By Jim Bullock, October 2020

Are you paying attention to all of those numerous online meetings, webinars and online conferences that have been part of our lives over the past six months or so? At iFormulate we’ve always been home-office based so we’ve been holding web-meetings, webinars and web-based training since we started business in 2012. However, we’ve also attended numerous in-person events over the years as these have been essential ways of staying up-to-date on technical and commercial topics, as well as providing opportunities to network and to meet prospective and existing clients. So how has our experience been when attending the large number of online events that are currently on offer?

Leaving aside the regular online meetings and webinars, most online events tend to fall into three categories:

Conferences with a scientific theme – a good example of this type of online conference was hosted by SOFI, the Centre for Doctoral Training in Soft Matter run by the Universities of Durham, Edinburgh and Leeds. SOFI’s Soft Matter Showcase, held in July, was an excellent example of how online events can keep the attendee engaged. The use of the ubiquitous Zoom platform allowed all attendees to see who was attending and the use of a chairperson helped maintain engagement and focus as well as the feel of an in-person event. The presentations were short but of high quality, and were split between established experts and the SOFI PhD students. Shorter “poster pitches” were also given and there were Zoom breakout rooms where attendees could converse with poster presenters. All in all, a very well-organised and engaging event.

Conferences with a business theme – at in-person events of this type, the main sessions typically feature market insight, announcements of product launches, as well as news of technical and commercial breakthroughs. Another key feature is the ability to network with existing and new contacts, both informally as well as in pre-arranged meetings. The New Ag International and Biocontrol Africa conference, organised by Informa Connect, attempted to replicate this experience online. The event featured parallel sessions which were a mix of pre-recorded presentations as well as live panel discussions. Presentations were very varied and of a high standard and the technology was efficient, but the sessions suffered a little from lack of engagement as attendees could not tell whether others were present and there was no live chairperson to hold the sessions together. However, the networking function was very effective, an efficient meeting booking system enabled attendees to arrange online calls with new contacts both during and after the three-day event.

Trade shows. In-person, these events are usually much larger than conferences, ideally with a very large number of attendees as well as numerous exhibition stands with lots of opportunities to browse, speak informally to new and existing contacts, and to gather new knowledge and information from stands and from presentations during the day. We recently attended an international specialty chemicals exhibition that attempted to replicate these features online. Despite providing images of the exhibition hall and exhibition booths it was unfortunately not an engaging or involving experience. The number of attendees and booths appeared very few, with little reason or opportunity provided to interact formally or informally with other participants.

So, what can we conclude about best practice for online events? The first conclusion would be to “keep it live”, use a real chairperson who interacts with the presenters and ensures a good question and answer session or panel discussion. By all means provide recordings after the event, but a live stream can help ensure that the audience is paying attention on the day. The next recommendation is to let the audience know who else is at the event or session. Informal interactions between attendees (the equivalent of the coffee break or the lunch queue) and organised 1:1 meetings should be supported and encouraged. The final recommendation is to think hard about what the technology is bringing. Providing on-demand video players and images of virtual exhibition stands can be useful, but that’s really not enough to ensure audience engagement. Perhaps the providers of online platforms could get together with the makers of interactive online games such as Minecraft to produce a more involving and engaging conference experience?

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