The Covid-19 global pandemic and subsequent shutdowns of travel and social gatherings has forced many tech conferences to cancel their planned events this year. Many of you are going to try holding your events online, using video conferencing tools and live chat to try and replicate the conference experience without people having to travel somewhere and gather in one place. This is a laudable goal, especially given the lack of better options at the moment, but it's not as simple and straightforward to do as it may sound. I know, I did it back in 2013.
Canonical, the makers of Ubuntu, used to host a large developer conference every 6 months called the Ubuntu Developer Summit or UDS for short. Over the years this grew from an event with dozens of people, to one with hundreds of attendees coming in from all over the world. Eventually the cost and logistical challenges of hosting such a large in-person gathering became so large that Canonical decided to convert it to a virtual, online event instead. As a member of Canonical's Community Team at the time, I was right in the thick of this change. And while the circumstances that led to that descision were different than the challenges conferences are facing now with Covid-19, the lessons we learned (often the hard way) are very likely going to be the same ones you will encounter today.
So I'm writing this article to summarize our experiences, in the hopes that it will allow you to be successful in your transition from an in-person conference to an online one. Special thanks to Elizabeth K. Joseph, a titan in the Ubuntu community, who shared with me her perspective as a regular community participant, which I have incorporated into this article as well.
Like many people I'm seeing today, our initial approach was to do the same thing we always did, just "take it online". We figured (as so many are today) that being online would make it easier for people to attend, and keeping the overall format the same would ensure the same kind of success. We dubbed this "Virtual UDS" or vUDS for short. We kept the same topics, the same schedule, the same concept of tracks and rooms, everything was the same except that we would all be online instead of in-person.
At first this seemed to work. Our first vUDS was almost as well attended as our last in-person UDS, and considering that the in-person attendance numbers had stopped growing already a slight decline wasn't seen as a problem. But then the next vUDS had slightly lower attendance, and the next one even lower still. Worse, the participation rate, that is the number of attendees per session, was cut in half by our third vUDS. People were coming to the event, but not to as many sessions in the event. Even with fewer sessions to choose between, more people were just skipping sessions than they did at our in-person events.
After a year and a half of the vUDS format we switched gears again, and re-focused the event on presentation and demos, and less on development planning and conversations. This was done partially in response to declining attendance for vUDS, but also because developers stopped waiting for these events to have those conversations and make those plans. Once everything was online it didn't make sense to wait until a specific week of the year for some of these activities, and so they happened whenever it was convenient to have them, and we no longer had those topics for sessions at vUDS. We rebranded this the Ubuntu Online Summit (or UOS) with fewer sessions and more focus on attendees consuming content rather than engaging in discussions and planning. This reversed our trend of declining attendance in the event overall, but the participation rate remained low and never recovered.
In the end Ubuntu stopped having these dedicated events altogether. Does that mean it was a failure? That's hard to answer. Because the online format allowed the content to be spread out over the entire year, things happened when they needed to happen, presentations and demos became more frequent outside of these events, and the work of developing Ubuntu carried on without them. Bringing the UDS content online was a success, but it's success meant the death of UDS as an event in any form.
The biggest loss to the community was social, UDS was such an important part of the relationships that were built in the project, and that was something that couldn't be replicated solely online. The community responded with UbuCon, smaller community-run events hosted in different parts of the world, and Canonical responded by bringing community contributors in to the regular in-person sprints that engineering teams had always held. None of it was able to really replace what UDS brought to the Ubuntu project though. UDS was fun for employees and community alike. vUDS was just work.
First and foremost, going online is largely NOT a technology problem. Yes, you have Zoom and other video conferencing tools now. We had Google On-AIr Hangouts back in 2013 and they worked nearly perfectly. In fact, almost none of the challenges we faced when switching to vUDS/UOS were technology induced, and very few of the challenges we faced were solvable with technology. I'm starting out on this topic because it's the one too many people are focused on, and also the shortest one in terms of advice.
As mentioned above, we used Google Hangouts with the On-Air option, which allowed us to broadcast a live stream via YouTube. This was extremely useful both because of participant limits in Hangouts, but also because most people just wanted to consume the session, not participate in it. Zoom's Webinar feature is a paid add-on, but if you're a big conference it's almost certainly going to be worth having for this reason alone.
For reasons which will be expanded on below, having a recording of each session in your online conference will make it more valuable to both your speakers and your participants. This is true already with in-person conferences, but becomes exponentially more important with an online one. A recording gives your speakers long-term benefits, as people will be able to watch their talk for months or years after it's given. You'll also need a way to make these recordings discoverable, with a directory on your website or something, to really leverage this benefit.
Just because you don't have A/V equipment in a room any more doesn't mean your speakers aren't going to need somebody on hand during the talk to help them, the challenges are just different. It's much harder to track and answer questions in an online presentation than in person, because you'll usually have your slide deck in full screen, hiding everythign else. Have somebody from your staff in each session who can handle not only technical issues, but also audience engagement chat while the speaker is presenting.
The biggest challenge you're going to have is that you no longer have the full attention of your audience. One of the implicit but not often talked about benefits to the organizers of an in-person conference is that your attendees have agreed to give you basically 100% of their free time. They've left their home and work responsibilities already just to be there, so any time spent not in a session is basically wasted for them. That means that anything even mildly interesting or useful is going to be worth it to them to attend.
