The 6 Biggest Pitfalls of Virtual Conferences and How to Avoid Them

We, too, got to know numerous solutions and are now talking to (potential) clients about their experiences and expectations on a daily basis. The Converia Virtual Venue platform we’re developing strives to close this gap. At this point, we’d like to take a look at some inefficient practices we’ve encountered over the last months and the alternative approaches we recommend to organizers to improve the attendee experience.

1. Using a Different Tool for Every Part of the Conference

A positive conference experience is made up of various partial aspects such as talks, Q&A sessions with participants and speakers, poster exhibitions, sponsor presentations, networking, and break-time entertainment that, among many others, contribute to an all-around successful event – and that is also true for the ones taking place in the virtual space. Some of our customers told us that organizers of virtual congresses have pointed them in the direction of several tools, one for each of these aspects: Participant registration data was collected via a separate registration tool while presentations and sessions took place over Zoom, WebEx, or GoToWebinar. For coffee breaks, attendees had to use Slack, Twitter or Facebook, and poster sessions were held on Instagram.

While the organizers who took on the task of planning and going ahead with their first virtual conferences during lockdown of course deserve praise for coming up with all these creative solutions, the experimental approaches themselves can only be considered emergency solutions in the long run. The unanimous feedback we received from people who attended these events was that they began to lose interest after about an hour of browsing around the virtual environment. The participant experience suffered considerably from the high degree of improvisation.

We therefore recommend a virtual conference solution that combines as many aspects as possible so you’ll only need one single platform. That way, you’ll eliminate unnecessary predetermined breaking points. A recent survey we conducted among hundreds of conference participants and organizers revealed that technical stability and smooth processing are a top priority for everyone involved. If you’re able to fit every aspect of your conference into one solution, you’ll lay the foundations for both.

2. Not Adapting the Program to Fit the Virtual Surroundings

Whenever there’s not much time for in-depth considerations, the most obvious approach is to avoid major changes to the conference schedule. You’ll just leave it as it is, even if the conference switches to a virtual format. You want to stick to the schedule, regardless of the fact you’re no longer organizing an in-person event. However, if you take some time to think about it, it will soon become obvious that this isn’t a very reasonable approach.

Virtual conferences differ fundamentally from on-site events as the following points will show. You need to customize your virtual schedule to provide your participants with the best possible virtual conference experience:

  • Sitting in front of a screen all day causes fatigue: While an eight-hour day might be the norm for in-person meetings, the same amount of hours is extremely demanding if the meeting is held online. Consider whether it’s possible to stagger your virtual program. Instead of trying to cram as many activities into as few days as possible, extend the amount of conference days so that each day consists of a manageable portion of items on the agenda and participants can watch the talks and sessions on demand.
  • Virtual attention spans are shorter than during in-person meetings. While it would be considered rude in a non-virtual environment to make a quick phone call or to leave your seat every few minutes to check whether there’s a more interesting session going on in another room, it’s true that a conventional on-site presentation offers an almost distraction-free environment. There are far more potential distractions lurking when you take part while sitting in front of your screen: Nobody will notice when an attendee talks to a family member or a colleague while the moderately exciting presentation continues in the background. A person could even manage their email correspondence or just switch to another session without disturbing anyone. That’s why you should offer smaller program pieces that put less strain on the “attention muscles” and make sure the dramaturgy of each presentation keeps attendees engaged and makes them want to stay tuned.
  • During international virtual conferences, attendees are hailing from different time zones. An 11 a.m. Berlin keynote address may collide with the 6 p.m. family dinner in Tokyo and makes for a shorter night in San Francisco when people find themselves in front of their computers at 2 in the morning when attending an European conference. Always consider whether each session needs to be live or whether presentations can also be available on demand. Interactions that would normally have taken place on-site – such as Q&A sessions – could also be extended over one or two days. This results in another advantage: Participants have more time to get involved. Good questions easily arise when you’ve had a bit of time to think about the content. If everything is live, there’s no room left for a thorough discussion because everyone has already moved on. People often tend to be more interested in discussing the current session than in the one they saw (and commented on) the previous day. Our Converia Virtual Venue therefore offers suitable solutions for these situations.
  • When we surveyed hundreds of conference-goers, we learned that they consider the absence of travel costs and time spent on the road as well as being able to take part in the conference at their own pace to be the biggest advantages. At the same time, people won’t necessarily have to take time off work which is why they‘re more open to participate in more virtual conferences compared to in-person meetings. Whenever you try to squeeze the program of your on-site conference into a virtual setup, this benefit gets lost and inhibits the virtual conference from developing into its full potential.
  • Parallel sessions might be necessary at in-person conferences, but not in the virtual event space which is why you should reduce their number for your online conference. As an organizer for an on-site event, you usually book a venue and are allowed to use its rooms for a few days. Your participants, on the other hand, are able to escape their daily obligations for a while but will inevitably have to leave again at some point. There are no such limiting constraints for virtual conferences. If you want to extend your virtual conference over two weeks instead of the two days you were initially going for, there’ll be little difference when it comes to your expenses. However, for attendees it means they no longer have to decide against 19 potentially interesting sessions if 20 sessions will take place at the same time. Clever and generous scheduling will add significant value to your virtual conference in that respect compared to in-person events.
  • Technical problems are much more likely to occur at virtual conferences. On-site, you can usually rely on technology provided by professionals. That’s a little different when you go virtual where hundreds of different systems and devices are connected – including thousands of pre-programmed predetermined breaking points: There might be an unstable network connection on the participants‘ or speakers‘ end, their OS might cause glitches, their camera or microphone might not play along, the video or audio quality might be modest at best, or the cat sitting on the keyboard might cause some more delays among other unexpected things. While it’s always good to play it safe by using platforms and concepts that minimize these risks, we recommend including buffers in your schedule to accommodate for possible delays caused by unexpected technical difficulties on an attendee’s end that may arise.

