Monday 13 April 2020

The Virtual Conference


As the COVID-19 virus continues it's inexorable march around the world, the impact on events is ramping up. Many are postponing until later in the year, which feels likely to lead to some cancellations as three times the usual events compete for the same attendees.

Others are moving online and offering an entirely virtual experience, which is very different to events I've experienced before. Of course there has always been an element of virtual attendance to many Salesforce events - the Salesforce and TrailheaDX keynotes have been streamed live for a few years now, but this is more akin to a broadcast of the session as there is a large audience in attendance. A virtual conference moves every session online, and all of the networking.

The Engagement Challenge

Attending an event in person makes engagement fairly straightforward. You are out of the office for the day (or days, when it's something like Dreamforce) and in a physical location, with nowhere else to go. While some people do attend a physical conference briefly and then head off to the nearest bar/casino/beach, for the sake of this post I'm assuming that is a negligible number and ignoring them. As this is what you are doing for the day, you'll likely be fully committed and trying to get the most out of it.  If nothing else, it will justify the time out of the day job and mean you are allowed to go to the next conference. You might have to get on your phone/laptop if a something comes up, but it's likely to be kept to a minimum.

For a virtual conference, will you really take that time out of work to virtually attend, or will you try to juggle the day job and picking up a few key sessions? If the sessions are going to be recorded and published at a later date, can you just wait and consume them at your leisure? In my view, to get people to actually attend rather than just view content in the background or time-shifted, you need some scarcity in there. Invert events like Dreamforce and don't broadcast/record the keynote, instead just give access to those that bought (?) a ticket. Using a professional keynote speaker will make this easier, as they usually don't allow recording/broadcasting of their content anyway!

The Networking Challenge

Networking is a bigger draw than talks at some events, especially those that are more focused on selling than educating. When you are all in the same physical location, you'll end up having a lot of accidental conversations as you pass each other collecting lunch or in the expo hall. In a virtual event, these kind of conversations are less likely (although  not impossible - many of the tools support ad-hoc rooms/tables for conversations), and so more planning is required. I think we'll see a more open attendee list as virtual events continue, allowing attendees to plan who they want to talk to and when. If you are running a virtual event, you'll definitely want to integrate the tools that allow networking, as these conversations will happen anyway and if you don't offer the mechanism, they'll move to an external backchannel and you'll miss the opportunity to be part of it. 

The Session Challenge

What should a session at a virtual conference look like? There are a number of options:

  • Present live in a studio with an audience. The audience will likely consist of other speakers, plus any event staff who have some spare time. This will probably give the nearest equivalent to being part of a physical session, but will also come with the price of the studio, equipment and staff.  
  • Present live from home office. The easiest to set up, as the onus is entirely on the speaker to make sure they have good equipment and connectivity. The most difficult to control, for exactly the same reason. 
  • Pre-record and present as live. This strikes me as the safest option - get the speaker to pre-record their presentation, but have them live for their introduction and Q&A session after the event. I'm not the biggest fan of the pre-recorded demo in a physical environment, but I think it makes a lot of sense when virtual.  If done well, and if the speaker is on camera and doesn't suddenly change costume for the pre-recorded section, nobody will be any the wiser anyway, and it gives a guarantee of quality.
  • Pre-record and playback without the speaker. I think this is probably my least favoured approach, as there's really no difference to watching a talk recording on youtube or similar site, and I'm pretty sure I'd go for a session with live interaction if I had to choose between two at the same time.

The Upsides

Thus far I've been focused on problems - no surprise there, as a CTA a lot of my job is looking at as-is and to-be and trying to figure out what is already struggling, what won't scale in the future and generally trying to identify problematic areas. But there are a number of upsides to the virtual conference:
  • Less to organise.
    If you are responsible for running a conference, doing it virtually means you don't have to worry about venue(s) (unless you go for studio sessions), catering, swag, stands.It doesn't all go away, but a lot of the costly stuff does.
  • Lower cost for attendees.
    Attending an event in a physical location requires travel, accommodation and subsistence, all of which cost. If the event is in an expensive location like London or San Francisco, potential attendees from parts of the world with lower earnings are at a disadvantage. Spending a week's earnings to attend a conference in person is one thing, but it's quite another if it's several months salary. 
  • Lower ticket prices.
    Potentially free, but unlikely for studio sessions or events involving professional speakers.
  • Wider pool of attendees.
    Theoretically anyone in the world with an internet connection and an interest in your content, although in reality limited to the timezones that your event reasonably overlaps and how well the technology you choose scales.
  • Easier on nervous speakers.
    Virtual events will be a pipeline for speakers that aren't yet confident enough to stand up on stage in front of an audience. They can get started from the comfort of their own home to build up valuable experience before trying local, in-person events such as Developer or Admin groups.
  • Lower environmental impact.
    Not having people fly in from all over the world certainly adds to a conference's green  credentials.

The Future

So what does the future hold? Will all events be virtual going forward? I can't see that happening, especially for physical events like Dreamforce that sell out quickly and generate a huge amount of interest in Salesforce's products. I can see more of the community Dreamin' type events going this route - it's a good way to start something that can build into an physical event if there is enough interest. I do believe that many events in the future will be a hybrid of physical and virtual, both from the attendee and speaker perspective. 

Note: Some of  the above post was informed by my experience at London's Calling, which pivoted from a physical to a virtual event in about a week - a fantastic effort by the organisers.

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