Let’s talk virtual conferences: How should they be done?

Following the wake of Covid-19, there has been a renewed and increased interest in the delivery virtual conferences. Just one example being the ECPR who announced that their Joint Sessions of workshops for 2020 have been moved online. In this article I talk about the different approaches for virtual conferences: Streamed, social, and content delivery virtual styles. Ultimately, I ague that for operational reasons many conference organisers might be best suited to the content delivery approach. I finish of with devising the approach I would take using common off-the-shelf technologies (WordPress & YouTube) to deliver an online conference alternative.

Virtual conferences are academic events hosted either party online (as some offline-hybrid event), or completely online. They have previously been used on ethical grounds by reducing events carbon footprint. While others have used them as a method to make the event more accessible to those financially constrained, who live too far away, or to those unable to travel due to disability. However, there has since been a renewed interest in the last few months due to the coronavirus; as organisers, have sought to find alternatives to the traditional conference format following travel bans and concerns that conferences can further spreading the virus.

The attention given towards these virtual formats has been substantial. Demonstrated by Google Trends which is reporting a 1063.4% upsurge in world searches for “virtual conferences”. Overall suggesting that event organisers are researching ways to move conferences online rather than cancel them completely. After all, if university staff can work remotely and teaching can be delivered virtually, why not also conferences?

Graph taken from Google Trends, shows the increase of internet searches for "virtual conferences" has increased substantially in the last few months
When comparing the average worldwide search interest from April 2019 – Feb 2020 to March-April 2020, it seems search interest for ‘virtual conferences’ has increased 1063.4%.

Driving Interest: organisations considering if they have to offer ‘something’ or perish?

Luckily, for events planned further into the future (such as those penned into the late summer break) there is enough time to consider relocating their events online following the spread of Covid-19. But for others, time was clearly not on their side. The Political Studies Association had to swiftly cancel their annual conference on the 12th March, less than a month before the start of the event on the 6th of April. While for others, such as the prior mentioned ECPR, have significantly more time, and as a result, have the time needed to plan ahead.

These organisations, regardless of their ability to deliver conferences this year, have the benefit that they could exist without delivering offline events, at least in the short term. Both the PSA and ECPR have a sense of purpose away from conferences – publishing their own academic journals, playing host to a wider community, and so on.

But the organisation I am a committee member of, the PSA’s Early Career Network (or ECN), and many other academic societies like it, are somewhat less fortunate. There is much more onus on us to deliver what our members consider as our core aims, in the case of the ECN, plenty of members who responded to our last survey see us as an institution primarily for the delivery of events  – such as our very successful Bridging the Gap event in December last year. So realistically, to stay relevant there is a pressing need to provide something in lieu of offline events. I’m sure many are in a similar predicament. 

At the ECN, we also have to consider that the events we provide come at an important time for early career researchers, especially PhD students. The annual ECN conference, for instance, represents a unique first chance to present their work. Without which, early PhD students would miss a vital chance to air their new and developing research ideas to a welcoming, collaborative, environment. My first conference presentation was EPOP, and that was terrifying, and I can say first-hand that the ECN conference is a much better environment for a first-time presenter. Our events also play an important part of bringing PhDs and ECRs together to share and discuss their research, but also to network, to share common experiences, and to provide and to support each other in a peer group outside their home institution. I am equally sure that other academic organisations and societies offer events of equal value to their members – and it would be a true shame if they didn’t provide at least something in these somewhat trying times.

So, what’s to be done? Well, the first option is to simply cancel the event for a year. For some, that also means missing out on an organisation’s vital source of income. While the reputational hit or loss of membership (due to becoming irrelevant or failing to get their name out) could equally lead to a negative impact.

The alternative, with everything going online, is to follow suit, and host the event virtually.

And you know what? It’s not a bad idea. While the general consensus that a normal offline conference is preferable, the oft-quoted reasons for many failing to attend relevant events (distance, time, and finances) are less of an issue for virtual conferences. In addition, an online event could benefit those who are financially restricted or those who find it difficult to travel due to disability.

Let’s say you’re an organisation that’s seriously considering transferring their events online, what are your options?

