virtual conference

Professional conferences are different in 2020. For those of us used to attending in-person events, a virtual conference can feel like a poor substitute. However, virtual conferences existed before the current pandemic, and will be ever more popular even when we emerge on the other side. I do miss some aspects of gathering in person for these events, but after attending multiple virtual events this year, I discovered that they can be pretty amazing, too – no jet lag or travel costs, the wardrobe is a bit less formal, and I have full control over the menu at lunchtime!

If you have been hesitant to attend a virtual event, or did but felt like it was missing something, here are my tips for getting the most out of attending a virtual conference.

Before the Event

Just as you would for an in-person event, you’ll want to make sure you are prepared before the conference starts. For a virtual fundraising event, things are a little easier… for example, you don’t have to decide which pairs of shoes to pack!

  1. Block off your calendar. If you were going to be away from the office at a conference center, you would have your out of office message up on your email and would be present at the event. (Okay, maybe you would check in a little between sessions, but you’d try really hard not to!) Just because your office is now your living room and you’ll be attending the conference from there doesn’t mean you shouldn’t put the same boundary on it. Tell your coworkers you’ll be focusing on the conference and be ready to hold your coworkers and yourself to that commitment. (Consider adding a day or a half day after the conference ends to give yourself time to review your notes before re-entering work.)
  2. Review the agenda and decide what sessions you want to attend. You’ll want to be ready to head into the right Zoom room when the time comes; you don’t want to miss the start of a session because you were reading the descriptions just as the session began.
  3. Familiarize yourself with the online platform early. Just as you would want the layout of the conference center so you would know how to find the right room for that afternoon session you were looking forward to, you’ll want to know how to navigate the online platform to get to the sessions you’ve chosen. (And no matter how the website is set up, you won’t get blisters because it’s a longer walk than you thought and you packed the wrong shoes!)
  4. Download the conference app. If the conference is using an app, I can’t stress enough how much you’ll be missing out on if you don’t use it! Many in-person events use a conference app, and my experience has been that it’s a wonderful tool that facilitates deeper engagement and connection. At a virtual event, this is even more important. You will probably be using a computer or tablet to attend the conference; download the app on your phone even if they have a web version. Many of the apps have at least some functionality that only works on mobile, and you’ll want to be able to fully utilize the tool.

During the Event

  1. Take notes – just like you would have in person! If you normally carry a notebook to take notes on, do that during the virtual conference. I generally tweet my favorite takeaways during a conference and then compile those into notes after the fact, so I also do that during a virtual event. However you prefer to do it, make sure you capture the information you’re learning!
  2. Network, network, network. For many attendees at conferences, the networking is at least as important as the educational sessions. And this is the part that looks the most different in a virtual setting. There are opportunities to do some quality networking, though! First and foremost, if the conference provides an app, use it. Post a picture of your dog watching a session with you, share your favorite takeaway from a session, start a thread where everyone can share their story of how they got into fundraising. Other places to engage include the chat feature if the conference organizers have it enabled and social media. If the event has a hashtag, you can tweet or post using it and share your experience. You can also search for the hashtag to see what others are saying and comment on their posts. Some conferences create a Facebook or LinkedIn group; if they do, join it! One of my favorite ways to network during a virtual event is with a Zoom coffee or happy hour. If the event organizers don’t have these built in, you can create it yourself and invite attendees using the app and/or social media!

After the Event

The “after” steps are the same for a virtual conference as they would have been for an in-person conference.

  1. Review the notes you took during the sessions you attended. There are two things I do when I review my conference notes. First, for each session I identify one action that I can implement within the next month. Second, I type up a summary of the things I learned and questions that came up and share it with my team at work. A bonus of virtual events is that you will oftentimes get access to a recording after the event, which will let you review your favorite sessions again if you think you may have missed capturing a key point.
  2. Follow up with your favorite speakers. Send them an email or message them on LinkedIn and let them know why you enjoyed their session and what you learned from it. (As someone who frequently speaks at conferences, I can confirm we love when people do this!) This is also an opportunity to ask a follow-up question if you didn’t get a chance to live, or if you’ve thought of something after the session ended.
  3. Take the event networking an extra step! If you met people during the conference, reach out to them to schedule a Zoom or phone call. The goal of networking is to build relationships, so whether you interacted in a conference app or spent a few minutes chatting at an in-person happy hour, this is a great step to take after the event.

So the next time you see a new virtual conference advertised or realize one you wanted to attend in person is going virtual instead, go ahead and sign up. With a bit of creativity and intentionality, you can make it worth it!

Sarah Willey

Sarah Willey

Associate Director of Annual Giving at University of Missouri - St. Louis
Sarah Willey, MA, CFRE, SMS is an experienced fundraising professional with a passion for learning, teaching, and building community. She currently works as associate director of annual giving at the University of Missouri – St. Louis and holds a master’s degree in nonprofit management from Washington University in St. Louis as well as the CFRE certification and a social media strategist (SMS) certification from the National Institute for Social Media. She serves on the board of directors of the Association of Fundraising Professionals (AFP) St. Louis Regional Chapter and chairs the AFP Global Chapter Support Committee. She also serves on the board of directors of Missouri Health Care for All and is president of her Toastmasters club. Sarah was the recipient of AFP St. Louis' Outstanding Young Professional award at National Philanthropy Day 2018 and is a graduate of the FOCUS St. Louis Impact Fellows Program. She is now pursuing a Doctor of Business Administration at the University of Missouri - St. Louis and expects to complete her dissertation in 2023. Sarah is always happy to connect with others passionate about all things nonprofit on LinkedIn and Twitter.
Sarah Willey