Note: I was brought on in a freelance capacity to organize the Discoverr Conference. The thoughts and opinions below are my own, and don’t reflect the Deliverr brand.
There are very few undertakings I would forego sleep for, and Discoverr is one of them, now two years in a row. I can officially say I’ve done 4 a.m. eyelid exercises right before speaker meetings to avoid squinting on camera.
As with last year, there was a lot for me to learn and even more to organize this time around. We went from six sessions, 17 speakers, and six hours of learning in 2020 to 19 sessions, 40+ speakers, and 10 hours of learning in 2021.
Here are a few things we did differently, and what I learned this time around.
Lessons from organizing a 2-day virtual eCommerce conference
80% coffee. 20% stress. = Me during all things Discoverr
Upgraded our webinar software
Last year I had to do Zapier gymnastics to sew together different webinars to make a 2-day event. That was with 6 sessions. This year, we had 20, and that workaround wouldn’t be feasible. So, I did some research and selected a better webinar software called BigMarker. I cannot recommend them enough. They have a responsive support team, great features, and have thought of everything.
Features I especially appreciated:
- Automatically redirect viewers in one webinar to a custom URL once it ends. We used this to send attendees in one session to the next one.
- Set custom backgrounds. We created branded event backgrounds and gave speakers the option to use them.
- Presenter audio and video checks with a prep room that does an automated system check and provides a webinar room preview.
- Automate recording and viewer permissions, so you can record select events and only open access to registrants.
- Send out offers and downloads, pin a sticky note to the chat, and highlight other key information.
- Direct and private chat between presenters to coordinate and discuss in real time.
- Ability to upload video, audio, presentations, and offers.
The only thing I would have liked is if their email builder was more flexible. We had to create a few workarounds to get the formatting we wanted, and there was no option to add images other than a header.
Shortened the sessions
Last year, each session ran approximately an hour long. This year we kept things to 30 minutes. Other events I had been observing kept things even shorter, at 20 or 15 minutes.
This seems to be a good length for the era of webinar fatigue.
Tip: Make sure your moderators start on time, because starting 5 minutes late in a 30 minute panel cuts 17% of the originally allotted time, and 5 minutes of a 20-minute session is 25% of the time.
Enhanced design assets
We had a design powerhouse behind our landing page, promotions, and communications this year. Thanks to her, we were able to provide animated social graphics to announce every speaker, speaker promotional images they could use to announce their attendance, and branded ads and emails to unify our communications.
Staggered traffic drivers
We noticed ebbs and flows in attendance throughout the day, which means a bulk of registrants joined during the first couple sessions of the day, and then there was some drop off as we sent them to each subsequent session.
However, we noticed that there were a few “heavy-hitters” that drew their own crowds. We had them scheduled sparingly throughout the day to bump up attendance mid-day and toward the end of the event.
Next time, I would suggest alternating sessions based on what we expect to draw the most interest, to keep engagement high throughout the day.
Outsourced prize logistics
Finally, we took some of the prize mechanics to an outsourced service. This event used Rizort Spotlight, where we sent emails to the Rizort team and they gave winners access to a dashboard to select their prizes.
Online summit best practices
Now that we’ve covered some of the cool things Discoverr did differently this year, let’s go into some best practices that I continue to harp about in all my webinar and event-related articles (and how I applied them to this event).
Do your research beforehand
Keep an eye on similar events that you’d like to emulate. Look at:
- How their landing pages are laid out (speakers first? sessions first? prizes first?)
- What prizes they’re highlighting to encourage attendance
- Which topics they cover
- What their registration flow is like
- Which sessions got the most engagement (sign up and see for yourself)
- What formats they followed (single or multi-track, one day or two, online or hybrid, etc.)
I suggest signing up for a few of them to watch what they did. A few events I liked were DTCX by Gorgias and eCommerce Week LA by Hawke Media.
Want to see some landing pages and emails for inspiration? I’ve been taking screencaps of event websites and registration pages, emails, and ads to watch who does it best. You can find them linked in my blog on webinar strategy.
Don’t overlap with other industry events
This was a constraint of timing and a sudden upcropping of 2000 industry events. Ideally, your event wouldn’t overlap with any other similar industry events. However, it was hard to avoid as there were a ton of other things happening around the same time.
