Over the past 9 months, I have done more “zoom” sessions / “virtual events” than I have in the past 5 years. I have seen all the complaints from regular presenters (and attendees) about virtual events, and the flood storm of Zoom requests many have been getting, but personally I seem to be part of the other side of the spectrum as I thoroughly enjoy the virtual events. First and foremost, it helped to relieve stress. To the point where my family noticed a significant change in my mental state/wellbeing, not just the mental aspect, also the physical aspect. It is much easier to have a consistent diet and training regime when you don’t need to hop on a flight to go to an event every other week.
But not only that, I just like the virtual event format. Well, the format which Cormac, Frank, and I developed for our Virtual VMUG Roadshow. Also, the format of the Virtual TAM Roundtable sessions which Cormac and I have been presenting has worked really well. Now, don’t get me wrong. I always enjoyed going to events, having dinner with (new) friends, and talking to people at/during the event… but is it sustainable when you do 20+ events per year as a presenter? And is this model sustainable for attendees when employers are expecting more with less? Not really in my opinion, hence my preference for this virtual world. But that doesn’t answer the question of why I think it has worked for us very well, while it hasn’t worked as well for some others?
First of all, we created a virtual roadshow concept where each session is only 30 minutes, followed by 10 minutes of Q&A or a coffee break for those who need it. This means people only need to stay focussed for at most 30 minutes, then can ask questions, or simply grab a coffee and come back. Also, our focus has been very much on trying to engage with the audience. We present our sessions live and we run our Powerpoint deck (and demos) in a window instead of fullscreen. This allows us to follow the chat and the Q&A window while we present. It isn’t always easy to keep up, but it helps greatly with presenting as it allows us to dive deeper when there are questions or comments during a specific section of our presentation. The other thing that helps is that you will see the name of the person asking the question. This enables you to “personalize” the session by for instance saying “William just asked if it is possible to do XYZ”. This adds a level of engagement to the session, which seems to encourage others to ask questions.
The funny thing is that we have had more questions during our virtual sessions than during (or after for that matter) any “physical” event in the past, and we have had various event organizers mention that these virtual events are much more interactive than they anticipated. I believe this is because people don’t feel like they are put on the spot, they don’t need to get up and walk to a mic to ask a question, they don’t feel like everyone is staring at them. People simply seem to be more comfortable in this setting, especially non-native English speakers.
Personally what I have also found enjoyable is that we see people joining our sessions from all over the world. Yes, we try to limit the size of the group by advertising our roadshow via a specific regional user group. Limiting the audience allows us to answer all questions while still being able to deliver the full content, but in the end, everyone is welcome to join. Also, I have been able to do sessions for regions where I normally would not be able to travel to for just a single 30/45-minute slot, which opens up a whole new market of customers and events.
Now mind, the majority of sessions we have done the past 9 months have been live, and the content and format was developed specifically for the virtual world. We have also done some recorded sessions for these so-called “simu-live” events, and we even tried a recorded version of our own concept, and I agree, they are far less enjoyable. I understand why sessions need to be recorded for a large virtual industry conference, as scheduling would simply be too complex with hundreds of sessions across different timezones. But for a virtual user group event, or any event with less than 200-300 people, I don’t see why you would need to pre-record it. Some virtual events today are very much structured like a physical event, with a full day worth of content, sponsor slots etc etc. If you ask me this doesn’t work. Why not? Who can stay focussed for 8 hours straight watching a screen? Who stays engaged for 8 hours?
This is why I feel everyone hosting events, especially user group events/conferences, needs to rethink their event structure. Does it need to be a full day? Do you need multiple sponsor sessions for this event? Can you get away with 1 sponsor, or maybe none? Can the event be shorter, 2-3 slots? Can you do it live? Can you add a Q&A window? Can you add a chat window? And when the world returns back to normal, if it ever does any time soon, can we keep doing these shorter events virtually? You may ask why would you? Well, as stated above, this allows more people to consume the content, it makes it easier for speakers from all over the world to present at any event, we all avoid the cost of flights/hotels, and then there’s the sustainability aspect, which is increasingly more important. On top of that, as virtual events allow you to attend anonymously, it may increase diversity as well.
I would like to ask you to share your thoughts, please share your thoughts as a presenter and/or attendee! What has worked for you, and what has not worked? How can we collectively improve this experience?