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Jess West (she/her)
Jess West (she/her)

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To Virtual Conference or To Not... That is the question

Our world has (is) experiencing a very different shift in how to handle gatherings of all types. In the tech space, we have been evaluating how to handle conferences. When the COVID response escalated in March, the immediate shift for events happening within 1-6 weeks was either “abort mission!” or “let’s do this same set up, but online”. We’ve seen varying solutions and formats across different audiences. As we continue in this new normal --- it begs the question,

what is the best practice?

I’ve been part of a number of conversations both at work and in the broader community about what’s working, what’s not, and how we adapt. We even started an internal company poll asking our employees what format they would like to see. However, I thought it would be beneficial to do another sample, on Twitter. I posed this question last Friday and let the poll run through the weekend:

All this work and conversations around virtual conferences, and I have ✨opinions ✨.

🤓 However, I love data. And I'm curious to hear from others, specifically on format. So! Would you help me with a poll?

(🙏 RT for reach)

Would you rather:

— Jess Seattle West (@jessicaewest) May 16, 2020

First, I want to recognize how grateful I am for the engagement I received from this. I know people are tired from the week, and I appreciate everyone’s thoughtful responses. Reading through everything, I was able to distill some themes.

Why those poll options?

Yes, these times were specific. Some people were asking why those were chosen. The goal was to force a choice that mapped to a distinct priority for the responding individual. There were three main options (outside of a traditional eight-ten hour conference day).

Option A: Content in one week, but spread out past one day. This gives the feeling of accomplishment and engagement of “I went to this conference, I committed to it and here is what I learned”. It feeds that instant gratification of accomplishing going to something and having it “the one-and-done approach” and off your calendar. But, that’s a lot of screen time. This optimizes for the tactical engagement and the quick exchange of ideas and information.

Option B: Content spread out in a mini-series way. It lives past a week, so there is a commitment to see the whole thing, but in a way that’s digestible during your workday. This feeds the crowd of “I want to engage, but I can’t commit to more than 1-2 hours a week to it”. This could be anyone from a busy executive, to an engineer who couldn’t get time off, to someone wanting to break into this industry but has a full time job that doesn’t allow them to view a conference talk. This is a tactical approach, but with accommodations for the current pandemic. Still focused on the rapid exchange.

Option C: Content spread out even more than a mini-series, but in a way that maybe follows a release schedule or a theme per week. This engages people in a way that comes in and out of their work-lives, but is a consistent presence for longer than a month. This format is a long-term engagement. This approach is ideal for promoting discussion and the iteration of ideas a theme.

Option D: My favorite option. Other. (damn you Twitter, give me more options for my poll!) This is where we can open it up and hear from others on what’s in their hearts. Again, I’m really thankful for the conversation this poll sparked, hence the post now. Let’s dive into some themes.

Time Constraints

When we look at poll results alone we can see that the option of content being spread out over time (3 weeks in this poll option) was the 2nd top choice, by 35%. Having shorter times spread over a longer time makes it more accessible to different time zones, and approaches other audiences. Others argue that 2 hours may be too short a time to engage with an audience, based on the comments the sweet spot is between 2 hours and 5 hours. But there was a consistent requirement that the longer the engagement lasts the higher the bar for quality. ✨

However, an interesting counterpoint is that content spread out over such a lengthy period is no longer a conference. Many folks encouraged finding a different way to engage with audiences that is not replicating those in-person events that have gone away (at least for now).

Our’s is spread out over 3 weeks at 2 hours. I think it depends where your core audience is to pull off less days and longer hours. Should be mindful of time zone differences when you’re asking for more than a couple hours at a time.

— Sam Coren 🛸 is social distancing (@samcoren ) May 16, 2020

None of the above, let's make conferences for the remote/async reality.

All videos released at once. One track/week. Whatever length makes sense for the content. 1 week of chat rooms where all partners/speakers present for questions and discussion.

— Todd Gardner🍩 (@toddhgardner ) May 16, 2020

Tbh I’d probably be most interested in a single track over 2 days, but both at 5 hours. But I have a strong preference for single track.

