So You Want to Run an Online Con

I’ve now run ComfyCozyCon three times. I feel like with each event, we improved dramatically while also adding new features. Here are some things I’ve learned about running an online convention and how you can do one yourself!

The things you’ll need for an online con are going to differ from an in-person one. But some things are the same. But first things first, let’s talk money.

Cost

A virtual con is going to be exponentially cheaper to run than an in-person one. There is no venue rent to pay, and panelists and artists know that they aren’t getting compensated. (Unless you’re able to afford that, in which case: kudos!) Many things can be done for free, like using Twitch, Discord, OBS, VDO Ninja, and various social media platforms.

Here is a breakdown of how much the latest ComfyCozyCon ended up costing (including the cosplay contest, which will be its own separate blog post):

  • WordPress Personal Plan for website: $51.17
  • Cosplay Contest Winner Certificate printing: $12.18
  • Cosplay Contest Certificate Shipping: $69.60*

Total cost without contest: $51.17

Total cost with contest: $132.95

* does not include judge’s awards or value of sponsors’ prizes

Hidden costs disclaimer: I pay monthly for an Adobe Creative Cloud membership because I need it as a graphic designer. (My job pays for my subscription for work, but I need my own personal subscription for maintaining my portfolio and also for cosplay stuff.) I used Illustrator and InDesign for lots of the branding and social media graphics and also used After Effects for video editing. These are obviously not free, so you would either need to get these programs or get cheaper/free alternatives.

Venue

In-person cons have to find and rent space to host their events. For online, you’ll need a digital space. We hosted ComfyCozyCon on our Twitch channel for the panels, like other virtual cons that came before us (most notably Quakecon, which was the weekend before our very first ComfyCozyCon in August 2020). But Twitch isn’t the only place you can host. Angelic Convention Online hosted their con on Discord. Funimation hosted theirs on their website. With Winter edition last year, we also hosted the con simultaneously on our website for the Virtual Artist Alley.

There are also some very interesting services that are cropping up because of the switch to virtual. For my day job, I’ve learned about some vendors that can host online conferences where you can set up a website that has digital booths that attendees can visit. I imagine you could just as well do a convention like this for your dealer’s room and artist alley. These services, however, are not cheap. They’re more targeted towards companies, so this is likely more a solution for an established convention that is looking for a digital presence, not a smaller indie con run by volunteers. (I just thought I’d include it because it was interesting!)

A website

Attendees will need one central place to get all the information they need about the con. Social media sites are good for marketing, but not as good for giving out thorough information. We used WordPress for ours because I was already very familiar with it for my own website. And me being a multimedia designer, I was able to tackle all the graphics for the website.

Branding

It helps to have branding for your con. (After all, what would you put on that website you made if you didn’t have any branding?) A logo is a good place to start. Branding helps keep your messaging and marketing consistent in look and feel. It’s not just the logo, but the fonts used, colors, and style. Branding also includes voice, which is the style of writing used when you’re communicating to your audience. Is it professional or familiar? Serious or funny? Striking the right balance is all part of building a brand for your event.

Volunteers / Staff

As much as I attempted to do this for the very first ComfyCozyCon, it helps if you’re not alone. I told volunteers up front that they wouldn’t be getting paid. They did all their amazing work out of the goodness of their hearts and ComfyCozyCon would be nothing without them! You can see below under “Tasks” what all had to be done by myself and our volunteers to prepare and run the con.

Panelists

Panelists—along with the Cosplay Contest—were the backbone of the stream. They serve as the con’s primary entertainment. We had applications online via a Google Form that asked for not only specifics about their panels but the panelists themselves. We organized the panelists via our Discord channel and email.

Artists

We had the Virtual Artist Alley for two of the three ComfyCozyCon events. They were given a digital space on the website to sell their merch, via a link to their shop on one central page. They were a great place for people to relax and shop and served as amazing marketers for the con! They applied similarly to the panelists: via a Google Form. All artists were vetted to make sure none of the art could be deemed inappropriate. (For ComfyCozyCon, we had no NSFW artists but would’ve allowed them had they applied. “Inappropriate” is in regards to anything that could be seen as racist or prejudice in any form or fashion.)

Optional: Cosplay Contest

The ComfyCozyCon Cosplay Contest could honestly be its own separate post, so it will be! Check back here for a thorough breakdown of the Cosplay Contest.

I will say, having the contest was amazing for getting people excited for the con. It also meant we got more people (cosplayers) featured on the stream, which means more audience members because I’m sure each contestant wanted to watch themselves! The contest was the very last event of the con and felt like the perfect climax to the weekend.

Tasks

With all the groundwork laid down, here is a comprehensive list of exactly all the work that went into ComfyCozyCon. It’s a lot, so I won’t breakdown every single task.

