How to attend an online confernce

Attending an online event feels novel for many but since the outbreak of COVID-19, it’s becoming mainstream. As an organiser of in-person, and now online conferences, I have found that there is an art to attending and maximising an online event, which is quite different to the in-person experience. 

At SaaStock we have hosted two major online events this year. Both were attended by thousands of people and we have another in October - SaaStock EMEA.

We study feedback and the engagement from our events, and from that, here is my advice for getting the most out of an online conference.

  1. Be Prepared

Twenty minutes before the event is due to begin, check you have the right link to get access to the event and whether you need to download or install any new tech or create a login. You don’t want to encounter technical difficulties right as the event is due to start. Just like you’d check you have location details for a physical event to make sure you don’t miss the beginning.

You should also make sure you have a strong WIFI connection. Look at the session you absolutely don’t want to miss and even ask those you share wifi connections with if they can hold back on their wifi use during those times. These are exceptional times and wifi etiquette is fast becoming a new thing.

  1. Set yourself goals

It’s easy to be passive when a conference unfolds on your screen. But give it the seriousness that you would at an offline event. Perhaps you want to meet people, get new sales leads, or bring back five useful action points for your colleagues. Whatever it is, be clear on what you want to achieve. If by the end of the event you haven’t achieved these goals, ask why and perhaps replay some of the content to see if you can get the value you sought.

  1. Block out the time

When everything is happening on your screen in your own four walls, it might be tempting to multitask. Have the event open in one window and in another you can carry on with work as normal. It is also tempting to reply to emails and WhatsApp messages while watching a talk.

But studies continuously show how multitasking reduces learning power. Some researchers say it reduces our productivity by 40% and it can take up to 20 minutes for the brain to fully refocus on a task after being interrupted by another task.

You wouldn’t tap away on your laptop while sitting in the audience at a physical event. Just because you haven’t made the effort to travel there doesn’t mean you shouldn’t make the same effort to pay attention as you would in an auditorium. Let colleagues know you’ll be unavailable. And if you can’t resist emails, disable notifications.

  1. Get familiar with the agenda

Our online events have multiple stages, just as there would be at in-person events. This means there are several talks, workshops and panels going on at the same time. Study the agenda in advance and pick the ones you don’t want to miss. Add them to your calendar and set reminders, just in case you're in another talk that’s running over.

  1. Network

We often hear from our attendees that meeting new people is a key ROI, which is why we made it a priority to create e-networking events in different formats. Typically attendees are entrepreneurs who want to meet investors and vice versa, or talented individuals looking for job opportunities in the tech and SaaS startup world.

Sometimes, as with SaaStock’s online events, networking can start before the conference. We have an app which attendees can use to pre-book video call meetings with other attendees.

We also run short ‘speed-networking’ sessions, where participants are matched at random with another attendee. This recreates the serendipity which comes from meeting people at physical events. Not only that, it can be fairer because the online system doesn’t favour the naturally gregarious and eliminates those annoying cliques!

As well as these structured sessions, most online conferences will have a chat function too so you can ping someone a message, which many find easier than the physical equivalent of tapping someone on the shoulder.

So, make sure you take advantage of the networking opportunities.

Finally, many online conference platforms will also have a virtual ‘expo hall’ or exhibition zone with demos of new products and tech platforms that could help how you work. Don’t miss these too.

  1. Schedule breaks

By now we’re all familiar with the term “Zoom fatigue”. It’s a real problem and the sooner we acknowledge it, the better. According to academics, video chats mean we need to work harder to process non-verbal cues like facial expressions, the tone and pitch of somebody’s voice, and body language. All this additional attention consumes a lot of energy. Schedule in screen breaks and if you’re at home with a family, use these breaks to interact back with the real world!

  1. Follow up

Just like the traditional conferences, follow up with any new contacts as soon as you can, even if it’s just a brief LinkedIn message. Do it while it’s fresh and angle any follow-up with what you want to get out of that connection - advice, a potential working relationship or an introduction to someone else. Then save their details so you don’t forget about them.

With every online event, organisers improve their game. Attendees are also getting more used to the notion of learning and networking from behind a computer screen. Until we can go back to the real thing, get value for your money when you invest in an online conference and by carving out the time and committing.