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How to run a virtual conference

(All photos: FreightWaves)

A few weeks ago, FreightWaves hosted its first virtual conference, FreightWaves LIVE @HOME. The event consisted of content that ran from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. EDT for three days. The content consisted of 85 video presentations and 200 commercials. During the event,  there were more than 90,000 unique visitors, 250,000 video-streamed sessions and 5 million minutes of content viewed by the audience. We also had a Slack channel that had almost 2,000 registered members actively engaging throughout the event.  

After the show, I received a number of inquiries from others asking what platform we chose, how we executed it and for any other suggestions. We even received requests from companies and associations that wanted FreightWaves to produce their virtual events.

Here is a little bit of background about the in-person event that our first virtual conference replaced. We were expecting 2,000-plus attendees at FreightWaves LIVE in Atlanta. The event was designed to be the intersection of technology and logistics. In fact, Morgan Stanley refers to previous FreightWaves LIVE events as the “Consumer Electronics Show of freight.” We provide live tech demos, keynote speakers, “fireside chats” and debates in front of a seated audience of the top technology decision-makers in logistics. 

We only had two months from the moment we decided to shift our in-person event to a virtual one. When planning out the virtual experience, I found the information about producing a high-quality virtual event to be limited, so I wanted to share what we learned in hopes that it can be a guide for future virtual event planners. 

The first thing we learned is that a virtual event experience will not be the same as an in-person event. This seems obvious, but I know a lot of event planners have stressed about that. In reality, the two experiences are very different, so approach them that way. 

Virtual events do much better than in-person events in content-heavy experiences. If you have great speakers, thought leadership or technology demos, virtual events are hard to beat. The reason is that the content is everything in a virtual setting. 

The normal distractions of an in-person event are not a factor, such as hallway chats, handshakes or competing exhibitions. Plus, your virtual audience can pick specific topics they are interested in to pay special attention to and go about their day otherwise. They can also have your event streaming in the background while they do other work. 

Sessions should be shorter than what you expect for an in-person session. People have a shorter attention span virtually than they do in person, so keep the content more concise. We aimed to go less than 20 minutes for many of our talks but occasionally ran over 30 minutes. None of the video content was more than 35 minutes per session. 

We had commercials that ran about 30 seconds to a minute each. We would run four or five per break. This gave sponsors a chance to talk about their products in a quick format. For the viewer, this provided a natural transition between topics. Effectively it was a bookend. On surveys, we discovered that the commercials were one of the highest-ranked elements of the production. The content was relevant (pulled from our event sponsors) and provided a quick-hit overview of their technology, brand or service. We had more than one person comment about how it reminded them of the Super Bowl. In their words, “Come for the game, stay for the commercials.”

Production quality is very important for an event that is more than a webinar. This is where most virtual event producers get it wrong. They try to market a webinar as a virtual event. Don’t do this. At FreightWaves, we host about 20 webinars per month. A webinar consists of a single topic, speaker, a presentation and some form of Q&A at the end. People have low expectations of production quality for webinars and rightly so. Content is the most important feature, but since a webinar should not last more than an hour, people tend to be tolerant of audio and video issues. 

But if you are going to ask someone to sit through a multiple-hour or -day event, you had better have high-quality video and audio. I’ve watched “virtual events” in recent weeks in which the audio is bad and the picture quality is way off. Often, the voice and video do not match, there are signal issues, or speakers lose audio during the session. I have also seen virtual events where the first five minutes of every session involves some technical issue among the speakers as the moderator switches between presenters. For a viewer, this is hard to watch.

For me, events that have poor production quality are the equivalent of an old broadcast TV station that is using an analog signal. I grew up in rural Tennessee before cable TV, so we used to get our television signal through an antenna. The lack of production quality at many events is very similar to this. If the content is extra good, I might be willing to sit through an hour of bad video or audio, but if you want more than that, it had better be HDTV. 

At FreightWaves, we treated the three days as if we were a broadcast cable network. We wanted to make sure that the audience was able to get the highest-quality content, delivered with the highest production quality. In fact, we were so particular about it, we ended up using many of the same technology and processes that are involved in broadcast TV. 

We pre-recorded many of our talks. This was key for us. We wanted to eliminate all of the technical issues that are normal in same-day broadcasts. We have the benefit of a large in-person studio/newsroom, so we were able to get some of the interviews between a moderator and a speaker recorded from our news desk. For other sessions, we recorded talks between two parties at their homes.

We knew that we were trading off some of the impromptu elements of our event by having the videos pre-produced, but we were comfortable with that knowing we had great speakers and that video, audio and production quality were the most important things to keep the audience engaged. 

Our video talks also contained solo speakers or a fireside chat between two speakers. For the video talks, the speakers would pre-record their content and send it to us. For a fireside chat, the subject matter expert (SME) speaker was at home or in their office. They would connect via Skype to our studio in Chattanooga, where a moderator would be filmed.

We did have a few talks that included both live and recorded elements. We pre-recorded opening statements and speeches and then went to a live video Q&A. We did this because if some technical glitch happened, the primary part of the talk was already recorded. After the pre-recorded portion was streamed, we brought the speaker into a live video Q&A. This took coordination among our studio producers, the speaker and a moderator who was in the studio. 

For the remote guests, we wanted to ensure that the cameras people used could record in high-definition video. I recommend that they avoid using the built-in camera on their computers for recording their talks. While these are decent for video conference calls, they don’t produce a high-quality image for an HD streaming event. I recommend an external camera that connects to a computer but is built for high-quality video. If you have the luxury of a large budget and want to go with a high-end camera, you can certainly do that, but a Logitech HD computer camera is more than enough. You can find one at Amazon or Best Buy.

