I just spent two of the last three weeks of my life attending big, global, virtual conferences. Quite the 2020 experience, made more so by the 11 hour timeshift for one of these plus a one-day conference a month ago.
All this has me pondering what is lost in moving conferences online, and more importantly, can be gained from these early experiments. As the pandemic ends, I expect we’ll see in-person conferences return, but I also fully expect these big, global conferences to continue to be virtual as well.
With all that, the question is, what really is a conference? What makes a conference different from a webinar or other Zoom meeting?
A conference is a collection of conversations.
A conference is a collection of conversations, some planned, some on the agenda, many unplanned, all mixed with a dash of community and at the best conferences, a healthy amount of serendipity.
I look at conferences as six types of conversions, keynotes, panels, meals, cocktails, hallways, and meetings. Conference organizers focus on planning the content of only the first two of these. In-person conferences have meals and cocktail parties to foster networking, and open tables for meetings. Virtual conferences are currently struggling to replicate those unplanned discussions.
The word “conversation” is a stretch for keynotes, as they most often just one person speaking to the crowd, with no questions back from the audience. One benefit of virtual conferences is the live chat stream, allowing the audience to have a voice critiquing or adding to the speaker.
Another advantage of virtual conferences is the ability to put the speakers into a virtual room after the talk, so that a subset of the audience than have an open conversation with the speaker. This is a best-practice all virtual conferences should adopt.
In this category I’m including all the panel discussions, fireside chats, masterclasses, and workshops. All the programmed items on the agenda where a speaker or set of speakers are sharing knowledge with all or part of the crowd.
Like the keynotes, the virtual versions of these are much improved by the ability of the audience to ask questions while the speakers are speaking, and to have some answers provided by the crowd, rather than only by the speakers.
Plus virtual conferences can provide better access to follow-up with speakers, with chat and online meetings rather than the audience members lining up for under-a-minute follow-ups that happen at in-person conferences.
I enjoy the serendipity that comes from mealtime at conferences. The chance to randomly meet people and learn more about parts of the industry I’m not involved with on a day to day basis.
I also use mealtime for meetings, both those planned before attending as well as meetings that arise from bumping into other attendees I’ve met at the conference in past years.
I’ve yet to attend a virtual conference with meals on the agenda. Given attendees are from various timezones, calling a moment breakfast, lunch, or dinner seems odd, but calling a moment on the agenda “neworking” doesn’t have anywhere near the same draw as a live, in-person meal.
This is thus a series of conversations currently missing from virtual conferences.
Similarly, virtual conferences are lacking cocktail hours and after-parties. None of the virtual conference systems I’ve used provide any equivalent to the in-person cocktail party.
I suspect there is a user interface that could create something similar. It would be like Zoom breakout rooms, but created and named by the participants, with an ability for participants to instantly switch from room to room, with the names and profiles of the people in each room visible.
At a virtual conference the chat stream within a keynote/panel and the chat stream for the whole conference substitutes for the multitude of hallway conversations at an in-person conference. It’s a poor substitute.
A better substitute would be to take the make-your-own room idea from the virtual cocktail party and have that ability open throughout the whole virtual conference.
Then take that one step further toward an unconference, and allow participants to add these conversations to the agenda. That can either be moderated by the conference organizers (if they don’t trust their audience) or have it semi-moderated, with any of these conversation rooms attracting five or more attendees promoted on the agenda to attract a larger crowd.
Last on the list, but far from least important, are the 1-on-1 or few-on-few private meetings. These meetings are the driving factor for me attending the biggest industry conferences. A far bigger draw than the keynotes (which I often skip) or panels (which I only attend when there is a gap in meetings).
For in-person conferences, the draw of these meetings is the ability to have face-to-face conversations with dozens of others, without having to take dozens of individual airplane trips to other cities.
For virtual conferences, these meetings could just as easily happen over LinkedIn, Zoom, and email, but all the other forms of conversations help concentrate the attendees’ attention into a single day or series of days, making it easier, faster, and more productive to set up these meetings. Plus the posted profiles and automated matching helps foster new connections between attendees.
What conference creators need to keep in mind is that they get credit not only for the knowledge their speakers share, but for all the new and refreshed connections they conference helps create.
When the time comes for an attendee to decide whether to attend next year’s conference, it is the sum total of all these conversations and connections that is weighed against the price of the ticket and the time required to attend.
All the conversations, where at the most valuable conferences little of that value and few of the interesting conversations are listed on the agenda.