Buyer’s Guide

What a Virtual Conference Platform Must be Able to Do

The last few months have shown that scientific conferences can participants meeting in person at the same location. What many organizers initially thought of as a one-time quick fix solution has very quickly proven to be a valuable alternative to traditional conferences, while simultaneously having a notable positive impact on factors such as sustainability and diversity.

However, experience to date also shows that organizers make better choices with professional solutions, both in terms of organization preparation and the participation experience. Why is that and what are the key decisions when choosing a suitable platform?

Why It's Easier to Work With a Conference Platform

If you rely on a complete solution from a single provider for the virtual conference from the start, you will have much less hassle with it than if participants have to constantly switch between several tools from different software providers during the course of the conference.

Combining several applications by using separate software for registration, abstract management and livestreams is possible, at least in theory. In practice, however, it quickly becomes clear why such an approach can add unnecessary stress and create technical complications.

Simple & Secure

With the patchwork approach, the hurdle is already higher from the start, because participants have to find their way around through several different looking environments, all of which could require a separate login. That's quite a lot to expect for a single conference. Most people would therefore probably use the same password for all conference applications for the sake of simplicity. This would be at the expense of security, but at the same time it would not be the only potential security risk. In addition, personal data would be distributed across multiple tools, making it more opaque and difficult to track which servers hold which data and who exactly has access to it.

It is also questionable whether participants would whole-heartedly pay attention to all the applications. An extra tool that has little to do with the regular conference program and is mainly used to introduce the sponsors will probably be less popular than all the others, which may not exactly encourage one or two sponsors to return.

A virtual conference platform, on the other hand, can combine all functions under one roof and a single login, making things much more convenient for participants and organizers. Being able to log in once and use all functions is much closer to the character of a face-to-face event, where participants can automatically have access to all options open to them after check-in.

Constantly Up-to-date Data

A single platform solution for a virtual conference also makes it easier to keep all data synchronized and up-to-date. In this regard, too, using several tools from different providers can produced worse results if there is no way to exchange data between applications with an easy-to-use interface. In the worst case, all changes would have to be made manually. This is error-prone, can take a lot of time, and someone from the team always has to keep track of the current dataset and when something still needs to be updated.

Quick Help

Working with more than one software provider also means having to be prepared for more than one potential vulnerability. When problems arise, it can be difficult to know exactly which vendor to contact. If the problem involves data exchange between applications, you may even need to contact more than one vendor and then coordinate the simultaneous troubleshooting steps accordingly.  

No one wants to have to describe a problem several times only to have someone on the other end of the line forward your issue onto someone else who can actually help, or the e-mail inquiry finally lands with the right person.

An inclusive virtual conference platform proves to be much more time-saving here, too, and in two respects; because customer support can usually be reached directly - ideally even during the conference - and the data exchange problem is eliminated.

What Distinguishes a Great Software Provider from the Rest?

Many Years of Experience

Since the end of 2020, more and more virtual conferencing solution providers have been entering the market. It can be alarming to learn that they are often selling their products alongside their actual business, although they previously had little or no contact with the event industry and even now only focus part of their attention on it.

The vast majority of these vendors focus on business solutions, which is why special features for scientific conferences are often completely missing. This is a stark disadvantage when comparing their services to providers who have been managing academic and medical conferences for many years. For this reason alone, some providers are much more qualified to understand what the transition to virtual conferencing means, what challenges it entails and how to best support organizers.

Continual Platform Development

How a provider responds and adapts to these challenges is also important. This is well illustrated by the development of the software, because virtual conferences will surely look different in two years' time than they do today. A virtual conferencing application needs regular maintenance and must continue to evolve. Regular updates and new features show that there is a team in the background that is constantly working on the technical side of the software and never runs out of ideas. Therefore, before signing a contract, always ask whether and how often new releases are scheduled.

Reliability

How reliable a software is can also be seen from the virtual conferences it has already supported. References are a good sign that the software can actually do what it promises. However, take a close look at the projects. The more similar the events are to the conference you are planning, the more evidence there is that the software can meet your expectations. If the solution is mainly used for corporate events, on the other hand, it might not work quite as well in the context of scientific or medical congresses and you may need continue your search.

If the vendor's reference list shows that they work with some of their customers over and over again, then this is also a good indicator that you, too, may have found a well suited solution. However, whenever each new conference uses a new software platform, this will cost needless extra time until the team has familiarized itself with all the important features and functionalities.

If the provider publishes testimonials from individual organizers on its website, pay attention to what they rated particularly well - this also reveals a lot about quality of service and how they are treated.

Personal Consulting

Investing in a virtual conferencing software is not a casual decision. In many cases, longer discussions precede signing a contract for services where organizers are guided through the software or different possibilities are illustrated. One very important aspect to pay attention is: How does the provider respond to your spontaneous question or inquiry?

