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Hosting an Academic Conference on Hopin

Our experiences and advice for others thinking of doing the same...

 

What is Hopin?
Advantages/Disadvantages of Hopin (over other platforms)
Costs
Poster Session
General Advice if you run your conference with Hopin
Features we missed and that we hope Hopin might add in future
Would we use Hopin again?

 

What is Hopin?

Hopin (https://hopin.to/) is a virtual conferencing platform that runs within Chrome or Firefox browsers. It aims to "recreate the in-person event experience as closely as possible, but online and all in one place".  The site has four main areas:

  • Stage - for plenary sessions and like your classic webinar. Allows up to 100,000 viewers (!) and can also be used to live-stream from a live conference.
  • Sessions - individual "rooms" rather like Zoom rooms, but with the difference that you can either just "watch" them, or you can "join" in order to share your video/audio and be part of the live discussion.
  • Expo - "booths" have space for some information, chat and a video or live "Session". We used this for our Poster Session (see below).
  • Networking - rather like speed dating: you are randomly paired with another person for a set amount of time for one-to-one chat (we didn't use this part).

In addition, there is a chat section and you can see a list of participants and send any participant a private message or start a one-to-one video chat with them.

Hopin only really got off the ground at the start of 2020 which is why it isn't particularly well known. We first became aware of Hopin through a newspaper article and liked the way it offered different ways of interacting all under one hood. It also felt more like we would be able to recreate a proper conference where people can see each other and interact rather than just an webinar which can feel a bit anonymous.

 

Advantages/Disadvantages of Hopin (over other platforms)

Advantages:

  • Variety - you can do lots of different things within a single site - plenary talks, interactive sessions, individual poster videos for people to view etc. This is the major advantage and the main reason we chose to go with Hopin. We felt this outweighed the disadvantages and on the whole we think we probably took the right decision.
    MSTeams offers this variety of uses, too, but to our mind Hopin is much easier and more intuitive to use.
    Zoom Webinars are good for plenary sessions. And although "normal" Zoom provides a good interactive forum and allows you to create breakout rooms (at least in the institutional/commercial version), you can easily tie yourself in knots if you want to have lots of small sessions, e.g. for posters - you will either end up endlessly shuffling people between lots of different breakout rooms or having 101 different links for lots of individual meetings. In Hopin, by contrast, it was very easy for participants to move between the "rooms" themselves. Also, Zoom doesn't provide any space for you have posters on view during the conference - you would have to host those on a separate site somewhere.
  • Interactive - Hopin is really made to re-create the feel of a physical conference online. The different areas are like different rooms in a conference venue and the participant can move and around and decide which area/room they want to go to. It is then very easy for participants to interact either using the chat function or by sharing their own video/audio.
  • Clean interface and fairly intuitive to use - a definite advantage over MSTeams. The majority of tasks were easy and intuitive both for organisers and participants (with the exception of speaking on the "Stage" - see below).

Disadvantages:

  • Very CPU/broadband intensive - our impression is that Hopin places more strain on a computer's CPU and broadband connection than, e.g. Zoom. See below for ways to mitigate this as much as possible
  • Plenary speaking is less intuitive - in the end we managed to boil this down to a reasonably simple set of instructions for our speakers, but it was definitely advisable to practice with them in advance to make sure they knew what to do (see more below).
  • Cost - your institution may have a subscription to Teams or Zoom, allowing you to use these for free, whereas you will have to pay for Hopin. But compared to putting on a physical conference these costs are minimal. See below for more details.
  • Unknown - at the moment few people are likely to have come across this before (it only got started properly in 2020), so you will have to teach people how to use it. We created our own demo video in advance of the conference.

 

Costs

These may change over time. In the summer of 2020 it cost $99 a month to have an organiser account which gives you up to 100 free registrations within that month. Additional registrations cost $0.50 per registration, or you can add another organiser account and 100 registrations for $99. You sign up with a credit card on a per-month basis (starting the day you sign up rather than on a calendar month basis). You can cancel any time, so you only have to pay for the months when you use it.
We signed up for two months and used the first month to set things up and run some tests. During the second month we ran the conference and paid the $0.50 for additional registrations above the 100 free registrations. In total, a conference for around 350 participants cost us around $325.
You can set up Hopin to charge for tickets, but that requires a Stripe Account and given the minimal costs wasn't necessary for an academic conference.
At the moment a single event is limited to 72 hours, otherwise you have to for a Pro account which costs from $1200 for a year.

 

Poster Session

Trying to recreate a poster session online is always likely to be the biggest hurdle. We wanted a system where posters were viewable for all three days over which the conference was running. We also wanted to try and run the poster session analogous to the Alpine Conference on Magnetic Resonance in Solids Round Table Discussions. This meant having the poster presenters doing a short live 3-5 minute presentation followed by a discussion with about 10 people (and having several of these going on in parallel).