Our studio contains about a dozen cameras that provide different angles. Some of them are automatic and remote-controlled, whereas others require a person operating them. All their signals are fed into a production control room. We also have a video wall that allows us to change backdrops on the fly, which is nice for sponsor logo drops. 

Lighting is also very important. Poor lighting on speakers will make their video feel underproduced or create distractions for the viewers. In the studio, we have an entire lighting setup on rafters that can be controlled remotely. For the videos of remote contributors, we recommend special lighting that can enhance their space. A number of companies offer lights specific for desktop video recording and video blogging. These are more than sufficient to enhance the on-camera lighting. As a producer, you may have to work with remote users to help them get the lighting correct and to eliminate shadows.

Audio is your most important variable. If you have to prioritize in terms of importance, focus on audio quality and don’t skimp. In a remote conference, the types of audio output will vary between participants. Some will have high-quality audio speakers, whereas others will use the cheapest set of headphones on the market. But if the audio quality is poor when recording, it will sound even worse on higher-quality audio speakers. To avoid most audio problems, we recommend that your remote speakers use a high-quality external microphone when filming. Don’t use the default computer audio microphone; it will sound horrible. Also, make sure to remind speakers to record in an area that doesn’t have a lot of echoes or external noise. 

For our remote guests, we either make recommendations of what someone should purchase or even send a kit to them that contains a camera, external light and microphone. If you are an event planner and can afford to do this, it is a nice touch that many of your sponsors will appreciate.

On the day of the event, you will want to follow a couple of rules that are necessary for the viewer experience. First, make sure you publish a schedule of the various talks and stick to the exact times. Don’t deviate from this schedule. Your virtual attendees will be coming and going throughout the day in terms of tuning in and will become very frustrated with an event that isn’t organized and zealous about schedules. This is true of in-person events as well but even more so for a virtual event. The good news is there are software packages that you can buy that do the video scheduling for you. 

In terms of the actual broadcast, you will want to make sure that you have the best platform for this. If your signal goes down or has issues during the event, your viewers will disappear and your sponsors will be upset. We tried a number of different video streaming platforms, but found that Brightcove was the best for streaming content. This is the reason Brightcove is commonly used by the cable TV networks. It just works. We supplemented this with a video app platform offered by Vimeo to get our content on Apple TV and Roku devices. 

After the event has concluded, users will want to get access to the content they missed or rewatch a session. Be sure to offer the video sessions on demand. This will enable them to engage later. We found that more content is viewed on-demand than during the live broadcast. Your sponsors and speakers will also want to get access to their content on demand so that they can post it on their website or social media accounts for future use. 

What makes in-person events special are the impromptu conversations and networking. The chance for similar networking opportunities does exist in a virtual environment, but it requires a great deal of effort on the part of the event planner and participants themselves. Sponsors that are used to a lot of traffic that strolls by their booth in a physical environment will discover that in a virtual setting, that traffic doesn’t happen much. In fact, in a virtual event, the attendee is required to put in more effort to actively network. 

Like marketing anything, I recommend some sort of call to action with an incentive. Perhaps it’s a virtual gift card, game or other incentive for coming by and engaging.

You will want to offer some sort of chat experience to go along with content. We looked at several options for networking and ultimately chose a Slack channel as our platform. The setup was clean and most of the audience had some exposure to Slack before, so we felt comfortable with something off the shelf. 

Last, the biggest thing your audience will crave is some level of engagement in the programming beyond chat. Bring them into the experience by having a moderator who can actively engage them in the event. FreightWaves is fortunate to have professional TV and radio talents on staff who can bring the audience into the discussion. What I mean by that is they are actively reading the comments from the Slack channel and talking about what they saw during the live event. For me, this feels a lot like a half-time show during a broadcast event. Our moderators share their thoughts and observations about the talks on the day of the event. This part has to be live. Otherwise, the audience won’t have an opportunity to participate and will feel left out. 

Most people assume that virtual events are easier to pull off than in-person events. While that is true if you only do a Zoom event that should be marketed as a webinar, if you want a highly professional virtual experience, you need to produce it like a TV program, and that takes work. 

For budgeting purposes, we spent over $300,000 for the equipment and production platform we used. We also had a team of eight full-time production workers and about 15 on-camera talents who participated in the hosting or moderating of our live event. We estimate our budget altogether was over $500,000 for the three-day event. While this seems like a great deal of money, it is far cheaper than doing an in-person event at a convention center which can run close to $2 million. 

If you are interested in having FreightWaves produce your event, contact us to discuss the options available. We are happy to talk with you about how we can produce your event with platform, studio talent and the FreightWavesTV network. 

Contact us for more information or questions.

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Craig Fuller, CEO at FreightWaves

Craig Fuller is CEO and Founder of FreightWaves, the only freight-focused organization that delivers a complete and comprehensive view of the freight and logistics market. FreightWaves’ news, content, market data, insights, analytics, innovative engagement and risk management tools are unprecedented and unmatched in the industry. Prior to founding FreightWaves, Fuller was the founder and CEO of TransCard, a fleet payment processor that was sold to US Bank. He also is a trucking industry veteran, having founded and managed the Xpress Direct division of US Xpress Enterprises, the largest provider of on-demand trucking services in North America.