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How to Organize a Virtual Conference for $300

Updated: Sep 5, 2020

When COVID-19 hit, the Startup Boston team quickly pivoted to the virtual event space. Within 10 days of the quarantine being put into effect in Massachusetts, Startup Boston hosted our first online event.

Since then, we’ve hosted quite a few online events–including a full-day marketing conference comprised of nine unique events. Over the past few months, I’ve received a lot of questions from organizations and event leaders asking for insights into what does (and doesn’t) work.

Here is what we have learned.

Create great content and the people will come

I understand that you all know that attendees care about the content. But stick with me for a moment. In my experience, the big difference between planning an in-person or an online event is that people aren’t showing up expecting to network with others. They are showing up with the sole intention of learning something new. They are trusting you with their time and demanding high-quality content.

The event circuit is littered with organizations that seem to believe that simply having a big-name speaker—or a high-level panel—will attract crowds to their event.

You can get away with this in the in-person event world because people will come to that event with a focus on networking. If the content kills, that’s a bonus. But if not, they still met people, expanded their network, and walked away knowing that time was well spent.

In an online setting, people are only showing up for content. In a world where the majority of workers are sitting in front of our computers all day, logging onto the next Zoom meeting, the allure of another Zoom call is questionable. Now we, want people to join us for an online event, too. If you want to earn their screen time, that content better be incredible—and the audience should learn tactics that they can implement immediately after.

How has this changed our approach at Startup Boston?

We went from measuring the number of people who came to the event to clocking the amount of time people stayed online with us to deem that event a success. When attendees stick with us until the end and are engaged in the chat, we know we have created a great event.

In May 2020, we organized our one-day conference, the Marketing on a Budget Bootcamp. For this conference, we held eight presentations and one networking event. I’m proud to say that all of the people who attended those eight presentations (and we had over 600 people sign-up for this one day conference) stayed on with us THE ENTIRE TIME.

Why did they stick around? I believe it was because our content was highly targeted and actionable. We weren’t presenting high-level concepts like the “top marketing trends to watch out for.” Instead, we shared How to Create Engaging Social Media Content, How To Do Paid Digital Ads, and Crafting the Best SEO Strategy for Your Startup.

We answered the actual questions people had. And respected their time enough to create content that lived up to the event’s expectations.

What does it cost?

If you’re working with an agency that recruits speakers, then it’s going to cost you money. In Startup Boston’s case, we’re a not-for-profit family focused on giving back to the startup community, so our speakers come with the same “give-first” attitude we do.

If you’re a company that is organizing a conference and looking for local talent to speak at the event, think about what you can give speakers in return. It doesn’t need to cost money—oftentimes this can be in the form of promoting a product or service they’re offering.

Use a Bit of Marketing Muscle

Great content alone won’t draw people to your event.

I wrote an article on building an in-person conference on a shoestring budget, where I tackled this question. I’d strongly recommend checking it out since a lot of it still applies to the virtual space. But, I do have some additional insight based on lessons learned in these past few months.

If you have a low budget for your event–meaning you don’t have the muscle to spend on social and digital advertisement (and we didn’t)—then it’s super important to find marketing partners who have the same audience you’re creating the events for.

Marketing partnerships are a bit different than sponsors. Sponsors are the service providers who want to get in touch with your audience. Marketing partners are people and organizations that share common interests with your organization and are actively serving the same or a similar audience.

Here’s an example of how this would work if you’re a marketing tech company that has created a marketplace that connects brands to writers that created the “Marketing on a Budget Bootcamp.” In this situation, a potential sponsor might be HubSpot, because they have a CMS they’d like to sell to the marketing managers you work with. A potential partner in this situation might be Boston Content because they’ve created a meetup group of marketers that want to tackle the marketing problems and questions you have.

Marketing partnerships work best when the two organizations can create a win-win scenario. In this example, Boston Content may promote your event to their audience and, to support them in return, you can add their logo to your conference’s website or share a few social media shout-outs to promote their future events.

What does this cost?