— Becca Lee (@the_becca_lee) May 16, 2020

Hallway tracks and Unconferences

Something I think everyone can agree on, is that these conferences need a way for people to interact with one another. For many, this is the core reason they have gone to conferences in the past. Meeting like-minded people and having serendipitous conversations was such a significant value. Providing an outlet for speakers to interact with attendees and dive deeper into a concept from their talk. Allowing attendees to network is a significant part of what has allowed our communities to thrive at these conferences in the past.

Recognizing that need, and creating a way to engage with people regardless of your announcement, will be instrumental in our community success moving forward.

2 or 3 tracks over 2 or 3 weeks, with “hallway conversation” time built in.

— George Dinwiddie (@gdinwiddie) May 16, 2020

for what I am organizing, 3 tracks, 2 days, about 5 hours is what we are thinking right now. one of the tracks is unconference too.

— Taylor Barnett (@taylor_atx) May 16, 2020

I love that this prioritises the social/conversational benefits of conferences over the talks, while still relating to them. It has some problems to tackle (e.g. saving speakers from having to answer the same five questions over and over) but they seem mostly doable? Maybe?

— Yoz Grahame (@yoz ) May 16, 2020

Tooling and Options

While this poll focused on time slots alone, we have a number of conversations that spurred from it, but one theme was tooling. This is probably the number one question that comes up in conversations with event staff right now:

But what tool should we use?

We see options that have been traditionally used for video conferencing (GoToWebinar, Zoom) and then there are options popping up all over, like Vito (born from a popular ticketing system, There is even software attempting to replicate the conference experience with virtual reality booths. At the same time we are hearing conversations around Zoom fatigue and no one has quite found that sweet spot for how to have these types of events. Some responses mention options to engage with attendees and some are more “show me the right tool”. Both are valid and belong in this conversation, but tools will not solve all the challenges. I talk about this in another article, about meeting developers where they are and not relying on our in-person conversations to drive change.

You could do a video chat roulette for "hallway conversations" during that week, as well as "lunch tables".

You could do official speaker q&a submission, and have the speaker record a live broadcast answering, so that it still allows for follow up.

Lots of cool possibility

— Will Buck (@wbucksoft) May 16, 2020

I like the theory of replicating a physical conference, but the tooling isn't there for me. I'd rather have a curated series of high quality unique talks spread over several weeks

— 𝗘𝘄𝗮𝗻 𝗟𝗲𝗶𝘁𝗵 (@ewantoo ) May 16, 2020


So what can we take away from this? We have some work to do and we need to consider our audience. We aren’t going to physical locations anymore, so this expands our audience and also changes the dynamic of how we engage with people. Trying to fully replicate a conference experience is challenging. Ultimately, we need to recognize that this may not be possible --- that is perfectly fine -- and does not reflect a failure on anyone. Instead, focus on what you can do for your communities, both who can show up to your event during the time you slot and those who may look to consume the content from the event on their own timeline.

Tooling is not our problem, it’s going against our need to try and make things seem normal, when they are not. We can have some great virtual events /conferences /webinars /engagements /unconferences /hackathons /whatsamawhosits. We just need to focus on meeting the needs of our community both existing and new. Instead of looking at the checklist we had for conferences before, look at your goals and formulate a strategy around solving those.

We can think of this as an opportunity to refresh how we publish content to our customers and engage with our community. It doesn’t have to be one or the other, we can have a plethora of outlets and release types for our content. It allows us to serve our community in a different and more scalable way. We can absolutely do this. We already have the tools, the content and the smarts. We just need to work on doing what’s best for each other. In a year we are going to look back at all the activities that happened during this time and be reminded of how necessity and creativity led to innovation.

We hosted a 2800 person virtual conference after I posted this tweet.

I’d say it’s half true. There are some things you can replicate but you need to be really intentional about the quirks of doing it online.

I think both async and sync are valuable for virtual communities

— David Spinks (@DavidSpinks) May 16, 2020

Top comments (1)

zmarkan profile image
Zan Markan

Thanks for this post Jess!

I wonder if you could facilitate both the async and sync approaches - I wonder if there is a nice way to merge the two, and cater for everyone's preferences for maximum inclusivity.

You could have an event with live talks scheduled, with Q&A right afterwards or baked into the talks themselves, as well as the "hallway track" happening simultaneously, then turn this into an async event afterwards - where you publish the talks as videos, and turn the Q&A into a moderated, forum-like discussion so the content and discussion lives for longer.