Well for years, many conferences have actually been running events with online elements already. If you’ve been doing this, the shift might not be as painful. Conferences which have live-streamed their events or recorded important talks for later distribution online can simply reuse their existing infrastructure. Alternatively, some conferences have adapted to include presentations delivered remotely via conference software such as Zoom or Skype.

The events that will transition the best are semi-virtual hub conferences, which isn’t a format I’ve seen in the political field, but are super interesting nevertheless. One example of this is the Music Perception and Cognition conference in 2018, whereby one single conference was distributed across a number of locations/hubs (Montreal, Quebec; Sydney, Australia; La Plata, Argentina; and Graz, Austria), connected via the internet. Each location hosted their own talks and presentations, which other locations could either stream in or watch at a later data recorded. What they already have are the foundations of an online conference, with video hosting and methods to leave comments direct to authors.

This leads very nicely, to the first form of virtual conference I’ve encountered….

Streamed conference/slidecast

The streaming approach to online conferences is the clear next progression from the above described hybrid approaches. For instance, the ACRL (2021) which is an online ‘slidecast’ conference where each PowerPoint is synced with audio. However one well widely reported conference of this format is the Photonics Online Meet-up (POM) which had its inaugural event on January 13, 2020 – of which many eyes were placed on how successful it’s approach would be. The conference took the form of a single event online, with the option of the formation of “POM hubs” – offline centres where people can watch and interact if face-to-face interaction is a must, but not necessary.

  • The benefits of this approach is familiarity with the traditional conference format and programme. Furthermore, with everyone online at the same time, it is the closest one might get to the patterns of interaction by audience members, such as through asking post-talk Q&As
  • The negatives are that this approach (taken at its core, without recordings) is that it misses the potential benefits of allowing users to engage with the content at a time that best suits them. Even with recordings, with participation centred around when the conference is “live”, those viewing then attempting to participate with comments after the event will seldom receive the same benefits.
  • Everyone streaming at the same time is resource-intensive on server hardware.
  • The approach can be criticised by expecting similar patterns of participation on a platform where users interact very differently.

The social media only approach

The social media approach is where the entire of the conference’s normal content is posted online through a social networking site such as Facebook or Twitter. For instance, each participant might post their research as a post in a special Facebook Group – allowing other members to comment. One such example of this is the British Society for the History of Science Conference (2020)  whereby the entirety of the conference was held on Twitter. All papers where posted through a thread of 6-12 tweets written in advance.

Screenshot of the British Society for the History of Science online Twitter conference

Screenshot of the British Society for the History of Science Virtual Conference on Twitter
  • Advantages: This approach certainly makes use of the advantages of social media in terms of shareability and audiences. With the possibility of research spreading outside its original audience.
  • Participants can post questions as and when they please.
  • Facilitates smaller, but more relevant, events through ease of set up.
  • Disadvantages: Limiting yourself to a social media platform might discourage those without an account on that platform.
  • Perhaps ironically, this social media approach might discourage networking. Something I’ve noticed is that academics are more willing to spread free-flowing ideas in speech, but everything they write has to be well considered – ultimately putting them off participating. Especially so is the case when there is potential for their comments or even “stupid questions” to be seen by the whole world.
  • Functionality limited to what is offered by the platform.

Conferences as content delivery & web-forum

These styles of virtual conferences act as a single website that sits in-between an on-demand video content website and a broadcast platform – with added features such as virtual poster sessions and comment forums. Rather than the streamed approach where participation is during set times, all the conference content is posted online at the same time – followed by a set period of participation. Be it through comment sections, social media, or smaller (and multiple) group live Q&A sessions to give all users the most opportunities to participate. One example of this format this is the Society for Cultural Anthropology (2018) which hosted 60-hours of streamed pre-recorded content, but with the ultimate expectation that most of the films presented would be viewed at a later date. Each panel of videos had their own comment and chat sections where the films authors could respond. For those who wanted the traditional “streamed” experience, they could have this, but for the majority of the audience, participation was not curtailed by when particular items were live or not.

The event also contained virtual poster sessions, with pages dedicated to one or more images, which much like the films, also contained comment sections.

