5 Best Virtual Conference Platforms for Events & Meetings in 2021
The global COVID-19 pandemic transformed the way we work and do business. The series of enforced lockdowns led to hundreds of millions of people working from home. This was made possible to a large extent by the emerging video conferencing technology and high-speed broadband internet.
People who’d previously commuted to work set up home offices, or convenient corners where they could go online and join Zoom conferences with colleagues and clients. The sudden switch to virtual conferences wasn’t limited to the world of work. 2020 saw a sudden boom in online learning and classes, as well as online family reunions and even online family dinners.
We’ll take a look at the world of virtual events, and conference platforms in this blog post, and try to predict how the concept is likely to evolve. We’ll also evaluate the best - and most cost-effective - virtual conference platforms and explore how to use them effectively. Before we do any of that, it’s probably helpful to define exactly what we mean by a virtual conference platform.
What is a virtual conference platform?
A virtual conference platform is simply any technology that allows you to host or attend an online event via your computer or mobile device. It should be readily accessible to any (invited) participant on the planet who has an adequate internet connection.
A virtual conference is basically an on-screen version of an old-fashioned physical conference where the participants sit in a single room or auditorium and interact with one another using breakout rooms. A virtual conference allows you to see the other participants (and network privately with them) and participate in the event. Any good virtual conference program allows the organizer to easily structure and control the event.
Just as the Chair might direct a physical meeting, the online host can manage the virtual meeting. The host can publish an agenda and an itinerary in advance and register guests. Participants can be invited to speak in order and maybe allocated an individual time allotment. Virtual conferences can easily be recorded and saved for future reference. Sophisticated virtual conference platforms can cope with up to 1,000 direct participants and as many as 10,000 watchers.
What are typical virtual events?
Virtual conferences for corporate and industry events
A virtual conference could be convened by the CEO of a multinational company and timed to include participants from half the world’s time zones. Many business leaders and senior executives love having the ability to talk directly to important clients or colleagues without the trouble and expense of international flights - no more tiring journeys, jet lag, hotel rooms, and inevitable family disruption. CEOs also love being able to address thousands of employees simultaneously and give motivational addresses or important briefings.
These major virtual events are often planned months before and can take the form of hybrid events. A core of in-person panels, keynote speakers, and guest speakers can take Q&A sessions and generally offer all the networking and brainstorming sessions that are typically available at a traditional residential convention.
Virtual trade shows and expos operate in a similar way. The online logistics can be planned to incorporate as many exhibitors and virtual booths as you’d find in a physical auditorium or exhibition center. Organizers can easily create directories and bios to allow participants to freely network.
Virtual conferences for managers and teams
At the opposite end of the scale, virtual conferences can also be hosted by a team leader who needs to update and brainstorm with three or four colleagues who are working from home. Zoom, Microsoft Teams, and similar platforms allow for free communication that is easy to manage and creates a comfortable environment for communication. Zoom and Microsoft teams are simple enough to enable spontaneous online meetings.
Managers and HR can also use virtual conference platforms for internal training. Employees working from home, or different offices, can come together online for training and tuition. Any new company policies, software, or working procedures can be easily explained to a wide audience. The same principles apply to external training for clients, affiliates, or franchise owners.
Host a webinars on a conference platform
Not all training and tuition are free. If you’re offering paid webinars, the right choice of virtual conference platforms is essential. You need to offer a convenient, user-friendly environment that allows for great communication and breakouts. It’s also vitally important to be able to exclude participants who haven’t paid or who want to troll your webinar.
If you’re convening a sales or lead-generating webinar, the same principles apply. You need to showcase your product or service immaculately and present a totally professional corporate image. The user experience needs to be flawless and enjoyable for all guests.
Virtual conferences as a recruiting tool
Increasingly, companies are using video conferences as part of their hiring process. Potential employees are invited to online interviews via Zoom or Microsoft Teams, saving the need to travel to an office for an initial face-to-face meeting. The use of virtual conference platforms for recruiting can also be extended to online job fairs or events for recruiting interns and volunteers. NGOs can use these as well as employers.
Virtual Family Gatherings
The COVID-19 lockdowns placed cruel restrictions on family gatherings. This was a particular hardship in Israel and the Middle East where close family contact is enormously important. The average Israeli family makes a far bigger effort than the average North American or European family to connect for Shabat meals and holiday dinners.
Zoom went some way towards bringing people together during the lockdowns. It wasn’t the same as all being together around the same table. But it was better than nothing and did help to alleviate loneliness in some cases. Olim in Israel was quick to see the potential of Zoom and can keep in much close contact with family members who still live in the old country. Grandparents in the US or UK can ‘drop in’ on a grandchild's birthday party, or share in other family events.
What are the best virtual conference platforms?
There is no single best virtual conferencing platform. Each software has its pros and cons and is better suited to specific user needs. We’ll take a look at 5 major virtual conferencing platforms and rate them according to their usability, scalability, customization options, pricing, and user reviews.
Cisco’s WebEx Events is a sophisticated platform that allows you to host up to 3,000 simultaneous viewers and 200 video feeds. WebEx supports all major browsers and viewers can watch events on Facebook and YouTube. A big advantage of the WebEx platform is that it integrates smoothly with CRM systems like Salesforce and is readily compatible with Jira, Google Drive, and Slack.
