Getting started with virtual conferences

From choosing a topic to securing speakers

As you read in my previous post, I experienced great success with my first virtual conference, the WP Summit. Now that you know the basics of virtual conferences, I’ll walk you through how to get started.

Choosing a topic for your summit

Finding a topic that makes for a good summit is not as easy as you might think. Personally, my expertise lies in WordPress, and I know many online entrepreneurs who use WordPress for their business. Some struggle more than others, but most, if not all, online entrepreneurs experience some similar challenges with using WordPress. That’s why it made sense for me to focus on WordPress as the topic.

But I had to dive deeper.

WordPress is such a broad field; there’s no way one virtual summit could cover all topics relevant to all WordPress users. A good way to choose a topic for a virtual summit is to target the market you’re a part of yourself. So, I focused on online entrepreneurs using WordPress. I had a deep connection to that market already, as I’m a part of it.

Here are more questions to help you come up with an interesting topic for your summit:

  • What are you already so good at that you could easily and comfortably interview industry leaders?
  • In which field do you want to position yourself as an authority?
  • How do you already help people? Is there a pattern?

Identifying the target audience

Now that you know your topic, it’s time to identify the target market you can promote the event to. You’ll want to have a clear idea of who is attending the event and what questions attendees have. That way, you can structure the event in a way that lets you answer those questions.

Here is the process I used to define my target audience:

  • Think about people you already know who are interested in the topic. What questions do they have? What challenges do they face?
  • What public discussions do you see about the topic you chose? Who’s engaging in those, and what specifically do they ask?
  • Which forums are actively engaging on the chosen topic? What questions do the users ask?
  • Who do you know who you could just ask for their questions?
  • What other platforms — like blogs, YouTube channels, etc. — already exist on your topic, and who is their audience? (Hint: Check the comments and social shares.)
  • What groups already exist on social media that you could join?

This checklist should help you get started with identifying your audience. It also serves a second purpose.

Validate the need for your virtual summit

Nothing’s worse than putting tons of work, time and money into a product that nobody is interested in. That’s why you want to validate the need for your virtual summit before you take action.

To validate your choice, answer the following questions:

  • Are enough people interested in the topic?
  • Does the summit solve a problem or deliver other value to attendees?
  • Can I get speakers on board who are well-known in the field?
  • Do I know enough about the topic to ask the right questions in the interviews?
  • Are the attendees able or willing to spend money on a lifetime membership or another paid offer?
  • Are there existing channels or platforms you can leverage to promote your event?

If you didn’t say “yes” to most of these questions, you might want to change your topic.

My core concept for the WP Summit was to “provide solutions for the challenges of entrepreneurs.” I spoke to online entrepreneurs and asked about their daily struggles. Then, I came up with a list of topics I wanted the WP Summit to cover. Next, I made sure to get well-known speakers with big followings.

Finding industry experts to participate in your event

Having popular speakers promote your virtual summit is the key to success! If you’re like me, you don’t have a big audience or a well-known name that alone would attract thousands of attendees. Most virtual summits grow from the authority and popularity of the speakers who participate in the event.

You’ll have a hard time running a successful virtual summit without relevant, well-known speakers who spread the word for you.

When you create a list of speakers you want to join your summit, aim for the big shots right away — don’t play it small here. Your speaker list should mix well-known speakers with upcoming experts. The reason is that the popular speakers most likely won’t share your summit, whereas the upcoming experts often are crazily enthusiastic about participating in the event. And there’s no reason upcoming speakers can’t share a ton of value in their interviews. A good mix of speakers will make your event very attractive for attendees.

Pro tip: Add more speakers to the list than you want on your summit. Prepare for some speakers to decline to participate.

And be sure to approach them ahead of time. You’ll want to give them at least two weeks to schedule an interview with you.

The speaker outreach strategy

I reached out to prospective speakers via Twitter, Facebook and through their websites. I didn’t send direct emails. Why? Most speakers get way more emails than they can handle and have assistants sort through the clutter, whereas most of them are quite responsive in social networks because it builds their brand.

Getting in touch with these big names was intimidating, but you know as well as I do that achieving big goals isn’t always comfortable.

By directing them to a professional-looking landing page for the WP Summit and trying to approach them with a giving mentality instead of trying to take their time, I got some big names on the summit:

  • Rand Fishkin, founder of Moz
  • Oli Gardner, co-founder of Unbounce
  • Tony Perez, co-founder of Sucuri
  • Dan Norris, co-founder of WP Curve
  • Pere Hospital, co-founder of Cloudways
  • And many others

I’m not sharing these names to brag (there are summits with more popular speakers). I’m sharing this process to show you it is possible to get big speakers on your summit.

So, what do I mean by giving mentality? Asking someone famous for a one-hour interview is asking for a huge favor because those people place an extremely high value on their time. But you can give value to even the biggest speakers by:

  • Giving them the opportunity to participate in a big event
  • Joining an amazing line-up of speakers to build their brand
  • Offering a bonus in their interview to build their list

That’s how you switch from taking their time to offering an opportunity.

Now that you have your topic and your speakers, stay tuned for the third and final post in this series for the tech know-how you’ll need to succeed.

Jan Koch
Jan Koch is an entrepreneur and WordPress developer. He hosts the WP Summit and helps online entrepreneurs get the most out of WordPress. He shares actionable strategies to grow the impact of WordPress sites, in plain English. His mission is to empower online entrepreneurs all over the world to build better online platforms. He blogs at jkoch.me and tweets at @iamjankoch.