  • Advantages: The approach taken above allows for greater control of audience members (unlike Twitter), and of content. The approach also allows for a multitude of user types, allowing those who either saw pre-recorded content streamed live, or those who watched it at a later date to interact similarly.
  • Disadvantages: For many, conferences are all about the “here and now experience”, this format does not focus on that, which may be a disappointment.
  • Various levels of engagement – the somewhat individualisation of content removes the moderating force found in panel sessions. In normal conferences, talks which are not by well-known academics or on a “boring” sounding subject will still get heard as it will be paired with talks with more of a draw.

Bonus approach: Conferences through VR

This is an option where we simply don’t have the technology to deploy this yet, but I think we’re on our way. Platforms such as MeetinVR.net, while certainly not ready for an academic setting, show us where we are going, and represent the best chance we have for replicating the “offline” experience virtually. The greatest issue facing us for this to be a success is cost – VR headsets can range anywhere from £10 for a poor quality Google Cardboard approach, way up to the £300-£1,000 price range for a good headset. That’s not including the computer and bandwidth needed to handle it.

But holy shit, the premise is exciting, isn’t it?. Imaging being able to present your research data through interactive VR environment? I have played somewhat with turning my network graphs (For example, this one of GCHQ’s Twitter communication; or my graph of the Conservative Party Leadership Election) into a VR experience. Having people wonder through my data would make explaining what they all mean much easier. If this tech can finally get over the Gartner Hype Cycle and into production, that would be fantastic.

I’m not going to mention VRchat, where you could probably host a conference, in detail because there are probably people reading this who would be scarred for life. The community there have successfully turned an interesting technology into a toxic community.

A screenshot of MeetinVR shows an admirable attempt at VR interaction – but it’s not ready to be used in academic conferences … yet.

Is there a best approach?

While this is down to a certain level of personal taste, I’m inclined to argue that conferences as content delivery and web-forum are the best option for a conference replacement – especially those with little virtual conference experience. On the Ideological level, I’m a strong believer in not trying to replicate offline experiences online. Unless you’re going to be running the event through VR headsets, you’re simply not going to achieve what you think you are. The way we talk, communicate, and engage online is so much different to how we do in person. Ask anyone who is dealing with virtually unengaged students in zoom meetings, while they’re also sat on their phones trying to do other things. Most of the time, your resources are better spent on trying to create unique and engaging online content actually built for the web rather than unreachable offline replications.

But the biggest argument for this option is operational. The first consideration in is cost: many replacement online conferences might have a reduced or no income. Either due to the costs of cancelling the original event or due to the format change, some might feel uncomfortable charging out full-price tickets for participants. So, some of the expensive virtual conferencing software is out of the question too. The second is the ability to get the virtual conference set up in a short period relatively easily.

The approach of pre-recorded video content displayed on a commonly used CMS platform (such as WordPress) and hosted on YouTube – with comment functions enabled and encouraged is a cheap and easy(ish) deployable solution. In terms of costs, video hosting on your own is expensive, while YouTube is free, while a rudimentary WordPress conference website is simple enough to create if you have someone on your team with the skillset – with a small budget for hosting and templates. In regards to time? I’ve built websites in little under a week (including the creative and copy). Give yourself a little bit longer if you’ve never used WordPress before. But by using off the shelf themes and plug-ins, you just need to arrange the building blocks with little to no prior coding experience.

While researching this article, I came across the ‘Nearly Carbon-Neutral Conference Model’ hosted at the University of California – Santa Barbara. This is a great guide which can help those interested in the above model set up their virtual conference.

What other things should you consider: What works

  • Encouraging participation: When online, people are more inclined to ‘lerk’. As a response, you should seek to gamify participation offering prizes for those that contribute valued comments.
  • Maintaining “chair-power” is important. Keep the comment sections well moderated, and if using live video Q&A sessions, use a hierarchical communication tools that allows one person to keep the discussion on track.
  • Make sure to advertise it rigorously. Put in the same effort in promoting your online conference as you would your offline ones. The internet doesn’t make magic levels of participation. So don’t be surprised about a drop in audience numbers if you don’t promote it the same.
  • Provide an explanation of how the conference works to participants (including q&a sessions, session breaks, etc formats) with a statement of expectations that encourages attendees to participate in all of the sessions.
  • Relatedly, provide guidance on A/V and web-streaming, and provide moderators and presenters with extensive instructions.
  • Don’t make it a museum: Take all videos offline after 2-weeks. This increases the pressure for people to view content “there and then”. This also can help reassure members that online content won’t remain… haunting on into the future forever.
  • Depending on your organisation, you might decide to keep the conference in a closed system – requiring participants to log in. In some instances, you might want the whole thing to be public-facing. Think about the advantages and negatives of both.
  • Foster Social Interaction: Generate Buzz by part-associating the conference with a relevant social network
  • Provide Conference Intro’s and outros: give the opening of your conference some provenance with a grand opening speech or talk.

