Virtual Conferences: A Primer

Alex Lindsay
Mar 11 · 8 min read

As a growing number of conferences fall victim to COVID-19, discussions about virtual conferences have begun to swirl again. Overall, many factors are exerting downward pressure on the size of traditional conferences. Potential pandemics and terrorist events put attendees at risk, companies are increasingly weighing the environmental impact of their events and the sheer global nature of business makes it difficult for everyone to physically join — even once a year.

Before we get started, I should state that I won’t be talking about reproducing conferences in a virtual world or building expo booths in 3D so that attendees can walk through them. I think this technology is pretty far from the surface and by the time we get there, I don’t think that we will choose low resolution skeuomorphic facsimiles of events that weren’t that good in the first place. Events are driven by their own constraints — they are expensive so we do them once a year, booths are more about logistics than vision, sitting in the back of a keynote for 15,000 people is not very compelling. Shoehorning old concepts into an online world, in my opinion, is not the solution. A new medium presents a new set of constraints and possibilities.

We must focus on what we are trying to achieve — connect with our audience, share our product or idea with them, converse with them, and allow them to connect with others. We can build new tools and constructs that do this as efficiently and even more effectively than physical experiences but only if we free ourselves from the artifice of old world conventions.

While online conferences are still in their infancy, I have had the opportunity to work on over 1,000 activations of all sizes in the last decade. I didn’t intend to get into this business, I was just trying to teach online technical classes. This turned out to be valuable in the last recession as companies looked to do more with less. I somehow found myself traveling around the world executing this type of event for large corporations and government entities. I rarely did the same event twice. Nearly every new project was designed from scratch to achieve the specific outcome.

Here’s what I’ve learned so far…

Many people think that future conferences will be some version of virtual reality, others can’t imagine giving up face to face meetings. The answer may lie, as it often does, somewhere in the middle. It is very possible to build compelling online events that have no physical audience. I have worked on many events that many considered significantly better than being there in person. In fact, personally, I would rather do my own events online instead of appearing in-person. With specialized tools and processes, I can serve more people, more effectively, in cyberspace. This is not using wiz-bang production techniques or VR. Instead, it’s creating what I call a “Scalable Conversation.”

What is a Scalable Conversation?

A scalable conversation is an event where the attendees feel a true connection to the content and speakers. This connection, unlike a traditional conversation, is with a large number of individuals, unconstrained by geography. In the endless meetings to plan an event, we often lose sight of what we’re actually trying to achieve. In an attempt to build the “next big thing” or one-up our competitors, we forget that our primary mission is to build a relationship with our community and educate them about a new idea or product.

How Do We Create a Scalable Conversation?

The first step, is giving the audience the feeling that you are talking directly to them. When I was a radio DJ, three decades ago, the first rule was not to imagine that you are talking to 100,000 listeners. Instead, you focus on talking to one imaginary listener sitting right in front of you. Virtual events make this easier. When we cover traditional events, our speakers naturally focus on the in-room audience. This pushes our online audience, and the resulting recorded event, to the fringes. They are not part of the group, they are a fly on the wall. When viewers don’t feel like you are talking to them, they mentally disengage. This contributes to lower viewer time, which I consider the most critical measure for an online event. It also results in less focus on the content and ultimately, less impact. In a virtual event, we often use teleprompters heavily, when possible, to keep the speakers looking directly at the viewers. However, we try to avoid scripted presentations when possible to allow the speaker to be more authentic and relaxed. We put notes, slides and other event content on the prompter to maximize eye contact with the online audience.

The second step is to find ways to respond to the audience. This is something that is missing in almost all events. Marketing teams, focused on managing every aspect of the messaging, often bristle at the idea of responding to live comments but those questions are precisely what keeps the audience engaged. We, as live streaming experts, constantly marvel at the average view time on Twitch. Many erroneously assume that “gaming is more compelling” but the true story lies in the real-time interaction and community that is generated via the streams. Even with Twitch’s relatively crude audience tools, it stands head and shoulders above other services because of how connected the audience feels. Some of the highest view times we see are often just open-ended question and answer sessions with the online viewers

Effectively responding to online comments is not a turn-key solution. Over the past decade, high-end interactive events have required, and still require, a host of custom tools and processes to be truly engaging. How do we get the comments? How do we manage those comments? Who has to approve the comments? How do we expose the comments to the speaker? How does the speaker pivot, technically, to those comments? Finally, how do we do all of this seamlessly, while live, in under 45 seconds? As someone who shifts gears from encoding engineer to event architect to host, I’m constantly confronted with the challenges of doing all of these steps well. Low-frequency events (less than 50 comments a minute) are relatively easy to process with a few people and some elbow grease. High-frequency events (over 200 comments a minute) require infrastructure to generate something meaningful.