Do they immediately provide an offer, insisting a commitment as quickly as possible? Or do they take their time and perhaps consider together how the software can help plan and implement your virtual conference in a very individualized and specific way?

If during such a conversation there is the realization that the solution is not suitable for the type of event or for the number of participants, this should be clearly communicated to avoid false promises that later end in disappointment. "At least I found something that works to some extent" should never be the guiding principle when making a selection.

A provider who shows genuine interest in the organizer’s problems and tries to solve them also shows an earnest effort in making them feel taken seriously. This should be evident in online presentations and meetings. Proceed with caution if you receive a prefabricated script, instead of demonstrating the specific functions that play an essential role for your virtual conference. A solution that can be tailored precisely to the event’s program through consultation and good advice brings additional benefits to the participants, who should also have a unique conference experience.

Let's briefly return to the previous point, reliability. If a provider has been supporting and working with longstanding clients for several years and they keep coming back, it probably safe to assume that such long-term customer relationships are the result of personal, attentive, effective project support.

What Features Does the Virtual Conference Platform Absolutely Need to Have?

Livestreams

Live content always enlivens a virtual conference because participants can get involved by asking questions, taking part in polls, helping decide the topics or even joining in the discussion themselves.

If you want to make the conference content available after the live event, adding value to the event, the software should also allow you to do this. This is useful for participants from different time zones who cannot be present for all parts of the program, for those who register late and miss content, and as a general archive for re-watching.

Pre-recorded Videos

Videos can be uploaded before the virtual conference begins and be ready on demand when it starts. This gives you time to produce the content at your leisure; and on the other hand, they allow participants to move around the virtual conference platform on their own schedule.

For uploaded videos, there should also be a time-release function to schedule the videos’ availability - for example, following another program item that they complement.

Networking & User Profiles

A virtual conference is first and foremost a social experience, which is why a conference platform should have this in mind at every conceivable point. Contacting interesting participants, asking speakers questions, and participating in short polls are excellent ways to connect everyone to create a sense of community. If everyone simply sits in front of their screens and watches video after video, tremendous opportunities to engage and interact with your participants have been lost.

But because many are not yet too familiar with the virtual conference format, and there are generally different personal preferences and habits to contact others, the platform should provide opportunities for informal video, audio and text communication.

To get in touch with others, however, it is not enough to simply provide the chat and messaging functions. It is unlikely that anyone will write to a stranger on their own if they can't see much more than their name. When, however, there is also a personal profile available, showing additional relevant information like field of research, employer, etc., it becomes much easier to approach someone. If the organizer also offers networking opportunities such as breakout sessions and other small group activities as a part of the program, participants can get extra value out of the conference.

Online Registration and Program Overview

Virtual conferences can do without many things that are essential for an on-site, face-to-face event. Attendee registration is not one of them. Unfortunately, managing people, bookings and payments is often not part of many virtual solutions despite being a very essential requirement for most events. Therefore, you must rely on an additional piece of software. Sometimes this doesn't work out so well if the two solutions can't manage to exchange data.  

This is much easier with a solution that combines registration and ticket sales within the virtual conference platform. Consider additional registration options such as providing tickets that entitle participants to attend only certain program items - for example, individual day tickets or workshops with limited capacity. In such cases, if the virtual conference solution is not linked to the registration software, access rights must be assigned manually for each individual person.

Contribution Management

Since a large portion of the program at scientific conferences usually consists of presentations by researchers, this is another indicator in favor of a comprehensive solution provider. Researchers must submit their contributions, which are then reviewed. In best case scenarios, the organizer can use the software to customize the review process. Once the final evaluation is complete, accepted contributions easily become part of the virtual conference program without importing and exporting data between platforms. If you work with an integrated solution, you do not have to create them again on the virtual platform as individual parts of the program, rather only set the date and time, quickly build your event’s program.

Scientific Poster Presentations

The situation is similar for scientific contributions presented as posters. All posters accepted by the program committee should appear on the virtual conference platform in a poster gallery that can be visited by other participants.

It’s even better if this can be linked to interactive and social features. Even if the poster presentations are not part of the regular event program, there should be the option to talk to the authors anytime, to discuss and to ask them questions about their research.

If you want to award prizes for the best posters, you should choose a virtual conference software that allows participants to easily rate each poster.

Customer Service & Support

Virtual conferences have the distinct advantage of eliminating limited room capacity and thus opening up the event to a larger audience. Scientific conferences in particular benefit from this and become more diverse by inviting and connecting people who would not have considered attending on site. However, the more people to manage and the more extensive the program becomes, the more likely it is that questions or technical challenges will arise. All the better if organizers can then rely on a provider to solve the problems.

Even if this is not a direct feature of the software on the surface - you should never neglect the question of where to get help when you need it. It should be clarified in advance, for example:

  • Who is responsible for which types of problems?

