This post is a (lightly edited) transcript of an internal chat we had about virtual tech events. These guideposts will help you jump to particular topics:
- Event production
- Avoiding event fatigue
- Chat and community engagement
- Presenter energy
- Favorite events
- Moving back to in-person events
- List of events we’ve attended
- Blog posts we’ve written about virtual events
kelly (Kelly Fitzpatrick): About a year ago we met up to discuss some of the trends and practices we had seen during the first few months of the shift to virtual tech events driven by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Since then, we have collectively attended (and/or spoken at) a slew of virtual public events (in addition, of course, to various analyst summits and internal events that also shifted into virtual formats).
While we have individually written (in blog and tweet form) about some of the public events we have attended, the purpose of this chat is to discuss our updated thoughts on what we see as best practices for virtual tech events, highlight any trends we’d like to see continue, and maybe even talk about a return to in-person events.
And with that, first question: What are your general impressions of the evolution of the virtual events you have attended (regarding the format, platforms, attendee reactions, etc.) in the past year? What are folks doing better? What still leaves room for improvement?
sogrady (Stephen O’Grady): The webcam quality has improved dramatically, at least.
kelly: I mean, I definitely got a better webcam (or two) since then. And I have settled on a very sophisticated method of reminding myself to pretend it is my virtual audience.
kelly: How many webcams have you been through, @sogrady?
sogrady: Technically I’m on my second. It’s just that my second involves like fifty different moving parts all of which have a tendency to break at inopportune times.
But more seriously, I think we’ve seen steady, gradual improvements in virtual events as they’ve shifted from basic group Zoom calls to platforms dedicated to and designed for virtual events. Some of which, as @monkchips noted, were written from scratch.
monkchips (James Governor): The past year has seen the acceleration of an already extant trend – that is, the move towards more media savvy, well produced online conferences, notably from the hyperscale providers. Not everyone has their resources however – outside the major players we’ve seen innovation and crispness in pockets. Some vendors such as HashiCorp really stand out. Platforms have definitely not advanced as much as I’d hoped, though we’ve seen some good work. Folks generally have better lighting, better cameras and audio, which is great.
I also wrote this related post.
rachel (Rachel Stephens): We saw a lot of experimentation in the early days around scheduling (events as usual, 24 hour long events, events that span months, etc.). While we definitely haven’t converged to a single format yet, we’re starting to get into a place where there is a balance between time zone accessibility without being an unending affair.
monkchips: Thank Heavens. 13 week events were a bit much.
kelly: The longer events do make me feel like I am signing over part of my soul.
sogrady: On the flip side, it’s much easier to pop in and out. As long as the platform isn’t Chime, anyway.
monkchips: With multiple long event overlaps it becomes a whole horcrux situation.
Tell us more about your favourite platform, Chime, Stephen? You really like that technology.
kelly: It sounds more like Chime might not like @sogrady.
rachel: I think beyond it being hard to manage long events as an attendee, it also can have an impact to the vendor. I feel like the crispness of the messaging often suffers.
Behind the scenes of a vendor event is a lot of internal political discussions about what makes it on the keynote stage. I feel like maybe some vendors have used virtual events as an excuse to stop having those discussions (or at least to have them less rigorously)
And the lack of filter can show.
monkchips: Good point @rachel. I feel like recently we’ve seen quite a swing in the opposite direction. Like – Hey it’s our annual analyst day, and we’re going to do it in 45 minutes.
Another good point @rachel – the old Blaise Pascal idea comes in handy here: “I would have written a shorter note but I didn’t have the time.”
rachel: Succinct events ftw.
kelly: Agreed on the love of succinct events.
We briefly touched on how events now seem to overlap. From what you have seen, how has the expectation of attendance changed for virtual events in the past year? With events having shifted virtual, it seems like we are now attending multiple events per day.
sogrady: I think the accessibility of online events cuts both ways. It’s obviously easier to attend when you don’t have to jump on a plane, but that has at times created an expectation that you’ll definitely attend. Which is a problem when there are a) so many events and b) many of them are so much longer and more stretched out than they used to be.
monkchips: Yeah being able to talk at one event, attend another, get some research done and have dinner with your family is really quite pleasing.
