🤓

How to Run a Successful Online Conference

March 24, 2020

A few weeks ago we completed our fourth installment of Laracon Online. An annual fully online conference for the Laravel PHP framework and related technologies.

Each year Laracon Online has over 4,000 paid attendees from over 100 countries.

The event has been both a commercial and community success, with great NPS scores and profit margins around 70% (click below see comments by attendees):

With the rise of COVID-19 and the cancellation of so many significant events it seemed like the right time to write up how we pull off Laracon Online and how you can do the same.

Every community and conference is different. Not all of this may apply to your specific situation, but I've tried to break up these ideas into logical chunks so that you can use what works and discard what doesn't.

If you find this useful for your event, please let me know on Twitter.

Table of Contents

Why an Online Conference?

Coronavirus has made clear some of the distinct advantages of an online conference. Everyone from attendees to speakers to showrunners can participate from the comfort and safety of their own home.

There's so much more than that though. What initially drew us to the idea of Laracon Online is it was a way to give a much larger audience the experience of going to a fully realized Laracon.

Even in less severe times, there are many reasons why people can't attend conferences.

Most obviously, in-person conferences tend to be very expensive. They require a lot of people, venue, food, security, all of those costs are passed along to the customers in ticket prices usually approaching $1,000 or more.

Beyond that, there's the expense of traveling to the location, airfare, hotels, food, missed work. I've rarely been able to attend a conference for less than $2,000 and sometimes it's far more.

An online event not only lowers the cost but also helps those who may not feel comfortable at a large in-person conference, as well as those who may be physically disabled and could not otherwise attend.

In-person conferences also tend to self select down to a particular country or region. An online conference creates an event open to the whole world. At Laracon Online, we've never had less than 110 countries represented at the event. You won't find that kind of worldwide representation at an in-person conference.

A viewing party of 50 people in Kabul, Afghanistan.
Photo: Nangialai Stoman

Production Crew

An advantage of running an online conference is it takes far fewer people to pull off. We run our 4-5k person event with only two people on show day.

I manage organizing sponsors, speakers, and MC on show day. Eric Barnes of Laravel News runs the website, ticketing, support, and manages the chat room.

More people would be great, but unlike a live conference where you simply must have someone checking people in, front of the house, back of the house, vendors, and so on. It's just a lot less to manage.

Tracks and Days

Laracon Online has only ever been a one day, single-track event.

I don't think there's anything that precludes a multi-track event. I do think it's going to greatly complicate messaging to your attendees which is one of the harder aspects of an online conference in general.

Unlike a live conference, you can't just hang a sign and call it a day. You'll need links to the different streams; people may have to switch streams and have trouble when doing that. It means you'll definitely need 2 MCs and maybe more staff in general.

If it's your first online conference, I strongly suggest making it single track. In-person conferences often try to compensate for their high price with more everything. There's no reason to fall into that trap with an online conference. Edit the conference down to its core reason for being.

Laracon Online has also always been a single day event. I don't have a really strong recommendation on this. If you were considering going multi-track, I'd undoubtedly go multi-day instead to keep the management a bit easier if you're a small team.

Live or Recorded?

We've always run the conference as a live event. I'll introduce speakers, be available during the talk if there's a tech issue, and at the end ask them some questions from the audience.

Doing it live adds an element of togetherness that I feel is critical in trying to replicate some of what makes in-person conferences special. Everyone is experiencing the event as a shared moment.

That said, there are certainly advantages to having the event be recorded. You don't need a backup plan or have much to worry about on the day of the event. Most or all of it is set.

If you'd like a more produced look, this is probably the only way to get it without extraordinary expense.

There's no right or wrong way on this choice, but you'll want to think about it very carefully.

Timezones and Pacing

If your event is worldwide, you'll have some tough choices to make about the timing of your event. In our case, we generally start the first talk at 10 am EST and the last talk ends at 6:45 pm EST.

This schedule has worked pretty well for us. The majority of our tickets are sold in North America and Europe. This timing allows us to start at a time not too early for the US West Coast and which ends in Europe late, but not unreasonably so (at least for Internet geeks).

You'll also want to give serious thought to your breaks. You will not find a break schedule that everyone likes!

What we do is two talks and then a 15-minute break. As we usually have eight speakers that ends up being three break periods.

In this setup, I'm the one who suffers most 😃 having to run around in the break time to eat and use the facilities, but it works out, and it keeps the event moving no matter what timezone you're in. Stopping for a lunch/dinner break would make it longer which isn't suitable for some timezones, and since mingling isn't as seamless as a live event (in most cases), it ends up being wasted time.