  • Graphic Design
    • Logo, fonts, colors, voice
    • Website development
    • Graphics for marketing
  • Marketing
    • Posting on all social media channels
    • Interacting with attendees through DMs/comments/mentions and addressing concerns/questions
  • Tech
    • Getting the Twitch account ready for stream
    • Getting OBS scenes and VDO ninja rooms/links ready for stream
    • Rehearsing with panelists for their panels
    • Running the stream itself during the con
    • Live trouble-shooting during the con
  • Project management
    • Receiving and processing all the panelist and artist alley applications
    • Setting the event schedule
    • Communicating with panelists, artists, volunteers, contest judges, contest sponsors, etc.
    • Draft and post the convention rules and policies
    • Keeping all these moving parts organized and on task!
  • Moderators
    • Moderate Discord full of volunteers, panelists, artists
    • Moderate Twitch chat during con
    • Keep the hype during the stream!
  • Cosplay Contest
    • EVERYTHING – More on that in the future post! I will link to it once it’s written and published.

Tips for putting it all together

Start early

The inaugural ComfyCozyCon was done two weeks after I came up with the idea. Don’t recommend doing that. We started prep work for ComfyCozyCon 2021 (which was held in December) as early as May, I believe. (Timing is a little fuzzy.)

Ask for help

While I still ended up doing the lion’s share of work for each ComfyCozyCon, I’m still extremely thankful for everyone that contributed to it. Both Offbrand and Nerdybell especially did a lot of behind-the-scenes work and deserve a lot of praise!

Set a schedule

No, I don’t mean the panel schedule although you’ll obviously have to set that as well. I mean setting a schedule for when preparation tasks need to be done. One thing that helped was, once we had the date for the con, we worked backwards to find out when each thing needed to be done. For example, I knew I would need time to set up the Virtual Artist Alley on the website, so I had the deadline for applications set to 7 weeks before the con. I knew I would need time to process and organize all the panelists, so their deadline was 9 weeks before the con. For the contest, there would need to be enough time for the judges to tally scores and deliberate, so those were due 3 weeks before. Working backwards and giving yourself enough buffer time to get everything done is crucial.

Get organized

Offbrand will tell you I’m the Queen of Spreadsheets and I don’t take that title lightly. Every aspect of ComfyCozyCon had a spreadsheet. The schedule, the VDO Ninja tech links, the cosplay contest entries, the cosplay contest results, the artist alley applications, the panelist applications, the sponsors, the contest prize delivery status. Everything. The ComfyCozyCon Google Drive was a thing of beauty. I kept our Google Calendar up to date with staff meetings, judge video recordings, and rehearsals.

Not only that, we had a Discord that was for volunteers, panelists, artists, and contest judges. We had a section of private text and voice chat channels just for staff and then public areas for where panelists could get help.

Ask for everything up front

For the 2020 ComfyCozyCon’s, I didn’t ask for promo photos in the panelist and artist applications. So that meant, after I accepted them, I had to ask every single person for their photo. In the end, some never got a photo because they never got back to me, so I had to use a placeholder ComfyCozyCon photo on their Virtual Artist Alley page. By making it a requirement in the application process, it made it so much easier when it came time to create all the graphics and build the website.

Have every panelist apply

This was an interesting one. Most panels were run by a single person hosting it solo. But we had a couple duo panels as well as a couple larger group panels of 4-5 people. During the application process, I only had one person per panel apply. It made sense at the time to just have one person being the point of contact for simplicity’s sake. Some panels also didn’t know exactly who would be joining their panel yet, so it was left open. This can be a huge issue.

By only having one person apply, that means that only that person was vetted. Which means someone could be added to a panel afterwards that doesn’t pass the vetting process for one reason or another. If this person has a history of harassment or other unsavory behavior, they could slide in through a group panel. So, it’s my recommendation that every panelist has to apply and be vetted upfront.

Really think about if this is something you want to commit to

Not to end this post on a downer, but the reality of it is: running a convention is hard. Even if it’s just a virtual one. A lot of work goes into it, with a lot of different players and moving parts. And once you’ve announced it, you’ve committed yourself to run it. (Yes, cancelling or delaying is an option but I did not want that for us.) It’s very rewarding and I can’t tell you how good it felt every time someone told me how much fun they had during it. Hell, seeing all the love and support in the chat during closing ceremonies made me almost forget all the stress I dealt with leading up to it.

But I was honest when I said last month that I don’t know what the future holds for ComfyCozyCon. The lead up to ComfyCozyCon 2021 was very stressful and taxing on me mentally. And although the cosplay contest was my favorite part of the December con, the addition of it and the work it entailed took a lot out of me. I had lots of much appreciated help, but I was still doing so much by myself. (Whether that’s due to lack of volunteers or my own sense of perfectionism, we’ll never know.)

So if you’re thinking about running your own virtual con, make sure you go into it with clear eyes and know what all is going to be expected of you. Organize as big of a team as you possibly can so you can all share the load together. And be honest when you need to take a break or step away from it.

Let me be clear: I do not regret ComfyCozyCon.

I am extremely happy and grateful for the experiences of running and participating in it. I am thankful for the connections I’ve built through it, the awesome new cosplayers I’ve met because of their panels, and the talented artists I’ve seen because of their shops. I have a clearer understanding of what it means to be a con runner by hosting ComfyCozyCon. Not only that, I learned that I am extremely capable when it comes to event organization and cat herding. I am proud of the work we did and all that we accomplished. I hope that our con inspires others to possibly run their own, so that I can attend them! I would love to see more online conventions in the future hosted by passionate, talented, knowledgeable nerds.

Hope you found this peek behind the curtain helpful. Hope it didn’t get too real for you at the end there. Stay safe and see y’all around.

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