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Online Conferences, Part 3: Conference Documents and Technology Tests

Before we go live, what documents should we provide? What tests should we do?

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, 2) Conference Personnel, and (below) 3) Conference Documents and Technology Tests.

Coordinating online events requires several important documents. Four packets of information are absolutely critical to running a conference well:

The Conference Attendee Packet

The conference attendee packet should include the schedule of the conference and all the information that the user needs to connect to it. For Amazon Chime, that means that each session needs to have a URL next to the description that takes the user to the meeting. That way, at conference time, the user just needs to look at the packet and click the link when it is time for the session to start. The conference packet should outline (1) what the attendee needs to do to get ready for the conference (download a program, test their equipment, etc.), (2) how to contact the helpdesk for support, (3) the schedule with connection information for each talk, and (4) how to connect to the between-speakers chat.

The Room Host Packet

Each room host should receive a room host packet. This sheet should include (1) all information needed to login as the host, (2) a list of the technology they need to set up to act as room host, (3) a sequence of steps they must perform at the beginning and ending of each meeting (i.e., turn on recording, turn off recording, promote the speaker to a presenter, etc.), (4) a script they read to begin the session, and (5) a schedule of presentations that will take place in their room. Usually, this amounts to just a page or two of information but it is critical that every room host receives, understands, and acts on it.

The Speaker Packet

The speaker packet is similar to the room host packet, but geared for the speakers themselves. It should describe what the speaker is expected to do to prepare for the conference, the speaker’s schedule, and how the speaker should login to the room.

The Admin Packet

This packet of information is for the support desk. It should include information for all of the technology being used, all of the URLs, and access information for the admin side of conference. For instance, if you are using an email marketing service, the admin packet should give the URL and username needed for the marketing service. The admin packet ties together the back office of the conference by making needed information available to everyone.

These four packets serve as the heart of the conference. They coordinate everyone’s actions so that everyone knows what they should be doing at any given time. They give everyone the information needed to do their job appropriately. If you put the thought, the time, and the effort into getting the information in these packets correct, it will make the whole conference run smoothly.

If you have followed the advice so far, the actual running of the conference is fairly straightforward. The room hosts each log into their rooms at the start of the conference day. The tech support team is ready to answer questions. At the appointed time, everyone logs into the first room to hear the master of ceremonies introduce the conference and send everyone on their way. The room hosts, the speakers, and the attendees all know their job functions and simply follow the schedule throughout the day. Sufficient planning makes the day of the conference run fairly smoothly and automatically.

Technology Testing Before the Conference

Additional things you should plan on doing before the conference:

I recommend having “technology test” sessions for the guests and speakers, and training sessions for the room hosts. Technology test sessions make sure everyone can get online. I recommend doing this a week before the conference. Establish a one-to-two hour window where everyone can login and make sure they can see and hear everything well. The support desk should be in charge of this, and they should answer support desk requests during this period in case someone can’t get on at all.

Additionally, you should do a separate technology test individually with each speaker. In addition to logging in, they also need to be able to share their screen.

Making sure the speakers’ computers support screen sharing (and that they know how to enable it) ahead of the conference is critical. Also confirm with the speakers that they are testing with the same setup they will be using for the conference. It is frustrating when a speaker does a technology test but then, the day of the conference, turns out to be using a different computer and having problems. In any case, you should have a checklist of speakers and make sure that every one participated in the technology test. If an attendee didn’t bother with the test and the setup doesn’t work for them, that’s the attendee’s own problem. If a speaker didn’t do the technology test and now the whole session is ruined, that is your problem.

You need to do training sessions with the room hosts. These sessions are similar to the technology tests but you need to make sure they understand how to do everything listed in their packets. They should practice the room host procedure two to three times with the organizer or the support desk to make sure they are familiar with all of the steps.

Mitigating the Effect of Non-Paying Guests

There are two main strategies for minimizing the effect of non-paying guests on your conference. The first is to have your room host act as a “bouncer.” They will have a list of registered attendees and will only allow those who are on the list into the room. If you are worried about mistaken identities due to similar names, you can give each attendee a “badge number,” and make sure that they type their badge number as part of their name when they log in. Then, your room host can check the badge number against the official list and kick out those who don’t belong. This can be done on the front side (only allow users in that have the proper information displayed) or on the back side (kicking out users who joined a talk but don’t have the proper information displayed).

Another strategy, however, is to take life’s lemons and make lemonade. You can use this situation as an advertising strategy. Have the room host announce during introductory remarks that this conference requires paid registration and for anyone who has joined the conference but hasn’t paid needs to pay at this time, and then provide a link where the user can purchase a registration ticket. This way, if someone is there because someone else shared conference information with others, they can make it right and pay for the conference. Thus, what started as misbehavior can be channeled into an advertising opportunity for legitimate registrations.

Post-Conference Followup

Finally, after the conference, you have some final tasks. Talk with the conference team. Figure out what went well, what went poorly, and how you can improve for next time. Be sure to thank all of your volunteers profusely because, without them, you would have had to do all the work yourself.

Send out a survey to all attendees. We mentioned several form-building applications earlier. Use one of them to create the survey. Include both technical questions (i.e., how did the conference tools work for them?) as well as conference questions (how well did the speakers fill their needs?). Pay attention to the results, as they too will help you improve for next time.

Gather all of the email addresses of the attendees. They will be the people who will be most likely to want to know about your next conference!

Calculate your costs. How much did you spend? What should you have spent more money on? What should you have not wasted money on?

Then, with your task completed, you should feel satisfied knowing you have arrived—as a conference organizer of the future!

Previous: Running Online Conferences, Part 1: Conference Technology


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

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 3: Conference Documents and Technology Tests