  • Can support be guaranteed during the live virtual conference?

  • How quickly will requests be responded to?

  • Does the provider offer help (tutorials, online help, resources)?

Comprehensive customer service with support should be a minimum expectation, but unfortunately it is not always the case. Some providers do have technical support, but outsource it so that external companies handle requests. These companies do not know the software as well as a team that uses it on a daily basis, develops it together and personally supports the conferences.

But the ability for you to outsource tasks is okay, for example, to have the provider set up the virtual conference or registration according to your wishes.

If you plan to use the software for a longer period of time, training sessions can be a helpful way ensure you have a good working knowledge and independence so that you can manage your virtual events more easily by yourself, provided that such training is offered by the provider.

What Other Features Are Helpful?

Sponsor Integration

If you typically work with and rely on sponsors for your face-to-face conferences, there should be no reason why they cannot participate at your virtual conference. However, many organizers are finding it difficult to integrate their partners properly.

Some companies are already more experienced as sponsors of virtual conferences, while others are not at all. Whether based on experience level or desired outcomes, it is best to offer your sponsor partners a choice between several sponsor packages. This also works much better with an all-inclusive professional conference software, through which sponsors can directly register and select the package they want.

On the virtual conference platform, participants should ideally be able to view a detailed profile for each sponsor—but not only the names and texts of the companies should differ. Such profiles that look easily interchangeable quickly become boring to participants. The integration of videos, photos and helpful materials for downloading offers more inviting opportunities to engage with the sponsors.

A virtual exhibitor stand is still not enough, however, because experience shows that many participants prefer to devote their attention to the program rather than searching through the sponsor section. The platform should therefore be able to integrate sponsors and their offers directly into the event’s main program. Think, for example, of advertising opportunities that extend across the platform but can be kept discreet, or sponsored sessions in which partners also help shape parts of the program.

Statistics

Especially, but of course not only, for sponsors, it is interesting to see how strongly their presence was perceived by the participants of the virtual conference. Information about this can be found in the figures and analyses that the software provider should send you after the event. Good statistics provide you with data on how popular the individual program sessions were, how many messages were sent and on which sub-pages most participants clicked.

For some organizers, such numbers are more important than for others. On the other hand, they are always a good basis for how you can design your next event.

Matchmaking

In addition to the networking options already presented, a matchmaking function provides another means of making participants aware of other people who are not only attending the same conference, but who are also interesting in the same topics. In order to avoid having to go through each individual profile of the other participants, the platform can suggest the people with whom there is the most overlap in terms of research interests. It is quite possible that an important future cooperation or partnership could develop from such a suggestion.

What Else is Important for Organizers to Consider?

Switching to a Different Conference Format

Virtual? Hybrid? On-site? Since 2020, organizers have had to seriously consider two more formats to choose from - as long as the current legal restrictions allow for such a choice. But as the world adjusts to future expectations, there will always be the option of holding, at least part of, the conference virtually.

Perhaps the final decision will sometimes need to be made after an initial decision is chosen, when, for example, it becomes apparent that the demand for tickets exceeds the number of scarcely remaining on-site seats available. Then it's good if, at least from a technical point of view, the change is not a problem and a virtual conference platform can be easily connected if necessary.

Data Protection

Who owns the conference data? Where is it stored? Who has access to it? Especially in the field of science and research, participants are usually very interested to know how their personal data and the results of their work are handled. This questioning need for knowledge is welcomed in times when apps are often granted all permissions and data protection agreements are agreed to without even having read them.

Organizers who take great care to ensure the possibility of digital self-determination, even at virtual conferences, are doing the right thing. There are indeed some virtual solutions that do not comply with the provisions of the GDPR and whose actions are not transparent when it comes to data storage. Extra caution is advised with non-European providers, who usually process part of the data outside of Europe, which means that you as the organizer lose some control over the data you are responsible for.

There is then no guarantee that the event and personal data will stay in Germany or even the EU. You should therefore specifically ask the software provider whether they have a solution that does not pose a data protection risk or whether they can offer alternatives. Sometimes the problem is not the virtual conference platform as a whole, but individual components. For example, there are tools for participants to exchange information with each other that are less risky than Zoom and, in the best case, can even be hosted by the provider itself.

Unfortunately, the self-determination of the organizers (and participants) is sometimes limited by the software provider's self-determined data collection frenzy. As always, when data is collected and stored, you should weigh up to what extent this makes sense. In the case of a virtual conference, extensive data collection is questionable on the one hand, and often completely unnecessary on the other. Some providers justify this with better statistics that are available afterwards. It doesn't matter to anyone which private chat messages the participants sent each other or who contacted whom and how often. For you as the organizer, it is sufficient to know that the chat feature was used often and with pleasure and that it served its purpose. If the provider shares anonymous statistics with you and can guarantee that the data and all messages will be deleted after the virtual conference, you might want to consider their solution in terms of data privacy.

