Improving online conferences – Survey says

2020 was a rough year in many respects. One of the most difficult transitions was the switch from in-person to online conferencing. It was a problem for everyone! Organizers scrambled to quickly determine which of the many and varied platforms was going to fit their event best. Attendees had to figure out how to carve time out of the day or days or a whole week(!) to attend and maintain focus on that event. We all had to learn new skills. Vendors sponsoring the events had to figure out how to meet the attendees virtually. The struggle was real and it still is. In 2021 we might see some small in-person events start to happen in the fall, but we won’t see any big events return to venues this year. That means we need to build on what we learned in 2020.

Organizers want to host successful events, vendors want to obtain new customers and partners and attendees want to be riveted by the content and expand their social and professional networks. We all want these events to work, no, we all NEED these events to work. So in that spirit I asked my social sphere to take a survey that required work, there were no boxes to check. I asked them to write and to tell us what can be done to improve online conferences.

Which conference platform do you think worked best?

There was no clear winner, except Teams and Other. Perhaps that makes the rest clearly not popular or perhaps it means that the platform is not obvious to the attendees. This was definitely the weak question of the survey.

Content is king!

Because of this truism I asked two questions. Which conference had the best technical content, and which had the best business content? The answers were predictably varied but, in each case, there were a few standouts. Interestingly the standouts where mostly the same in both categories, reflecting that attendees attend with different goals and expectations.

Best Technical Content: IT Nation, Microsoft Ignite and ChannelPro

Best Business Content: IT Nation, Microsoft Inspire, ChannelPro and ACSII

I interpret these results to means that IT Nation and ChannelPro are doing a good job at providing a balanced conference experience that everyone seems to enjoy. While Microsoft has managed to stand out from the pack by providing two best of breed conferences. It’s no small feat being that one stop conference for both technical and business conference goers.

Which conference was the longest commercial for sponsors?

A frequent complaint of conference goers is how the organizer manages the need for sponsors to get in front of attendees and the desire of attendees for a more vendor neutral experience. The good news is that no one conference stood out in this category there was a wide variety of mentions. Including: I forgot and All of them. The hall of shame in this category included predictably single vendor organized events like: Axient, Robin Robbins, Kaseya, SMBTechFest, Blackhat and ASCII. The later should be no surprise as showcasing their vendors is the whole purpose of ASCII events and the former should be no mostly no surprise because they are vendors and it’s their event!

How easy was it to meet people?

The next set of questions tried to understand how well events were able to overcome distance and allow attendees to expand their professional networks. Professional networking is a key component of a successful conference experience and a big draw too.

Which conference had the best peer-peer networking? NONE was the overwhelmingly clear answer, however ASCII came within a respectable distance. Clearly whatever ASCII did to allow its members to communicate and meet one another during their events worked.

Trying to ferret this out a little more, I asked, Did you meet any new people at a conference this year? 54% percent said yes and 46% said no. I wish I had numbers to point to from previous in-person years but if 46% of people are not meeting new people at the conference while also saying that that professional networking is one of the top reasons that they attend conferences, I think we can at least say that there was a disconnect and perhaps a significant one.

Now we turn our attention to the vendor experience. My own experience in meeting potential new vendors for my MSP this year, was, well, it was, awkward. Most of the vendor experiences I encountered were of the click here to start a conversation with whoever is staffing the booth. But that’s not how in-person vendor browsing works. In-person you see a crowd, you eavesdrop on a conversation, you say “just looking”, you nibble a piece of candy, you hear from others about something interesting; you don’t jump into the sales pitch.

So I asked, Which conference had the best way for you to meet with new vendors? The answers ran to gambit from None to “they were all pretty good” but there were frequent comments like these, “no swag meant I didn’t interact”, “one conference let you whisper”, “I didn’t try”. Even with the majority expressing disappointment, ChannelPro got the vast majority of votes as having done a great job mingling vendors and attendees. Naturally I followed up with, Did you meet any new vendors at a conference this year? and 60% said that they did! I’d call that a win for vendor and partner alike.

The final set of questions asked for suggestion for conference organizers.
What is one thing an online conference organizer should do to make their event better? and What is one thing an online conference organizer should STOP doing? As expected, the answers had a lot of variation. Here’s a few of the more interesting suggestions in each category.

Start doing:

  • Encourage larger groups of peers to share a virtual space (at least 20) in something like Teams Together mode.
  • Watch the timing, recognize the value of attendees’ time
  • Make sure there is time for the audience to eat lunch
  • More educational content, less marketing
  • Interaction is good
  • Engagement
  • networking events / social lounge – make sure people are talking
  • Move live interactive content
  • Offer more real time, interactive feedback with speakers
  • More interaction and demos and less slides

There’s a theme there for sure. Attendees want more interaction with the speakers and each other.

Stop doing:

  • No pre-recorded sessions those are garbage
  • The same thing as everyone else
  • Letting presenters ask stupid questions, for the alleged purpose of getting a response from attendees
  • Pitch sessions
  • Pre-recorded presentations are boring
  • Vendor useless marketing sessions
  • Forget the Yoga sessions.
  • Two heads that read the words on the slides
  • Canned videos

I understand why conference organizers want to use pre-recorded content. It’s predictable. We all wondered whether the home office network was going to stand up to live presenting; if the conference platforms were stable; and it seems like there are a lot more moving parts when you don’t control all of the A/V. But controlling it too much is clearly boring. Almost all of our answers to what organizers should stop doing revolved around pre-recording. Of the entire survey THIS was a clearest most uniform desire for conferences in 2021.

I’ve been on the conference organizing and speaking end and I’ve been on the attendee’s end. As the organizing team it’s natural to pat yourself on the pack and congratulate everyone on a job well done when the conference ends. There’s that sense of completion, sigh of relief, and gratitude that everything went off as planned. Let’s do it again! But before you go there, I hope that organizers will take a moment to realize that this was year one of a new experience and there is plenty of room for improvement. Everyone realized that 2020 was going to be different and there was a lot of tolerance for making-do, but in 2021 I would expect harsher critics. But take heart, learn from your peers and honest attendees providing feedback on what could be better and integrate those suggestions. Take some risks! We can handle a glitch here or there. Have your plan B ready while providing that more interactive experience that attendees are craving. We’re looking forward to attending your online conferences again this year.

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