Why You Should Not Confuse Virtual Conferences with Webinars

Reverting Back to the Old Ways

Back in the day, it used to be much more difficult to convince someone to attend an online-only event. Now there’s hardly any way to avoid these meetings. Unfortunately, it is now also becoming increasingly apparent how more modern, alternative approaches of knowledge transfer are being overthrown again, even though online conferences have been focusing on more contemporary methods for years. In the virtual space, learning is suddenly starting to become a one-to-many affair again.

It might be some organizers‘ ways of approaching a virtual conference that is to blame for this development as they fail to pay attention to the following principles:

  • The more webinar content a virtual conference is made up of, the less appealing it will be for participants.
  • When attendees are required to use a mixture of many different tools, this will have a negative impact on a person’s conference experience.

What Exactly Is Wrong with Webinars?

Webinars (short for web seminars) aren’t a bad thing at all, actually. They’re centered around a specific topic and are usually hosted by one or two people who share their knowledge with an audience. This works well as an introduction and can provide a kind of guidance – comparable to a tutorial or workshop. The focus is always on teaching; attendees just need to watch and listen, and only have very limited options to actively participate.

When signing up for the webinar, they’re sometimes asked about their preferred topics the webinar should address, or there’s a little Q-&-A style section at the end but apart from that, the audience’s wants and needs are not being regarded as very important. Most webinars are rather anonymous and attendees don’t know who else is part of the audience which is also why webinars aren’t designed for real-time discussions.

Getting to know new people and reuniting with old friends, however, are two aspects that are essential for conference goers. More than half of the more than 200 organizers and participants we surveyed this spring told us that networking and exchanging ideas with old and new acquaintances are among the crucial elements every conference should have.

Conference participants want to talk to others but too often find themselves in a passive position in webinars where everything is limited to just consume the content they’re exposed to. Anyone who approaches knowledge transfer from a speaker-centered perspective, makes a huge mistake when organizing a virtual conference as it’ll always appear lifeless and incomplete without interaction options, or – to put it briefly – just not like a conference is supposed to feel like.

What Are the Strengths of Virtual Conferences?

Many webinars use typical tools for video conferencing such as Zoom or GoToWebinar. But since a conference usually contains a variety of formats, organizers may need to expand their tool collection to include other apps so that organizers and attendees are able to exchange files or work on a document together.

However, if using these tools requires a separate login and perhaps even asks for downloading and installing new software, it becomes increasingly demanding and inconvenient.

On the other hand. if you’re using a virtual conference platform that combines all of these tools, participants will no longer have to switch between applications or enter their login data several times – but they will become more involved in the conference by receiving contact suggestions based on their personal interests, for instance.

Much of what happens at on-site conferences can happen more by chance and outside the regular sessions: the conversation during the coffee break, the discussion about the talk people have just attended, the meeting with the sponsor who has an interesting job offer, etc. Such encounters simply do not happen during an online format that only consists of a series of webinars.

And even they’re bound to become monotonous because they don’t leave much room for variation and the setting will sooner or later feel repetitious. The fact that it’s impossible to delve deeper into the content only adds to that. But since it’s questions that are raised during talks or details discussed in sessions the ones that are more likely to be remembered, it helps when people are able to bring them up as a comment under the video. This way, participants can interact with the session’s material by adding their own thoughts and ideas, feeling less like a passive webinar experience.

Not Everything Is Wrong with Webinars

At the same time, webinars are typically very straightforward and therefore – as far as the topic is concerned, at least – can be used as a sort of guideline for the conference program. Webinar content often revolves around current issues people are experiencing during work or in their everyday lives. If organizers understand their needs, they can customize the program accordingly, and also add a mix of interactive items and formats to each session. These include, for example:

  • discussion rounds and panels
  • surveys
  • World Cafés and breakout sessions (many alternative conference models can be transferred to a virtual environment)
  • 1:1 chats
  • collaborative formats where participants work together on a virtual whiteboard
  • formats to incorporate sponsors and exhibitors, offer them customizable sponsor profiles and banners and let them share info materials and provide them with an opportunity to chat to conference goers
  • online coffee breaks
  • contact suggestions to speed up the process of getting to know each other and meet people with shared interests

All of these features combined will create an environment that makes participants feel like they’re part of a conference that integrates learning and networking and thus offers an experience that is very close to an on-site conference.

If your virtual conference’s schedule contains some webinars, it won’t harm the overall impression. They should, however, not make up the majority of the program and organizers need to make sure there’s always an opportunity for participants to follow up on the discussions or to interrupt the somewhat inflexible webinar format by adding comments or raising questions.

Even though webinar attendees usually come out of a webinar with a better understanding of how something works, it’s the conference that provides a collaborative (learning) experience as an extra.