Conferencing the Pandemic 2: Format Matters

The manner in which we set up conferences online can make a big difference for what we get from them.

In my last post I profiled four conferences that were held within the last two weeks of October, 2020 providing a point of comparison for helping understand what works and what can support learning, collaboration, and exchange in a time when nearly all conferences are going online.

In this second in the series we look at the role of format. Four different conferences, four different formats.

For those that attend conferences a lot, you might know what it means to attend an event in your own home town vs travelling to another place. When you travel, the conference experience is more immersive. You are literally out of the office and while some of us will continue to work by taking a call or two or answering email generally one makes time to socialize and take things in (that’s my experience and observation). When it’s in your own home town — and in this case, your own home — things are different and, with many of us working from home we are no longer out of the office. Family commitments, habits, and patterns don’t change and thus it is more of a challenge to block the time off to attend a conference.

The challenge for conference hosts is how to create a sense of place — an experience, something special — that can bridge the gap between being at home and being somewhere else, even if it’s only for a few hours via Zoom.

The most natural place to start is with software.

Software

RSD9 and The Great Wave principally used Zoom on its own as a means of delivering presentations supported through a website where individuals could link or view the conference sessions. The Great Wave syndicated its Zoom casts to Vimeo allowing people to watch either on the website or by using Zoom. The American Evaluation Association (AEA) and Distributed 2020 both used conference platforms to deliver their content — which also relied on Zoom. (I am acknowledging that there may be additional software that powered the conference via a website, but in the case of RSD9 and The Great Wave that software was invisible to the attendee).

The benefits of these choices were many depending on the conference and format. Having all of the materials on a single website reduced any hesitancy or confusion about where to go. I found RSD9’s interface confusing, which made it difficult to find things as the week went along. This was less about the website failing to work, but the design and layout choices of the site. Adding to the confusion was that the RSD conference sessions required pre-registration (more later) and that required a passcode protected link to join via Zoom for each individual session. This meant that finding specific events on the website also required you to register and then search your email for the link and passcodes each day of the events. The conference was held over the course of the week and sometimes this meant having to go through many messages to find the right link.

The Great Wave used a portal system that allowed a single sign-on and allowed you to connect to Zoom through this portal. There was no need to mess around with any passcodes for each session — just a single password for the portal and the entire conference. That made it a lot easier given the breadth of conference activities held over the four days. The Great Wave also created additional content that was shared via Google Photos and a Soundcloud channel . A link to each channel from the website made this relatively easy to navigate as content would either be syndicated directly through the website (e.g., you could listen to audio without leaving to Soundcloud, see photos without leaving) or allow for a direct pop-out to the other channel.

The AEA used a platform called Pathable to power the conference. Like with the Great Wave a single sign-on provided entry to the conference materials through the platform. AEA’s big value proposition was that registration allowed you to join in live or watch the recording of the event for up to three months afterward. The live events worked well. There was little difficulty in joining, signing in (with a unique passcode that was mailed to each registrant) and watching videos. The AEA event is large and brought with it many different emails promoting the event which did make finding the correct message with the passcode in it a little work (because the email looked very much like many others that were sent ahead of the event). Once logged in, I allowed my browser to remember the passcode and there was little problem afterward. However, I’ve found the journey back to the website to view the sessions post-conference more complicated. I don’t know whether this is tied to Pathable or some other way the content is hosted on the AEA’s conference site.

Distributed 2020 used the Hopin platform, which I liked very much. Unlike Pathable, which provided an interface that almost mimicked the AEA website, users know they are on a Hopin platform as it felt distinct and apart from the organizer’s site — even with the similar colour pallette and host branding. The advantage of this is that you clearly know when you’re in and when you’re out of the conference platform, the drawback might be that every Hopin event could feel the same (losing some brand recognition for the hosts). I found Hopin to be stable, easy to use and navigate.

All content aside, I found the Hopin platform the most attractive and easiest to use of all of the models . Apparently some others do, too as Hopin has just received another large $125m investment suggesting faith in this model as more conferences go online.

Chat

The ability for attendees to interact with the speakers and each other is a major feature of any conference. I’m going to go over this part of the experience in a future post, however it is worth noting how the software fared in supporting some type of conversation and questions/answers among attendees. The AEA conference, RSD9, and Great Wave events used Zoom to broadcast or host their sessions, which allowed for users to engage with each other using the platform’s chat function. The Great Wave also created these ‘ripple’ groups of 10-15 people who were invited to connect through WhatsApp providing another, less public, means of generating more intimate spaces for conversation.

Both the RSD9 and Great Wave conferences had staff or volunteers engage with the audience to facilitate discussion in Zoom. For AEA this was less obvious, but it didn’t seem to matter much. The Hopin platform for Distributed 2020 had an animator who responded to questions and facilitated discussion in a similar manner.

In all cases, conversation was as you might expect from a Zoom call: lots of single-line items with some opportunities for other attendees to respond. I’ll speak more to this in a future post in this series.

Presentation Format

Questions and chat functions are one of the avenues attendees have for making an online conference feel more than just a YouTube video. But, as I saw, there is much more to engagement in an online conference than chat. Presentation format matters.

