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How to make online events less terrible

Commentary: With few planning to attend in-person events in the next year, conference organizers are starting to get creative. Here are ways to make online events successful.

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It’s not clear when we’ll get back to meeting together. You know, in real life, not those stifling video calls. I’m not talking about heading back to the office. No, I mean congregating for conferences, like the Consumer Electronics Show. After all, ask infectious care experts what’s the least likely thing they’ll be doing within the next year and they’ll say…going to large gatherings like concerts or conferences. Some, like O’Reilly Media, have already shuttered their in-person events businesses forever. I can’t imagine attending an event within the next year.

SEE: Top 100+ tips for telecommuters and managers (free PDF) (TechRepublic)

But I’m also not finding it interesting to attend virtual events. All the conferences I’d planned to attend in 2020 have been running online substitutes, and I’ve attended none of them. I just can’t get excited about sitting in front of my computer to watch someone talk.

We need to do something different. Rather than aping the physical world with virtual events, we need to embrace new things that online communication enables.

Talking about the talk

In some ways, the easiest thing about mapping physical conferences to virtual events is the content itself. The person who was going to stand on stage and opine simply does it into a webcam. Easy.

Also sort of lame. Which is why I love an idea that Dave Neary shared. Briefly summarized, instead of live talks use pre-recorded presentation content to drive conversation around that content. That is, use conference scheduled sessions for real-time interaction, perhaps with panelists discussing its ideas, live Q&A, and more. On Q&A, Microsoft’s Stormy Peters said she used a pre-recorded talk recently and “it was really nice to be able to answer questions via chat while the talk still progressed.”

SEE: How to use Zoom: 15 tips and tricks (TechRepublic download)

While in some ways the thought of a canned, pre-recorded talk might seem dull, it has the potential to change the way we think about conference content. As GatsbyJS founder Kyle Mathews has said, “[P]re-recording opens a ton of options for what a ‘talk’ actually is. It’s like going from a play -> movie.” Mathews might have been referring to the movie experience I have with my wife: A constant searching of IMDB to dig up information on the actors, steady commentary, etc. 

Mathews elaborated: “It’s going from a live performance to something more akin to an essay–you can share drafts, edit parts which don’t flow, cut and paste parts around….[It’s a] completely different style of production, and way more effective. [W]ay more people watch recording than live perf[ormances].” This is, he said, an opportunity to “lean in” on virtual events, rather than simply replicating in-person events. 

Of course, there’s more to an event than the conference speakers.

Think differently

Benedict Evans calls out one problem with virtual events: “Online events remind me a lot of ecommerce in about 1996. The software is raw and rough around the edges, and often doesn’t work very well, though that can get fixed. But more importantly, no-one quite knows what they should be building.” The easy part is mapping in-person content to online content, as mentioned, with some interesting options for improving on our current efforts to take events online.

The harder part, as Evans goes on to describe, is capturing the real value of in-person events: The “hallway track,” as it’s sometimes called. That is, all the discussions that go on at the event but not actually in the auditorium with the speakers. This can be chance discussions, but they’re often coordinated conversations because “Everyone goes because everyone goes,” as Evans says. The people you’ve been wanting to talk to are all at the event.

SEE: Zoom video conferencing: Cheat sheet (free PDF) (TechRepublic)

What remains unclear is the “forcing function” for getting people to show up for a particular online event. Sales will often use events as an excuse to have a meeting with a customer. I regularly schedule with people because “I’ll be in town for X or Y event.” But remove those events, and the easy excuse to meet with someone is gone. It’s unclear how this can be remedied. As Evans wrote, “[E]very time we get a new tool [like video conferencing, Slack, etc.], we start by forcing it to fit the old way of working, and then one day we realise that it lets us do the work differently, and indeed change what the work is.”

We need to figure out the new ways to use new tech to uproot our old ways of meeting. We are social creatures, even relative introverts like me. So we need to find ways to congregate better online, taking advantage of online communications in ways that we hitherto haven’t. It’s unclear how it will all work out, but I suspect we’ll see rapid innovation in the conference space as we learn from successes and failures.

Disclosure: I work for AWS, but the views expressed herein do not represent those of my employer.

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