What We Learned Hosting a Fully Virtual Summit for 1,300+ People

Last week our team brought together over 1,300 of the world's top community builders from organizations like Twilio, Reddit, Zendesk, YCombinator, and On Deck, for a two-day, fully-virtual event.

Numerous people have since reached out and asked us what we did to make the event such a success. While it's always challenging to look back and precisely pinpoint why something went well – especially when many factors are at play – we are excited to share the following collection of thoughts and processes that we believe positively impacted our virtual summit.

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First, some numbers:

We had 1,342 total RSVPs, of which 1,258 attended (93.7%!)

Hosted 40 speakers across 26 different sessions, generating 13 total hours of live content

906 one-on-one connections were made via networking sessions

And we put the event together on a shoestring budget, with just 3 team members running the entire thing!

Start With the End Goal

Never begin by picking a platform or what tools you're going to use. First decide the purpose of the event and what the end goal is for your attendees. And before you commit to hosting a large-scale virtual event, you should first determine if there is a large enough need for people to gather.

Are you simply trying to convey information? Maybe a live virtual conference isn't necessary. Perhaps a different medium will better suit your goal. We've seen countless virtual summits, conferences and events over the past 3 months that would have been better served as a long form blog posts or pre-recorded videos – and lackluster attendance rates and reviews have certainly indicated as such.

Our goal was to provide an interactive experience that allowed our viewers to both learn, and also connect with other community builders. And the spectrum of 'community building' is a big one – with many steps involved in creating a successful community, many types of organizations building communities, and many forms of 'community builders' – from indie hobbyists and influencers to B2B professionals. After aligning on our goal, we selected the following stack of tools to make the event happen:

Hopin – our core event platform where the live event happened, also handled RSVPs

Airtable – forms and tables for collecting speaker info

Notion – planning and storing logistical info, and to-do's

MailChimp – email reminders leading up to the event

Icebreaker – 1:1 video matching for the VIP networking session

Slack – facilitating community discussion and chatting with team during the event

Commsor – automating member on-boarding and managing community member data

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A live summit panel discussion on the Hopin platform

Plan, Plan and Then Plan Some More

The number one thing that we did that led to a successful event was over planning. Hosting a two day virtual event with 40 speakers requires a lot of work, and you want to account for as many expected and unexpected things as possible.

In the weeks leading up to the event we were in constant contact with our speakers, making sure they understood exactly what was expected of them and providing them with a speaker guide. You can find the speaker guide here. While it's specific to the platform we used, Hopin, you are free to use this as a starting point for your own speaker guide!

In addition to the speaker guide, we also asked each speaker for their mobile phone number, in case we had to get in touch with them quickly. We ended up making use of this multiple times throughout the event, both to make sure speakers showed up on time, and to help a few work through technical issues they were experiencing.

In addition to the information we provided our speakers, our team also ran multiple test events before the real thing. This allowed everyone on the team to learn and understand the nuances of platform we were using, while also discovering a few quirks and rough edges that we had to plan around.

Have a Backup Plan

We had absolutely zero backup plan in the case of technical difficulties or a speaker not showing up. There was only one instance where a speaker wasn't able to start on time due to a thunderstorm knocking her power out, but luckily that session had originally been planned with two speakers anyways. Shout to Community Management Veteran Brian Oblinger for carrying through and still delivering a great Q&A session for the viewers!

Ironically, their session was supposed to be a live podcast about 'community fails,' so it couldn't have been more fitting that it had some major hiccups! Check out the episode on Spotify here!

We'd highly recommend having a backup speaker, or an emcee, ready to jump in to keep viewers engaged in the case of technical or human difficulties. At future events we might not be so lucky to avoid unforeseen issues!

Set Specific Roles for Each Teammate

We ran this entire event with a small team of three — Jacob, Cole and myself.  I primarily focused on the current speakers, the timing, and getting the next speaker live on time, while driving engagement via the chat and polls.