Speakers

I'm not going to talk to much about picking your speakers. If you already run a conference your typical methods will work here as well. Instead, let's focus on how to treat and prep them.

First off, don't get stingy with your speakers! Your speakers doing a fantastic job is far more critical in an online conference than an in-person one.

There's no big party, special guest, or fancy concert that's going to hide your bad or poorly prepared speakers!

Since the speakers are working from home, you may be tempted not pay them and just have the invitation to speak be payment enough. I would strongly encourage you not to think that way.

A great talk is a lot of work, and for most speakers, this will be even more than normal as they'll be unconformable with the context. They may also be speaking in front of many more people virtually than they have ever before. You want them motivated and well prepared.

Paying a reasonable speaker's fee creates a clear business relationship and expectation. You won't have any other costs for your speakers, no flights, no hotels, so treat them well. For reference, at Laracon Online we pay each speaker $2,000.

Preparation

You'll want to check in with speakers leading up to the event and see if they need any guidance. However, there are some important elements that are unique to an online conference that you should touch on.

No Audience

When giving an online talk, you'll have no audience feedback. You're just talking at the screen. This may be uncomfortable for some people, and they may want to do a dry run or perhaps test their talk with a local meetup group via Zoom/Skype to get used to it.

Big Fonts

They'll be broadcasting to all different size screens, with many people watching on phones so they'll want their resolution or at least their font sizes to be larger than they might expect. This is always a tricky thing to balance when giving a talk regarding code and becomes even more complicated when everyone has a different screen you're trying to accommodate.

Tech Checks

As the organizer, you should set up a 'webinar' with the same configuration as the live event for each speaker. Then pick a time to meet with each one in the week or two before the event. They can enter the event as they would on the real day, and you can practice making them a presenter and transitioning them in and out of the event.

This also serves to make sure their tech is working. That they have the most recent streaming client, their mic works, etc. As the organizer, it also gives you a sneak peak at their bandwidth to make sure there are no issues with that.

An example of the email I send to organize the tech checks and payments.

Marketing

I wanted to add marketing in here for completeness, but I don't have too much to add about it. I don't think there's too much different here than for a regular conference. However, we do have one thing we do that could be useful.

Our conference is generally around February. You can then buy access to the videos of the conference up through when the next years conference site launches.

As an aside, this creates a nice little mini revenue stream. Only a tiny fraction of the main event, but it usually pays for the next year's site design and other ancillary things.

At the launch of the next year's conference site in the fall, we make all the videos from the previous year available publicly on the website. This drives fresh traffic to the conference site and reminds previous attendees about the event.

It's also something we highlight to sponsors as higher tier ones get their ads in the videos in front of one of the talks and so that ad is first seen by thousands of attendees and then a few months later by thousands of more people who weren't attendees but now get to see it free.

Sponsors

The idea of sponsoring online conferences doesn't come that naturally to companies. They're very geared towards in-person conferences. You'll often notice that the forms they make you fill out ask for a location with no option for online, etc.

Still, we've had fairly good luck acquiring sponsors. You'll want to focus on companies that are already working closely with you or with your community as they're more willing to go along with your experiments.

We're generally offering the following for our sponsors:

  • Logo and short ad read in front of one of the talks. That ad read stays in the produced video version of the talk.
  • Thanks via logo during the conference opening/closing
  • Website link
  • Shout out on Twitter and newsletters that we operate
  • Inclusion in the Digital Swag (this is key, more below)

I've included our conference sponsors prospectus below, give that a look to gather some ideas.

For reference, here's our 2020 sponsorship packet. Download

Streaming Technology

We use Zoom and we're really happy with it. The first year we were very surprised how many people want to watch on the go. Zoom has clients for all the major platforms, and they work well. We've had to deal with very little support considering how many people attend our conference.

On conference day, what I do is stay logged on and in the Zoom the entire time. I'm the host.

My video will be enabled and I'll intro the conference. Then when it's a speakers turn to go I'll find them in the attendee list and make them a panelist. They turn on their video and screen sharing. I then turn off my video and mute my mic. I'll then watch the talk as much as possible.

This way, I'm always available in case I need to jump in and talk to the speaker. This is very rare, but I want to be able to act quickly should their mic be bad or their font size is too small.

