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Online Conferences, Part 1: Conference Technology

The COVID-19 crisis has sparked a demand for online conferences. Here’s how to make it work

The COVID-19 response has plunged many people who have never used online meeting software into the world of virtual meetings. One challenge that comes up is running an entire conference online. I’ve been doing that on and off since 2016 so I can outline some things you need to think about if you try. This three-part series covers 1) Conference Technology (below), 2) Conference Personnel, and 3) Conference Documents and Technology Tests.

Part 1. Conference Technology

Most of the meetings I have organized were on a tight budget so the solutions I will be suggesting are all free or extremely low cost. However, the main thing to recognize is that, as of right now, no one system has everything that you need. Because the systems aren’t integrated, you will need to be more lax about how “open” the meeting is to non-registrants. People who weren’t invited can probably join your conference and you have to rely on the honesty of those who registered not to share their information with others—though we will also cover mitigation strategies as well (in Part 3).

For an online conference, you generally need the following items:

A way to gather registrations (paid)

A number of systems can gather registrations. Some of the more common ones are EventBrite and CVent. However, these systems tend to take a chunk of your registration fees and, in reality, online conferences don’t take as much organizational work as in-person conferences. Therefore, you may be able to just use a general e-commerce system for selling tickets. The most important thing is to ensure that you can get a list of the email addresses of the people who have registered. For WordPress users, WooCommerce is a great system but you can also just set up a product in PayPal to get the job done.

A way to gather registrations (unpaid)

I would urge against creating an unpaid conference. People tend to value less the things they didn’t have to pay for. Even if the fee is nominal, people tend to be more inclined to follow through with things they have paid for. However, if your conference is to be free, you can gather registrants using a number of online tools such as Google Sheets (you can create a form that feeds into a spreadsheet by simply going to “insert” and then “form” from a blank spreadsheet), JotForm, or SurveyMonkey.

A way to communicate with all your registrants

Email is usually the preferred way for communicating with conference attendees. For small conferences, you can get by with your normal email program. However, for larger numbers of attendees, communication is best managed via a custom solution. MailChimp has become a standard for this, but I’ve found that SendInBlue is far more cost effective for anyone who is graduating off of the free tier.

A way for attendees to chat in between scheduled events

One of the great things about conferences is a chance to chat with other attendees. You could set up a Slack channel for that but it gets hard to manage and it entails yet another login for people to remember. For general chat, I prefer setting up channels on tlk.io. On this site, all you need do is come up with a name for your channel, hit “join,” and then copy the link to everyone. If you want the channel to be moderated, you can register yourself as moderator by signing up (free) with either Twitter or Facebook. tlk.io only allows each user to moderate one channel, though you can create as many channels as you like. So you can create a channel for a general chat and then channels for topic-specific chats. You can also do this with video chats, using the same meeting software, as we will discuss below. However, unmoderated video chats are usually a little unwieldy for most people. In any case, whatever solution you use, just be sure that you keep track of the channels you have created so that you can communicate them to everyone at the appropriate time.

A way to provide helpdesk functions

Online conferences use technology, and technology always comes with problems. Therefore, you will need some way to handle issues as they arise. If you want formal issue-tracking (where requests are assigned tracking numbers, with formal tracking toward resolution), Zendesk is the obvious choice. However, if you want something free and easy to implement, I suggest just setting up another tlk.io channel for helpdesk issues. tlk.io works with all browsers and doesn’t rely on anything external, so you can be sure that users can connect to it. Just create a channel for your conference helpdesk, and send everyone that link so they can chat with your helpdesk volunteers if needed.

A way to host the meeting itself, with multiple simultaneous tracks

This is the core of your conference, so the right tool is important. It must support numerous users, multiple rooms (if you have a multi-track conference), a “presentation mode” (muting everyone who is not presenting), a chat feature, screen sharing, and meeting recording. While most people have been suggesting Zoom for this, I’ve actually found that the most cost-effective way of handling this is with Amazon Chime.

Chime is a newer contender in this space; however, it comes in strong and has the backing of Amazon. Chime’s pricing structure is perfect for multi-room conferences. Essentially, you pay $3/room/day, with a maximum of $15/room/month. What I do is register as many rooms as I want as users (I currently have six for my own activities) but I only pay for them when I actually use them. Each room supports all the things I need—250 simultaneous attendees, a presentation mode, no limits on time, “event mode,” screen sharing, and recording of meetings. Most months, I only use one room, so that’s the only one I get charged for. Compare that to Zoom, which requires that you pay full price for 10 rooms for $20/month/room (i.e., $200/month) to get those features, and then you have to manage users constantly. With Chime, I can run a full conference with 6 rooms for $18 total (6 rooms × $3/day). If that’s all I used, that’s all I pay. So, you can have all the features you need at a great price.

Next: Online Conferences, Part 2: Conference Personnel How the people who make it happen work their magic.

Also by Jonathan Bartlett: We will never go back to the pre-COVID-19 workplace. The virus forced us to realize: Staying together apart has never been so easy.

Jonathan Bartlett

Senior Fellow, Walter Bradley Center for Natural & Artificial Intelligence
Jonathan Bartlett is a senior software R&D engineer at Specialized Bicycle Components, where he focuses on solving problems that span multiple software teams. Previously he was a senior developer at ITX, where he developed applications for companies across the US. He also offers his time as the Director of The Blyth Institute, focusing on the interplay between mathematics, philosophy, engineering, and science. Jonathan is the author of several textbooks and edited volumes which have been used by universities as diverse as Princeton and DeVry.

Online Conferences, Part 1: Conference Technology