But, as @sogrady says it’s harder to be “all in” on an event when it’s virtual.
kelly: I do like being able to multitask; sometimes the context switching makes me a bit dizzy, though.
Taking advantage of virtual conference formats (and different time zones) to catch both #RHSummit and #writethedocs today. pic.twitter.com/z9H54tbn0o
— Dr KellyAnn Fitzpatrick (@drkellyannfitz) April 27, 2021
rachel: I have a really hard time getting into the event headspace at home.
sogrady: Same. For me, for the most part, there’s little difference between an online event and a Zoom call at the end of the day.
rachel: Agreed. The multi-tasking and extra family time are good, but there is part of the in-person experience of being completely immersed in the thing that I miss.
kelly: Except when the conferences send us snacks. Nobody sends me snacks just for a Zoom call.
sogrady: Fair. I have not gotten any snacks yet, so perhaps I’m unfairly biased.
monkchips: As ever, the lack of a hallway track, hallway bar, hallway lunch is an issue, and yes there is a lack of “immersion”, in content and interaction.
kelly: Oh, and I still miss RedMonk beers! But those are more about the people than the beer.
sogrady: Yeah, I hate to say it because I hate planes, but I have yet to attend an online event that comes close to even the most basic in person one in terms of their value for me.
The big problem is that I never attend events for the talks, I attend them for the people. And all I get at home is the talks.
(+1 from @rachel)
monkchips: @kelly tell us about best practices in snacks – who does that, and does it well?
kelly: I am unreliable in that my thoughts on best practices in conference-provided snacks vary based on the last great snack experience I have had. Sometimes it is wine and cheese; sometimes it coffee and stroopwafels; sometimes it is a giant bag of gummi bears.
But that brings us to another topic: we’ve heard from event attendees and organizers that they are feeling/seeing a certain level of virtual event fatigue.
Just checked into the streams for 3 different virtual events this week and they had basically no tweets with >10 RTs.
Is it virtual-event fatigue? Is the conversation moving into a walled garden of event software, losing the reach of a broader audience?
— Donnie Berkholz 💉💉🎉 (@dberkholz) July 1, 2021
Are there any practices or activities that you’ve seen at virtual events that you see as an effective counter to this?
sogrady: Make them shorter, have a lot of breaks and have fewer of them.
kelly: +1 on breaks
rachel: Breaks are so huge. I think that people assume that because you’re at home you can take breaks as you need, but as we mentioned with the challenge of getting into the headspace of being able to listen well, if I miss the first 5-10 minutes of a talk because I had to build my own break in, it’s almost impossible for me to dive back in all the way. I will almost assuredly switch to email or other multi-tasking.
Any event over 90 minutes should have a break.
sogrady: Also, events should never be longer than 90 minutes.
That’s true for in person as well, IMO.
kelly: Based on my decade+ of teaching, 50 minutes is like the max for brain intake usefulness. At that point you need a break.
monkchips: I think almost everyone has underused Slack and or Discord as a place to hangout and chat with people during the event, shitpost about keynotes and so on. It’s not a perfect hallway, but being able to drop in and out, and see people from the community serendipitously can work quite well. I recommend people don’t have special event conversation channels, but use the ones they run for community management during the normal course of affairs.
kelly: The CNCF has been using its Slack during the THREE virtual KubeCon + CloudNativeCons I’ve attended since our last chat, and I agree–it can be a very useful complement to conference platforms.
And Slack and Discord are often known entities–I don’t have to learn a new emoji interface, for instance.
rachel: I feel contrarian here, but I feel like part of my event fatigue is joining yet another Slack instance.
Sometimes I appreciate when there’s chat built straight into the conference system and I don’t have to do anything to use it.