WebEx is password protected and the platform guarantees a high level of event security.
|Ease of Use||Fairly user-friendly, particularly if you are working with WebEx Teams or Training.||⭐⭐⭐⭐|
|Scalability||Geared towards major events, but downscales conveniently.||⭐⭐⭐|
|Additional Features||A good selection of tools including:|
File and video sharing
Event practice room
|Customization Options||Reasonable customization||⭐⭐⭐|
|User Reviews||Generally positive feedback||⭐⭐⭐|
GoToWebinar is comparable to rival platform WebEx Events. For example, caters to up to 3,000 simultaneous viewers and is Android and iOS compatible. GoToWebinar software is primarily designed for business users who want to host major online events and readily integrates with CRM and team collaboration tools. One disadvantage of GoToWebinar is that it doesn’t offer breakouts. The wide range of additional tools makes up for this to an extent.
GoToWebinar is password protected and the software is regularly updated against hackers and other threats.
|Ease of Use||Logical, well designed, and user-friendly.||⭐⭐⭐⭐|
|Scalability||The platform is scalable but is designed for major events.||⭐⭐⭐|
|Additional Features||GoToWebinar offers many similar features to WebEx. We also liked their:|
|Customization Options||The system is sufficiently flexible to allow customization.||⭐⭐⭐|
|Pricing||Flexible payment plans from $49 - $499 per month.||⭐⭐|
|User Reviews||GoToWebinar gets slightly above-average reviews.||⭐⭐⭐|
WorkCast is a respected cloud-based virtual conference platform that’s geared towards online trade shows and industry/business conferences. It’s a sophisticated conferencing tool that doesn’t require any downloads and can host up to 5,000 participants. Guests can tour virtual booths and talk directly to their remote staff. WorkCast offers excellent integration with a range of programs like PowerPoint and Salesforce Hubspot and leading CRM systems.
Workcast is password protected with a variety of single sign-on solutions, for example, hosts can control who accesses their events and when.
|Ease of Use||WorkCast is a professional system that requires some skill to use.||⭐⭐|
|Scalability||The platform does scale down but is not necessarily cost-effective for small events.||⭐⭐|
|Additional Features||WorkCast delivers all the features that you’d expect for hosting virtual trade shows.|
|Customization Options||It allows a high degree of customization.||⭐⭐⭐⭐|
|Pricing||Various pricing plans up to $6,000 per year.||⭐⭐|
|User Reviews||Generally excellent user feedback.||⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐|
Zoom is arguably the world’s best-known virtual conference platform. It grew exponentially during the global lockdowns of 2020 and the company was one of the stock market stars of the pandemic. Zoom is simple to use, easy to install, and great for small online meetings, family gatherings, and online classes. It can rapidly scale up to host up to 50,000 viewers and 100 live video panelists. On the minus side, ‘zoom bombing’ is an issue and Zoom has an ongoing challenge to keep its security systems updated.
Zoom is password-protected, provides virtual waiting rooms, and uses top-quality AES-256 encryption.
|Ease of Use||Zoom is entirely user-friendly and is actually almost intuitive.||⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐|
|Scalability||Hosts have a full range of options from small meetings to mass events.||⭐⭐⭐⭐|
|Additional Features||Most users are familiar with Zoom’s features, but the following deserve a mention:|
Guest participation analysis
Polling and QA tools
|Customization Options||Zoom is reasonably flexible and customizable.||⭐⭐⭐|
|Pricing||Paid plans range from $40 a year to over $6,000 for mass events.||⭐⭐⭐|
|User Reviews||Zoom is popular, but users have reported problems with online trolls, hackers, and Zoombombers.||⭐⭐⭐|
ClickMeeting is a top-quality virtual conference platform for startups and SMBs. It’s also great for businesses of any size that need to host a large number of online events with up to 1,000 participants. A major advantage of ClickMeeting is that it integrates with a wide range of collaboration and team tools. There’s a whole toolbox of useful additional add ons and excellent webinar features. ClickMeeting is also more affordable than its bigger rivals.
ClickMeeting is password protected with SSL certification and GDPR compliance.
|Ease of Use||ClickMeeting is user-friendly and logically designed.||⭐⭐⭐⭐|
|Scalability||There is good scalability from small guest lists up to 1,000 viewers.||⭐⭐⭐⭐|
|Additional Features||ClickMeeting is geared towards intensive business use and has some great features.|
Customizable PDF reporting and analytics
Remote screen control
Sophisticated post-event analytics
|Customization Options||ClickMeeting provides a reasonable level of customization.||⭐⭐⭐|
|Pricing||Paid plans range from $25 or $40 up to negotiable tailored plans. ClickMeeting offers excellent value for money.||⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐|
|User Reviews||Most users are positive about their experiences with the platform.||⭐⭐⭐⭐|
TCS will keep you updated about the latest technical developments and how to get the most out of new technology. Check back regularly to stay ahead of new tech trends in Israel!
Virtual Conference Platforms are set to expand rapidly as 5G and WiFi 6 are rolled out. They are likely to further transform the workplace and our schools. We particularly like Zoom and ClickMeeting. They offer the best balance between cost, features, and security for the average domestic user or small business.