Going Online - The Value of a Conference

Going Online - The Value of a Conference

9th March 2020

by Rory Madden

Going Online - The Value of a Conference

With the recent outbreak of COVID-19 we have made the decision to move our community events online -  which presents a new challenge; how can we deliver the same networking value to attendees at our online events? Or put another way - what are the customer needs that conferences deliver? This is a question that every conference organiser should ask but even more so when faced with a paradigm shift like we have over the last few months. Luckily we have a lot of data in this space. The feedback from over 5,000 attendees means that the key goals our events need to align to are:

  1. Knowledge and Inspiration
  2. Insights into how other companies solve the same problems you face
  3. Networking
  4. Improving skills
  5. Fun

Knowledge, Inspiration and Insights

Knowledge, Inspiration and Insights are largely delivered by the talk content. But talks alone aren't sufficient - there are more hours of talks on YouTube than you could ever watch. The real value comes in the recency, curation and alignment to your needs. Recency is important because product development is changing rapidly - ask any speaker of their opinion on a topic that they spoke about even 1 year ago and they have probably have new insights that have influenced and adjusted their views. Curation is the second critical aspect. Given the limitless hours of content and topics that people can, and do, talk about, the quality of the curation is critical for delivering value to the attendees.

But this is just a webinar, and webinars do not deliver the same value as an in-person conference.

The problems with webinars

For me, the issue with webinars is that they don't provide:

  • Ability to follow-up
  • Space to think
  • Networking

Ability to follow up

Webinars often have Q&A portions, which partially address this, but text based Q&A doesn't enable the back and forth of an in-person conversation. You can't clarify a misinterpretation or jump in with a follow up question of how it aligns to your goals. It is better than nothing but it lacks the richness of catching up with a speaker in-person after their talk or speaking with others and debating the topic together

Space to think

This problem is not one that always jumps to mind but I think it is critical. Be honest, how many times have you multi-tasked when listening to a webinar? I'm guilty of checking emails, googling topics the presenter talks about, taking a phone call or continuing doing some work that I need to get done.

The problem with this is that you need space to develop insights from what you are hearing. You need the time to absorb what the speaker is saying, and the freedom from other activities for your brain to connect the dots between your existing knowledge and the new information you are hearing.

The science is clear - people can't multi-task effectively - and you aren't the exception unfortunately. You will take longer to do your work than you normally would and you won't get as much out of the event. Its a lose-lose situation.

Networking

Networking is a critical aspect of in-person events. There is time to mingle before the event starts, mingling during breaks and there are often social events in the evenings. Whether it is meeting new people, re-connecting with old colleagues or building rapport with your team in an out-of-office environment, the connections that you create can help improve your productivity with your team or advance your career. But online networking is a very tough problem to solve because it isn't a single problem. Again we turned to research with our attendees and a few different use cases were identified:

  • Serendipitous meetings with other attendees
  • Sharing contact details to catch up after the event
  • Overhearing a good conversation on a topic that you are interested in and joining the group
  • Catching up with colleagues in an "out-of-office" environment to take advantage of the expanded view point and ideas that people have generated throughout the day

Improve Skills

Talks are great for sharing ideas and getting started on new concepts but they don't improve skills - this requires hands-on practice, trial and error. Our larger conferences have workshops where you can dig deeper into the concepts that are covered in the talks. Here is an area where online conferences may have an edge. With an in-person event there are often overlaps between talks and workshops. We also hear from people with FOMO at our events - they want to go to all of the workshops and talks. With virtual events we aren't constrained by the limitations of the dates of the conference so we can focus on the curated talks during the main conference days and then let people follow up with online workshops that delve into the most interesting topics from the conference at a later stage.

Fun

Fun means many things to different people so it is a hard one to quantify. But it is the area I'm most looking forward to experimenting with. Although recent feedback from a community event was that my jokes are nerdy - so lets see how the fun side of things goes :)

How are we going to solve these problems?

We've been researching the best online events and the, now booming, online events software industry but we haven't found anything that delivers on all of these needs. Having said that, there are solutions for each of them individually and we are going to trial these at our community events.

  • We will enable a meet and greet at the start of the session (or force it depending on how you find our ideas)
  • We will inject a bit of fun and humour into the day to break the ice
  • We will be running live video Q&As with speakers after their talks
  • We will facilitate networking at the breaks
  • We will identify the main areas of interest for the audience and facilitate breakout conversations on each area
  • And we will keep encouraging people to get involved!

It won't be perfect but I guarantee it will be better than a webinar! Also, we will learn what works and what doesn't and continue to iterate and improve. After all, that is the spirit of UX and modern product development.

What we need from you

The key thing is to treat a virtual event in the same way as an in-person event. This largely comes down to your space and your mindset. Like working remotely, you need a suitable working location and the necessary motivation and self-control to focus appropriately. We have come up with a few simple prerequisites for joining our virtual events. Click here to read a short post on how to get the most out of a UXDX virtual event

We're really excited about the opportunity that online events can provide in terms of accessibility and inclusiveness for everyone. Let me know if you have any questions and I'll be happy to share more on our thoughts and approach.

See you online soon!

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