content and what we were trying to pull off with the physical event, and figure out how that would be delivered as a virtual one. The entire creative intent and production value needed to be up-leveled,” Belizario said. “We knew our audience wouldn’t be in the same mindframe, let alone in the same time zones. The content needed to be delivered in a way that was complementary to the current situation.”

The shorter the content, the better—depending on the event scale

The Adobe Summit would have initially offered more than 400 sessions, but cut down that schedule based on who could still participate—Amado noted that certain presenters had to drop out to focus on their businesses impacted by the pandemic—and which sessions initially had the most registrants. The company had each speaker scale their presentations back to be eight minutes long. Amado said so far, a majority of attendees have watched between five and 10 of the videos so far.

“What we learned as a takeaway was we have to keep content chunks even shorter than we anticipated. For future virtual events, we’re already working on strategies to shorten and chapterize content so people can have very bite-sized chunks that still deliver a good story in good value,” he said. “It changes the nature of storytelling, to go from a two-hour keynote to eight minutes to get a whole point across. But if you structure content well, you’ll be able to give people an experience that will give them insight and value. Short doesn’t have to equal light.”

Photo of entrepreneur Shama Hyder in a Forbes summit ad
Forbes8 Live Summit presenters included Shama Hyder, an Indian-American entrepreneur and CEO of Zen Media.

But for shorter events with fewer speakers, presentations can go longer. Forbes8, a platform within Forbes that provides video content serving entrepreneurs, held its first Forbes8 Live Summit on March 20. The four-hour event was delivered live on the Forbes8 platform with 12 entrepreneurs—many who had been slated to speak about business topics at SXSW—discussing the theme of business resiliency during a crisis.

Liz Walsh, vp of growth marketing at Forbes, said each speaker kept their presentation to about 20 minutes, discussing relevant topics such as building a brand virtually and leading remote teams. The event—which drew 3,000 viewers—released each video presentation in linear fashion.

“SXSW had been canceled, and that presented us with an opportunity to help our entrepreneur community,” Walsh said. “We sourced speakers with advice to share, who no longer had a platform. We had an existing community, hungry for guidance and motivation. This summit seemed like a logical way for us to help.”

Determine objectives before choosing a video platform

Deciding whether to use a videoconferencing platform like Zoom or broadcasting live on Instagram depends on the event’s objective and how it wants to engage with its audience digitally. But no matter the intent, Belizario said marketers and agencies should think with a “purpose first, platform second” mindset.

“Given the rapid cancellation of physical events, everyone’s knee-jerk reaction is starting with finding the platform,” Belizario said. “The smarter partners will start strategically and ask what’s most important with what the brand is trying to achieve, and then find the readily available tools that can support their objectives.”

The digital summit Jack Morton Worldwide produced, as well as the Adobe Summit and Forbes8 Summit, all used in-house video platforms. Adobe specifically built a video platform within its Adobe Experience Manager solution, and the brand was able to integrate its own tech to give viewers a more focused experience.

“We added a recommendation engine based on our AI and machine-learning technology. Based on certain videos you watch or your behavior on the site, we recommend smarter things for you to watch next,” Amado said. “We didn’t see that being available on a lot of other platforms.”

Should you livestream or prerecord?

Digital summits and music festivals—including The Fader’s Digital Fort—have recently been rolled out as live events, but much of the content has been prerecorded. Belizario said the decision to do livestreams or offer prerecorded content should essentially be based on the speakers and the content.

“Unfortunately, not all speakers are the same. Some are great live, some are not. With a recorded session, you have greater ability to edit the content and up-level the content with audio or animation,” Belizario said. “Then again, some speakers thrive live and are better at riffing or interacting with the audience. It just depends on the speaker, as well as your editing capability and staff available.”

Brands looking to broadcast live may also need to develop contingency plans in case someone’s internet goes down. Amado said Adobe chose to go prerecorded for the digital summit because his team didn’t have enough time to build contingencies to be comfortable with livestreams—but he hopes to experiment more with livestreaming in the future.

“As we look at future virtual events—we’re planning several others—one of the things we’ll have back is a live component,” Amado said. “Having a live component brings energy into the storytelling.”

Home environments vs. professional backdrops?

Adobe CEO Shantanu Narayen delivered a keynote from his home for the digital conference.

By now, people are used to seeing celebrities’ homes, with late-night talk show hosts broadcasting from their living rooms and musicians performing at virtual music festivals from at-home studios.

Amado said the night before launching the digital experience, he was worried that viewers would be disappointed with speakers like Adobe CEO Shantanu Narayen delivering keynotes from their home environments. But based on consumer feedback so far, Amado said most viewers have enjoyed the vulnerability that comes with at-home presentations.

“We pride ourselves on the dramatic experiences we can deliver, with huge stages, graphics and music. But I learned that authenticity resonates,” he said. “There’s transparency in our senior-most executives telling stories from their living room. Embracing that, in this moment of everyone working from home, is a very comfortable thing to do.”

Forbes8 wasn’t as lax with its presentation style, but Walsh said this was because the brand wanted to show consistency across all of the presentations and kept its entrepreneur audience in mind.

“We kept it very professional, with a white background [for each speaker]. Everything was filmed consistently,” Walsh said. “We had a very streamlined process as far as how people looked, the lighting and how they presented.”

Facilitating and monitoring attendee interaction

Whether you choose to livestream or not, Walsh said some sort of real-time interaction should always be considered as a way to engage with attendees.

For the Forbes8 Summit, the event production team had each speaker monitor the #Forbes8Summit hashtag on Twitter to connect with viewers in real time and respond to their questions after each session. The event garnered 6 million impressions on the platform. Speakers were also able to chat with viewers within the app as well.

Belizario noted that agencies also need to rethink online engagement before, during and after event.

“Live events were about that moment in time and what’s delivered in that moment in time. With virtual, you need to think more holistically,” he said. “Agencies need to think about the lifecycle of the message and the content now. That’s going to be the new norm. The content is part of a continual conversation before, during and after.”

ian.zelaya@adweek.com Ian Zelaya is an Adweek reporter covering how brands engage with consumers in the modern world, ranging from experiential marketing and social media to email marketing and customer experience.