Online conference

An online conference is a large virtual event with a big target group and a number of sessions in a combination of different formats (e.g. plenary sessions, workshops, lectures) that take place over several hours to several days.

Area of application

Virtual conferences became popular due to the COVID-19 pandemic as a way to replace already planned events and avoid their cancellation. Similarly to in-person conferences, the aim is to bring together a big group of experts and people interested in the same topic, and to enable exchange on several levels.

The target group is large, sometimes reaching hundreds of participants from all over the world.


In virtual conferences, there is a large variation in the extent of interaction depending on the type of format. Similarly to an in-person conference, the program of a virtual conference consists of several events. It usually starts with an opening event in plenary, for example, featuring a keynote speaker. The program might continue with several sessions, taking place in parallel, with different moderators or lecturers, but further plenary sessions with all participants might also be planned.

The moderation of the different events follows the design of other formats introduced in this navigator. For example, plenary sessions could be planned and moderated like an online seminar or an online lecture, both of which address a potentially large audience. On the other hand, the design of smaller sessions might resemble formats like classroom trainings, or workshops.


Virtual mode

One of the main challenges in planning and implementing online conferences is to get (and keep) participants connected and to assure a smooth navigation throughout the different (types of) sessions.

In in-person events participants prepare themselves for the conference at the latest when they start travelling to the event site. For virtual conferences, an important number of participants start to prepare themselves for the conference when they search for the online access minutes before the start of the conference.


The following questions are key:

It has proven helpful to develop a website as it is typically done for an in-person conference. The conference website not only provides some background information and the possibility to register, but also shows the program.

Links to the respective events should be included directly in the program, assuring a smooth navigation. Set up a separate session for each event, and link to it on the website, so that participants can easily find their way to the correct virtual meeting room. Be aware that not all participants are familiar with all the online tools.  


To make sure that the technical requirements are fulfilled for participants to access the conference events, a technical onboarding of participants in advance has proven to be helpful, i.e. the opportunity to access the tools used prior to the conference. These technical onboarding possibilities should preferably be offered first the week before the conference, in order to be able to adapt or improve the online access of participants (e.g. in a worst-case scenario it could turn out that the chosen tool is not suitable for the participants e.g. of a specific country), and then again, the day before the workshop (the latter announced only 3 to 4 days before the workshop). It is also recommended to provide a point of contact or a technical hotline during the conference to support visitors in case they encounter technical problems.


The methods used in an online conference depend on the types of sessions planned. The methods will be different for plenary sessions with a big audience and for small group sessions with only a few participants. Again, please refer to other formats presented in the navigator, like online seminars, lectures, workshops or classroom trainings.


  • Making sure speakers and moderators are familiar with the available tools will lead to more interactive and engaging sessions. If a speaker or a moderator only knows how to turn the microphone on and off, they will only speak. However, if they know how to include surveys or other kinds of interactions into a session, the session will be much more lively and exciting.
  • Make sure that for each person and function there is a back-up ready to jump in.
  • Try to avoid that one person is responsible for more than one critical function at the same time.  

  • Ensure that participants are familiar with the conference website before the conference. For example, use the website for participant registration, which also means to start early with the website development to have it ready in time for registration. Include in the registration form the acceptance of the data and information security policy that will be applied to the event.
  • Displaying the speakers’ profiles or providing other relevant information on the website or in the invitation letter might increase the interest of potential participants. Public participants list or additional agenda items such as a pre-event market place could be considered to stimulate virtual networking among participants.
  • If possible, organize a “need” for participants to access the website between the registration and the conference start to increase the familiarity with the website and the conference. For example, participants can be asked through a poll on the website to rate their interest in different topics covered in the conference. This information could also be used to improve the agenda, if needed.
  • The commitment to show up to a virtual conference might be lower than for a face-to-face event for which travel tickets are booked, etc.. The organisers might increase the commitment by designing the invitation processes in a personal and encouraging way.

  • Start the event punctually and end it punctually. Especially, if your event is over several days, the standard of punctuality is defined in the first day. Therefore, for the first day have at the beginning an agenda point that is not crucial to be attended by all participants and start on time. Aproximately ten minutes before the start of the event open the access to the event VC room.
  • Before the event start, you could and show some instructions and/or interesting videos or music for the audience. This contributes to creating a positive atmosphere of the event for participants.


  • Especially if your conference extends over several days, perform a short evaluation to see if something needs to be fixed for the next day(s).
  • At the end of each conference day, schedule a meeting with the moderation team (organizers, moderators and technical support) to address all problems and issues identified for improvement.  
  • Use the website also for the post-conference issues.




Organizing an online conference takes substantial amount of time, similarly to an in-person conference. Usually, the preparation will start months before the conference takes place.

The conference itself can be a one-day event, or stretch over several days. The longer the conference is, and the more diverse tools are used, the more complex the preparation will be.



Compared to an in-person conference, the budget for virtual conferences is smaller. For example, there are no expenses for venue rent or catering. However, expenses for software should be budgeted in. Some tools might come with license fees. Please consider that some tools have different price levels depending on the number of users. Still, license fees will never come close to the costs of an in-person conference.



Organizing an online conference requires dealing with a variety of tools and apps. Some required tools are:

  • A website as entry and reference point for participants. The website usually has a public section (with basic information about the conference and the option to register), and a password-protected section, which is only accessible for registered participants. In this secure section, the links to access the conference sessions will be provided. A separate password-protected section of the website can be reserved for speakers and moderators, who might need to use different login credentials and links.


The organizing team putting together an online conference is big. At a minimum, it includes the following roles:

  • Conference Committee: decides on the content of the conference, e.g. program and invited speakers.
  • Organizers: plan the specifics of the conference program, design individual events, handle the logistics and technical preparation.
  • Moderators: moderate the conference sessions.
  • Speakers: hold presentations in plenary and smaller sessions.


Alexis Valqui

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