Note: Be careful about jumping in on the speaker. Since they aren't expecting any feedback, it takes them off guard and it'll usually take them a minute to compose themselves.

Zoom Tricks and Tips

Each service will be different, but if you use Zoom, here are a few helpful tricks.

Buying Zoom

Zoom's UI doesn't make this entirely clear. If you're going to use Zoom, what you need to do is buy the regular $14/month account. Then you add the Webinar option to it. When you buy the webinar option you can tell it to auto-cancel after a month, which you'll probably want to do, though do leave plenty of time for the speaker tech checks before the conference.

You'll also want to add the additional cloud recording space to your options. That way, you won't run out of space in your account. I let Zoom record the video in the cloud. You can do it locally, but I'd rather not have my machine doing any extra work during the event.

Special Note What size webinar plan to buy is a bit of art. Zoom has set plan sizes and blocks people out if your stream fills. You don't want to overbuy as the streaming can get expensive, but blocking out paying customers is really bad!

In practice, for us, we've never seen more than about 60% of ticket holders in the stream at one time. We're genuinely a worldwide conference though making the times inconvenient for some. You'll want to carefully consider this for where your audience is and how many you might expect at peak times or for the most anticipated talks.

Turn off hand raising

Since this isn't a corporate meeting, you don't want attendees "raising their hand", which puts up an annoying icon. Constantly. Zoom has this on by default and you can't control it in any of the settings. All you can do is as soon as the conference starts you can go into the 'more' menu and disable the ability to raise hands.

Turn on the green screen mode

In the Zoom client preferences, you can select that you have a green screen. If you do (and you should) it's ability to filter out your background using a photo (or animated gif!) will be significantly improved.

You can load a bunch of background images up in the days before the event so they're there and switch between them throughout the day. I've only used it for fun so far, but it could be used to show sponsor ads behind the MC or perhaps the schedule.

Share computer sound

One of the things we like to do is on the 15-minute breaks I play royalty-free music (find my track list here). To do that, when you share your screen to show your break slide (more on that below) you need to check the box to "share computer sound". This will feed the music you're playing directly to Zoom allowing it to be clear for the audience.

Note: If you use Soundcloud to setup your break playlist, be sure to purchase Soundcloud Go+ ahead of time so that it's ad free.

Protecting the stream

Some people will get elaborate with protecting the stream URL, but as we looked into it, creating a password per-ticket starts to get complicated. You'll end up in API land with Zoom (no fun!) or even worse CSV upload land (😱). Those are support nightmares with much of the support being at the worst possible time, as the conference starts and hundreds of people who don't know their password or just purchased a ticket and weren't in the CSV.

Instead, we simply have a single password shared across all customers. So far, this has never been abused; we haven't seen the URL and password show up on Twitter, for example. This is one advantage of keeping your pricing low; it lowers the number of people interested in stealing your stream.

What we also do though, is add a note alongside the password to make clear that sharing this URL/password could be detrimental to the entire conference. So far, this has worked great! If you trust your community, I'd certainly recommend this as a starting point.

Ticketing

You can use a regular ticketing solution, but to keep costs down, I'd recommend using a solution that lets you use a Stripe and/or Paypal account directly. There are many solutions out there for this.

We ended up building our own little app for ticketing, but more importantly, the app provides one place for all attendees to login to. That way, they can login and in the ticket holder area we can place the link to the stream and it's password on the day of the event, the page with Digital Swag, and so on.

Your ticket holder page doesn't need to be anything fancy at all! A plain website page would really work just fine. If you want to get fancy you could do Wordpress with a membership plugin. Don't overthink it, you just want to be able to have a consistent place to always send people and where people will know to go.

All attendees know the login on the conference site is where:

  1. They buy tickets
  2. They get the link to the stream
  3. The Digital Swag is
  4. The videos are after the event

This saves on back and forth communication as well as day of event frustrations.

Free tickets

Don't forget that there's going to be a lot of people you give free tickets to. Sponsors who get tickets, other interested parties. You'll want to have a way to issue those.

Pricing considerations

I can't tell you how to price your conference, but I do believe you should shy away from traditional pricing. There's plenty of room for profit in an online conference due to the significantly reduced cost structures. The best thing to do is pass those savings along on a per-ticket basis and try to reach a wider audience.

For Laracon Online we have early bird pricing of $12/ticket, and after that, the price is $25/ticket.

Unlike a traditional conference there's very close to zero marginal cost to each additional ticket sold so you want to sell A LOT!

