Novel coronavirus (COVID-19) has left conference organizers and event planners around the world in a tough spot. But there’s hope for organizations that have had to shutter events in 2020: the show can go on as a virtual conference. In this post, we walk through three different ways to set up your virtual conference so you can bring people together safely.
Three virtual conference configurations
Which virtual conference setup makes the most sense depends on your existing video infrastructure and how much time you have to deploy new hardware and platforms.
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1. Shift to a virtual conference quickly
The big advantage of this approach is that you likely already have everything you need: a built-in or external webcam and a corporate YouTube or Facebook account.
Set up is also very simple. If your webcam is external, connect it to a free USB port on your laptop or desktop computer. Then, boot up a free live streaming platform like YouTube Live or Facebook Live, configure your stream (taking advantage of the privacy settings these platforms offer if you’d like to limit who can join) and select your webcam as the video source. You can also record your virtual conference content and upload it to your preferred video platform after.
The downside is that the quality of your video and audio won’t be what it could be. But of course, some organizations may not have time to roll out professional AV equipment to save their event. If that’s you, this approach is still a surefire way to deliver an event virtually to your audience.
2. Make your virtual conference look great
Webcams are simple to use, but their video quality leaves something to be desired. Through a USB capture card, you can use a DSLR, mirrorless camera, or camcorder with your laptop or computer to enhance the look of your virtual conference.
Configuration doesn’t differ much from using a webcam: just connect the capture card to a free USB port and your camera to the other end of the card. Then your virtual conferencing software will recognize the camera as if it were a plug-and-play webcam.
3. Turn your virtual event into a professional production
With the right equipment, you can take your virtual conference even further by making it a multi-camera shoot with custom, picture-in-picture layouts and other advanced features.
This kind of setup requires additional gear like a video switcher, streamer, and scaler. Some video encoding hardware include this functionality in one box – and offer many other benefits for video production.
A hardware encoder is a device purpose-built for video streaming, capturing, recording – or all three. As dedicated appliances, hardware encoders often perform better than software encoders (i.e., the program you use on your computer to stream or record). That’s because software encoders have to share resources with your operating system and any active processes.
Hardware encoders usually support multiple video inputs and a variety of connectors, broadening your options beyond webcams to DSLRs, camcorders, and other high-end video equipment. Some video encoder hardware, like our Pearl-2 and Pearl Mini, include professional audio inputs as well. These features greatly simplify setup by letting you directly connect HDMI and SDI camera equipment and professional XLR or TRS microphones.
Depending on the virtual conference platform or virtual conference software you’re using, you may need to include a USB capture card in your setup so you can bring in the video signal from your hardware encoder. This will enable live switching, custom layouts, and other hardware-specific functionality.
Everything else your virtual conference will need
Starting from scratch with your virtual event? Here’s what else you’ll need besides AV hardware and software.
An attractive agenda
Especially in front of their computer screens, people’s attention can waver. Come up with a compelling theme for your conference that will hold your audience’s attention. Once you’ve landed on a suitable topic, start hunting for guest speakers who are authorities on some aspect of it. Your business networks and social platforms like Twitter and LinkedIn are good places to start.
Above all, you want your conference content to be dynamic and engaging enough to grab your audience and hold their interest. The same principles for planning a webinar apply here.
Virtual conferencing software or a virtual conferencing platform
There are lots of different tools that can support a virtual conference – whether it’s a webinar application like ON24, a purpose-built solution like vConferenceOnline, video conferencing software like Zoom, a private content delivery network (CDN) such as Vimeo, or even a free platforms like YouTube or Facebook. Take your pick based on what will support your overall virtual conference plan. For example, if you’d like to charge a fee for access, make sure whatever platform you use includes a paywall or monetization system.
The right marketing tools
You could have the most captivating conference agenda on the planet, but no one will show if you don’t get the word out. Use what tools you do have to your advantage – the company website, mailing lists, social media pages, etc. – and consider adding new ones to your arsenal. Craft targeted ads for Facebook or Google. Build a website or microsite that presents the theme, conference agenda, speaker bios, and other information to generate interest. Shoot and share a short video that gives people an idea of what they’re in for if they attend.
Robust email automation
Event registrants often like to be reminded that the date is coming up. It’s also a good marketing move to communicate with registrants afterward – to share a link to the VOD version (free or otherwise), to remind of a product or service showcased during the conference, etc. You’ll want a service like ActiveCampaign, ConverKit, or Campaign Monitor to automate these communications.
A virtual conference with high production value will reflect well on your company and keep people engaged. Viewers aren’t likely to stick around if your video and audio quality are poor. Ensure you have the right tech to give your conference a professional feel. That means a high-quality camera, a good microphone, proper lighting, and a great looking set. You can buy or rent this gear and set it up yourself, or call in an AV production company to do it all for you.
