Making the Most of Virtual Conferences
2020 has brought our lives so many changes, not just professionally but personally. A mask is no longer something people choose to do, it’s typically a requirement, even for mundane tasks like running into a store to grab a bottled water. But that’s all ancillary to how it has significantly changed our professional networking and attendance at conferences. While a number of virtual conferences are everywhere, few of us find that we can carve out the time to attend, especially during the busiest time where so many Cannabis businesses are working around the clock to become operational and meet the state’s timelines for verifications and commencements.
Some of the virtual conferences we’ve attended have been innovative and immersive, with MJ Unpacked still leading the pack in terms of the most engaging and well built to duplicate the in-person experience far better than most. However, the announcement of MJBizCon recently being transitioned to virtual-only created a wave of disappointment across the nation for those in the Cannabis industry. MJBizCon is arguably THE most important and well-attended event for Cannabis and has hosted 40k+ attendees in their annual conference in Las Vegas in December.
Given all of the connections to be made at conferences, new product discoveries found by visiting booths, and the plethora of speakers, it’s difficult to imagine just how different this year’s virtual only version of the super show. Conferences are vastly different than webinars. For those in the industry, we receive no fewer than 3-5 webinar invites per week inviting people to engage and listen to speakers on a variety of Cannabis topics. The beauty of webinars is that typically, you can watch the replay, which provides flexibility that a packed workday calendar can’t accommodate, yet we can still play the event at a later date when we have a block of time to spare in the wee hours of the night when the workday and family time has concluded.
Virtual conferences don’t offer the same luxury. Virtual conference producers usually provide attendees with the ability to rewatch missed speakers, but the actual act of networking with other attendees and the visits to booths aren’t recorded or replicable after the conference hours have concluded. So how do you successfully plan to attend a virtual conference and ensure that you’re making the most of the event and accomplishing those objectives that you’d have for an in-person event?
Expert virtual conference mavens like Kim Jage from Jage Media spend considerable time using trickle marketing to provide frequent updates to alert attendees of featured guests and can’t-miss events that will occur during the conference hours. Jage Media produces the MJUnpacked series of conferences and spend considerable time with the platforms that their events are hosted on – from making it easy to design your own booth conceptually and then pass to their development team to build, which results in a truly “almost live” booth feel.
Booths have people “manning” each booth that you can chat/interact with upon entering their space in the virtual realm. They offer “show special” discounts that you can use to purchase items using a designated promo code, encourage discussion via on-screen chat, and give vendors the opportunity to host a number of video resources on virtual TV screens in each booth to learn more about the product or service they’re providing. Some product vendors have even gone to the next level and given visitors to their booths the option to have samples mailed to them. Even more importantly, savvy vendors also have downloadable sales sheets or informational materials that you can download while visiting their virtual booth, much like the live experience, except without having a free bag bursting with materials that you haul around with branded swag only to put them in a “I’ll read that later” pile.
As an attendee, there are a few ways to make sure that your virtual conference attendance can give you a worthwhile and productive experience. Here are tips that we’ve employed to make the most of virtual conferences, as well as some from others in the virtual event space.
Block your calendar and MEAN it
Unfortunately, with all of the demands of our day-to-day, it’s easy to see a reminder that a conference is preparing to start and then make an instant decision that although you were interested, something else has landed on your desk that you’d rather prioritize. If you block your calendar for the hours of the conference as out-of-office and even better, work remotely that day, you’re far less likely to decide that the conference is truly a priority. Can’t attend the entire conference? At least block out enough time on the day of the conference to attend the portions that are truly important to you.
Build your conference plan for the speakers you most want to hear, the sessions you want to attend, and the vendors you want to visit booths for.
With some careful prework, you can isolate from the agenda the times that you’ll want to ensure you’re a part of the online event with a strategy to spend that time connecting with key people, listening to speakers relevant to your business, or booths that you feel are important to visit. Smart conference producers publish their entire conference agenda and all involved participants far in advance of the conference, giving you ample time to determine what the must-do portions are for you in particular.
Determine the people that you absolutely want to meet/network with during the event and make plans to connect with them.
You can also take advantage of a different form of networking for virtual conferences. Savvy event producers have introduced video capability if you’d like to network with someone while seeing one another, but at the very least you can connect and have a meeting virtually in a “virtual” conference room. Depending on the event’s platform, you might also have the opportunity to message one another and make plans for a 1:1 meeting outside of the conference. Conference planners are stepping up their efforts to provide a list of other attendees ahead of time, giving attendees the option to make plans to connect – or at least compile a list of those people you’ll want to connect with while attending.
Networking events, which many usually avoid, can be a great opportunity to have casual conversations without the formality of walking into a room of strangers and hoping for the best.
Some of the best virtual conferences establish “happy hours” in which you can enter a room from the comfort of your home office and just have informal conversations learning more about those in attendance, some of those casual conversations wind up being of real value later, usually when you least expect it. Be an active participant. While it’s tempting to slip in and out of presentations and remain anonymous, you’re potentially leaving some valuable networking behind. The same goes for when you’re listening to a speaker, don’t be afraid to connect with them. How many times have you made a connection at a tradeshow thinking you’d most likely never talk to someone again, only to find months later that you need a SME and then remember you met someone whose card you have in a pile and reconnect?
Virtual conferences, while certainly not most of our preferred ways to attend, offer a number of benefits – no travel budget needed, lower ticket prices, the ability to remain safe from the health threats that have become part of our every day, but also the 30-40 minute lull that can sometimes have you wandering around aimlessly waiting for the next session to begin. The crowded exhibit halls, with several trade show virgins loading up bags with branded chapsticks, keychains, more pens that you could use in a lifetime, and the constant muttering of “excuse me” while physically navigating around a crowded exhibit floor while people jockey for the best swag and are less self-aware of their surroundings that you encounter on a crowded flight or public transportation.
As much fun as many of us have enjoyed in Vegas at MJBizCon in the past, given the current demands of our industry standing up in the midst of a pandemic and economic tornado, virtual conferences just might be your best experience yet!