From big trade shows like IBM’s Think Digital, to webinars, to cozy Google Meet sessions with small groups of industry peers, all conferences are now digital conferences.

And that levels the playing field in a lot of ways.

Companies that normally lack the means to book a venue and host a conference can now plan an event quickly and affordably. People who would never spend money to fly across the country to partake in these trade shows can attend with just a few clicks.

This was all possible before the lockdown, but the interest in virtual conferences was nowhere near where it is today:

Google Trends data for “virtual conference.”

If there was ever a great time to add virtual conferences to your marketing mix, it’s now.

Interest is up and many video-conferencing services are currently free or discounted. Not to mention, virtual conferences will likely maintain some of their popularity in a post-pandemic world as a more cost-effective alternative to the real thing.

With that in mind, here’s a step-by-step guide to get you started with nothing but your expertise and a shoe-string budget:

Part 1: Planning the conference

There are 5 key questions you need to answer when planning a virtual conference:

  1. Who do you want to attend your conference?
  2. What will your conference be about?
  3. What format will you use?
  4. How will this help your company’s goals?
  5. Should you charge for your conference?

Let’s walk through the thought process involved in each:

1. Who do you want to attend your conference?

Your ideal audience should be selected based on your commercial goals. For instance, Brafton is a marketing agency. We might get the most value from targeting marketing managers who would learn from us and potentially benefit from our services.

If we wanted, we could get even more specific, and make our target audience marketing managers in mid-market software and IT companies, but we don’t necessarily have to.

You can cast as wide (or narrow) a net as makes sense for your industry, vertical, market, current business goals, etc.

Either way, the contents of your conference need to be relevant to your audience.

2. What will your conference be about?

Your theme can be as broad or as specific here as makes sense for your audience.

Sometimes picking a specific theme (e.g., supply chain management for SMBs in the year of COVID-19) can help differentiate your conference from competing events. It can also help guide the discussion if you intend to have guest speakers attend.

But by narrowing the focus of your subject matter, you potentially exclude some factions of your audience.

That might be fine if you’re in a super niche vertical.

But if you serve clients in many industries, we recommend starting with a slightly broader subject matter before homing in on specific segments, so as to keep the content relevant to a wider audience.

Here are a few examples of some timely themes that are focused, but can still apply to multiple industries:

  • Retaining your new e-commerce customers after the pandemic.
  • Accounts receivable: Best practices through Q3
  • IT capacity planning in uncertain times.
  • Managing a marketing budget in the aftermath of a crisis.
  • Supply chain management in the time of COVID-19.

3. What format will you use?

There’s a lot of elbow room in your definition of “virtual conference,” and just as much liberty to tailor the format to whatever makes the most sense for your theme.

You can run an hour-long webinar or digital workshop on a specific subject, like one of the examples we listed above. Alternatively, you can host a roundtable-style event, where you recruit industry experts and influencers to answer questions submitted by the audience ahead of time (or live).

If you plan to have a small group (5-10 people), you may want to allot a certain amount of time to answer one question shared by each attendee.

You can also try to go all out with a full-day roster of virtual presentations, workshops and keynote speakers. This would require more work – posting a schedule of events on your site that participants can use, setting up sign-ups to ensure that you have enough space in the virtual meeting room, coordinating your speakers’ schedules and so on. This is all doable if you have some clout in your industry and possess the resources to execute.

You know best what kind of demand you can feasibly generate for your event, and for that matter, how many resources you have to dedicate to it.

But if you’re new to this, we recommend starting small and using the size of your event to your advantage (i.e., you can provide a deeper level of attention and assistance to attendees). Plus, starting small will help you iron out any kinks, and there’s less risk.

Other pointers to keep in mind:

  • Participants may be a little mic-shy, so do what you can to make them feel comfortable, even if it means allowing them to submit live questions via chat.
  • Don’t forget to share your screen when pulling data or explaining features of certain software. These step-by-step demonstrations have great value to your audience.
  • Record your event so you can share it later as a resource. Just make sure you disclaim the fact the event will be recorded, either in the invitation or at the start of the conference.
  • If you plan on giving a more hands-on demonstration – of equipment or handcrafts for example, carefully plan out your camera angles and lighting to ensure the audience can follow along at all times.

4. How will this help your company’s goals?

Creating a virtual conference, especially a small one that only lasts a few hours or less, is not terribly difficult, and there’s a lot more to be gained than lost.

Leads will appreciate your insights, especially if you adopt an interactive approach where you can help the audience solve specific real-world problems.

That said, you’re doing this with the end goal of helping your business, and you need to have a plan for how you might facilitate longer-term relationships with attendees.

