How to make online conferences engaging: lessons from Covid

Tips for holding successful virtual conferences from a medical society leader

By Ian Evans - November 18, 2020
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Among the many benefits professional and academic societies offer their members is the opportunity to learn and network. Traditionally, one of the main avenues has been through conferences and symposia. So what does it mean for societies when a pandemic upends the opportunities to meet in person?

Prof Bahram Bodaghi, MD, PhDAccording to Dr Bahram Bodaghi, Professor of Ophthalmology at Sorbonne University, Secretary General of the French Society of Ophthalmology and Editorial Board member of the society’s Journal Français D'Ophtalmologie, you adapt and look for new ways of doing things. In past years, the society would hold an annual conference, bringing together ophthalmologists from across the country and abroad  to see colleagues, investigate and buy new tools, and attend the scientific program. For 2021, that in-person approach simply wasn’t possible.

“Everything has changed,” Dr Bodaghi said. “We adapted very rapidly, and by the end of June, we’d already run three webinars to keep our members updated. We moved our annual Congress, which was originally going to be at the beginning of May, to September, and we changed it to a virtual event.”

Lessons learned from holding online events

Moving an event online has some advantages, of course. It means the program is accessible to people who wouldn’t have been able to travel, and materials can be made available after the event has closed. But there were still multiple issues to consider. Speaking over Zoom in between patient appointments, Dr Bahram explained:

Moving to an online conference is perhaps an easier shift to make for people who are already used to doing things online. For others it’s a real shift in the way they work, so you have to consider that.

To ensure that the 126th Congress of the French Society of Ophthalmology was an engaging event for everyone — regardless of their familiarity with working online — the team rethought the program. They knew it wouldn’t be enough to simply transfer the exact same content online, so they worked to ensure that the program would make sense as a virtual event. They used a mix of formats, varying from pre-recorded talks, live talks, panel discussions and symposia. Dr Bodaghi explained:

If a symposium was originally an hour and a half, we reduced it and tried to introduce more interaction to compensate for the fact that people would be watching online. It needs to be tighter, and it needs to be extra engaging. Online events can be a great success when people are actively contributing.

Running a national event – rather than an international one – gives the French Society of Ophthalmology certain advantages, Dr. Bodaghi noted: “It can be more difficult for an international event, especially when you’re working across multiple time zones. For us, being a national team, it was a little easier to move online.”

Indeed, even before the pandemic, the French Society of Ophthalmology had been considering adding a virtual conference to its events roster, alongside its regular meeting:

Previously, it was difficult to take the risk and say, ‘Let’s do it – let’s try a virtual conference.’ But Covid pushed us to it. I think even where we don’t succeed, our members see that we are doing our best, and it gives us something to build on.

Is virtual here to stay?

As it stands, the society is hoping to reinstate its in-person conference for May 2021 but will put the lessons learned from 2020 to good use. An all digital conference day will form part of the May event so those who aren’t able to travel can still be included. The society is also making good on its ambition to host a further virtual event, with an “e-congress” planned for November 2021.

In that sense, there have been some useful lessons from the pandemic, Dr Bodaghi said:

I think these are changes we’ve made thanks to Covid, which will stay with us. The education component of what we do, for example, has evolved and when we talk to our members, they see online education being a big component of what they do, even post-Covid, and it can be more accessible and more inclusive.

There are changes we can make based on what we’ve learned during the pandemic.


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Ian Evans
Written by

Ian Evans

Written by

Ian Evans

Ian Evans is Content Director for Global Communications at Elsevier. Previously, he was Editor-in-Chief of Elsevier’s Global Communications Newsroom. Based in Oxford, he joined Elsevier six years ago from a small trade publisher specializing in popular science and literary fiction.

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