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Best Practices for Planning Virtual Conferences

This essential guidance from the world's largest computing society can be applied to a wide range of digital meeting types.

Best Practices Virtual Digital Conferences ACM

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With so many conferences going online, so quickly, because of coronavirus-related travel restrictions, many organizers have urgent questions about how to plan a virtual conference instead of a physical one. Members of the Association for Computing Machinery have assembled a practical guide to this brave new world of virtual conferences. As heavy users of online technologies and as researchers responsible for developing them, the ACM community is especially well-positioned to offer advice that is helpful to other groups dealing with the same problems. While ACM is a scientific society, the key practices outlined in the report can be applied to a wide range of digital meetings. The full document, "Virtual Conferences: A Guide to Best Practices," is packed with practical information, including a breakdown of platform vendors by meeting type. Here we'll highlight some key general tips for the planner who must pivot.

Assign Different Media Requirements for Different Parts of the Conference

In physical conferences, "presence" means physical presence. In digital conferences, the participants’ physical presence is virtualized through a variety of media: video, audio, graphics and text. When making the transition, one might be tempted to organize a virtual conference as one big communal space, where everyone shares all their media streams with everyone else. However, this approach is both technically challenging and not necessary for a successful meeting. Keep in mind that the various parts of a virtual conference require different media for different groups of participants.

For example, in plenary sessions -- where everyone comes together -- there is a clear separation between those on stage (one or just a few people) and those in the audience (possibly a very large group). Those on stage can be connected in a smaller, media-rich shared space that is then livecast to the larger audience -- or even publicly onto the web. Livecasting is cheap and efficient, and there are plenty of options to choose from. But it is much more engaging when the audience itself also has a live presence, when the communication goes in both directions: The speakers onstage feel like they have an audience, and the people in the audience feel that they are in a group, and not simply watching a video alone. 

Establish Group-Chat Channels

Currently, one of the most effective ways to host very large groups of people in a shared space is using text messaging. Independent of what medium is chosen for rendering the people "onstage," the glue that binds participants together is text chat. There will need to be several group-chat channels, including all simultaneous participants in the conference, session-related channels and smaller, specialized chat channels for smaller groups. This makes all the difference between a person watching a video of a talk by themselves vs. watching a talk together, at the same time, with a group of like-minded people. It is important that the text chat feeds are monitored by a designated person and that questions fed into the live session are appropriate, and that feedback is given to the speakers during live sessions, as they may not be able to monitor such feeds themselves while giving their talks.

There is a tension between too many channels (hard to watch them all, hard to get conversation going) and too few, unfocused channels. Besides a few public general channels (such as help and general), and a few private role-based channels (such as organizers, presenters, student volunteers), a good rule of thumb is to think of chat channels for the participants as individual rooms in a physical conference venue. You can even call them "Room A," "Room B" and so on. So, rather than having one channel per session, which will quickly become confusing, consider having one channel per sequence of sessions; the timing of the presentations will be reflected in the chat of each channel.

Session chairs can act as "channel facilitators," asking targeted questions to specific authors/presenters that get the conversation started. As with any social gathering, it takes organization and effort to avoid dead space and stimulate interaction and conversation.

Create an Online Navigation System

In physical conferences, navigation is naturally supported by the layout of the conference venue. But of course organizers need to do much more than just letting people roam around. A printed or digital program -- with the schedule and information about each session, including room numbers, venue floorplan, speaker info and more, is a requirement for participants to be able to find the sessions and the people that interest them.

In virtual conferences, navigation is equally important. The live sessions must be easy to find and get into. The online program needs to have information about when and "where" the sessions will take place, such as Zoom meeting links, webinar links and Slack channels, among others. All of this information should be presented through user interfaces that are easy to understand and with links that "teleport" participants to the "places" they want to go.

Follow Evolving Best Practices

For a detailed approach to bringing conferences online, see the full community resource our task force has put together, here. We welcome feedback about this rapidly evolving field. For example, we prepared a set of tables, linked to from within the main paper, that compares many platforms for various types of virtual meetings. Feel free to submit additional information or make comments in this "Tools for Virtual Conferences" document and throughout the paper, so that we can share the latest information. We want the Northstar Meetings Group community to be a part of the conversation.

Crista Videira Lopes (University of California, Irvine), Jeanna Matthews (Clarkson University) and Benjamin Pierce (University of Pennsylvania) are members of the ACM Presidential Task Force on What Conferences Can Do to Replace Face-to-Face Meetings. The full ACM report will be continually updated, and readers can click through to a live document to share their own best practices, comments or questions. ACM will periodically revise the report based on public input.