Creating and running an online conference through Zoom

Before COVID-19 I had never run an online conference and barely been to one before. A few weeks ago, I wouldn’t have imagined doing anything like this. But I guess most of us are saying something similar. The last few weeks have deeply moved me and affected me. There are so many opportunities to continue life, work and community online. If we use technology well and remember the values of our organisation, then an online conference in the midst of a crisis can be timely, profound and crucial. Staff, guests and teams can gather together in collective real time. As we choose platforms that encourage high level relational opportunity, engagement and interaction we rediscover and reclaim something of the community and team that we are missing in lockdown.

For the past year I’ve been planning a conference for 100 women called Passion for Evangelism. It was due to happen on March 20-22nd in Derbyshire. The week before the conference we knew from what was happening around Europe that we may have to canceI. Secretly I thought that we might be the last conference to meet before the lockdown. I was so wrong! On Monday 16th March Boris Johnson announced a travel ban for the UK. This meant that although the conference could go ahead, we could not actually get there. Finally we had some clarity, our conference couldn’t go ahead as we’d planned.

That night we proposed to the team that we put the conference online. The core team met on March 18th, we discussed this as an option, prayed and decided to go for it. That conversation shaped, changed and formed what we came to know as PFE online. These are some of the amazing women who were in the team that within a space of four days went from a BVC conference to an online one. Thank you friends!

I must add very clearly. Before the 18th March my experience of running a conference online was non existent. My friends are still laughing now that I run a tech team at my church. My experience with Zoom, was a simple monthly call for 15 IFES staff across Europe. If I can do this, anyone can.

We decided that we would move the weekend conference to a one day conference and opened up the bookings once again. What happened next was deeply moving. We saw the bookings go from 99 to 150. We saw the demographic of the guests change from British women to women from across the world. ; Brazil, Switzerland, Germany, Austria, France, Spain, Serbia, Bosnia and Romania. I’d love to encourage you, don’t cancel your conference just because of COVID19. Get your best tech person, find some millenials and you’ll be fine!

I’m going to talk you through what we did. I’m hoping that this might be helpful for others in the same position that we were. Here is the programme for the original conference. You’ll see it was a weekend conference with; talks, feedback groups, meals and socializing.

Before you start planning your new conference. Take time to pause and reflect. It won’t work to simply replicate the old conference and put it online. One way to do this essential reflection is to use a SWOT analysis. With this tool analyse your new online conference and your organization in this current climate.

What do you do well? What unique resources can you draw on?
What do others see as your strengths?
What opportunities are open to you? What trends could you take advantage of? How can you turn your strengths into opportunities?
What threats could harm you? What is your competition doing?
What threats do your weaknesses expose you to?

What could you improve? Where do you have fewer resources than others? What are others likely to see as weaknesses?

After you’ve taken time to do this, then use these questions to guide you through.

1. Have a look at the original plan for your conference.

2. List all the things you were hoping that guests would receive from the weekend, consider; mains sessions, free time and meal times. For example don’t forget socialising in the evenings, lunch discussions, book plugs, try and get down every detail.

3. What are your key values for this online conference? Values are things that shape us, its our priorities, the things that are most important to us. You’ll need to be clear on this as you’ll have less time for an online conference.

4. Reflect on the answers in the SWOT analysis. What might you need to stop doing? What might you need to continue doing? What might you need to start doing?

5. Imagine now there is no Pandemic. You have chosen to do an online conference. If you could rank everything you’ve discussed. What are the most important elements, considering the context for your new online conference?

Almost anything is possible to create in some partial way thanks to technology. What do you want your COVID-19 conference version to look like? Running a conference online during COVID-19 presents some major threats. But, there are also opportunities to speak in a bold and timely way into your context.

Here is our new online conference programme. Notice the differences between the two timetables.

It seems that there might be a generational shift in leadership happening at the moment. Before COVID-19 it would be unusual for someone from the tech team to be on a senior leadership team. Never before have leaders needed tech people so much. Look out for those within your organisation that have both leadership gifts and are confident with technology. These are the kind of people that you want on your planning team. You need people who can think about these two things at the same time. It seems that there are fresh opportunities for younger leaders who are tech savvy to flourish in this crisis. As you invest and release a younger generation it may well be surprising what can be achieved.