It doesn’t usually have the same community vibe as Slack/Discord rooms can, but I love the ease of use.
kelly: I hate that I can’t edit my messages, though. I am so prone to typos.
sogrady: Related, it’s been interesting to me that of the times I’ve been in a chat channel ostensibly to discuss a talk I have, or one that one of you has given, there’s been very little interaction about the talk.
kelly: @sogrady that fits with IRL b/c my conversations during in person talks are usually about where the coffee can be found.
sogrady: Yep. And let me second @rachel’s integrated chat comment above. I don’t usually want to join another Slack for an event unless it’s a very specific community I’m a part of otherwise.
rachel: But I don’t want to be a wet blanket, because chat is so useful. It’s one of the prime ways I’m able to gauge audience reactions to announcements in this virtual world. (That’s another thing I miss about in-person.)
monkchips: One problem with the drop in and go model is that it can lead to a lack of accountability. I am still a bit bruised from the keynote experience where, in calling for diversity and inclusion, I had quite a few people in chat start calling me a social justice warrior, woke, and so on. Only slightly bruised. I know folks in underrepresented groups put up with this all the time, but drive-by insults can be a bit annoying. That’s one thing you don’t get at in person events. Recorded events where you show up for the chat can be.. interesting in this way.
(+1 from @sogrady)
sogrady: I use Twitter to gauge reactions, typically.
Chat can be too noisy and anonymous for that, as @monkchips notes.
kelly: +1 on Twitter, but also I am trying to follow Twitter while live-tweeting AND paying attention to the talk AND chatting in the chat AND finding more coffee.
rachel: I think we have a specific question for best practices coming up later, but one best practice is definitely strong chat moderation.
I’ve seen it done really well (which goes beyond just removing bad faith comments, but also dropping links to related press releases, re-sharing the names of people presenting, and engaging with the audience), and I’ve seen it done really, really poorly. And it very much impacts the event experience writ large.
kelly: +1 on the importance of chat moderation.
As chat tools were often in use during in-person conferences pre-pandemic (and are probably not going anywhere), I think the moderation issue is especially important.
The fact that more folks have been using them in the all virtual events era has, I think, made some existing problems more visible.
And also, the actual questions @rachel mentioned: Are there any other virtual event practices and formats you expect (or hope to see) event organizers stick with even after in-person events become practical again?
sogrady: As much as I’ve criticized the online experience versus in person, I hope that remains an option. And not just the talks and so on – obviously it’s been possible to stream those in a lot of cases forever – but the scheduled 1:1 meetings and so on.
I very much want the opportunity to participate without getting on a plane longer term even if it means my overall experience is not what it would be in person.
monkchips: What has been effective? Good story-telling, shorter keynotes, more attention to diversity in presenters and comperes. More “views from overseas”.
kelly: I’ve also been impressed by the improved efforts to bring event and community newcomers into various conversations. It is SO easy to just passively consume online tech event content, but when the event hosts and moderators make a point to get folks participating in ways that are really not stressful (even if it is the usual “where is everyone from?” question), I feel like that is a win. I don’t know what the in-person version of that is, but I want to see it.
rachel: I feel like there has been a greater sense of global audiences this past year that I hope continues.
sogrady: I’m a bit more mixed on @kelly’s interaction point. There have been a few vendors who tried to mandate cameras on and so on, when that hasn’t been a viable option for me as I’m trying to just listen in while keeping tabs on a very active five year old.
I may only be in a position to listen, not to interact, so models that try and dictate that to me aren’t my favorite.
kelly: To be clear, I think that the burden of participating needs to be kept low. Mandatory cameras are a big NO for me. Actually mandatory anything is a big NO. I like options.
monkchips: Some of the best conference talks of the year have been… recorded by people themselves. The tiktok generation, but also just folks taking advantage of time and space, and in some cases their own editing chops, to make creative, authentic stories. I’d like to see this maintained, beyond Big Corporate Brand Identity events
sogrady: Totally agree with that. I had to give a talk for someone recently that was just a recorded Zoom, but would have been better if I could have edited it myself. Not to add Tik-Tok effects or something – that’s well outside of my wheelhouse – but because I could at least have run it through Descript and cleaned up the pauses and so on.
kelly: I love the point about space @monkchips. One of my favorite talks this year was your DevOps World keynote where you delivered your talk while you walked around your neighborhood.
monkchips: This talk at CDCon was amazing:
You're already doing continuous delivery!