We ended up using the Hopin Expo area for this. Each poster had its own Expo booth which contained the abstract and a short video (either of a full presentation or just leafing through some slides) which were viewable at any time throughout the conference (abstract books were also e-mailed out). For the poster session itself, the booths were switched to being "live Hopin Sessions", so instead of the video being viewable, the poster presenter was able to share their audio/video and screen and up to 8 other people were able to join with audio/video for discussion. In addition, anyone else was able to watch the presentation/discussion without joining it themselves and there was a dedicated "booth chat" where anyone could type questions at any point throughout the conference. This latter function meant that presenters who were not able to present for technical reasons or whose timezone precluded them from joining live, were nonetheless able to interact with people.

Hopin is basically a video streaming app and doesn't have acres of storage space. This probably explains why the booths have to be videos or discussion rooms, but can't be still images (which would probably have been our preference). The videos are not uploaded to Hopin, but are streamed from YouTube, Vimeo or Wistia. We have our own YouTube channel anyway, so we uploaded all the poster presentation videos to our YouTube channel as unlisted videos (i.e. you can only watch them, if you have a link, you can't just "find" them on the web). We offered presenters three options: 1) sending us slides which we turned into a video that flicked through the slides, 2) sending us a video of them presenting their slides or 3) a link to a video uploaded to their own vimeo/YouTube account. Creating videos and uploading them all to YouTube was relatively time consuming for us. In MS Teams it might have been possible for participants to upload their slides/videos themselves which would have been easier. With only 38 posters this was nonetheless manageable but if you are likely to have 100+ posters you are going to struggle (indeed, Hopin may even have an upper limit on the number of booths you can have - though not sure about this).

An alternative would have been to use Zoom with breakout rooms. But we would have struggled to shuffle everyone between rooms when it was time to switch sessions (we had seven 15min sessions with 7 presentations running in parallel each time).

We organised the schedule for the poster presentations using the Alpine Scheduler used for the Chamonix conference. In retrospect, this probably wasn't ideal, as this is set up for a system with slightly different restraints - we didn't have a limit on the number of physical rooms, and there was no need to minimise people having to physically move rooms all the time, either.

Overall, the poster session seemed to work well and the videos where people had done their own little presentation proved very popular. (Another time, perhaps everyone could be required to do this?)

A few points to note:

  • We created a trial poster booth where people could go and test sharing their video/audio and screen at any time which was probably no bad idea. One person discovered he could not do a live presentation for technical reasons, so we were able to arrange for him to answer questions in the chat instead.
  • Switching all the booths from video to live sessions is quite time consuming as you have to do them one at a time - could be worth having several people doing this in parallel (see below regarding multiple organiser logins).
  • It was worth having an organiser check in on each session when the new sessions started, just to make sure everything was okay. One presenter struggled to connect to present live, so we were able to switch the booth back to the video and questions could then be asked via the typed Chat. Only in one instance did the presenter not turn up.

 