Here’s just a small sample of surrounding events that caught my eye:
- Xperience Commerce by Shogun (Sept 14)
- Make it Big by BigCommerce (Sept 14 to 15)
- TikTok World (Sept 29)
- Tinuiti Live Commerce (Sept 30)
- eCommerce Week by Hawke Media (Sept 27 to Oct 1)
- The Black Friday Summit by Klaviyo (Oct 4 to 6)
- OceanWaves by FreightWaves (Oct 6)
- Linn Academy by Linnworks (Oct 6 to 7)
- Commerce+ by Shopify (Oct 13)
- Amazon Accelerate (Oct 20 to 21)
Limit communications to three or fewer channels
You should limit your planning and coordination to three channels at most. This is to ensure a clear channel for different types of communication (quick messages, important updates, milestones, etc).
An example of this would be:
- Notion for a high-level overview of the event (and where to find key information)
- Asana for project management and progress tracking
- Slack for quick inter-team communications
This also lessens the number of places you have to check to find any information you’re looking for.
What you don’t want is a thousand email threads, people leaving comments in 20 different Google Docs, and messages getting lost on Microsoft Teams when everything else is on Slack.
Maintain an online folder of assets and information
Google Drive has been my go-to for every content project I’ve run, so it came naturally to upload all of the graphics and assets there. I suggest keeping all of your planning documents, shared slides, and design assets in one main event folder with sub-folders to organize them all.
For example, you might have one main folder with sub-folders of:
- Speaker photos and bios – Photos titled by name and company, with bios in a Google Doc
- Planning docs – Google docs shared with speakers with each session’s key details
- Session slides – Shared slide decks for your speakers to drop content into
- Promotional designs – Social media, ad, and email graphics
- Prize tracking – For your budgeting documents and to track winners
- Metrics and analytics – For your registrant lists and analysis
Each team member should be responsible for making sure their items are updated within the folder, so for example your designer should delete or archive old designs and upload the latest copies.
Consolidate information for your speakers
Push hard to keep all your communications cohesive. Keep speakers in one email thread, maintain a single planning doc per panel, and have one calendar invite per session.
Sometimes you might be tempted to split group communications in case things change last minute, and you want to keep all of those conversations behind the curtain. However, I’ve found that speakers are generally understanding of changes, especially if you give them ample notice and involve them in the planning process.
Make it unbelievably easy to join
It needs to be amazingly easy for your speakers to join. Send them step-by-step instructions, turn on presenter notifications in your webinar tool, and add their access links to calendar invites, planning docs, and a day-before email.
Here’s a quick note I sent out to give presenters an idea of what to expect, even if they didn’t make it to any planning session or take the time to check out the webinar tool themselves.
This goes for your moderators and other internal team, too! Before starting the session, give them a heads up. I recommend sending a quick Slack message that looks like this:
Hello, your webinar will begin at 10:30 a.m. and I will be your admin. Please join 15 minutes early for audio/video checks and a final briefing.
Here is your access link: [URL]
Here is your planning doc: [URL]
See you there!
Give attendees the option to opt-out of emails
Some people want email reminders, others will mark you as spam. Unfortunately, email is unavoidable when you’re running an online event. You often have 2-day reminders, day-before reminders, day-of reminders, and then starting now notices for each session.
One way to handle this delicately is to give your registrants the ability to opt out of email reminders, especially for events with multiple sessions and reminders set up before each one.
Take a look at how Masters of Product Marketing did this:
Leverage your moderators to move the event along
A great moderator elevates your event, engages your audience, maintains and boosts attendance rate, gets more value for your viewers, and can even save a would-be-bad webinar. Moderators are so valuable, so be sure to choose them wisely.
Here are just a few ways moderators are your best friends:
- Boost engagement rates by asking questions of the audience, pointing people to the chat and Q&A boxes to encourage discussion, and keep viewers entertained.
- Increase attendance rate by recapping why attendees should join all your other webinars, including reminding them about prizes and next sessions.
- Keep the event on track by masterfully starting and stopping on time. Good timing is an art.
- Remind attendees about any prizes and prize mechanics.
- Generate more knowledge with pertinent questions and knowing when to follow a new trail of thought (similar to how a podcast flows).
However, you need to equip your moderators with the right tools and information to be effective. Here are some tips.
