Conferencing the Pandemic, Part 4: Engagement

Conferences are more than just content-sharing opportunities, the best are about immersive learning experiences.

Conferences are resource-intensive events. When you commit to attending a conference, you’re committing significant time (and opportunity cost), money, and energy to attend and, in most cases, travel to the event. For most of us this is an investment made worthwhile because of the entire experience. A good conference provides content, networking opportunities and often an opportunity to see new products, services, and connections between them all. How does this fare online?

In the previous posts in this series, we looked at cost and value, format, and content and now we pull things together into looking at the experience as a whole.

What is important to note is that costs, format, and content can all be mis-aligned and still lead to a great experience, while the converse can also be true.

As a reminder, the four conferences compared are:

Communities of Interest

Two of the events were tied to professional associations. The American Evaluation Association is the world’s largest organization devoted to professional evaluation practice, research, and advocacy. It has a membership of over 6700 located worldwide and regularly hosts in-person conferences with more than 3000 people in attendance.

RSD9 was sponsored by the relatively new Systemic Design Association, which represents an interdisciplinary field of practice devoted to connecting systems science with design.

In both cases, these conferences serve as a gathering point for practitioners and scholars within each field and, for many, the annual conference is the premier means of building community among peers.

The Great Wave has nurtured a devoted group of followers although its design as an annual event not tied specifically to any unique practice domain, discipline, or geographic setting meant that it didn’t have the same focused audience ahead of time.

Distributed 2020 was different in that it was organized around a product (Miro) that has many ‘fans’ and also was aimed at a specific set of goals tied closely to the present context (remote work).

Where this mattered most was in the build-up and promotion of the event. The Great Wave and Distributed 2020 were largely promoted through a single body — the host organizations. The other conferences were more widely promoted by member communities, allied organizations, and networks. This helped create a bit of ‘buzz’ among those communities that was difficult to ignore if you were a part of those organizations. I discovered the Great Wave by accident and Distributed 2020 was revealed to me because I am a Miro customer.

Another advantage for both the AEA and RSD9 conferences is that they are annual events that are usually held at the same time each year and planned and promoted many months and years in advance in some cases. Connected to a community of interest and this made for strong promotional network and community feel.

Nevertheless, while this helped promote the conference, it didn’t limit a feel for conference and the overall experience.

Nurturing Community: Association-Sponsored Events

AEA has a large, diverse and active community and the most powerful experience of the conference was that it brought people together and celebrated the theme for 2020: let your light shine. Plenary sessions and panels did not have to adhere to this theme, but many did. Many of the plenary sessions were devoted to concepts of equity, inclusion, and evaluation’s role in challenging racism and systemic barriers for justice.

My sense is that much of what was discussed at the conference wasn’t novel to most attendees, but it was necessary. The AEA’s event was affirming, validating and inspiring. It was what was needed now. It was about community, especially in 2020. That said, while I can imagine these topics requiring much more exploration and recognition in years to come I also believe that future conferences of this nature will need to include more novel content. I didn’t learn much this year from the AEA event, yet felt it did a great (and necessary) job of providing community connection in a year when so many are disconnected.

AEA promoted the use of hashtags to allow people to follow the discussion on Twitter or other social media platforms and to continue the conversation through other means knowing that attendees wouldn’t have the chance to meet in person. This has been done before, but this year with the conference online the emphasis on these social ‘connector’ methods was greater. What wasn’t as strong was the AEA conference website which, as it has been in past years, was difficult to navigate and find things. It took a long time to gather the information I needed to make the most of the conference and this took away from my experience a little, although I was rather motivated (as likely were others who attended) to persevere.

The RSD conferences are still relatively new, yet –in my opinion – the organizers missed an opportunity for greater community building by not nurturing means for people to connect. There was no visible hashtag, no solid promotion on social media channels (outside of mentions from a few of the organizers) and little way to keep the conversation going. I found the RSD9 website rather confusing to navigate and not useful. For someone who was more casually considering attending this conference or new to the field and wanting to get more involved, this would have been a turn-off. There also was little in the way of visible social engagement that would be accessible to newcomers or those not already well-connected to key figures in the community who were a part of the conference.

Nurturing Community: Alternative Sponsored Events

Distributed 2020 took a different approach. As a corporate-sponsored event focused on a rather specific product (Miro) and context (remote work) their charge was both easier and more difficult. To keep the conversation going and focused the organizers deployed animators/facilitators in each conference panel to aid, guide, moderate, and stoke the conversation among the attendees. This worked remarkably well. They provided suggestions for additional content, links to other sessions, and celebrated certain comments.

For the most part, the audience did a great job of responding to this and interacting. There were few non-sequitur or self-promotional interruptions or rants. This made a big difference. The quality of the conversation and the links were what helped make this part of the event work well. At the end of everyday the organizers sent an email to registrants with links to talks that had been posted and further information on how to learn more about the day’s topics. This was concise, useful and kept me engaged.

The Distributed 2020 website was sparse, simple and easy to navigate with nearly all the content provided through the Hopin platform and with the emails at the end of the day.

The Great Wave in many ways should not have worked well, yet it was the best of all of them at community engagement. It’s website was unique and differently organized than most conventional conference sites (not a lot of menus, a lot of visuals), yet once I started on it found it to be useful. They organized the website in a timeline so that you could follow content as it happened and this was enormously helpful with so many events taking place and having them held in different time zones. It allowed me to keep up.

Another reason the Great Wave shouldn’t have worked is that it had so many channels – both organized by the conference and self-organized by attendees. Zoom, Vimeo, Google Photos, Soundcloud, WhatsApp, LinkedIn and more all featured content for The Great Wave. This was a recipe for confusion, yet managed to provide a healthy differentiation and enticement to engage with the content and participants. Take the idea of ‘ripples’ – small-groups of 10-15 people who consented to be connected (randomly) on a WhatsApp group. The conference had many of these ripples set up. I was part of one and actually found it useful. I was matched with people from all over the world who I didn’t know. but could chat with throughout the conference. I loved it — and I didn’t think I would.

The conference used hashtags, although this was modestly taken up. I was able to follow — and eventually meet – others through following the hashtag on social media. Another strategy that worked well during the event was the development of a conference-specific LinkedIn group. That created a lot of ‘chatter’ as well.

After-Event

AEA had established networks and those have continued along. RSD has a fledgling community that is also continuing as before. Distributed 2020 did introduce me to a few additional communities such as the Remote Work Forever group, a Slack channel and community organized by conference speaker Molood Ceccarelli . Distributed 2020 wasn’t really designed for carrying the conversation further, rather to use Miro and the techniques to work better remotely and to that extent, I think it accomplished its mission.

The Great Wave had an explicit goal of keeping the conversation going and it did this through hope, rather than design. The sponsor/organizer, The House of Beautiful Business, hasn’t followed up with much in the way of an explicit strategy to do this. However, what they did do was nurture so many connections during the conference through their various channels that I’ve found more vibrant, continuous discussions taking place to carry ideas forward than I have with any conference in recent years.

Learning is integrated after the conference in the practice we engage in after the event; it thrives and fails in systems designed to support it. As we go online, the chance to create continuous learning experiences, nurture community intentionally, and keep learning and action going. This is the potential for where conferences can go — from events to true learning vehicles.

In our last post in the series we will explore this very idea.

Photo by Nataliya Vaitkevich from Pexels

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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