General Advice if you run your conference with Hopin

  • Browsers/Hardware: make sure that users use either Chrome or Firefox - other browsers don't work as well. Note that on an iPad Chrome and Firefox still use some of Safari's code - we found one or two bugs when using an iPad. Although Hopin does claim to work on mobile devices, we recommended using a laptop/desktop as that seemed to give better performance and be easier to use.
  • Practise with plenary speakers: Speaking on the Stage is not entirely intuitive. Hopin does this via live streaming, rather than just video sharing. This means that you can have up to 100,000 people watching your stage, but also means speakers have to go to special Backstage link to broadcast and there is a 10s time lag between the backstage and front stage. We created a demo video for speakers to have a look at, though in fact in the end we managed to distil the instructions for speakers down to the following:
    • Using either Chrome or Firefox, go to the conference link
    • Click on Join Event and sign up (second time round go to Sign in, instead)
    • On the left hand side click on Stage where you will see the person who is currently on stage.
    • Mute the stage on the little white triangle in the bottom left (drag the mouse to turn the triangle fully green)
    • Open the backstage link in another browser tab
    • Click on Ask to Share Audio and Video, selecting your preferred camera/microphone when prompted. You will then be on the stage and can start speaking and screen sharing etc.
  • Computer audio-sharing by speakers: One of our speakers wanted to share a video as part of his presentation which included audio, so he wanted to share his computer audio (as you can in Zoom, for example). This turned out to be possible with Chrome (we didn't try Firefox). He shared the presentation using the "share Application window" tab and was then able to tick a little "share audio" box in the bottom left hand corner of the Chrome video sharing selector pop-up.
  • Use "slide-show in window" function when presenting: If you do your Powerpoint/Keynote presentation with the standard presenter mode, then even with two screens, you will no longer be able to see what is going on in Hopin. In principle, this doesn't matter, though it means you have no idea whether your connection is still working or not (and one of our speakers did have connection issues). All our plenary presenters ended up doing their presentations using the "in window" function. That way the slides are shown in a separate window, rather than across the whole screen, and when you share your screen you can share just that application window. Viewers only see your slides, but you can see the whole of your desktop. You can set this up as follows:
    • Powerpoint: go to Slide Show, click on the Set up Slide Show button and then select Browsed by an individual (window) at the top and click Okay.
    • Keynote: Go to Play and select Play Slide Show in Window.
  • Going Live on Stage: An oddity about the way the plenary stage works is that you have the backstage which you set to go live in order to start streaming to the front stage. When you first click the green "Broadcast" button, the button initially turns yellow saying "Going live" - at this point whatever you do on the backstage is already being broadcast (this was not originally obvious to us!). When the button goes to the red "Live" it means the streaming has reached the front stage (this takes around 10s - so there is a 10s time lag between what you say/present on the backstage and when it arrives on the front stage). It appears that when you click on the button to stop broadcasting, the Stage is stopped immediately, rather than continuing to broadcast the remaining time lag between backstage and front stage. So once you have finished, wait 10s and only then stop your broadcast, or else your last 10s will be cut off. We didn't really realise this until rather late. (We told you the plenary stage wasn't entirely intuitive... make sure you have an organiser to start and finish off your plenary stage sessions, so your speakers don't have to worry about this sort of thing and can concentrate on their talks instead.)
  • Sharing Admin duties: It turned out that multiple people were able to be logged in on our organiser account at the same time. It is probably advisable to make sure several people are familiar with the admin controls and then you can share doing this (e.g. if an organiser is also speaking on stage, or if you need to switch all your poster booths from video to live session etc.)
  • If things freeze...: If users' connections are dodgy, things might sometimes freeze for them. If they go to Reception and then back to the stage or other session, then this often resets things. If things get really bad, closing the browser tab and entering the event website again might be necessary.
  • Bad internet connections: Hopin is quite demanding on CPU time and on participants' broadband connection, especially if you are sharing your video. We found that if you are struggling with your connection, it helps to switch your video off, particularly if you are also screen sharing (the webcam video is probably rather more data intensive than the screen sharing).
    Also be aware, as an organiser, that you can set "Sessions" to be of varying resolution. Going for lower resolution and refresh rates will help everyone's broadband.
  • Timings and running late: Be aware that if you have parallel sessions you can easily tie yourself in knots if you do not stick to time. At the moment the only way to "broadcast" something to everyone is to put something in the Event chat (and perhaps Pin it to the top), but this is comparatively subtle and not everyone is likely to notice it.

 

Features we missed and that we hope Hopin might add in future

  • Global announcements - It would have been really useful to be able to make global announcements that pop up on everyone's screen, so that regardless of where people are on the site, they get the message. Particularly useful when you have parallel sessions going on and perhaps people are running late, or you want to draw everyone's attention to the fact that a new session is starting somewhere etc.
  • Improvement of private Sessions function - At the moment private sessions in Hopin are linked to ticket types. For some event types this might be useful, but we would have liked to be able to set up private Sessions where we select the viewers manually (e.g. the way you select moderators for a Session). This way, we could have set up private rooms e.g. for organisers to have a chat, judges to discuss poster prizes or quiz teams to meet in private etc.
  • Static images in Expo booths - This would have been a nice addition to enable proper posters to be shown. Having said that, the video presentations were quite popular, so perhaps another time everyone should be asked to submit one of those and we can do away with "posters"??
  • Easier adjustment of Booths and Sessions behind the scenes - Switching all Expo booths (even just 38 of them) from video to a live session was surprisingly time consuming. It would be really useful if you could do certain functions "in bulk", e.g. switching sessions type, setting the resolution of Sessions, the number of Session participants etc.

 

Would we use Hopin again?

The short answer: Yes.

There are many things we would do differently if we ran another conference online, but those are things not necessarily related to Hopin. The only major downsides to Hopin were the somewhat unintuitive front stage / backstage system for plenary talks and possibly the CPU/broadband demands.

In  many ways we would have liked to use Zoom for its ease and widespread use, but running a poster session as we did would have been completely impractical, not to say impossible with Zoom. We will probably use Zoom in future for smaller, more targeted workshops or for webinars, but for a full conference experience, it would have been less good.

We should perhaps have investigated Teams more, as much of what we did would probably have been possible using Teams. However, the thought of having to get to grips with Teams is not a good one. Hopin, by comparison, was very straight forward and we did not begrudge having to pay for it.