In 2020 I co-founded the Piscopia Initiative to encourage women and non-binary participation in mathematical postgraduate research. We were planning a big two day conference in Edinburgh for September 2020, but like everyone else we had to move it online. I want to share my personal four most important learnings that made our online conference a huge success.
Note that we set out to provide highly personalised input and guidance over the course of five days for a rather small number of selected participants. Moreover, thanks to our generous sponsors we had the funding necessary to put our ideas into practice. I am certain that these tips can be adapted to a variety of conferences and workshops and their individual circumstances.
1. Be available.
As soon as we started advertising our conference we highlightend various ways to communicate and ask questions. For us it was most effective to just post our email addresses (the ones with firstname.lastname@…, not the anonymous office@…) for people to get in touch – which they did plentiful! During the conference we used Slack to enable real time communication and easy private messaging (also between participants). We encouraged the participants to sign up to Slack by making the slides only available through this platform, such that everyone got familiar with the tool.
These obvious means of communication provided the participants with a fail-save when things (inevitably) went wrong. In our case, an autogenerated Zoom passcode ended with a full stop, which many participants didn’t realise was part of the code. With clearly defined paths of communication we were able to get everyone onto the call with hardly any delay.
2. Make it accessible.
We live in uncertain times, where some aspects may impact certain members of society more than others. To make our conference accessible to a wider audience, we offered our participants the possibility to apply for a small grant to make sure that they can take part. If there were circumstances that could potentially prohibit someone from taking part in the conference (for example, but not limited to, caring responsibilities), we had the means to support them.
However, I am well aware that few conferences are in the lucky position to be able to offer financial aid to their participants. Nevertheless, there are plenty opportunities to support your participants: ask them what timings are best for them (some might work or have caring responsibilities), ask if there are measures you can take to adapt to disabilities, etc!
3. Get them committed.
Many conference organisers I talked to noticed that only a fraction of people who sign up actually join the online meeting. Hence, it makes me very proud to say that we had a 90-100% attendance rate at our events. How did we manage this? The key lies in getting the participants committed to the conference prior to its start.
This can be done through small actions, such as asking participants to state why they want to participate and what they are most looking forward to when signing up. This can be easily implemented in Eventbrite and encourages the participants to reflect on the benefits of your conference and hence consolidates their desire to attend. This has the attractive side benefit that you get to know more about the intentions of your participants, which, in turn, enables you to deliver better content.
For our conference we were able to repurpose some of our funding to send out goodie bags to our participants before the conference, hence bringing the virtual conference into the physical world. This gift from our side encouraged the participants to “hold up their end of the bargain” by showing up. This is also known as “reciprocation”, check out the Personal MBA excerpt for more details. While not everyone has the resources to send out goodie bags, I encourage you to find creative ways to mimic their value (both offline and online): send a cute post card, provide them with an online voucher for food delivery (to replace the beloved conference dinner), partner with a software company and give out free software downloads! Be creative to achieve what’s best for your individual circumstances!
4. Embrace online.
Of course we were absolutely gutted that we were not able to hold an in-person conference, but crucially we embraced the opportunities and challenges that come with an online conference. I urge you not to try to copy your offline event in the online world, but to rather adapt your conference such that it works in this new environment.
For us, this meant rearranging the schedule such that the online events span four evenings and one morning, instead of two consecutive days in person. We had shorter sessions and more tea breaks to combat “Zoom fatigue”. Being completely online also meant that we were able to extend the invitation to the whole of the UK, rather than just Scotland. Consider the key aspects of your conference (from the participants’ point of view) and translate them into this new setting!
These unprecedented times might fundamentally change the way we meet, communicate, and share ideas. Let’s be at the forefront of this change by providing the best conference experience possible while retaining their indispensable value of knowledge exchange!