When Apple launches a product, it doesn't come right out and say "we're launching our new MacBook next week".
They make you guess.
They invite people to a "Special Event", and throw up a logo or video that juuuust so slightly hints at what they're releasing. Journalists know to clear their schedule, other companies defer their own releases. Fanboys and the media lap it up, giving millions of dollars worth of earned attention.
Apple is of course a special, secretive, historic outlier, but I think even open source companies can take a leaf from their book by understanding how to shape an event, galvanize community, and become a launching pad. This was my reflection after observing Next.js Conf for the last few years, as I covered in my chat with Lee Robinson of Vercel, the "Apple" of web developer platforms:
Community building is all the rage, but all too often, it takes the form of Discourse forums, Discord channels, Slack rooms, Twitter hashtags. The sheer amount of always-on, background-persistent community is bewildering (and slightly stressful, to be honest). And the quality of interaction is very hit and miss; the older I get, the less patience I have to sit around in a chat room waiting for a typing indicator to resolve to "haha". Yet I stick around because sometimes it upgrades into a full-blown conversation between knowledgeable individuals you can't get anywhere else.
The difference here we are observing is "community heat", a term I've borrowed from McLuhan:
- "Cold" community is async. "Hot" community is sync.
- Forums and Mailing lists tend to be cold: nobody ever expects a reply the same day, if at all (exceptions exist)
- Chats are a chimera; cold by default, but randomly upgrading to hot when both sides happen to have the time and mood to chat.
- In-person meetups and conferences are white-hot: if someone is talking to you and there's even 1-2 second gap between responses, it would be uncomfortably awkward.
- Cold communities tend to be much larger, yet far less engaged, than hot communities, for obvious reasons
Some communities exist purely cold - I'm thinking Reddit forums and the comments section of YouTube videos and others are hot-only (I'm thinking the ephemeral communities that spring up around conferences, that then disappear for the rest of the year).
My assertion is that communities are better with an annealing process, alternating hot and cold (like writing blogposts!). The "hot" event spills over into the cold community and keeps it warm, and the cold community passively builds excitement for the next "hot" event.
This is why I'm always slightly bemused when people ask me about the "Slack or Discord?" for building community. Most people know how to run a Slack or Discourse or Discord or whatever. I don't much care. If you have no events strategy there's only so much community you can build.
Below are my thoughts in an unordered list, as I do not regard myself an expert.
The days of offline-only conferences are basically over; the secret is out that content wants to be free and accessible to all. You have to be successful with online events if you want to be successful period, particularly in tech. Yet an online-only strategy is ill-advised - people are spoiling for in person connection, and you can find out so much about the customer face to face.
I think the right split of online to offline is probably 90/10, or 80/20. The overall goal should be to default to online stuff, but to identify 5-10 IRL opportunities and make each absolutely unforgettable and worthwhile; a real event rather than just an appearance.
For online confs: Hopin seems popular, but you could also roll your own with the Vercel Event Starter Kit, React Conf recently did. We run Svelte Summit purely on YouTube. I also enjoy Gather.town for the novelty element although I wonder if it will get old fast.
For online meetups <100 people, Zoom is fine; above 100, you should probably use Zoom's Webinars feature where you can more tightly control attendees and manage Q&A.
IRL venues should be planned and booked at least 3-6months out, for a combination of venue timelines and personal travel plannin.
The ideal cadence for companies running community/marketing/devrel (yes I'm intentionally being obtuse about the difference) varies.
Yearly: Cloudflare does one Birthday Week a year, where the goal is to dominate the news cycle for an entire week, impressing people more than if the same news were dripped out over a year. However, large news may crowd out smaller news, and the arbitrarily chunky deadline forces premature launches. AWS has resorted to "dumping" smaller announcements pre-Re:invent just to keep Re:invent announcements to a few hundred truly top ones.
Quarterly: If you ship on a semi frequent basis, you may prefer a quarterly event with all your product updates, as WorkOS does.
Monthly: At Temporal, we keep it simple - one "community meetup" a month (signup, watch). It's a "meetup" because we hope it is just the first of many meetups, run by us but someday hopefully entirely run by our users. We are also seeding a mailing list of hundreds of people who have come to our meetups, so that we can get them to come to a conference when we hold one in future (I call this the GitNation strategy, because that is how they lay groundwork for conferences)
Weekly: I like this for regular livestreams and hangouts, like Netlify's Learn with Jason or AWS' Containers from the Couch. I think deeper relationships can only be built by showing up at least weekly; any less frequent than that, and reaching out to someone feels like "a whole thing".
I do think that naming matters.
- We've already talked about the "Special Event" thing.
- I would never be caught dead attending a "webinar", but I've shown up at many a "workshop" with basically the same content (although inauthentic marketer types who give any webinar vibes have me reaching for the red X as soon as they open their mouth).
- We've also done "teach-ins" and "office hours" with similar effect.
When conferences first panic-moved online during Covid, they lifted-and-shifted the schedule and curation as well - 8 hour days, CFP process, the whole lot.
Then we realized nobody sits at their computer watching a livestream for 8 hours.
This happens with every platform shift - first the Skeuomorphism, because it's familiar, then the Nativism, taking advantage of the inherent qualities of the platform from first principles with total disregard to legacy. When Microsoft first ported Windows to mobile it moved everything, start menu, keyboard and all. Took us 10 years to find the interface native to the form factor.
With Svelte Society we did the same thing, lifting and shifting the format, for our Svelte Summit conferences in 2020. This time around we are going "native" - instead of going thru an agonizing CFP selection process, we accepted everyone and moved the point of curation down to the produced video rather than just going by title and abstract (together with optional speaker training for this new burden). We curate the best mix for our 4 hour main stage and use the infinite shelf space of YouTube to release the videos in mini events the rest of the year.
I'm certainly not holding ourselves out as exemplary; I'm just trying to give you ideas. For example I think that "purely meritocratic" selection processes are also not ideal - many great speakers have gone invite-only and will never apply to your blind CFP process even though they have the perfect topic. A good curator would proactively reach out as part of their service to conference attendees. Putting out a "request for topics" would also help.
Only one number matters for conference marketing:
I'll say it louder for the people in the back.
GO FOR REGISTRATIONS.
It's the biggest number. Market the shit out of it. It's incredible. Nobody is incentivized to question it. Everyone knows the flaws but play along anyway in wonderful kayfabe. Speakers can brag about it. Sponsors can justify bigger budgets. You don't have a physical venue so you don't actually need to worry about pesky things like fire safety and refreshments logistics. Pump it up shamelessly and often.
What's incredible is the reflexivity of the whole thing. Humans are semi-herd creatures — an event will be big because it says it is big.
Marketing matters for async much more than it does for sync. Particularly when I hear that an event has 70,000 people signed up, I'm more likely to catch up on the video async. A shitty event will have like a 0.5:1 async to live view ratio, a well marketed event is more like 10:1. (It takes actually legendary talks to breach 1000:1 and beyond).
Oh and don't forget to keep them around to market the next event.
Dumping the conference video straight to YouTube is economical, but undersells the huge amount of opportunity available to brush up the quality after the event. If your async to live ratio is 10:1 then the vast majority of people will be watching your event async, and it serves as marketing for your next event. Make it awesome and cut out all the boring. Some organizers go to the extent of shooting trailers; I don't know how yet but I'll gladly welcome recommendations I can feature here.
Any other event advice?