How To Run A Successful Online Event

4 comments

How To Run A Successful Online Event

We aren’t in a Kansas Hotel anymore.

Just like Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz, event organizers and attendees alike have woken up to the realization that we’re not in that familiar place anymore. And for us all, just as in the Wizard of Oz, what we know worked in Kansas, doesn’t necessarily work online.

For those of you who prefer your literary references to be a little more highbrow…

“The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.” LP Hartley, The Go Between.

As organizers and participants, we need to recognize that this will not change any time soon (sorry to break it to you if this is news), and work towards building better experiences for everyone that utilize the benefits and advantages of our new virtual venue rather than try to replicate the old model.

We all need to think about designing events from the outset in a different way. In March 2020 we ran Business of Software Conference Europe as an online event. Since then, I’ve also sat through a huge number of other events too, as I’m sure you have.

My main reflection:

Online events will struggle to engage your audience and may seriously harm your reputation as an event organizer if you don’t design your online event in a completely different way.

It doesn’t have to be like this.

How To Run A Successful Online Event

Here are our thoughts on how to think about designing and running events that work online; distilled from hundreds of hours of designing, delivering and watching online conferences.

Wizards of BoS How To Run A Successful Online Event

Some BoS thoughts on how to run a successful online event

We can’t just run some talk videos and call it a conference. It is a waste of everyone’s time and, more importantly, a massive wasted opportunity to focus on making the things that are better, better.

Here are some of our learnings about why so much online content is more boring than it should be and what you, as an event organizer, can do about it.

Why online events are boring and how to make them work for you.

Firstly, some thoughts on how you can avoid the big mistakes to avoid. Without going into any of these in any detail whatsoever, we think that these are the main reasons that online event can be dull and suck:

  1. Trying too hard to replicate a physical event.

  2. Bad video/audio quality.

  3. Little or no interaction between attendees.

  4. Trying to do too much.

It is not the critic that counts though, so we wanted to share our thoughts on how to solve the problems.

So how do we think you can make online events great?


We’re going to break this into four parts:

  • The Event Purpose

  • Designing the Event

  • Designing the Talks

  • Running the Event

How to Run A Successful Online Event

1// The Event Purpose

Be clear about the Job your event does

People attend conferences and events for lots of reasons – to learn, to meet interesting and useful people, to generate leads for their sales teams, to speak in order to help them announce new products, to hire people, or to get in front of investors or customers.

It is critical that you don’t try to do too many things at the same time.

It won’t work. Start with the single most important thing your event is supposed to do and work from there.

For us at BoS, our most important job is to help attendees learn from others about how you build great software and great companies.

There’s still a need, a desire, and demand to learn new skills, hear new ideas and make new connections with other smart people. BoS conference talks and the hallway track are well-regarded because we offer our attendees a combination of content and community that you just don’t get anywhere else. Sales-pitch free, long-form, thoughtful, open and honest conversations with speakers and other participants that have had a transformative effect on companies across the globe. There is still a demand for great content and great networking.


2// Designing the Event

Don’t just replicate an offline event

Make the best use of the medium you’re using. When we were contingency planning BoS Europe to incorporate a live stream for participants who were not able to travel, it was inevitable that the format would have to bolt this into the physical event. Going fully online meant we could rethink the experience and focus on making this work for everyone.

Remember: being online can be exhausting.

Watching a screen for a day is exhausting and it is more tempting to dip into other work when you are online and not in an auditorium. One of the main reasons people come to conferences is to meet with others. If there is no connection between participants – or the interactions are too random – a lot of the value is lost.

Thoughts on networking

There is still a demand for great content and great networking.

Create more ways to encourage interaction and discussion with other attendees. Topic Rooms and Breakout discussions – for us, moderated worked better for most attendees though some found random interactions were more easy than in person.

There was less concern when you dropped into a room about whether the people there were already engaged in a conversation than there was when you were, for example, standing next to two people having a conversation while everyone was in line for a coffee.

Give people breaks – sessions should incorporate at least 5 minutes per hour when nothing happens, people are encouraged to move away from the screen, grab a drink, go to the bathroom, let the dog out.

Virtual exhibit rooms are about meeting the supporters, random chat/connections can make a difference but you need to ensure that the ‘density of quality’ of the participants is high – even more so than at a physical event.

If every time you meet someone randomly, they are trying to sell you a service you don’t want over a poor internet connection you will stop meeting people quickly. Small group conversations can work quite well if people are given a clear focus for a conversation and the ability to follow up with individuals they meet once the exercise is complete.

The agenda needs to work online.

Online – short attention spans, competing stuff happening, no one knows if you sneak off, there is less pressure to be present.

We found having mandatory 5 minute breaks every hour worked for people more than having a suggested break – some people couldn’t pull themselves away.

Literally no one wants to sit through eight hours of talks watched through their screen every day. Not at a conference anyway. That’s a Netflix thing…


 3// Designing the Talks

Brevity is a virtue

  • A series of long form talks and panel discussions is not necessarily the best way to deliver content live online. Long form talks and panel discussions can be exhausting for the viewer. Long form talks and panel discussions do not always make best use of the medium to deliver great content and learning.
  • Make talk sessions shorter than you would normally run them.
  • Make talks short.