This cost zero dollars. It just takes time to build these relationships.

I spent the past four years building my network, and we now have 30 people on the Startup Boston team. While their contributions are all volunteer-based, I easily put in at least 30 hours a week and each of those 30 volunteers contributes based on what their time and commitments will allow. Don’t expect to build lasting relationships overnight. This takes time. And isn’t necessarily something you can put a price tag on.

Figure Out Your Tech Stack

When we organized the Marketing on a Budget Bootcamp, we did it to figure out what would and wouldn’t work – so we could confidently announce that Startup Boston Week was going virtual in September.

Here is the tech we used for the event:

  • One Zoom Webinar subscription for all eight presentations—$150

  • One Remo Pro subscription for the networking event—$125 (it used to be lower when our conference took place)

What does this cost?

Our one-day conference cost us $275 to organize. This was the only thing we spent money on.

Consider Online Attention Spans

Our marketing conference went from 9 am to 6 pm EDT on a Wednesday. Based on this experience, I learned that our audience either had the attention span to both stay interactive and online for 5 hours, or our audience preferred to attend events earlier in the day than later.

Our first 5 sessions were a LOT more popular -- we have hosted evening events that were a success, so for me, this lesson means that most people are willing to give you 5 hours of their time for good content, but not much more. The people who did sign-on for the rest of our sessions STILL stayed online for the session’s entire duration, but there was a very direct drop-off at 2 pm. We will have to test this more to understand the real implications, but we hypothesize that events should be less than five hours, or that they should happen earlier in the day.

For Startup Boston Week (which is a free, five-day conference), we’re addressing this problem by breaking our schedule into “Morning” and “Afternoon” sessions. And we have broken each event track (what we can our event categories/ topics) into two days – rather than a full-day for each track, as we did for our in-person editions.

This is an example of what I mean: if the Customer Success track was typically all-day on Thursday, then during our virtual edition, we’re scheduling Customer Success events to occur on both Tuesday and Wednesday mornings. We hope that this will reduce potential event fatigue and allow more people to attend.

The lunch hour and after work sessions are the most popular, right? Wrong.

In the in-person world, after-work events were king. You’d start an event at 6:30 and people located both near and further away from the venue would come out.

I will say this: you CAN still get away with a lunch-hour event. But anything longer than an hour during the workday won’t work.

An example: we hosted an event from 12-1:30 in June. Our session was strong from 12-1, but people immediately dropped at 1 pm, and a few stragglers remained for the last 30 minutes.

I would also strongly encourage organizing events first-thing in the morning.

Why is morning attendance stronger than afternoon attendance? My best guess is that people have finished going through most of their inbox, have finished getting the kids ready for school or daycare, AND haven’t experienced the screen fatigue that they often feel in the late afternoon. So, at 9 am they’re ready to start learning.

If you want to do an after-work event, you can, but I’d highly recommend making it invite-only. This way you: (1) know people are going to show and (2) can generate a more intimate discussion, which people WANT to give you the time for. An intimate discussion becomes worth it after work. It’s not another “passive listening” event.

Support Attendees in Networking

Doing this is a lot harder than at an in-person event. 100%. Way harder. For in-person events, people usually mingle themselves. For online events, you—the organizer—are responsible for making this magic happen.

If you make this a priority going into the planning of your event, the attendees will appreciate it(even if you do fall flat on your face, like I did my first time around).

Here are some ways I’ve been successful in supporting networking and connections for virtual events:

  • Utilize the chat window in your Zoom webinar to fuel discussions

  • Have attendees “dial-in” to your presentation to ask questions (think: radio guest, you can find a few examples throughout our Marketing on a Budget Bootcamp)

  • Create a Slack group to complement your conference

  • Polling attendees during the event (check out for a range of options)

I hope this helps! Planning virtual events is a lot harder than in-person ones, in my opinion.

But truth be told, I’m a huge homebody, so I feel like this is becoming my jam now that I’ve been thrown into it.

If you have ideas or questions, feel free to share in the comments below or tweet at me at @stephroulic!


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