Attendees to the annual AEA conference probably were not surprised to find that the format they chose was adapted to accommodate celebration, music, and performance. These moments of merriment, reflection, entertainment, and repose were hallmark features of recent AEA conferences and certainly fit the conference them of “Shining Your Light”. It made things like plenary sessions feel a little less ‘Zoom-like’.

One of the visual ‘tricks’ that worked well was having split-screens with multiple presenters on at the same time. This is not the same has having the ‘wall of attendees’, it is about creating a sense of a true ‘panel’ for discussions rather than having the screen view go back and forth between whomever is speaking. This was very useful. RSD9 and Distributed 2020 didn’t do this to the same extent. In both of those cases it was one person, one visual at a time.

Far and away the most creative format was The Great Wave. They alternated between traditional zoom visuals, hosts broadcasting live from a studio (filmed in a manner that looked like a studio, not three people gathered around a computer screen), pre-recorded content, and filmed content broadcast through Zoom such as dance numbers and musical performances. Lest you think this was some multi-million dollar, high-end production, the techniques and tools they used were the same any organization could use in broadcasting a conference. What was different was the level of thought put into the shots (and some back-end support to tie them together).

The simple choice to use different angles and formats made an enormous difference. After sitting at a computer for hours staring at Zoom-like events, it all starts to seem the same no matter how good the content is. The Great Wave by using different formats, creating breaks in between sessions, and even including a DJ who played music that was relaxing, upbeat at times, and original in between sessions made a gigantic difference. It kept me engaged. It also warded off fatigue.

Momentum

The last point to make about format is the manner in which the conference agenda itself was organized.

The Great Wave, the AEA conference, and Distributed 2020 were organized as multi-day events much like a traditional conference. There was an agenda, multiple sessions scheduled, and a welcome and wrap-up to the day each day. RSD9 would have done this had it taken place in-person in India as expected, however the changes prompted them to re-imagine the event and transform it into a 10-day festival of sorts. Rather than have a lot of events pushed together on a single day, these were spread out. The advantage to this was that there was the possibility of attending almost every plenary talk and activity. Some workshops were scheduled concurrently, but over the course of the week there was the opportunity to see a lot of content.

This has the added advantage of allowing people to fit it into their rather disjointed lives working at home (for those in that situation). The drawback to this approach is that there was a complete lack of momentum. At times, I would forget that the conference was on and rather than feel like a conference it sometimes just felt like a series of webinars. That wasn’t necessarily a problem for content, but it did make things less ‘conference-like’ and I felt like something was lost in all of that.

The AEA — recognizing the multiple time zones across North America, where its primary audience is, decided to start events mid-day to accommodate those on the West coast. This meant that those in Arizona, California and even Hawaii could wake up to an event every day and finish their conference ‘stuff’ by noon. For someone like myself who was joining on the Eastern side of North America, it felt a little disruptive. I would work for a few hours and then join a session in between meetings. Much of that ‘conference’ feeling was suppressed because it got wedged between other things. Had I been on the West coast, I suspect I would have had a different experience. (Of course, I am a morning person so this might not apply to people who sleep in later).

The Great Wave was better. While it did start sessions at 4am (my time) it spaced them out so that most of the conference activities were done by early afternoon. This worked really well for me. RSD9 was in a similar situation in that it had a global audience and many time zones to consider so in that case they opted to host events in the evening (my time), which I didn’t like although I suspect for many others that would have been a great way to stay involved.

Distributed 2020, which was based out of California, made things an afternoon event only and scheduled things from about 12 noon Eastern time to 3-4pm each day.

When dealing with time zones there is no good option. Having recordings available did help. The Great Wave was remarkably quick in ensuring that recordings were available shortly after events so I could, for example, watch the 4am session at 8am that same day without any difficulty. I could watch a 10am session at 12 noon.

Having blocks of time — like mid-day sessions in the case of AEA and Distributed 2020 — can work if you are willing to block that time off. For RSD9 the lack of momentum was compensated by giving people the most ‘space’ to schedule the conference events in and, in many ways, it was best suited for attendees who were finding themselves occupied by other things in life and were able to block off an hour here and there instead of in large blocks.

Format Lessons

My key format lessons for conferences are:

  • Decide whether you want flexibility or concentration. RSD9’s ‘festival’ approach made it easier to schedule in live sessions while losing that ‘critical mass’ or ‘conference feel’ by having things scheduled closer together. Flexibility comes with a cost of momentum.
  • Break up the look and feel. The Great Wave’s blend of live and pre-recorded, use of different camera angles and settings (studio vs home Zoom chat), and mix of visual art, speakers, music, and formats kept me engaged. The risk is that people could be overwhelmed if you don’t design this right.
  • Hosting platforms provide a singular focus for users seeking to log on and participation. The ease-of-use of Distributed 2020 made it attractive for anyone looking to engage people who don’t have the patience for technology.
  • Keep people talking. The chat features were easy-to-use and made me feel I wasn’t alone and was part of a real event.

These are just some of the lessons. There’s much more that I learned about people as well as materials and that is coming in a future post.

Photo by Nick Morrison on Unsplash and Austin Distel on Unsplash

Cameron D. Norman

I am a designer, psychologist, educator, evaluator, and strategist focused on innovation in human systems. I'm curious about the world around me and use my role as Principal and President of Cense Ltd. as a means of channeling that curiosity into ideas, questions, and projects that contribute to a better world.

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