For instance, if you’ve made your event public on the web by posting about it on your site, you can add registrants to your mailing list.

If, on the other hand, the event was private and the invites were distributed via email to existing contacts, send out a post-event email to those who attended:

  • Thanking them for joining the event.
  • Passing along resources you referenced during the event, including the recording, slide material and any other useful related collateral.
  • Most importantly, encouraging those who were in attendance to reach out individually with any follow-up questions.

That last item is crucial. It gives you a chance to continue your conversation with the prospect, potentially getting them in touch with other subject-matter experts in your organization and ultimately bringing them deeper into the sales funnel.

5. Should you charge for your event?

Probably not.

Unless you’re 100% confident in your company’s clout and its ability to generate a strong turnout (despite the paywall) that will appease sponsors, you’re better off sticking to a goodwill model.

This is especially true during a pandemic, particularly if the contents of that conference tie back to COVID-19.

Part 2: Launching your event

Now that we’ve covered the basics of planning a conference, let’s take a look at the actual resources involved in its execution.

The tools you’ll need vary depending on the scale and complexity of the event. But at a minimum, you’ll most likely have to:

  1. Download and install video conferencing software.
  2. Put together a slide deck and other materials.
  3. Enable registration.
  4. Promote your conference.

Let’s dig in:

1. Download and install video conferencing software

If you’re planning to have an interactive event (meaning users can participate), you’ll need web conferencing software that has audio, video and screen sharing capabilities.

If you aren’t already signed up for video conferencing software, here are a few options that are totally free for users right now:

  • Google Meet for Business: By far the best option, Google Meet for Business is completely free until September 30, and will support up to 250 users for an unlimited amount of time.
  • Zoom: The basic version is free and allows up to 100 participants, but cuts out at about 40 minutes.
  • Skype: Free for up to 50 users for an unlimited amount of time.
  • Uberconference: Free for up to 50 users for an unlimited amount of time.

Make sure you do a test run on the platform ahead of time to make sure that everything works as planned and that you’re familiar with the features.

If your conference will be in more of a broadcast format (one presenter, many viewers), we would recommend using Facebook Live or Twitch. YouTube Live is also a viable option, but the process of sharing your screen is a little more involved (at least as of this writing).

2. Put together a slide deck and other materials

You may want some visual aids and data on the screen to back up the points you make.

As long as you have a conference platform with screen share, you should have zero difficulty sharing that slideshow during your presentation.

Some of the best free tools include:

You might also consider putting together some supplemental documents or blog posts that you can share with your audience via chat during the event.

3. Enable registration

This can be as involved as creating a registration landing page that automatically closes after a certain number of people register, or as simple as emailing one of your email list segments and adding the first 50 respondents to a calendar invite with a conference or channel link.

Either way, make sure you have a system in place to a) make registration available to your audience and b) pass along event information and a calendar invite to those who sign up.

(By the way, when you create the calendar event, make sure you hide the contact information of your attendees.)

As a best practice, send out a confirmation email to new registrants, letting them know that they are signed up, and what to look for. The easier and more straightforward the process, the better.

4. Promote your conference

Your promotion efforts will depend on how many people you plan to have in attendance.

If you’ve taken great care to invite certain segments of your email lists to a cozy Q&A session with your in-house experts, for instance, there’s no need to promote the conference on your website and blog. A few emails leading up to the event will suffice.

If you’re planning a full production, complete with a keynote address on Skype, digital workshops at different times of the day, etc., you’ll need to go all out. That means creating landing pages, blog posts and possibly even an online resource hub available only to attendees.

Not to mention, you’ll probably need to go through the trouble of soliciting sponsors so that you don’t take too much of a hit financially.

Now is the time to think creatively about virtual events

Ask yourself: What type of conference can my company host with free or cheap resources that will actually be of value to participants?

It doesn’t have to be the biggest, longest or most star-studded event; it just has to be the most useful.

Most businesses and consumers don’t have money to throw away on status conferences or something that may or may not be of interest. They’re doing away with fluff content.

Make your potential attendees confident that they will get direct value – e.g., have some of their problems solved, learn skills that will help immediately, or learn about new resources – from your event.

Think of it as content marketing with a camera.

It’s cheap, easy, low-committal, but potentially highly valuable to your audience.

What do you have to lose?

Dominick Sorrentino is a senior writer in Chicago. He's a wordsmith who endeavors to use language, story-telling and creativity to solve problems. He enjoys pizza, the musical styling of A Tribe Called Quest, traveling, a good conversation and, of course, putting pen to paper.