Our 3,000 person conference will now be everywhere — here’s what we want to test

We have many questions and ideas to explore; here’s how ONA is approaching our annual conference planning

Trevor Knoblich
May 21, 2020 · 8 min read

The Online News Association board and staff made the decision to move our annual conference, ONA20, to a fully virtual experience to focus on the safety of our global community. Our conference is famous for its high energy, optimistic spirit and creative participants; reimagining that for an online space will be a tall order. But ONA has long been a pioneer for digital access to our events — we have been live streaming the annual meeting since 2008 — and we are up to this new challenge.

Like most major event organizers right now, we have a lot of questions and new ideas to test. Here’s a behind-the-scenes look into how we’re going about it.

Moving the conference to everywhere

With the coronavirus forcing stay-at-home orders and travel restrictions internationally, we felt it was impossible to host our conference in person this year. We’ve publicly discussed our decision-making framework. It’s worth a read, because it’s the same framework we’ll be using when we consider hosting in-person events in the future. We were also one of the first associations to publicly talk about our challenges within the American Society of Association Executives community.

We’ve considered the hard question of whether ONA’s conference is needed at a time when the journalism field, like so many others, is battling business challenges that have led to furloughs and layoffs. But our mission is to inspire and support innovation and excellence in digital journalism. Something that came through clearly in surveys and conversations with our community since March is that people need support, a sense of gathering and best practices right now.

Designing ONA20 Everywhere from the ground up

We decided right away to design ONA20 from scratch. Attempting to transpose an in-person event, with 1:1 analogues for standard conference elements like receptions and lectures, could only end poorly. This leads to the *worst* parts of a conference being at the forefront of a participant’s experience: people talking over one another in noisy meeting spaces, long-winded lectures with little engagement or sponsors spamming attendees with offers that have little benefit. Nobody wants this. It’s all the calories with half the fun.

Designing the conference specifically for a virtual environment allows us to consider the participant experience from the outset: How do I learn about the event? What will expectations be for me? Will organizers have safety in mind? How will I connect with the people I care about?

Here are a few other assumptions we’re making early on (and tell us if we’re wrong please!):

  • Screen fatigue is real and hosting an all-day event would be taxing. Most of our offerings will be half a day or less.
  • People will have additional work and family duties. Attending ONA20 virtually means that you can’t disconnect from your real life in the same way you can when you travel. This is complicated by additional restrictions posed by the pandemic, like juggling school and summer camp cancellations. Again, nothing more than half a day at a time, tops!
  • People will want a mix of events to keep things interesting. If you have to engage in four straight Zoom meetings, you’ll get worn out. But sitting through four webinars with little interaction is equally problematic. The challenge for ONA planners is to offer a variety of options to match your mood.

In order to accommodate home and work responsibilities, offer people a mix of programming and still host an event of value, we’ve decided to expand ONA20 from four days to more than two weeks. Our new dates will be Oct. 1–16, with a variable schedule. We’re striving for an international festival sensibility, with different communities joining and leaving over the course of the conference.

Designing a virtual conference

ONA uses the Meeting Design Institute’s framework as a starting point for planning events. At the most basic level, events are broken down by learning, networking and what founder Martin Vanneste refers to as “motivation.” We lightly tweak this to “hospitality and inspiration,” which resonates more with our team. For us, hospitality and inspiration mean that basic needs are met, our event is professionally produced, and people find moments that spark true joy and create positive memories along the way.

Here’s how we’re thinking about approaching each of these conference elements virtually, including select questions and assumptions.

Learning

Questions we have:

  • How fatigued will people be of online chats, or screen time in general?
  • How distracted will people be with additional work and family duties?
  • How engaged will people want to be? Is a more interactive session preferable to lean back?
  • How does the organization handle platform adoption? Do we adopt multiple tools, with the risk of alienating participants who have to learn different interfaces? Or do we shoehorn everything into one or two tools, at the risk of participants having an awkward experience based on their specific need?

