The live conference industry ground to an absolute halt. But like many who experience an extinction-level event, it should lead to some reflection. Unfortunately, it hasn't led to much online innovation. Many online conferences simply present what they did in a building, on a screen. Having presented at hundreds of face-to-face conferences and many online conferences, I’ve been surprised at the lack of fresh thinking.
I’m hearing academics and business leaders reconsider their annual spend. They are shifting that spend to other forms of researching and marketing. Flying large numbers of people all over the world now looks increasingly odd, if not immoral, not only in terms of the virus but also in terms of climate change and efficacy. The sight of a swarm of private jets at Davos disgusted many but that is nothing compared to the day-in, day-out, climate denying activity of the conference business. Let’s not kid ourselves that these are practical venues, the perennial attraction of Vegas, Orlando and Hawaii have always been dubious.
The common denominator to all this is that cramming huge numbers of people into rooms in conference centres has several major problems. First they have to get there, increasingly from all corners of the globe, exacerbating climate change. Secondly, the risk of accelerating contagion in a pandemic. Third, it is not clear that the current model is that useful. There are many other reasons for questioning these old habits, and habits they are. Two examples of bad habits, that always surprise me; first, seeing 'posters' at academic conferences, it always seems so school-like, so adolescent. second, the literal reading of a paper from a lectern. Do we really have to travel thousands of miles to see this stuff?
Perhaps, far too little use is made of online conferences.
So what makes a good online conference?
We know a lot about what works here... online has, in fact a several advantages - cost, time, more audience participation, links, able to leave presentation easily, post-conference learning and follow up... and so on... but they have to be run differently. Having been involved with a few, here’s my initial thoughts…
1. Needs a compere
A physical conference has the building to hold it together. There is a sense of place and you choose from a schedule, which rooms to go to. Online, I value a MC or compere with the presence, communication skills, organisational skills, often with a touch of charm and humour, to motivate people and provide guidance and help. They need to be comfortable in front of a camera and be concise and clear communicators. Throughout the conference, they can feed back themes that have arisen, marshal views from attendees and stimulate discussion and online participation. A compere not only hold things together, they keep the show on the road, give a sense of occasion and buzz, signpost forward, keep everyone involved. They also need to be able to cope with things that go wrong…
2. SchedulingConferences needed to cram everything into a day or two, as you had to get there, pay for accommodation and so on. When that necessity goes, ry having your even over a week or month. Schedule just one event or theme a day. People are busy and can choose. what they attend. The 1-3 day schedule is an artefact of physical conferences.
4. Use green screen, drop-in graphics and music
This has become a genre in itself but odd backgrounds ring the changes and can be fun. Don't be scared to have a little fun with this. If the speaker is in Brighton, show the beach! PR expert Alex Shapiro uses this all the time. If you are calling. in people from all over the country or world, make that a feature. Get the speakers to say where they are and why they love their home town or living in the country, whatever. Create great images and GIFs to keep the event flowing, just as a TV station does between programmes. Music can be used to good effect, before the proceedings begin and between speakers. For a big conference how about a house band, like those on TV chat shows.
5. Lightness of online being
Given that communication is at a distance, I like it when the compere introduces some lightness to the proceedings. You can set up little competitions – spot the X, even ask for pics of attendees rooms (seen that work well), ask for jokes... give out prizes. Has the speaker written. book, offer a few free copies as prizes. It gives some social cohesion to the affair. I rather like the idea of making it more like a live TV show… I liked it when a speaker showed her dog on screen.
Rather than endless talking heads i.e. close ups of faces on Zoom staring at you out of he screen, try shaking up the format. Interviews work well and the interviewer can drop in questions from the online audience. Watch The Joe Rogan snow to see how this can be done well. To be honest this can be pre-recorded and edited.
Rather than the wooden 'Q and A' at the end of sessions, that often get ditched as the speakers overrun, you can engage before, during and after presentations, with varying levels of participation: formal 'Q and A', chat, moderated questions and so on. This can be a much higher level of participation than a real conference. Speakers can respond with links to relevant material. Moderated questions, I think, work best, even stopping in the middle to take a few. Set a challenge so that people are paying more attention to the speaker.
8. Social events
Conferences are sold on the social networking side but witness the people who sit next to their colleagues in sessions and talk to the people they know and work with during the coffee breaks. During lunch, coffee breaks or with special breakout groups, it is possible to set up discussion groups or let social groups coalesce. These groups, coffee groups, pubs etc can carry on afterwards, as people share social media details. They can be topic based and compered. Alternatively, you can encourage social media activity to get your messages and content out to a huge global audience. Let these groups form. Wenger talks a lot about these 'communities of practice' – they can be encouraged. In my experience anyone who wants social interaction with the speakers and other attendees will be able to do so to a far higher degree than in a live conference.
9. Record everything
Talks and participation are easily recorded for future access. Indeed, the recording becomes trivial and in a format that is not the speaker like a matchstick person at distance on a stage but an intimate close-up with cuts to their slides. Miss a session and it will be available as a recorded event immediately afterwards.
I’ve given talks at hundreds of conferences around the world and am often shocked to see that most attendees don’t take notes. They WILL forget, not only what they think they will remember but even what sessions they attended. That’s how the brain works – it’s a forgetting machine. Learning Pool recently ran an online conference where they used their LXP software, integrated with Zoom to hold the conference within a learning environment. This allows follow up and learning from the event to a much higher degree than is possible with physical attendance. I like this idea of turning conferences into richer learning experiences with more follow up. Provide transcripts (alternative to notes), extra links and. resources - curate these from the speakers.
Accept that shit happens - behind scenes producer
In physical conferences, speakers screw up all the time. Presenters that can’t find/operate their PowerPoints, overrun, go back or too far forward on their slides. Online you can have complete centralised control. You can also troubleshoot internally and externally. For example, speakers can be muted, unmuted at a distance, slides ready. Even attendees can get help, the usual problems being audio. A good behind the scenes producer, with technical skills really does help make things flow.
Lower costs on both sides
On costs, both sides save a pile of money. For attendees, no travel, accommodation, subsistence, less opportunity loss. For organisers, no venue, food and less labour costs. It’s a win-win. Conference fees can be minimal or waived, as sponsorship money can pay for the much reduced costs. An interesting model has been tried during this pandemic, an online conference where 50% of the revenue is shared among the speakers.
Sure, some things will be lost, the drunken conversations and late nights in the Hotel bar, the chance to visit some foreign capital. But behaviours will change after this pandemic. People will not rush back to restaurants, cinemas, travel and cruises. On conferences, organisations and individuals will think twice before going back to things that were clearly bad for the planet. The online economy will grow – online learning, online shopping, online payments, online streamed entertainment and online conferences.