A backstage view of an event with four sessions running in parallel. The moderators, guests and audience were all online. Without the live audience, we were able to focus on the viewer experience. Not a few webcams but it’s still a fraction of the infrastructure needed for four full-room productions.

All of this is easier to execute without an in-room audience. By moving resources to the online interaction, we are able to effectively engage a larger audience and produce a more compelling recording of our event. We are no longer distracted by the logistics of load-in, overtime and cabling. We can center ourselves on the content and the community.

Latency also impacts how we interact. I will categorize “latency” as real-time, low-latency and high-latency. Real-time, less than 200ms, allows for 2-way communication with the online audience. We can video chat with audience members or remote speakers. Low-latency, one to 10 seconds, makes real-time conversations difficult but allows the speaker to respond more effectively. This is useful for small-scale events that are more personal (less than 1,000 viewers). High-latency, over 10 seconds, is less responsive but often acceptable in larger events because there is a logistical latency of sorting and managing higher frequency online comments.

By going virtual, we can allow the VIP to join from where they are most comfortable, bring in participants from the rest of the world, and stream it to the online audience.

We can also create hybrids of these styles. We may build real-time connections with remote speakers and watch parties. We can then stream the resulting interaction at a higher latency to the rest of the world. I have executed events that fully connect audiences in multiple cities in real-time allowing presentations to originate from any one of these cities to the others and, also, include speakers from home or insert studios. We then streamed the result online to include smaller groups and individuals that could not attend. These types of hybrids require a deep understanding and respect for the technical needs of the architecture, robust communications (way beyond the “phone bridge” that broadcasters traditionally use) and dedicated teams.

Many organizations try to do these types of events “cost-effectively”. This often results in a disjointed, ugly event that is forgettable at best and a liability at worst. Yes, we don’t want to spend more than we have to but the most expensive event is a failed event. Great online events will be less expensive than a physical execution but not by much. Think a 10–25% savings, not 75–90%. The value comes through greatly expanding the viewing audience and generating better long term content. Internally, we often send each other pictures of our hardware heavy set ups that we build for these events with the simple caption “Because streaming is easy”. It can be relatively painless but that is not easy. It takes careful planning, detailed logistics, and a commitment to process.

In this event, our main guests are in venue but additional online guests were brought into the conversation. Online viewers also posted questions during the show. Without and audience, we can put the cameras and infrastructure where they make the most sense for the show.

You can save money if you set up permanent event spaces and use the platform often. This allows companies to defray costs over multiple activations while building a deeper relationship with your community and showing them that you are ready to do more than talk at them, you are ready to have a conversation with them.

There are also small “creature comforts” that can improve the impact of an online conference for the audience. Within limits, send online participants the “swag” you planned to give them at the event — especially if you can find ways that those gifts can be used in the event. Find opportunities to bring comments, pictures, and even user videos into the run of show. Look at how to use social networks to bring audience members together.

For watch parties, think of ways to make them special. Wrap the room with some event branding, cater breakfast and lunch, change the lighting, think about walk-in music. Make cool name tags that look like backstage passes and find ways that the attendees can be involved in the event program.

Most of all, stay focused on core concepts. It will be tempting to get distracted by shiny objects in a panic to “make up” for moving the event online. Remember that the impact of the event will most likely be measured in this order: compelling/well-designed content, audience engagement, smooth production, audio quality, video quality. If you have the budget and time, sure, go crazy with effects. But be careful not to lose the message in the medium. I have worked on very high production events that no one watched and very low production events that garnered massive and sustained viewership. It’s about serving the audience with something valuable.

In the end, there will be many naysayers that feel in-person networking and hands-on experiences will never be replaced by online events. They might be right. But we need to also consider the limitations of physical events. They can be incredibly expensive for everyone involved, they have a huge impact on the environment and they will continue to become less safe.

High-quality online conferences, as opposed to simple webinars, could have a place in the future of communications… even after the current shock. We might find that we can reach more people, more effectively and more often when we free ourselves from the logistical constraints of building an old-fashioned physical conference.

Next week, we’ll look at different ways to structure online events.

GearMediaTech

Exploring how media gets made.

Alex Lindsay

Written by

Head of Operations, 090.media — I solve complex video problems specializing in live streaming and interactive events. @alexlindsay on Twitter.

GearMediaTech

Exploring how media gets made.

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