Three lines become three words with the same message.

Talks don’t need to be delivered live

In fact it may even be better to pre-record and have them available in advance of the main event so that people can watch in their own time and then focus on the follow up and interactive parts of a session.

We pre-recorded some of the talk sections prior to the event in order to minimize the chance there would be technical/streaming issues.

Pre-recorded versions also offer other significant advantages:

We could edit the talks so that if a speaker made a mistake, lost their track etc, it would not appear in the final edit. NB this is much easier online than when someone is on stage because if they’re walking around the stage you would end up with a lot of jump cuts. Presenting to a screen means the jumps are imperceptible – or the viewer thinks their internet glitched.

You can seriously tighten up the talk lengths with even basic editing skills. This also frees speakers up so that they can interact with the audience whilst the talk is running.

Speaker Guidelines.

A short doc. (ALL docs should be a short doc), with some ideas to help speakers do great talks. They are helpful for you as an organiser but also help your brilliant speakers do brilliant talks.

Don’t expect studio set ups. Showing how you can get the best results with even very simple setups is best.

Suggest and test the simple things:

  • Camera angle
  • Ideal background (I really, really, wish we had offered speakers some lightly branded background jpegs)
  • Lighting set up
  • Distance from camera/amount of speaker head in screen
  • Microphone use. We found best results come (in order):
    • speaker has headphones with separate high quality mic
    • speaker has headphones with good inbuilt mic
    • speaker has headphones and uses computer mic

 4// Running the Event

Try to keep things simple

The Perfect Platform It’s tempting to think there is a magic solution out there that allows you to perfectly run a successful online event with one platform that keeps everyone together. No matter what the marketing people say, it doesn’t exist… yet.

You have to accept that and stop trying to find the perfect solution.

Reverse engineer your event in the knowledge the perfect platform does not exist. Put all the important links, together in one place (for us we used our event home page). Make it exceptionally clear how you can get help from the team at any time – Slack, an email address that is monitored, a chat or Zoom room.

Session transitions need a lot of thought. Every virtual event platform has its quirks: from being able to watch everything from a single URL, through managing transitions between sessions.

As an organizer, you need to know the system inside out. Spending five minutes watching someone try to add a new speaker, while the existing speaker is still speaking is frustrating for everyone and people lose interest quickly. Rehearse the talks, the transitions, the changes in format, and include people in your team who are not running the controls. Try to break it – you will.

Try to understand what people did that made it go wrong and think through your plan to cover when it happens.

Be creative and encourage your participants to contribute beyond asking a question in a chat room.

Who has the best background? Most enthusiastic participation from a pet/child? Recognise that the rules you might set for people in an auditorium do not apply. Encourage, recognise, and embrace that.

Find ways to introduce group conversations, exercises, different formats. Webinar streams have their place in the world, dare to do better.

REMEMBER – IT WILL GO WRONG.

Guaranteed. Get over it.

The problem you have is that no matter how much you anticipate problems, and practice everything to avoid them, something will go wrong. The thing about unforseen problems is that they are, well, unforseen…

Have a backup plan for everything. We ran a much anticipated session a year or so ago with several hundred people lined up for a Zoom Hangout. Remember that time when Zoom went down for everyone a year or so ago? It was then. We now have Google Hangouts set up, just in case we have to send a link to all the registered participants at short notice. We have an email set up so that if we have to send that link, we don’t just paste a bunch of email addresses into an email.

Failure to prepare, is preparing for failure.


Hope that is useful for you if you are thinking of planning an online event.

We’re always happy to share ideas. We think it is important that the conference and event industry is able to deliver online in a way that excites, entertains, educates and brings the community together.

We cannot wait to get back online in September for BoS USA Online 2020 and hope that everything we have learnt, and everything we are experiencing will result in something spectacular for you to enjoy and be part of.


Upcoming Events

BoS USA Online 2020

Don't Miss a Thing - Get BoS Updates

Want us to let you know about new talk videos, speaker AMAs, Business of Software Conference and other event updates? Join the smart people who get BoS updates. Unsubscribe anytime. We will never sell your email address.


4 responses to “How To Run A Successful Online Event”

  1. Gary Baker says:

    What software/technology are you using to stream the event?

    • Mark Littlewood says:

      Hi Gary,

      We used Zoom for the video streaming of talks and also for meeting rooms etc. We have the webinar function and professional meetings which allow us to create breakout groups etc. We also did a lot of stuff through Slack.

      Having looked at a lot of emerging platforms that promise to be custom built for conferences, eg HopIn, our strong sense was that none of them were able to offer reliable video or a compelling networking solution.

  2. Rachel Kerr says:

    Really, really helpful, thank you for sharing.

    • Mark Littlewood says:

      Most welcome Rachel. Be excited to see what you people do too. Would suggest a coffee and a chat but… :-)

Leave a Reply