3 Questions to Ask Before Organizing an Online Conference

Default Effect, Plan Continuation Bias, and Sunk Cost Fallacy walk into a bar during COVID-19. They organize an online conference.

Considering how chaotic life can feel right now, it's understandable that conference organizers might want to cling to some sense of normalcy by doing a lift and shift of their in-person event into one that's virtual and online. The familiarity of "business as usual" can be comforting, but is it effective? Or, are conference organizers doing a disservice to both their audience and their own organization by following a now-outdated playbook?

Many people have told me lately that online conferences aren't meeting their needs as attendees and that, from here on out, they'll likely give them a miss. It's simply no longer worth their time to attend if they can't network adequately, or if they can get the same learning experience from videos online.

Chaos = Opportunity

While there's definitely dissatisfaction and chaos right now, there's also opportunity. Rather than operating on autopilot, conference organizers have the chance to rethink and reboot their existing event to serve their community better, start new events laser-focused on community needs, or cancel an event that's been plodding along like a zombie without providing any real value to the community. 

There are three steps to this process:

1. Why are we having this event?

As organizers, ask "Why are we having this event? How does it benefit us? What do we get out of it?" As organizers, you get to define who is meant by "us" and "we." Is it the organizing committee? The community? Only you as organizers can know for sure, and only you as organizers can answer the existential question of why you're having the event in the first place. 

Some events are meant to bring a community together, others hope to train people in the latest advances in the project, and still others aim to raise money to support ongoing project programs. It's important to be honest and clear about the intentions for your event, and for all of the organizers to understand and agree on those intentions.

2. Why does our audience show up? 

Next, you need to ask, “What is our audience hoping to get out of this event?” This is something that many organizers take for granted, assuming they know why their audience would want to attend the event. Unfortunately, it's easy for organizers to get so wrapped up in planning and managing an event that they lose sight of the audience for whom they're doing the work in the first place. 
Instead of assuming you know why people might attend, ask them. Throw together a quick survey and send it to your community and potential audience members. If possible, make the survey flexible, using free text fields for longer-form answers rather than forcing the respondents to select one of your pre-chosen assumptions.

3. How can we meet both of those needs?

Finally, you can take the answers gathered in the first two steps and see whether it's possible to create an online experience that meets the needs of both the organization and the audience. 

This process may be tricky, and it may force you, as organizers, to face some uncomfortable truths if the needs of the audience don't match well with the needs of the organization. However, it's better to know that now and adjust everyone's expectations than to continue doing the wrong things and meeting no one's needs. Whenever possible, try to defer to the needs of the audience when those needs are in conflict with those of the organization. After all, without the audience there isn't any call for an event at all, is there?

Rethink and Reboot

Whatever else you do, at least take the time to consider these questions. Stop going through the motions with your conference and make an effort to ensure that it meets the needs of the organization and provides value to the audience. 

Remember, "because we've always done it this way" is one of the most dangerous phrases in the English language. You have an opportunity to iterate your event so it can evolve and grow. Take it.