You likely saw Jacob in a number of sessions, as he held the role of emcee, moderating our fireside chats and panels. In addition to this, he made sure that speakers showed up to the virtual backstage at least 15 minutes before their scheduled time. Cole assisted Jacob with the speakers, while also finding quotes and snippets to share on Twitter, drawing new viewers into the event.

These clearcut roles allowed us to keep things manageable, enabling each of us to 'specialize' and focus on keeping our part running smoothly.

Rethink the 'Webinar'

Very few people actually want to watch your webinar, and even fewer want to watch 13 hours of webinars over the course of 2 days. Rethink the approach of having a talking head on camera for 45+ minutes — keep your sessions shorter and make them as interactive as possible.

At an in-person event, organizers "own" the attendees attention. Attendee's are physically present, so they're much more likely to sit through a slower session (especially if they're waiting for a specific one). At a virtual event, you have absolutely no control over the attendees attention. If a session is boring or slow, they can simply close the window, click to a new tab, or walk away from their computer.

We had four types of sessions –– fireside chats, panels, presentations, and networking –– making sure that no session lasted more than 30 minutes and also heavily encouraging all of our speakers to constantly interact with the chat and leave time for Q&A after they were done presenting.

One of the best examples of being interactive was Chad Neufeld's session about creating virtual experiences. A few days before the event Chad asked for volunteers from our Slack community to provide him with some info about their communities. He then worked those examples into his presentation, brainstorming virtual experiences for each of the provided communities live and on the fly with the audience.

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Some of the live event ideas from Chad Neufeld's session

Keep it Simple

Lots of events are trying to fully replicate the in-person conference experience virtually right now –  with multiple speakers and content sessions happening at once and constant networking. But this is just too much to do virtually.

At the Community Chat Summit we only had one thing happening at any given time – whether that be a speaker, a panel, or a networking session. This allowed us to focus on providing a single, effective experience for everyone, while also keeping engagement higher as there was only one place to engage.

Be Prepared to Moderate Chat

Ahead of the event we were concerned about having to moderate the live chat. Coming from a gaming background, I've seen first-hand how out of control the chat on a livestream can get.

However, we didn't have to moderate or delete a SINGLE comment throughout the entire event. I heavily attribute this to our audience – community managers and builders are incredible people, often the nicest in the room, and likely have experience with moderating themselves in their own communities. So we do caution you to consider a moderation strategy for your virtual event, as not every live audience will always be as welcoming.

Personally Invite Your Target Attendees

If you already have a large audience or following, you can probably ignore this advice. Our team (both as individuals and as an organization) have a somewhat moderate following, and we are relatively new to the industry. Therefore we couldn't rely solely on our existing network to drive enough attendance, so we personally reached out to over 1,000 community builders and managers via Email and LinkedIn.

This personal outreach saw a 30% conversion and accounted for about 300 of our RSVPs!

Keep Promoting Leading Up to and During the Event

With no upfront logistics like lodging and travel, people are far less likely to RSVP and plan in advance for a virtual event than an in-person event.  While we announced the event about 2 months ago, 60% of our RSVPs came in the week before the event, and 20% came in while the event was live!

During the event, we tweeted and posted on LinkedIn about upcoming speakers, while also sharing some of the best quotes as speakers presented them. The great thing about virtual events is that someone can see a post about it, and less than 5 seconds later be registered and watching – a phenomena not possible with in-person events!

Keep It Fun

Unless it very specifically makes sense for your event and audience, throw your 'corporate feeling' event and branding out the window. Theme your event, make it fun, and keep it lighthearted. Fun is paramount.

We came up with a lively purple and pink branding, and kept it consistent through our website, promotional images, speaker slides, and everywhere.

What's Next?

We've got more events coming up soon (though smaller ones). Be sure to join us on Slack if you haven't already to connect with 700+ other community builders and learn more about running successful virtual events!

Mac Reddin
CEO at Commsor

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