When somebody is at your venue they don't have a lot of outside distractions. Even if your conference is being held somewhere like Las Vegas or Orlando, where there's a lot of tempting things to do in the area, those things are not actually inside the rooms where the session is happening. Once you're online that's no longer the case, your audience will be constantly exposed to things wanting their attention, whether it's family or work or pets or the TV. And you won't have any control over that. Even just the amount of outside noise they will face will be distracting. Have you ever been in a talk where the doors were left open and all the hallway noise was coming in? It's like that, only every attendee has a different set of doors and there's nothing you can to to close any of them.
Companies usually give multiple days of paid leave for their employees to attend a conference, and certainly for them to speak at one. But it's a much harder ask to get paid leave to watch video streams for 8 hours a day. Especially when only a handful of sessions are really relevant to the attendee's job. With an in-person event it's a sunk cost, sending somebody to attend 4 sessions cost the same as sending them to attend 40. But when it's online you can be doing work-work during those 36 hours of non-work-relevant sessions.
Moreover, when a company sends somebody to attend a conference, they're valuing it on more than just the information gained at sessions. They know that those employees will be spending the time between sessions and after-hours talking to other participant and speakers, making connections that might be beneficial to the company, and spreading information about the company to those also in attendance. This is just something that happens when people with similar interests are stuck together, companies know this and it's part of the calculus for approving conference travel. Online events almost never provide this added benefit, which again makes it harder to justify spending work time on them.
Even harder than taking away work time is taking away family time. Just like it's a sunk-cost to your work if you attend an in-person conference, it's a sunk-cost in terms of family time too. Your spouse and kids know you'll be gone all day every day, that it's just part of your job. But when your event is online, people are still going to go home (if they're not working from there already) to their families at the end of the work day. For the lucky attendees, your conference hours match their work hours, and they only have to choose between their family and socializing online (this choice will not go in your favor). For almost everyone else you're asking them to ignore their family outside of work hours so they can pay attention to your speakers. Again, it's a sunk-cost in person so they've already agreed to do that, but the calculus is much different when they're going to be sitting the next room over.
There isn't much you can do to reduce the distractions your attendees will face, but you can change how much time you're asking them to take away from them. It's much easier to take 4 hours away from work or family than it is to take 8 hours away. It's easier to spend one or two days on it than 4 or 5 days. Yes, that's going to mean fewer sessions, and fewer sessions will make it harder to have something interesting for everyone, and that's going to make it harder to keep your attendee numbers up, but you'll at least be able to keep the attention of those that are interested. As a bonus, a 4-hour conference day will fit completely in the 9-5 work schedule of a lot more people than an 8-hour conference day will.
Regardless of what timezone an attendee is in, they're going to need to eat at some point during your event. Sure being online means they can grab a bite and sit on their computer while they eat, but it will still take time for them to find and make something to eat. If you put an hour-long break in the middle of your schedule that tells them that there will be a time to do that when they won't have to choose between food and somebody's talk. Even if it doesn't exactly line up with their preferred meal time, people are more willing to eat a couple hours earlier or later in order to avoid missing sessions than they are to skip a meal entirely. This also gives your organizers and coordinators a mid-day break, which they are going to desperately need.
It just so happens that Keynotes work well for online sessions. Not only is the content easier to deliver in this format, since they are usually one-way conversations that don't depend on audience interactions, but having them as the only session happening in a given hour means your audience isn't being split between it and other talks. You may not want a single-track, all keynote conference, but consider doing more of them during the day. In addition to an opening and closing keynote, an after-lunch keynote is a great way to motivate your attendees to come back on time after a long break.
It's easy to underestimate the value attendees get from a conference simply from being there in person. That is, until you go online and those social opportunities disappear. This goes beyond just the so-called "Hallway track" that we all know and love, although that's a big part of it too and many events try to replicate with a dedicated chat channel or scheduled social event. But the missing ingredient isn't the hallway, it's the people in the hallway, and your physical proximity to them.
Outside of speakers and organizers, there's very little opportunity for attendees to be seen at an online event. This may sound trivial, but it's a big way that newcomers to your community used to get involved. Being able to meet someone new over lunch, strike up a conversation with another attendee after a talk, or even just have small talk about your t-shirt or backpack was a way that people built connections and relationships with each other at these events. Those connections are valuable both personally and professionally, and though we may not have thought much about it when we were attending in-person events, you will feel the loss of them when when they're gone. This will be felt especially hard by newcomers, who don't already have a circle of people to catch up with online, and will have a much harder time building such a circle now that the physical proximity is gone. As a result even your online social events will likely be comprised of those with the biggest existing social network, and focus on that social network, to the exclusion of everyone not already in it.
As was highlighted above, when you're at an event in-person it really doesn't make sense to skip an hour of sessions just because none of them seem interesting. So we'll often attend a session that we otherwise wouldn't, simply because we don't have anything else do to. And many times these sessions turn out to be extremely helpful, insightful, thought-provoking, or all of the above. As a speaker I've had some of the best Q&A sessions from attendees who really had no reason to be in my talk, they just came along because there wasn't anything more interesting going on that hour. This casual mixing of interests and perspectives at an in-person event breathes new life into topics and prevents talks from becoming an echo-chamber of the same people with the same opinions agreeing with each other.
We're all going to miss the conferences that we used to go to, and I for one hope that most of them will go back to being in-person after this pandemic goes away. There are a number of benefits you get from having an online event, but also a number of benefits we are going to lose because it's impossible to replicate in anything but an in-person event. Whether your event goes permanently online, or this is just a temporary measure to keep it going during this unprecedented time, I hope that the experience and opinions presented here will increase the chances of you making it a success. Because I want all of you to be successful, I want your conferences to continue bringing people together and sending information out, and for our industry to keep being the kind of place where I've made so many life long friendships and professional connections.