If you really want to wow virtual conference-goers, you can take it even further with a multi-camera shoot along with custom, picture-in-picture layouts, and other advanced features. This kind of setup would require additional gear such as a video switcher, streamer, and scaler. (Our Pearl hardware encoders, the Pearl Mini and Pearl-2, include all of these in a single appliance.)
The virtual conference: A tried-and-true format for your event
Though the idea of virtual conferences has gained prominence in 2020, the concept has been around for awhile. Here are just a few examples of virtual conferences from the past:
- Video technology company Kaltura saw the potential way back in 2012, when it hosted the first Kaltura Education Video Summit. Thousands virtually attended or downloaded a recording of the event, which included speeches by leaders in the education, learning, and training sectors.
- In April 2018, Drip hosted its second Au+oma+ed virtual conference, which featured a slate of 14 ecommerce experts and attracted more than 20,000 registrants.
- Also in 2018, during August, Wistia hosted CouchCon, a virtual event made up of a live keynote and pre-recorded speeches by marketing experts from LinkedIn, TechSmith, Buffer, and others. Nearly 1,700 attendees from around the world virtually sat in on CouchCon 2018.
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Benefits of virtual conferences
Even outside of these exceptional circumstances, hosting a virtual conference makes sense. Here are five reasons why:
1. Cut costs
Virtual conferences tend to cost much less than in-person ones. That’s because going virtual does away with a lot of the many expenses associated with traditional conferences. Venue rental fees alone run anywhere from $500 to $20,000. Add in fees for permits and licenses, catered meals, Wi-Fi access, travel and accommodations, signage and other physical collateral, and you’re looking at an enormous spend – and high ticket prices to make up for it.
None of that’s to say hosting a successful virtual conference is not without expenses. Up front, your company will probably have to invest in (or rent) new technology, tools, and services to make it possible. But all that would still cost less than bringing everyone together under one roof. You’re also then set up to host more virtual conferences later. Any gear you buy might also come in handy for webinars and other live video work.
2. Reach way more people
When your conference is virtual, attendance isn’t limited by the size of a venue or who can afford to make it out. That’s partly what’s behind the big numbers that Kaltura, Wistia, and Drip pulled with their events. People can tune in from anywhere in the world – at home, in the office, or on the go – and at any time, if the event is recorded and made available on-demand.
You can charge a fee to download the video-on-demand (VOD) version or make it free to watch. Both options have their advantages. The free route can get even more eyes on your content because then viewers can easily share it online.
It’s also worth noting that going virtual won’t rule out one of the biggest selling points for a lot of conference attendees: networking. Platforms like ON24 and Zoom make it possible to set up virtual networking and breakout rooms for participants to use throughout the event. Some solutions even support virtual exhibit halls, where attendees can learn about products and services and chat with vendors.
3. Bring in experts from anywhere
It’s much easier to pitch your conference to potential guest speakers when they can contribute content conveniently from their home or office. Otherwise, speaking at a conference can be a tall order since it means making time to get there and be there.
There are a couple of ways you can treat the speeches at your virtual conference. You can live stream them like Drip did with its keynote. This may make sense for speakers who are part of your company or live nearby. But what a lot of companies do is have each speaker pre-record their talk with a tool like Windows Camera or QuickTime. Then it’s just a matter of reviewing and editing the content and casting it during the conference
Speakers who can’t attend your virtual conference won’t be able to answer attendee questions after their presentations. In any case, your event still benefits from their perspective and expertise, which might have been unavailable had they needed to physically be there.
4. Make money
Virtual conferences offer many of the same opportunities to earn revenue as in-person ones – attendance fees, sponsorships, and so on. When it comes to a virtual conference, you can charge people to access the live stream or download the video-on-demand (VOD) version afterward. Alternatively, you can make it free to potentially draw a bigger crowd for upselling and lead generation.
During an event put on by the Genius Network in 2017, CEG Worldwide founder and CEO John Bowen shared just how profitable virtual conferences can be based on his experience throwing three separate events ones. With very little marketing, 10% of the 2,600 who showed up bought packages worth $100. The events collectively brought in $500,000 for Bowen’s firm, and helped sell coaching programs and attract investors. Results like these are enough to make any business take note.
5. Gather data and leads
Virtual conference platforms can often tell you a lot about conference-goers: which sessions they attended and for how long, which booths they interacted with in the virtual exhibition hall, and more. This kind of insight is invaluable for developing targeted content and for making your next virtual conference even more successful. Asking registrants to opt-in to email blasts or requiring an email to access the VOD version can also be effective for lead generation.
Make your virtual conference something to behold
Epiphan Pearl hardware encoders are the perfect video streaming and recording solutions for virtual conferences. Pearls feature a unique, built-in touchscreen for live switching, confidence monitoring, custom layout selection, and more, along with multiple video and professional audio inputs.