- Give them a chance to meet the speakers on their panels beforehand and build a rapport with who they’ll be moderating.
- Brainstorm and provide a few initial seed questions, then let them put their own spin and build the questions out as they discuss with the panelists.
- Encourage them to add their own personality to the session and moderate how they are most comfortable. Don’t be too strict on wording or give them an exact script to follow (unless they want one and are involved in building it).
- Make it easy for them to find links by sending them over the morning of the event, and adding them to calendar invites.
- Ask them to join 15 minutes early for a final briefing and reminders. Crack a few jokes and help them feel comfortable before going live.
- Go live a minute or two before the event to give your moderator a chance to welcome people and take care of housekeeping items.
- Remind them to treat every session as if it’s the first people are joining. Say a quick hello and give an introduction to the platform. Mention the prizes and Q&A functions.
Have dedicated support roles for the backend
You want at least two or three tech admins and one marketing admin running things behind the scenes of every big online event.
Request and train some day-of tech support who can ensure webinars run smoothly. They will help accommodate last minute changes from speakers, run tech checks, and communicate with the webinar support team in case something goes wrong. Teach them how the webinar tool works, run a few practice sessions with them, and show them where to find all the details (slides, event schedule, etc) in case anything goes wrong. I suggest alternating between two (if your sessions are one hour or more) and three (if your sessions are shorter than an hour) admins to run the machinery behind your event.
You should also have a dedicated marketer running day-of promotions to keep your engagement up throughout the event, and encourage more attendees as the event progresses. More on their role in the next point.
Send day-of promotions promotions
You have a chance to generate more registrants and boost attendance rate even as your event progresses. As your event progresses, continue pushing your website and app visitors to attend by sharing updates about what session is live or coming up next to encourage more registrations.
Both last and this year for Discoverr, we updated the website homepage hero, website banner, in-app notifications, and livechat pop-ups for those who landed on the website.
Last year, the landing page colors beside each session changed based on whether a session was upcoming (grey), live (blue), or completed (green).
Get permission before using brands in your promotions
Before you add a speaker or brand to your ads or promotional materials, clear it with them. Ads are annoying, and some people understandably don’t want to be associated with them. Speakers may also have restrictions on which other brands they can appear alongside, so be sure to check in before assembling your marketing materials.
This was a new nuance and learning of this year, since last year all of our registrations came from organic sources.
Prepare for last minute changes
There will always be last minute changes. Poll additions, slide changes, videos to upload, requests to share their screen instead of going through the pre-loaded slides, and more.
This is a fact of life. This is unavoidable, undeniable, and you cannot out-organize it. The only thing you can do is accept it and be prepared.
Here are some of the things that could go wrong, and what to do about them (or how to prepare).
You have three options if a speaker cancels on you, after the promotions have gone out:
- Cancel the event altogether – Take the page down and use it as a break instead
- Turn it into something else – Pivot the session to networking time (many tools have virtual networking booths), or an icebreaker game you can play with the audience (ideally involving prizes)
- Find a different speaker – Find a new speaker to cover the same topic, or bring someone on from your team to speak
Before an event starts, have a backup event ready to go just in case you run into last minute cancellations. This might mean setting aside some budget for a live raffle drawing for a few minutes, or a pre-recorded clip you can play in a pinch that covers a backup topic.
Sometimes a speaker can’t make it, so they send a proxy in their place. Life happens, and this is better than a complete cancellation at least.
To prepare for this, you need to have everything ready to go. You should have done a run-through or rehearsal beforehand, so by the time you go live you know enough of the material to brief a new speaker yourself in a pinch.
Speaker joins late
A good way to prepare for this is to request the mobile numbers of your speakers and make sure you can get in touch on WhatsApp, Viber, Line, Kakao, or their messenger of choice beforehand. It’s also a good idea to keep an eye on who you may have to remind a few times. Look at how responsive speakers are to your emails, and whether they showed up to rehearsals and other syncs.
Another strategy you might try, which involves a little diplomacy, is to try and predict who might be late. Then, plan accordingly by putting them on a panel, so that if they come on a few minutes late the session can still begin without them.
Internet connection not working that day
Spotty internet or dropped connections plague even the most careful of us. I have four different connection options, but you can’t ask your speakers to do the same.