Finishing up

One thing the above examples demonstrates is that the availability of online services doesn’t mean your society has to be silenced by the ongoing pandemic. There are options out there, and I’m sure there are plenty more than what this blog offers. So if you’re involved with any sort of conference that offers significant value to both the pursuit of knowledge or vital experience, please don’t just cancel your event.

One question to come out of this is regarding if this style of virtual conference will become mainstream? I would argue not. Conventional conferences offer face-to-face meetings that really are invaluable. And then there’s optics. A well ran conference in an admired location, with the right group of participants can boost the prestige of an organisation.

But this doesn’t mean that the short term adoption of virtual conferences won’t change the academic landscape. I think we will start to see a shift. If enough people see the advantages in cost; time; and expanded audience, we might see our current roster of conferences supplemented by many smaller ones. More focused in their subject area perhaps. And Ultimately, I think we’ll be better off for it.

I would love to hear your experiences of online / virtual conferences! Have you been to one? Was it any good? Either pop me an email or post a comment.

References/Further Reading

Beehler, B., & Griffiths, D. (2020). Going Viral: Taking Your Conference Online for COVID-19. Inside Higher Ed. https://www.insidehighered.com/advice/2020/03/16/how-shift-your-conference-online-light-coronavirus-opinion
Chow-Fraser, T., Miya, C., & Rossier, O. (2018). Moving Ideas Without Moving People: How to e-conference at the University of Alberta. University of Alberta.  https://aroundtheworld.ualberta.ca/wp-content/uploads/2018/05/E-Conferencing-Toolkit.pdf
Grove, J. (2020). Research intelligence: how to organise a virtual conference. Times Higher Education. https://www.timeshighereducation.com/career/research-intelligence-how-organise-virtual-conference
Hiltner, K. (2016). A Nearly Carbon-Neutral Conference Model: White Paper/ Practical Guide. https://hiltner.english.ucsb.edu/index.php/ncnc-guide/
Klemm, W.R. (n.d). Eight Ways to Get Students More Engaged In Online Conferences. Blackboard. http://blackboardsupport.calpoly.edu/content/faculty/handouts/Eight_ways.pdf
Letierce, J., Passant, A., Breslin, J.G., & Decker, S. (2010). Using Twitter During an Academic Conference: The #iswc2009 Use-Case. Paper presented to the Fourth International AAAI Conference on Weblogs and Social Media. https://www.aaai.org/ocs/index.php/ICWSM/ICWSM10/paper/view/1523/1877
McCabe, B. (2018). Virtual meeting of the minds: Hopkins helps facilitate an unconventional academic conference. Hub: Johns Hopkins University. https://hub.jhu.edu/2018/04/18/displacements-anthro-19-april-2018/
Thatcher, A. (2006). Building and Maintaining an online academic conference series. International Journal of Industrial Ergonomics, 36(12). Doi: 10.1016/j.ergon.2006.09.009
University of Bristol. (n.d). Hosting a Virtual Conference: A quick guide. https://www.bristol.ac.uk/media-library/sites/transportplan/documents/UoB_Hosting%20a%20VAC_WEB.pdf
Weinberg, J. (2020). The Online-First Model: On Hosting an Awesome Online Academic Conference. https://dailynous.com/2020/03/16/online-first-model-hosting-awesome-online-academic-conference-guest-post-catharine-st-croix/
Wyld, D. (2020). Why The Time for Virtual Academic Conferences Is Now! Modern Business (Medium). https://medium.com/modern-business/why-the-time-for-virtual-academic-conferences-is-now-88ed371a0bbb
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