3.  The Virtual Conference Is Considered a Mere String of Presentations

At first glance, it seems obvious to many to think of a conference as nothing but a fixed sequence of talks and presentations. This, however, only covers one portion of what participants want from a conference. The survey we conducted showed that networking is essential to a significant number of attendees who stated that getting to know new people and meeting friends and acquaintances is just as important as an intriguing content. Many of the organizers we’ve spoken to in recent weeks and months couldn’t imagine how new connections can be established in a virtual space where casual conversations between people sitting next to each other or running into each other during lunch break don’t happen. Our Converia Virtual Venue therefore adapts other approaches that strive to provide more value than any random encounter with questionable long-term benefits could. Instead of randomly suggesting other conference attendees to a person, our solution intends to establish meaningful connections and suggests people who are willing to network and share similar interests. 

4. Virtual Conferencing Tools Are Used without Paying Attention to Data Protection

There are several interesting tools out there if you’re looking for virtual conference solutions. According to many of our clients, they didn’t take into account that many of these tools fail to comply with European data protection standards or are only allowed to handle personal data when there’s a detailed privacy policy, which was mainly due to planners being inexperienced with virtual conferences but in need of a virtual platform. Even if the security aspect seems neglectable when looking for a pragmatic stopgap solution: Always pay extra attention to data protection! Participants will be grateful for a secure handling of their personal data and you’ll not run into expensive problems with authorities responsible for monitoring data privacy.

5. Virtual Conference Tickets Are Offered at a Very Cheap Price

Many organizers drastically reduce the ticket prices or even offer unlimited access to their virtual conference for free because they fear that the virtual alternative to their in-person event might be deemed inferior. From a psychological-pricing perspective, the statement behind such measures is somewhat dangerous: “We are sorry. Our event is now worth much less or worth nothing at all. Nothing particularly interesting awaits you. It would be nice if you could drop by anyway.” As an organizer, you may feel compelled to act like this if you’re accepting all the pitfalls mentioned in this article and don’t showcase the many valuable benefits virtual events have in store for everyone.

If you, however, focus how you can get more out of your virtual conference, there’s no need for you to significantly lower your prices because participants will receive value in exchange. In addition, even if you don’t have the perfect concept for your virtual conference, the majority of people attending are still willing to pay 50% or more of the original on-site ticket price as our survey among several hundred conference-goers has shown. Never sell your conference short! Even if you don’t have to pay for a venue anymore, new expenses will emerge which are not to be underestimated. Participants will also save a significant amount of money as they won’t have to pay for travel and accommodation.

6. Creating a 3D Virtual Conference World

Every now and again, we encounter solutions attempting to create a virtual 3D model of real event venues. This looks like a nice idea at first, but proves to be ineffective and sometimes even scary if you take a closer look. As an attendee, you’ll cross empty virtual parking lots and pass deserted bus stops on your way to an empty reception hall where a virtual receptionist behind a counter is the only one to welcome you. As you walk around the empty exhibition hall, you‘ll find perfectly 3D-modelled exhibition stands that are either unstaffed or equipped with a virtual cardboard-like character – but only if you’ve figured out how navigate the 3D venue using your mouse and keyboard.

The desperate attempt to create a virtual world from an on-site event sometimes spawns downright bizarre virtual environments. These 3D worlds come with so many frills that are mostly good at distracting you from the things a virtual congress should be about. Virtual events benefit from the fact they are no longer confined to the structures of a building and rooms with a limited capacity, because sometimes, attendees have a hard time finding their way around a real venue – why recreate such limitations in the virtual space? Besides, using 3D avatars isn’t an ideal way to start a meaningful conversation between people – which is also why Second Life was nothing more than a flash in the pan. A better way would be to try and make the most of the digital benefits, so you’ll be able to transfer an event’s essence to a virtual environment. If organizers solely focus on recreating their conference’s facade instead, the event’s essence will eventually get lost.

I really hope this article gives you something to think about when planning your virtual conference. Our Converia Virtual Venue platform strives to offer better solutions in this regard and wants to enable you to organize virtual events that are not only good but in many respects even better than their in-person counterparts.