How to make the most of online events and conferences

By Robert Half on 17th April 2020

With the current need to work and socialise remotely, online events and conferences are popping up everywhere. With so many of us used to networking and learning at professional events in person, transitioning to remote events may be tricky — and may seem less productive.

How can you make connections with people through a webinar platform? How can you prioritise a virtual event that competes with meetings, emails and urgent projects? Once you learn how to do it right, attending an online event can be just as valuable as in-person professional development training or a networking opportunity.

You’re likely very familiar with webinars and online learning courses, which allow you to join presentations and educational sessions from anywhere, often for free. Now more professional conferences are moving online and becoming more sophisticated and engaging. Depending on the conference platform, you can log in to a portal, find online networking rooms, visit a virtual exhibit hall, and attend numerous professional development and informational sessions all from the comfort of your computer.

But before registering or attending an online conference, you’ll need to know how to approach the opportunity. Here are five key tips.

1. Block your time

Block off time before and after an event so you won’t need to rush from one appointment to the next, and you’ll have time to browse the event’s features and network with attendees. If the event or conference runs all day, block your calendar for the full time. It’s also a good idea to let your manager and team know that you’re treating this as an in-person conference and set up an out-of-office message, asking a colleague to be your backup contact. And if an urgent, unavoidable project or meeting does come up, plan to watch recordings of the session on-demand so you don’t completely miss out.

2. Explore the opportunity

Before attending a virtual event or online conference, learn about all they have to offer. Many of these conferences will provide a variety of content opportunities, like keynote presentations, workshops, panel conversations or open Q&A forums for attendees. Distinguish between programs you’d like to attend live to engage with the presenter and attendees and those you can watch on-demand at a later time. Can you get continuing professional education (CPE) credits from any of these sessions? Are the slides or other materials available before or after the presentation? Find out as much as you can so you can prepare ahead of time.

3. Engage with the content

It can be difficult to pay attention to someone talking indirectly to you through a screen, while you’re sitting at your desk and messages are flying into your inbox. To help you connect with the content and practice good conference call etiquette, turn off email notifications and put your phone on silent to avoid distractions. Take notes and participate in the discussion by asking questions during the Q&A or sharing challenges or experiences in the larger group chat. You could also ask one or two colleagues if they’d like to join you for a 15-minute debrief after the presentation to discuss key points and takeaways.

If the event has a virtual exhibit hall or trade show, dedicate some time to browse through it. Companies exhibiting at the virtual booths offer an array of content, including videos, surveys, documents, website links and sometimes even prizes and games. Depending on the platform, you can also chat one-on-one with a live representative, which is a great networking opportunity (and segues into our next tip).

4. Network with attendees

You may not believe it, but it can be just as easy to network at online events as it is at in-person events. You can’t make comments to the person sitting next to you at a keynote presentation, but you can directly message someone who asked a particularly interesting question during a webinar or Q&A forum or set up meetings with them in a virtual breakout room.

If the conference or webinar platform doesn’t provide these built-in networking capabilities, take note of a potential contact’s name and follow up with them on LinkedIn. You now have something in common with people attending the online event, so it should be easy to make a connection.

5. Determine your takeaways

After you attend an online or virtual event, think about how it can benefit your career or business. What leadership advice from the speaker can you incorporate into your management style? How can you apply new industry strategies to your current business challenges? If you think your team or colleagues would also benefit from anything you’ve learned, ask them if they’d like to receive an email with detailed notes.

Time set aside for professional development is always time well spent, whether in-person or virtual. Now you’ll know how to approach online conferences and take full advantage of the educational and networking opportunities there.

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