Tips from the Perfect Online Conference (Just because it wasn’t yours doesn’t mean you can’t learn from it)

By Lance Simon and Judith Nielsen


In February, 2012, the United States Forest Service held a hybrid conference – part virtual, part physical, and all-around a success. Attendance was more than double that of previous conferences, the Agency saved as much as $950,000 in travel and facility costs, the conference received high praise from an overwhelming majority of attendees, and it inspired other agencies to consider their own virtual conference. So, if you’re looking for the secrets to a four-star virtual event, you may want to pay heed to this star – the USFS conference coordinating Team. Here’s what their experience tells us:

Commit yourself.The USFS found it needed extensive planning and resources to produce its hybrid conference and had underestimated the complexity of certain phases. Virtual events can require as much time and staff support as a physical event.

Bring in the experts.The USFS recruited thought leaders from Harvard, Stanford, U.C. Berkeley, and throughout the nation, adding both value and enticement for attendees.

Start promoting early. The USFS got blogs and discussions going long before the event to get employees excited and engaged ahead of time. Virtual Services Lead, Jim McGinnis suggests organizations recruit what he calls “a champion” to facilitate the discussions.

Offer incentives.The Forest Service gave prizes to the units with the most remote participants and with the highest percentage of remote participants gathered in a single location. Attendance broke all previous records.

Support your attendees. Make sure they know the access requirements ahead of time and that they test their systems before the conference begins. Offer real-time support for those who need it.

Use a virtual services contractor. In its post-conference overview, the USFS team noted the importance of experienced, knowledgeable service providers in minimizing problems, assuring best practices and achieving optimum results. It chose the online technology company iCohere, which has been producing virtual conferences for over a decade.

Prepare your presenters. Many speakers lack experience in addressing virtual or hybrid audiences and need training. Reported Summit attendee, Jose Henriquez, “It was my first time presenting virtually and it was nerve-racking not being able to see the audience. Just when I thought I had a handle on public speaking, this virtual experience took it to an entirely different level.” Summit Virtual Lead, Jim McGinnis tried to ease such anxiety by providing most presenters with a slide show and specific instructions on how they would “plug into” the conference. Speakers got rave reviews from participants who found them knowledgeable, passionate, and more composed then apparently the presenters themselves felt.

Engage online participants. It’s important that virtual attendees feel as much a part of the event as physical attendees. “Using lots of video of the speaker, and subject matter video vignettes ensures a connection with your audience,” says Frank Keeler, President of e-Stream, who managed live webcast production at the conference. The USFS used numerous interactive tools to involve their online audience including discussion groups, blogs, and telephone conferencing. “Other virtual ways to connect,” adds Keeler, “include audio polling, virtual white boards and virtual flip charts.”

Keep the momentum going. The USFS made blogs and recorded sessions available to participants for a year following the event to encourage continued collaboration.

The conference goes on…and so do the tips.


“The above blog is produced and funded by iCohere, Inc. The Sustainable Operations Summit conference is funded by the U.S. Forest Service. Any views expressed in the webinar or blog are for general educational purposes only and do not represent any official views or positions of the U.S. Forest Service, U.S. Government, nor the Sustainable Operations Summit Core Team.”

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