(aka what's with all the gatekeeping?)
This is epic from @bobcatwilson #cdcon pic.twitter.com/GBcXUsKPbx
— Tracy Miranda (@tracymiranda) June 29, 2021
rachel: Yeah, I think attention to the editing and space makes a big difference in the energy a talk can exude. It’s so hard to get the same energy levels talking to your monitor as you would talking to a room.
The presenters who can do it well really stand out.
sogrady: That they do. I still remember Emily Freeman’s talk from early in the pandemic for that exact reason. The energy was bananas for an online talk.
monkchips: To be fair Emily Freeman is a higher order human.
kelly: That talk was sooooo good.
I think we even discussed that talk in our last events SlackChat. And we should probably talk about it again in our next one. It was that good.
(+1 from @sogrady)
monkchips: Before we move on… what was your favourite event of the last 12 months?
kelly: WRITE THE DOCS PORTLAND
(and yes, the shouting was intentional)
rachel: Gut answer is PagerDuty Summit but that might be recency bias. I think Adobe Max last year is also a contender. I was on maternity leave for part of the year, though, so I missed a sizable chunk of available events.
sogrady: Hmm…I enjoyed the MongoDB analyst day because it was short and sweet, but also includes follow up 1:1’s. Like @rachel, though, that might just be recency bias.
kelly: Y’all are only answering this way b/c you did not attend Write the Docs Portland.
sogrady: I think it wins by default because of your enthusiasm.
kelly: And there weren’t even any snacks involved.
sogrady: Which was the one that you sent you two cheese and wine? How does that not win going away?
kelly: The wine and cheese was an event related to PagerDuty Summit. And I think if we go with the combined enthusiasm of any two monks, that might win.
kelly: Like not only did I get to have wine and cheese virtually with PagerDuty folks, I also got to have wine and cheese virtually with @rachel.
monkchips: I really liked Hashiconf because the way it was run was so inspiring. And… weirdly…. I also really enjoyed re:Invent… primarily because we started our own Discord and had a lot of fun hanging out there. We called it Reinvent the Hallway. Social event of the season being social and all.
Don’t ask me what any of the announcement were though
Oh wait one honourable mention to Observe, Inc as well. They did an online event for their coming out party that was funny, had @quinnypig involved, and it really felt like it was made to be 100% online.
kelly: So shifting from attending events to planning one: we tentatively have an in-person Monktoberfest coming up in a few months (FYI, Team RedMonk officially reached fully vaccinated status last month). @sogrady and @rachel, are there any challenges you’ve run into trying to plan an in-person event with the pandemic ongoing?
sogrady: Well, on a high level it’s kind of complicated to plan an event that you’re not sure you’ll be able to hold.
It’s also interesting determining how many tickets to sell when the venue can’t tell you what the capacity will be in October.
rachel: Even in the best of cases, a lot of event planning is about dealing with uncertainty and things outside of your control. Trying to plan an event in the light of a global pandemic takes that to a whole new level.
sogrady: What @rachel said.
monkchips: You have bubble suits for everyone, right?
rachel: I’m excited. But holy moly it’s a lot.
sogrady: On the one hand, the planning is miserable. On the other, I just keep thinking how good it would be to see everyone – in person – if we’re able to pull it off.