Assumptions we plan to test:

  • Our daily offerings won’t exceed a few hours’ time. With additional responsibilities, people won’t be able to keep focus for days on end.
  • We’ll need to stagger our schedule as a global conference. To try to include as many people from around the world as possible, we need to think beyond our team’s Eastern Time Zone status to accommodate multiple time zones.
  • Creating a more festival-like experience. Since we can’t do all-day events, we’ll spread our conference out over two weeks (Oct. 1–16 but no weekends!). This will create opportunities for people to drop in and out of things as they please.
  • Platform adoption will force some tradeoffs. Our Sr. Digital Manager, Adam Nekola, vetted dozens of tools and we quickly realized that nothing will be a perfect fit. Many companies creating virtual meeting technology are very good at solving one or two problems, but a fragmented market means that none are comprehensive yet. So, some are good at clever professional match-making; others have great interactive meeting chat spaces; and still others excel at showcasing vendors and products. But it doesn’t appear as if one tool solves all of our needs. We’re planning to streamline tools as much as we can. We’ll provide maximum guidance in the form of help pages, participant tutorials, a help desk and anything else we can think of to make everything feel smooth. All hands will be on the tech deck.
  • People will want to be engaged … but not overly engaged. We want to earn attention, not demand it. While we can deploy gimmicks like sounds, polls and other ways to keep attendees on our pages, we also want to make space for attendees to leave and attend other needs (or zone out).
  • Live chat will create a more dynamic learning environment. We plan to have live chat alongside every learning session. This will allow participants to ask questions of one another and presenters, as well as share resources.

Networking

All of our questions are really sub-headers of The Big One, which every event planner is asking right now: how do we recreate the hallway experience?

It’s really a thought exercise at this point: Picture emerging from an informative conference session into a long hallway in a hotel or convention center. As you leave your session, you might strike up a conversation with a stranger who becomes a new friend or business colleague. As you turn away, you bump into your former professor who meant a lot to you, and you get the opportunity to catch up on where you are in your career. You only walk a couple of steps before an old friend stops you to request meeting up after the day’s activities. As you walk further along the hallway, you bump into a celebrity in your field and get to ask them a quick question. The next person you pass works for a tech company, and you can talk to them about a niche feature in their product you’ve been wondering about.

The potential for these interactions is thrilling, and it adds so much exuberant energy to the conference environment. Organizations that find a virtual way to evoke that same thrill will be a step ahead when people are deciding how to spend their time and money across multiple offerings for virtual conferences.

Assumptions we plan to test:

  • The base motivation for networking will remain the same. We think people will be interested in meeting new colleagues with similar job roles, hiring, finding new tools, digging into interesting discussions and finding collaborators. We’ll design for these needs.
  • Participants looking to do serious vetting need to be able to do so efficiently. One positive benefit of being in a virtual environment is that we’ve seen creative options for quickly vetting tools or potential hires.
  • People will want dedicated places to meet folks with the same roles, and other experiences for “random” matchups or encounters. We’ll create dedicated times and places to meet those working on the same problems, the number one need cited by our attendees in conference surveys. Outside of that, we’ll plan some fun opportunities to socialize, and chat lounges that allow for more randomized interactions.

Hospitality and Inspiration

We still want our event to be professional, fun and memorable to ensure that everyone has a good time. Here are some key elements we’re working on now.

Questions we have:

  • How do we balance online breaks versus offline breaks?
  • What additional accessibility options can we deploy?
  • How can we help build fun memories?
  • How can we best update our Code of Conduct and other tools to ensure a safe and professional learning environment for participants?

Assumptions we plan to test:

  • Onboarding is paramount. We plan to provide documentation, Q-and-A areas, virtual training and a help desk to ensure that everyone can prepare and prevent most issues in advance, and resolve the rest as quickly as possible.
  • Screen breaks are needed. While we hope to have breaks that allow people to mingle in a chat lounge or other interactive time, we also want to build in time to unplug, get offline and take a break.
  • People will want clear expectations for each and every programming, networking and social offering. Will they be on the camera? Can they use a virtual background? Can they leave the audio on and work in other tabs? Do they need to download a plugin or software in advance to use certain features? More than ever, we’ll need to clarify expectations ahead of time.

One of the exciting things about this period in our working lives is that it has highlighted the importance of being adaptable, supportive and innovative.

We have a lot to learn in the months ahead. Some aspects will go well, and some will end in some hard lessons learned. But what better community to take the plunge with than the most tech-savvy journalists in the world?

We will continue to make adjustments based on feedback from the community. Along the way, we will share our resources, approach to challenges and lessons learned so that we can collaboratively push forward together as we reimagine journalism.

Framework

Designing the ONA Experience

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