Anyone that spent the last 18 months attending a lot of virtual events, and that’s pretty much all of us, got used to a certain aesthetic. We spent so much time on Zoom, that the experience leached out into what we expected from events. Great audio, reasonable video, but wait, I can’t read the code. Can I, Can I, ok ok it’s stabilising now…
You’re on mute
But it’s surely time to start asking for more. Zoom was never intended as a platform for tech conferences.
Some companies do a bang up job of great audio video (AV) experiences at scale. Microsoft is very good at this stuff. It was setting a high bar pre-Covid for slick, polished, online events, and has only got better in the interim. Microsoft comes across like a tech media company with a cloud and software services company attached. The platform and personnel, the Cloud Advocates team, all do a bang up job. Though not everyone wants to do a live talk 3 times in 24 hours for 3 different timezones.
GitHub meanwhile is also doing excellent work. CEO Nat Friedman is legit funny, and GitHub now makes amusing, interesting keynotes and virtual conference experiences. The folks at Vercel adopted some of GitHub’s tropes and did a really nice job with Next.js conf.
I wrote a post yesterday about HashiCorp building its own online platform for HashiConf, so that it could be in full control of the user experience. You should read it – click here, then come back.
Jana Boruta, Director of global events and experiential marketing at HashiCorp, who led the development of the platform had this to say:
Last year, the events team became TV producers running @HashiCorp and learned how to be a product team.
Boom. TV producers, product team. Think about the experience you’re offering from a product management perspective. That’s why HashiCorp invested in its own platform, rather than a third party offering. According to Mitchell Hashimoto, founder and CTO:
We built our own events platform for our online events. It is the best one that exists today, you can be sure we evaluated all others that existed at the time (we really, really preferred to buy instead of build… but no choice).
The companies getting it right are in the minority though, and not every company has the attention to design that HashiCorp does.
The AV experience of some tech company conferences has been frankly embarrassing during the pandemic. If you work at a Fortune 500 tech company buy the CEO a decent camera and microphone. Invest in some training, some third party support and some really good lights.
In March 2020 we were just trying to keep the lights on though when the event world seemed to be collapsing around us. One of the best online speaker experiences I had in 2020 was one of the first. A conference called Aginext just did really well using Zoom. The organisers focused on the social aspects, with speakers and breakout rooms having dedicated support folk and a great community vibe. Also, being early in the pandemic people were not yet zoomed out. Jennifer Riggins helped create something special with Aginext.
Zoom leaves a fair bit to be desired for conferences but for something homespun it can work with the right compering etc. Third parties like HeySummit are building on it now.
If you are running an online conference on Zoom I highly recommend working with Piotr at iStream. He supported my talks at recent events for Prisma and Hasura, and he’s excellent. So yeah Zoom is, like I say, ok. But almost never great for a tech conference with demos.
Discord has recently popped up as a somewhat legit platform for community management and is looking more and more like a place where events could happen, though for the moment they’d be on the small side. You can use bots to control entry into a community, require signing up to a code of conduct before entry, and even accept payment for a conference before attendance. Moderation tools are excellent. Discord is a bit of a dark horse.
So about the pandemic. With great chaos comes great opportunity. One of the main beneficiaries is a startup called Hopin, which was building an online event platform before the pandemic began, and has executed pretty well ever since. In March 2021 it announced it had raised $400m at a 5.65bn valuation, with a view to owning the hybrid event space.
On the downside I attended an event on Hopin, and then got a cold call on my telephone at 7:30pm one evening asking me about running an event using the platform. Frankly I could do without that, and I don’t even know how they got my number.
Hopin feels reasonably modern, is designed for different modalities (keynote, multiple stages, expo functionality, group chat, one to one video chat etc). Hopin has made a number of acquisitions – including Topi (mobile app for networking), Streamyard (livestreaming), Jamm (video collaboration) and Streamable (video hosting) – to fill out its technology and people story.
The acquisition of core video technology is interesting in terms of its ambitions.
As my colleague Rachel Stephens points out:
I have been doing some work with a client that focuses on dev tools for video and have a new appreciation for the challenges of building a platform like this. As @MuxHQ says, video (and especially real-time video) is a “sneaky hard” problem space.
Hopin is currently a Mux customer. It will be interesting to see how this plays out, but if online events are becoming more like TV then investments in high quality video are absolutely no surprise.
Beyond high quality AV, networking remains a key challenge for online events. Everyone always complains that the hallway track is missing, and serendipitous bumping into people.
Brella is a startup looking to support the networking side of events, including “virtual booths”. It’s been around for about five years. I have attended a couple of events using it, and it’s not bad. Container Solutions runs great events, and Brella it for WTF is SRE? What can you learn from Container Solutions? Well for one thing, getting your speakers to dress up with themes like Halloween or Alice in Wonderland can be a lot of fun. My friend Carla Gaggini, head of events there, is next level.
One neat hack, as used by Honeycomb at o11ycon+hnycon, was to simply make the chat about the event a channel in its public Slack, which meant that not only was the conversation pre-populated, but folks dropping in for the conference were likely to stick around after the fact. This is potentially a great alternative to asking people for email addresses to join the conference.
I am really looking forward to see what the folks at EventLoop have built for their online event platform, especially given that the speaker lineup for The Modern Web Conference, the first conference to use it, is properly insane, one of the most exciting speaker lists I have ever seen.
The traditional webinar focused incumbents like On24 and GoToMeeting have tried to respond in the world of online conferences, and while performance is usually reasonable, their solutions look pretty old fashioned, and definitely don’t feel lie they’re amenable to TV quality productions. Given online conference attendees don’t want to be passive, they want to engage with content, it’s important to do more than look like a webinar platform repurposed.
In closing there seem to be a couple of paths opening up. One is somewhat low-fi, where you can make up for the lack of AV quality with bags of charisma and really solid community management. But for companies that want to offer clean and crisp experiences, the bar has definitely been significantly raised in the past 18 months. This trend is set to continue, regardless of how the economy opens up as we hopefully get coronavirus under control.
Some Top Tips
- Diversity is always welcome in the media. Plan accordingly.
- Invest in streaming, rather than relying on slides for every talk.
- Invest in decent cameras and microphones.
- Record talks beforehand, but compere live.
- Have your keynotes recorded professionally if possible.
- Bring your own communities (Discord or Slack). There is really no need to outsource this.
- Invest in people. Good community managers are gold in online conferences.
- Use breakouts and different channels to leverage those community managers.
- Think about timezones. Meet people where they are. Local comperes are great for this.
RedMonk will be discussing this and other issues in a Slack Chat we’re set to record this week.
Disclosure: GitHub, HashiCorp, Hasura, Honeycomb, Microsoft, and Prisma, are all clients, but this is not commissioned research.