Has anyone ever collapsed from spontaneous catharsis?
kelly: What I am hearing is that the event planners will need extra Curieux on hand for stress mitigation purposes.
sogrady: I mean, is there ever not a need for extra Curieux?
rachel: Event planners like this idea.
kelly: idk but I am using my one “I am a dr. so you have to listen to me” card for “more Curieux for event planners.”
sogrady:“I AM A DOCTOR. JUST DRINK THIS DAMMIT.”
kelly: Final question: What is the first in-person non-RedMonk industry event that you plan on attending?
sogrady: I can’t say for sure because I haven’t finalized plans, but if I had to bet I’d guess re:Invent.
rachel: I’m still sorting that out, but probably re:Invent. We’ll have more control with Monktoberfest since it’s our event and we can require vaccinations and safety measures, but I’m a little bit more hesitant to venture out into a world of 150,000 of my closest friends (who may or may not be vaccinated…). Especially because I have kids at home who are currently too young to be vaxxed.
sogrady: The mitigating factor for me is that, as an analyst, my exposure would be much more limited. Stream the keynotes, attend the analyst functions and it’s only a few hundred, tops.
kelly: re:Invent as a first back in person event does seem pretty overwhelming.
sogrady: And that would allow me to visit with a huge array of other clients who will all be in the same place at the same time.
But who knows what will happen between now and then.
kelly: “I will be taking meetings at the outdoor bar”
(+1 from @sogrady and @monkchips)
monkchips: Possibly re:Invent, though I suspect Delta may have something to say about that. We’re not out of the woods yet, and I am team Astra Zeneca, which is proving less effective than the mRNA vaccines.
rachel: International travel is definitely it’s own “outside your control” factor, too.
(+1 from @sogrady and @kelly)
kelly: Yah, we definitely need to take flying overseas + vaccine type + potential home exposure + at-the-time variant risk into account for our collective travel planning.
And I hope that event organizers can find ways to be flexible as conditions develop.
monkchips: It’s pretty messy. The UK is not in the EU digital vaccine passport program, and who knows what agreements will or will not happen with the US in the next few months.
Also I really just don’t want to travel any more on business. That’s been my Big Lesson of the pandemic. I didn’t want to before it happened, and the time at home has only confirmed my desire to be at home with my loved ones pretty much all the time. Thusly I am a huge fan of virtual events, platforms, and the efforts people have made, and will hopefully continue to make, to keep events global, inclusive, digital and online.
rachel: +1.One of the best silver linings of 2020 was that I wasn’t traveling while pregnant. I can’t tell you how lovely it was to just be morning sick at home and getting to announce everything on my own timeline. It was one of the many reasons I loved not being on planes last year.
kelly: And with that, it is time for team happy hour, folks! Thank you for your time today (and I hope everyone stays safe).
List of virtual events we’ve attended
In the last year RedMonk analysts have attended (and/or spoken at) public virtual tech events including:
- Q3-Q4 2020
- Google Cloud Next OnAir
- KubeCon + CloudNativeCon Europe
- GitLab Commit
- LaunchDarkly Trajectory
- PagerDuty Summit
- DevOps World
- Microsoft Ignite
- Jamstack Conf
- Sumo Logic Iluminate
- HashiConf Digital
- Splunk .conf
- Adobe MAX
- KubeCon + CloudNativeCon NA
- AWS re:Invent
- GitHub Universe
- Q1-Q2 2021
- Are you ready to become a TV company? The future of tech events is media.
- HashiCorp built its own online events platform and it’s awesome. Tiny Wins.
- Impressions from PagerDuty Summit
- A Tech Comm Classroom Update: Georgia Tech’s CS Junior Design Courses (and Expo) Go Virtual
- Docs Roundup 2.1: Write the Docs Portland 2021 Conference Edition
- So You’re Thinking About a Fancy Camera Rig
- On Co-Chairing KubeCon + CloudNativeCon
- Thoughts post Google Cloud Next ’20: OnAir
- A Quick Take on Google Cloud Next ’20: OnAir
- Some Takeaways from KubeCon + CloudNativeCon Europe 2020
- RedMonk SlackChat: 2020 Virtual Events
Disclosure: Adobe, AWS, CloudBees, Docker, GitHub, GitLab, Gitpod, Google Cloud, HashiCorp, Hasura, Honeycomb, IBM, LaunchDarkly, the Linux Foundation, Microsoft, MongoDB, Observe, PagerDuty, Puppet, Red Hat, Salesforce, Snyk, Sonatype, Splunk, Sumo Logic, Tidelift, and VMware are all RedMonk clients.