As you begin to reimagine your new online conference. Its important to remember the context. There is a real divide now between people who are time-rich and time-poor. The world has drastically shifted from when you planned your conference. So take into account the current situation and the impact that will have on your guests. We took a weekend conference and made it into a one day conference. With colleagues we’re planning a conference in May. This is going from a three full day conference to two mornings with optional beers in the evening.

When considering your content, reflect on some of these things…

  1. You’re 10 times more likely to switch off during an online conference call than a conference
  2. 15 minutes is the optimal time for watching a video online. Make sure your talks are shorter than normal. You can break up the talk with discussion groups, we used the breakout room function for this.
  3. Optimal group conversation is groups of 4, so make sure your breakout rooms are small enough so that everyone gets to talk.
  4. Screen fatigue is a real problem, in my experience you need to half your meetings/your conference and that should just about work in terms of not being too taxing. We met with friends for a drink on Monday, we normally would have stayed for 2-3 hours, we lasted 45 minutes before we got tired.
  5. In a world that is isolated and desperate for community, work hard to bring the conference together in collective real time. Where you can do everything together in real time. Personally I think it would be more genuine and meaningful for the talk to be done on a conference app, in front of all the guests than a pre recorded video. We do not have access to collective meetings anymore – so working hard on this could be precious and profound for your conference. You can use prerecorded video’s and testimonies. But in a world we want genuine connection with people I’d encourage you to do it all live. There are many good video’s out there, but I imagine we’re beginning to reach our saturation point on watching videos. We’re longing for genuine interaction with others not just transmission of a message.
  6. Keep your events engaging, use interviews, testimonies, short videos, shorter length events (potentially half the length of normal), interactive. There are many functions for example you could ask a question how are you seeing God at work on the front line? Everyone could click on a link for a google docs, then together they could all fill this in. The end result would be hundreds of stories of how God is at work. Or you could use the chat function to share encouraging stories. Or the breakout rooms to hear what God is doing and pray for each other.
  7. Aim to reduce your material and sessions by 50%.

Having read these points, what might you need to stop doing? What might you need to continue doing? What might you need to start doing?

Its so easy to forget the human, relational aspect of a conference online, work hard at creating spaces for guests to be in small group discussions. I’ve found for some, the option of keeping breakout rooms open during coffee break and lunch is a really wonderful experience. We’re experimenting with social times, online quizzes, wine tasting, pre conference yoga. These are just a few ideas and help boost moral in a time where many are struggling.

Building a team for your online conference

Like any event you need a team but in this season you need a bigger team. If we work on 50-70% of the population getting COVID-19 at some point, then we need to plan this into our event. Potentially at any point 50-70% of your conference planning team could be ill or looking after sick family. It maybe that someone’s work changes last minute or they’re struggling with suffering, anxiety or depression due to the current situation. I’ve lost count of the number of people who say they are now busier than ever before. So let us care for our conference/event by preparing well. We’ve moved on from conferences being run by a few people, we need to reconsider team leadership and grow our teams. We need to include tech people into our planning teams and look for people who have both the gift of leadership and technology.

If you’d like to read more on growing a tech team – see here for more details of the roles needed.

Below is another example of a recent online conference run by my good friends from the IFES Young Staff Network; Heledd, Igors, Sem and Mailin. Their conference was originally a full three day conference.

We’d love to hear stories of ideas and lessons learnt from your new online conference. Please do get in touch.

Published by Nay Dawson

Hello and thank you for reading my blog. I'm married to Jon and live in Southampton with our two girls. I work with IFES Europe as their Regional Training Co-ordinator, training staff and students across Europe. In 2019 I set up Passion for Evangelism a network of creative, public female speakers. I'm a Trustee for the Cowrie Scholarship Foundation raising essential funds for disadvantaged Black British Students. I'm also a Trustee for Friends International helping welcome International students to the UK. In response to the war in Ukraine I helped set up Ukraine Connect matching refugees and hosts across Europe

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