Attendees

Attendees will have a lot of questions, many won't have attended an online conference before. They may also have technical questions. You'll want to have some help desk software set up to manage your customer questions. The previous link is to my software if you end up in the market 😉

The key thing to reiterate though is to have a webpage with everything in one spot. Your emails, support replies, and reminders can then just send them to that page where everything is available for them in one place both before the event and on the day of.

Mingling

A critical part of in-person conferences is meeting other people. That's going to be a challenge in this case.

The first year we used Slack. This ended up being pure chaos. Even with dozens of channels, having 4,000 people all talking about one topic at the same time become impossible to follow or supervise.

If you have a smaller conference Slack is probably an OK choice though. It certainly does help add to the feeling of all being together.

What we've settled on is using a Discourse server, which if you're not familiar with it, is a modern forum solution. A forum provides a more thoughtful and manageable context for online discussion.

Attendees can create threads and have discussions. It's also where they can post questions under our 'speaker questions' topic, which I read during the talk and cherry-pick a few out of for the post-talk Q/A with the speaker.

In our case, for those who want the adrenalin rush of a chat room, the community has filled in the gaps with unofficial chat locations on Telegram, Discord, and Slack. We'll tweet these out when they popup so that attendees can find them, but we don't moderate those.

Viewing Parties

Viewing Parties are something that grew organically out of our community. People started asking if they could watch the show together? Duh, of course! What a fantastic idea.

Every Laracon Online there are 20+ viewing parties around the world, each with between a handful of people up through 80+.

We advertise the parties right on our homepage, where they're listed and we happily add them when we're told about them. We'll also push them out on Twitter to help spread the word. They're often formed around existing meetup groups or companies active in the community, so those would be great people to reach out to and try and kickstart a party.

A note on ticketing

We request that each person at the conference has a ticket, but it's not something we strictly enforce (or that we even could). Only ticket holders will have access to the videos; however, so that does help encourage party participants to still buy a ticket. Especially at the low price we charge.

Digital Swag

Part of going to a conference is coming home with a lot of useless crap 😃 Fuzzy pens, a notebook with a brand name on each page, etc.

We didn't want to lose this experience! However, we wondered if we could do better. What we came up with was Digital Swag. We ask all our sponsors to provide something of value which we list on the Digital Swag page.

This alone usually ends up being at least 10x the value of the ticket price. So even if a customer only uses one item that alone will pay for the price of their ticket.

Sponsors get demonstrable leads; attendees get fantastic value.

Beyond that, we like to have as much swag as possible. So we also ask our speakers if they have anything they'd like to contribute. Most usually have a course, book, or product they'll add into the Digital Swag.

Gathering ad and swag details

A few weeks before your event, you'll want to be gathering up your sponsor's ads and Digital Swag details. We use a simple form like this to collect all those details from sponsors and speakers in one spot.

Note: People will be accessing your conference webpage long into the future, don't forget to collect expiration dates for any offer codes.

The MC

Being the MC at an online event isn't too different than an in-person conference. I view it primarily as helping keep the attendees oriented as to what's going on, what's coming up, and managing conference business (sponsor reads).

One unique element of an online conference is that transitions will inherently be a little clunky. You have to find and kick out the last speaker, then find and promote the next speaker to a panelist. To the audience, it's just going to look like you're wandering around your screen so you want to keep them informed of what you're doing. It might be useful to practice those transitions if you think you might feel uncomfortable during them.

Use a green screen

Most people don't have anything that nice behind them in their office. If that's the case for you, I recommend getting a green screen. The entire setup will cost you less than $100, and Zoom has excellent support for green screens. You can set your background in the preferences and there's an option to let it know you have a green screen. That will allow it to do a much better job at cutting in the fake background around your ears and hair.

My show day setup. Don't be like me, iron your green screen!

Your presentation

You'll want to have a Keynote or Powerpoint presentation that you can work off of as the MC. This is where you can have a welcome screen, a slide you use on breaks, and your sponsor ads.

I've included the one I used a few years ago as an example for you.

Example presentation for the MC. Download it

Get good lighting

You'll need good lighting. I haven't gone too crazy with this, but I do have a light on me and general background lighting. I plan on doing more with this next year. For more on this I recommend Matt Stauffer's excellent article.

A second computer

DO NOT FORGET THIS ON THE DAY OF THE EVENT.

You will need a second computer. During the event, you won't want to be messing with your main computer.

If you don't have a second computer an iPad with keyboard would probably work.

