Global Agricultural Meetings: Virtual Conferences, Not Just for Pandemics!
This post is written by Sessie Burns and Raisa Faatimah, DevGlobal Partners. It is part of a series on the ICTforAg event; all event content may be viewed here.
In the wake of COVID-19, virtual platforms have allowed for a drastic re-imagining of global conferences in agriculture. ICTforAg, Thrive Africa, the CGIAR Big Data in Agriculture Convention and many others went virtual in 2020.
As our DevGlobal team planned for the 2020 ICTforAg conference with USAID and DAI, a virtual event was the only safe option for convening experts and ag-tech enthusiasts from around the globe. We quickly realized that virtual conferencing can expand and improve conferences, both now and well beyond the pandemic.
ICTforAg 2020: The Success of Virtual Conferencing
Online and virtual conferencing greatly enhanced the ICTforAg conference experience. Registration information revealed that the conference reached a wider range of participants than previous years. This included smallholder farmers, grassroots activists, and students. Contributions from these virtual participants, often excluded by in-person conferencing, enriched discussions and developed a broader sense of community.
Virtual conferencing offers many options for organizers to produce a successful event.
The shift to the online space, however, was not at all easy. Several components required different type of planning and more in-depth consideration, and online convenings are also a new experience for many attendees. Our team compiled several takeaways after going through this recent experience.
Seven Things to Consider When Planning a Virtual Conference
Here are seven tips to help make the transition from in-person to virtual gatherings go smoothly.
1. Consider the opportunities.
Virtual conferencing and digital tools can create opportunities to expand engagement in creative and unexpected ways. When planning your event, keep in mind how to make the most of the features of digital conferencing. ICTforAg 2020 combined pre-recorded sessions with live chat Q&A for attendees to engage speakers, as attendees and speakers watched the presentations together.
Ideas to consider: closed captioning for multiple languages; pre-recorded sessions; live chat Q&A; virtual tech demos/exhibitions; pre-read/watch materials; live polling; social media engagement and more.
2. Keep your audience in mind.
Paying attention to key audience demographics, such as language and cultural barriers, level of education, political implications, and even time zones, can create a more inclusive and engaging event. ICTforAg 2020 had sessions in Spanish and French to increase language accessibility for participants around the world.
Considerations include: time-zone specific events; language-specific sessions; topics related to experiences of attendees and diverse speakers to whom participants can relate.
3. Embrace the learning curve.
For many people, digital conferencing is new and takes some acclimating. It can also be very exciting, as you learn new ways to connect with colleagues around the world. Consider what tools, resources, training and other support you can provide to participants to ease the transition. Our team curated the ICTforAg 2020 website to include resources like a video tutorial to help attendees navigate our online conference platform.
Options: how-to videos; active virtual ushers; live tech-support channels; detailed guides and FAQs for participants.
4. Identify expectations for participation.
Participation for virtual conferences can be very different from in-person events. As organizers, it is important to identify goals and expectations at the outset of the planning phase. Decide on the types and levels of engagement you hope to achieve, and identify the steps needed to get there. During ICTforAg 2020, we had moderators for the live chats to facilitate discussions throughout the conference.
Some ideas: participation incentives for particular kinds of engagement; designated staff to initiate and drive engagement; and speaker engagement with the audience.
5. Create meaningful content.
The event's content should take advantage of the broad experiences of the attendees and find opportunities to incorporate new voices on the virtual stage, particularly experts who don't normally participate in an in-person conference. When selecting topics for your conference, think about what your attendees would find meaningful and what a virtual event can offer that an in-person event can’t. In ICTforAg 2020, we had an entire session where farmers spoke on their experiences, needs and aspirations.
Putting it into practice: consider how sessions can add value to the work of attendees, prepare a list of topics and ideas important to your attendees and use surveys to gauge areas of interest for future conferences.
6. Anticipate challenges.
Virtual events, like any other event, can come with their own challenges. Technology inconsistencies, from access to the internet and reliability of digital infrastructure to technical difficulties, can create challenges unique to virtual events. Leaning into these challenges can produce even more exciting content! Our team developed a run of show for ICTforAg 2020 and designated staff to troubleshoot different components of the event, from monitoring the chat to providing technical support.
Options: pre-recorded material; run of show/dry-run in advance; designated staff to troubleshoot during the event; contingency plans for common challenges and a list of alternate/back-up speakers.
7. Don’t forget to make it fun!
Having fun is one of the most important things to keep in mind when preparing a virtual conference. Folks might expect participation in virtual events to lack the organic interactivity of an in-person conference. Events of 2020 have shown us they can be just as exciting. For example, during ICTforAg, we had three fun social sessions that explored coffee, rice, and music!
Ideas: spaces and time to ask fun questions; networking platforms; musical performances; group activities and opportunities for one-on-one engagement (such as chats and messaging).
Virtual Conferencing Beyond COVID-19
Based on the success of this year’s virtual ICTforAg conference, the DevGlobal team believes that even post-pandemic, conferences on digital agriculture should integrate a strong virtual component. Post-pandemic conferences can be more dynamic through a primarily virtual or blended format, with both virtual and in-person programming. By retaining the engagement of in-person events with the added diversity of voices in virtual conferencing, these events can build upon the successes of both in-person and online events. With careful consideration, we can make the most of all that virtual has to offer, during the pandemic and well into the future.
All ICTforAg 2020 content may be viewed here.