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Online Conferences: Solving the “Social” Puzzle
How can online event organizers recreate the networking and social components that make up an essential part of the in-person conference experience? This is one of the central challenges faced by organizers looking to move their events from onsite to online.
When it comes to moving conference plans online, the first instinct can be to use a webinar model: by using web conferencing software capable of hosting large audiences, organizers can satisfy their requirement of communicating information (keynote addresses, speaker panels, etc.) to a large audience. These webinars may even be able to reach a larger audience than would be able to attend an in-person event.
Source: Virtual Event Platforms at SoftwareReviews.com
Despite their merits and suitedness for many information dissemination use cases, online webinars are not always capable of producing a deeply interactive networking experience beyond a Q&A feature. As a result, online conference organizers face the task of re-imagining the social experience of a conference, which can be broken down into three aspects:
- Personal/professional investment: Conference attendees are often engaged in professional development. Attending a conference is an act of reputation management and professional self-definition. Participants are not simply attending to consume information quietly: they are making an investment of time and energy toward how they want to be perceived by their peers. A successful online conference will reinforce the participants’ sense that their professional identity is visible to other attendees and also validated and boosted by their participation.
- Serendipity: Any conference must be planned carefully to be successful. However, putting on a conference is like any live event: you never know what will happen or what attendees will discover as they navigate the conference environment. Though this quality of the “unknown” can increase the stress of the organizers, it is also the ingredient that makes conferences exciting and gives attendees the sense that the event is a site of discovery and exploration. Integrating the opportunity for attendees to experience the unexpected will therefore be important for online conferences.
- Meaningful connection: Regular conference attendees are likely to recall the delight of reuniting with distant colleagues and friends and to cherish the new professional and personal connections forged at these events. Online conferences will thus need to ensure social interaction is seamless instead of awkward or tedious – these interactions can’t feel like obligations or remind attendees of the bad kind of work meetings.
Virtual event platforms are attempting to broach these challenges by creating chat environments for casual social interaction, facilitating gamification, and matching up attendees for networking and one-on-one meetings, for example. The next step is to see which types of social interaction features are taken up most enthusiastically by users and become part of their baseline expectations for future online conferences.
Some virtual event platforms, such as vFairs, can represent a client’s online event as a 3D environment that replicates familiar sights, such as a convention center lobby populated by static or moving people. Users can click on auditoriums, information booths, or exhibitor hall booths to navigate the virtual space of their online conference. Does mimicking the appearance of an in-person conference add value to an online conference?
COVID-19 has left conference conveners with essentially three options: cancel, reschedule, or go online.