The second computer will be where you can keep an eye on everything else during the conference as the talk is being run through your host computer.

Videos

I'm not going to go too much into video production (see ours here). I'd recommend you set up Zoom to record your conference in the cloud. At the end of the conference Zoom will send you an email when the video is ready. Usually, a few hours later. It will likely be two files if you did an all-day event.

I just use Quicktime's split and trim features to break up the videos and then publish them via Vimeo. You can use Vimeo's features to restrict the domains the video will play on and other options.

You'll probably also want to provide downloads of the videos. If you don't, you'll get a lot of emails asking for it :)

While professional video production would be great, we've seen many conferences take this route and not get the videos out for weeks or more. With an in-person conference this is perhaps acceptable, but for an online conference you'll want to be much more conscious of the time to turn around the videos.

You'll have a huge number of attendees that could only attend part of the event due to timezones or work. The videos being available fast are something those people greatly appreciate. The last few years we've had the videos up the next day and people are extremely happy about it.

Subtitles

It's easier and more affordable than you think to provide subtitles on your videos. We use Rev.com, and it's been great. It's usually around $400 for the service.

You just upload your videos, and they have them transcribed into a standard format. You can then upload the text files with the subtitles into Vimeo or whatever hosting service you're using, and they take care of adding them in their player.

One note here is we don't wait for the subtitles to publish the videos. The videos go up as soon as they're ready. Subtitle creation takes a few days, so as those are completed, we just add them to the videos.

Backup Plans

Most in-person conferences have no backup plan. This is an area where an online conference has an edge.

There are a few areas you'll want to consider for your backup planning.

Assuming you're doing a "live" online conference one of the main things that can go wrong is something happening to the MC. Either they're sick and unable to MC or their internet is bad and they're unable to MC.

Either way, you'll want to have a plan for this. Make sure that someone has your login information for the streaming system and can take over as MC in an emergency.

The other primary scenario you might encounter is a speaker unable to attend.

We've never had that, but in our case, we've always planned to simply do a break at that point to stay on schedule and to provide video of the talk later if a speaker couldn't make it.

You could also consider having a group of people who could do a panel or an interview as a backup if you need to fill a spot quickly.

Having every speaker do a recorded dry run of their talk to have in the can is also an interesting alternative that also creates a bit of required speaker prep, which never hurts! We haven't done that ourselves, but it's something we're considering for future shows.

Unlike an in-person event, it would also be relatively trivial to simply move the date of the event if something goes wrong at the last minute. Sure, it will be a minor inconvenience for some, but nothing like having hundreds of attendees who've flown in for an event. It would only mean they'll watch the stream from work tomorrow instead of today.

Timeline

Here's a rough outline of what you should be doing when.

Months before

  • Decide on the format for your conference. Live/Recorded, the number of tracks and days.
  • Put out a request for speakers or invite speakers
  • Create your sponsor prospectus and start contacting potential sponsors
  • Identify your team
  • Build your website, pick your ticketing setup

Weeks before

  • Buy your streaming solution
  • Schedule tech checks with all speakers
  • Contact sponsors to get their ads and swag
  • Prep sponsor tweets and other requirements so they're ready to deploy on event day.
  • Setup your break time music playlist
  • Build your MC presentation

Day before

  • Restart your computers, make sure they're in top shape
  • Turn off your computer's screensaver and energy saver
  • Setup lights, camera, and green screen
  • Consider disabling messaging apps or using a network blocker like Tripmode.
  • Make sure your desktop is clean and organized. Everyone will wonder what the app dock icons are that you use, throw in a tricky one.
  • Get to bed on time

Morning of event

  • Get in early!
  • Setup your music so it's ready to go
  • Make sure you have someone watching who can tell you if you accidentally keep yourself muted or if there are other issues.
  • Send sponsor thank you tweets

Start the event

  • Join the meeting
  • Under 'more' turn off the ability of attendees to raise their hand
  • Put up your welcome screen and wait until start time. Make sure you're muted
  • At start time unmute and go!

After the event

  • Have a MaCallan 18 🥃
  • Pay your speakers
  • Process the videos
  • Submit videos to Rev.com for subtitling
  • Upload videos and email attendees that they're ready.
  • Upload subtitles as they're completed.
  • Make notes for things to change for next year

Documents

→ Share your thoughts with me on Twitter

I'd prefer you subscribe to my RSS feed, but if receiving my journals each day in your email is more convenient go for it.