3D or 2D?

Some providers decide that a virtual conference should look as much like a face-to-face event as possible. The fact is that this usually poses completely new and unnecessary problems, as already demonstrated by some of the attempts of 3D simulated conferences.

Many of these solutions promise organizers a particularly real conference experience. What is real, however, are the problems from the world of face-to-face events when they are transferred to the virtual world. Difficulties with finding your way around at an on-site event are a good example of something that is annoying and should actually not be replicated at all in virtual conferences. Unfortunately, it does happen when attendees have trouble navigating a 3D model of an event hall when trying to navigate to the room they need. The time spent navigating an avatar through the corridors alone could be better used engaging with the actual content of the virtual conference, while the hall replica does not fulfill a concrete purpose.

The setting also often seems strangely rigid and artificial, having quite little to do with a real conference. When the other participants’ avatars float by, but at most reveal the person's name when you click on them, and no additional information, there is no benefit for networking. What is the incentive to start a conversation with unknown people?

Don’t forget the long loading times. It may well take a little longer to find a room at a face-to-face event every now and then, but at least then you don't have to wait every step of the way for the environment to load completely, along with all the needless details. Participants might be located in regions and places where fast internet speeds are still not available everywhere. And everyone else will soon be disappointed as it becomes clear that so much more thought has been put into creating an on-site feeling instead of focusing on how to create a valuable virtual conference through interesting content and providing possibilities for collaboration. With so little benefit, such seemingly “realistic” solutions also come at a considerable price, many times higher than a virtual conferencing platform that leverages the best opportunities of an online format.

How much can a Virtual Conference Platform Cost?

While software vendors were cautious about pricing details in the early months of the pandemic, there are now some that are wooing organizers with comparatively inexpensive virtual conference packages.

What seems tempting at first should raise initial doubts, at least at second glance. As soon as a digital product is offered at a very low price, caution is advised. This is either because the users themselves become the product, because they provide data that is stored and linked without their specific consent, or because the functional scope of the solution is limited. The latter can quickly become a problem, especially for scientific conferences, if not all functions are included to the desired extent - and many software providers primarily address companies that only focus on business solutions without the special needs of the academic community.

When making a selection, we also recommend that you not only look at the financial costs, but also expand the term "costs" to include the time and effort factor. How much time does it cost to set up and manage the virtual conference? If the platform limits and several solutions have to be combined, you will have to correspondingly invest more work to get everything up and running and to monitor it during the conference. Is someone available to assist you? How quickly is help available? These are also points that may cost additional time. The majority of vendors who advertise low prices will not offer helpful advice or standby support. Both significantly contribute to the success of a virtual conference, but only become noticeable as a major annoyance when you realize that they are not part of the provider's range of services.

Cost should therefore never be the main criterion that rises to the top of your list. Virtual conferences always come with savings elsewhere, for example when no location needs to be rented or no catering is required. Tickets also don't have to be available for free just because the conference is held digitally. On the contrary, many more tickets can actually be sold because the restrictions imposed by the venue capacity and geographic location are removed. A good virtual conference platform lets you define different offers and tailor them to different groups of people - this also pays off.

It's also important to take a close look at what else the software provider offers. Are they charging for features that aren't needed? Having a complete platform is optimal for a virtual conference, but not if half of the features are not needed for the event but still have to be paid for. Are there hidden costs included? Do you understand all the details? Some offerings list a whole host of specific terms that organizers often don't even know what they actually mean in the end in terms of real numbers. This is especially true of livestreams and video content storage. If in doubt, always ask. A reputable provider will take the time to explain the individual positions to you and present the offer in such a way that such questions are not even necessary.

How can we help you?

Are you still not yet sure which solution is the right for your virtual conference? Feel free to contact us with your exact requirements.

Jump to our interactive checklist

Checklist for Selecting a Virtual Conference Platform

The following checklist provides an overview of the features – organized by category – that are important when deciding on a conference platform. If you don’t know whether one of the software solutions you’re considering contains a particular feature, consult the checklist and ask the provider about the things that are most relevant to you. When possible, arrange an online presentation with them to have a look at the features yourself.

Checklist for Selecting a Virtual Conference Platform

The following checklist provides an overview of the features – organized by category – that are important when deciding on a conference platform. If you don’t know whether one of the software solutions you’re considering contains a particular feature, consult the checklist and ask the provider about the things that are most relevant to you. When possible, arrange an online presentation with them to have a look at the features yourself.

Create your own checklist.

Livestreams

Pre-recorded Video

Networking

Online Registration

Contribution Management

Scientific Posters

Customer Service and Technical Support

Statistics

Sponsors and Exhibitors

Data Privacy and Data Security

Easy Handling of the Platform

My Personal Additions