Alistair Croll’s Top Strategies for Running Virtual Conferences

Author, entrepreneur and public speaker Alistair Croll has produced world-class conferences, including O’Reilly Media’s Strata Data & AI Conference, UBM TechWeb’s Cloud Connect and Interop’s Enterprise Cloud Summit. In a wide-ranging, interactive Crowdcast presentation, Croll introduced 11 points to frame up how to produce an engaging virtual conference. His two overriding points are that you must discover where the true value of what you are trying to produce lies and, as an organizer, where you add value. He emphasized key areas such as community, design, interacting with multiple screens, content timeliness, effective use of video and more.

1. Community comes first. This was his most important point. “Time and space have been broken,” he said. Virtual events are not driven by a need to convene a crowd. Virtual events should be produced as part of an ongoing effort to support a community that has formed around a common interest. The virtual event is one of many tools that sustain and nurture a community.

2. Skeuomorphism, his new favorite word, is the design concept of making items linked to virtual functions resemble their real-world counterparts. Think of the ‘trash can’ on your screen. He makes the point that we should rethink, rather than reproduce, every aspect of a physical conference when designing a virtual conference. Not all activities and features of a physical conference are effective in a virtual conference.

3. Time and space have fundamentally changed. It makes no sense to have ‘parallel tracks’ in a virtual conference.

4. You have multiple screens to work with.  You can interact differently and target different types of content for phones, laptops and desktops.

5. Physical artifacts are memorable. In the time leading up to the event, sending supporting materials and swag from sponsors to your attendees will enhance the virtual conference experience.

6. Content timeliness. Content that is novel, transient and interactive is more engaging and valuable, both intellectually and dollar-wise, to attendees. Croll recommends looking into the Run The World toolset. Its features include a very useful sequence for connecting with the most interested attendees. Within Run The World, you can create a 45 second intro video that ends with the option to entering a ‘more info’ room. Once there, the attendee can watch a prerecorded 5 minute talk that ends with an option to connect for further information. The sequence generates self-identified ‘leads’ for more info, more community involvement and sales.

7. The attendee is always in the shopping cart. The attendee is always one click away from an action; whether it is asking a question, requesting more info or buying something.

8. Virtual can be better for sponsors than in-person. Virtual can eliminate barriers to attending, such as childcare and travel issues, and allow you to reach a broader and more diverse audience. This should be part of your sponsor-recruiting message.

9. Narrative slide decks are dead. Have few slides in your talk, but many slides of back-up material. A flexible and responsive presentation strategy makes every presentation a one-of-a-kind experience.

10. Every speaker is a duo or trio. When you are speaking you need people behind the scenes to fix technical issues, filter questions and provide you with attendee feedback in real time.

11. Video is the new normal. Build a trailer. Record the event, including speaker, slides and the chat stream. Create a highlight reel. Index the video stream with time queues to locate specific topics. Archive and access everything on Vimeo, YouTube, Box or some other established cloud storage resource. Do not solely entrust your content to the platforms you use. No one knows which ones will be in business a year from now.

Within the context of the 11 points, as the organizer of the event, you bring value in a number of ways by doing what the platforms and infrastructure cannot — adding subject matter knowledge and a human touch. You curate the presenters, attendees, and sponsors, and you establish the structure and ground rules for the community and the event. You keep bad actors out as well as keep a balance in the conversation by not allowing a few strong voices to dominate. You entertain, knowing that content must be entertaining in order to be heard. You chaperone, keeping everyone on time and on point.

Returning to #1 — Community comes first; how you charge for an event can enhance or harm your community-nurturing effort. The best situation is to have community support thru Patreon or some other crowdfunding mechanism, because it is a proactive message that individuals want to community to exist. Charging a fee or a subscription for the event pales in comparison.

Croll also offered a nice short list of speaker tips:

  • Have a good quality camera, LED light panel (or 2 or 3), and microphone.
  • Turn off all notifications on all of your apps and devices. Put your phone in silent mode.
  • Plug into an ethernet if at all possible to avoid Wi-Fi issues.
  • Think like a YouTube celebrity and look into the camera.
  • Do a screen test and tech run-thru before the event.

Finally, he shared a slide listing a few tools he has found particularly useful in his virtual conferencing activities:

  • Recording: Streamlabs for desktop, StreamYard for cloud
  • Individual talent: Run The World or Crowdcast for individuals
  • Multi-speaker webinar: ClickMeeting, BigMarker, Hopin, Zoom
  • Multi-track virtual: HeySummit, Swapcard, PheedLoop, Whova
  • Audience feedback: Slido, Glisser
  • Community: Tribe, Mighty Networks, Slack, Discord

You can learn more about Alistair Croll, his events, books and lectures, through his LinkedIn page and his Medium articles.