On the speaker side, you can ask them to try mobile data and use a webinar tool that allows dial-in as a backup for joining online.
On the moderator side, make sure you have a backup moderator to cover anyone who runs into connection problems.
Prior to the event, ask everyone to test their internet connection beforehand. BigMarker has a great way to do this that runs a system check and allows them to preview the webinar room.
Changes to slides
There’s always a few last minute slide updates. To prep for this, download slides the week before to make sure you have something loaded into the webinar room, then again the morning of to make sure you have an updated version. The slides from the week before will ensure you don’t have an empty webinar room in a pinch.
Poor sound or video quality
To avoid audio or visual issues, set up a rehearsal beforehand where you can catch them early. Then, add a 15-minute buffer to the front of the event so they can join early for a final mic check.
It’s also a good idea to use a tool that has the option to switch from computer audio to dial-in, especially if their internet connection is spotty.
Finally, if something happens to their audio or video during the event, utilize your webinar tool’s private presenter chat to alert them and make suggestions. BigMarker allowed me to direct message speakers, so I was able to let them know if their headphone batteries were dying and recommend dialing in instead.
This was my first time as a freelance event coordinator, so I glossed over some details that I should have thought more about. Here are my lessons from a freelancer point of view.
Confirm event thresholds
Talk about what their ideal event is and mark that as the maximum before having to renegotiate your contract. For example, you may assume the event will bring together 10 to 15 speakers, but they may request 30 to 50 instead. Coordination gets more unwieldly the more speakers you have to juggle, so getting these parameters nailed down will help prevent a sudden onslaught of 100 new email threads introducing you to new speakers.
- The event date(s)
- How many days the event will run
- The number of sessions they’d like per day
- How long sessions will last (15 minutes? 45? Will there be 5 minute breaks in between?)
- How many speakers they are aiming for (coordinating between 10 speakers is very different from balancing 50)
- What the session formats are (panels, Q&As, or presentations with slides that you’ll have to hunt down?)
Understanding and managing expectations is the first step toward a successful event. If you see that the event they’re aiming for a much larger operation than you planned for, you want to call it out early and get additional resources on board to divide and conquer.
Separate event organization from speaker outreach
Before getting started, ask if they need you to source speakers (outreach is another beast), or coordinate selected speakers.
This distinction will tell you what kind of skills you’ll need to bring to the project, and what kind of time you need to set aside.
Sourcing speakers is a lesson in sales; you need to research great candidates, qualify prospects, pitch the event, explain the benefits of speaking, and get them to agree.
Coordinating selected speakers means you start off with existing buy-in. These speakers have already been vetted and have agreed to join the event, and now you just have to bring it home.
If your client needs you to do speaker outreach as well, you want to require a little more time to kick off that process and charge accordingly.
Add a required event runway
For large-scale events (ie. anything bigger than one or two webinars), you want at least three months to organize, coordinate, and promote. If you have to source speakers yourself, give yourself even longer to do the outreach, gather enough speakers to fill the event, and then schedule them all accordingly. Company founders, presidents, and popular industry speakers all have busy schedules so you’ll want to book them far in advance.
Just because it worked out two years in a row doesn’t mean jumping in with an eight-week timeline is a good decision.
Tip: I recommend reading Annie Duke’s Thinking in Bets to better understand why it’s so dangerous to judge the quality of your decisions by the quality of their results.
Figure out who has veto power
Clarify your role, expectations, and the roles of people you’ll be working with. Specifically, you want to find out who has veto power on your decisions.
Ask: Will I be an organizer, planner, or strategist? If I decide to have session-level planning docs instead of speaker-level, will that decision be overridden?
This will help you understand how many levels of approval you’ll need to get for different decisions, approximately how long that will all take, and how much you’ll have to manage up as you execute the event. This is one of the most important things to understand when coordinating any event — who has the power to come in at the 11th hour and blow all of your well-laid plans out the window, and who is likely to do that?
Wrapping up — The power of online events
Despite the webinar and screen fatigue coming off a completely virtual (almost) two years, online events are still a powerful way to engage with your audience. In addition to sharing knowledge that your customers and leads want, you also build up your brand partnerships and generate useful content you can then spin into social clips, blog posts, YouTube videos, on-demand events, and more.