Conferencing the Pandemic, Part 5: Take-Away Lessons

I look at the big ideas that drive learning and positive experiences with online conferences drawn from four case studies

After four conferences in a short period of time, what did I come away with when it comes to lessons about how to deliver a positive learning and social experience for those who attend? To recap, we’ve looked at value, format, content, and engagement so far. (These recommendations are also reflected in experiences with other online conferences I’ve attended as well in 2020 — they all hold up).

Here are my recommendations and while it was not my intention to rank or rate any of the events, there were some that offered a greater overall experience than others and that will come through in the comments below.

Design for Digital

Among the most salient lessons has been that the best experiences of a digital conference came from events that designed for digital. That means creating experiences that favoured digital experiences rather than ‘IRL’ (in real life) ones that were simply converted online. This included features like time-shifting (being able to view, visit, or download material after a live event), blending live and pre-recorded content, and linking to other content outside of the ‘event.’

By making the most of what digital technology offers us, the experience of a digital conference doesn’t have to be second-rate.

Zoom enables recording of webinars for viewing later. The costs and effort to do this are not much and it provides tremendous added value to your attendees who can revisit the content later. Did you not catch that one point? No problem, come back at a later time and fill-in your notes. Want to profile a new resource? Provide a hyperlink.

The Miro-hosted Distributed 2020 conference was designed for digital about digital and it did a great job of connecting its attendees to examples or tools that were digitally delivered as integrated into the conference experience. The Great Wave also did an exceptional job of showcasing different forms of digital content — music, photography, video, and interactive art — as part of its experience.

Bring Art In

Art makes a gigantic difference to the online experience. The video conference experience is incredibly flat. Every call feels the same because the environment and soundscape are the same. What The Great Wave did was create a sensory-rich experience for its attendees to break up the lineup of Zoom-room speaking events. They did this through multiple means and the effect was extraordinary.

One way was to include a house DJ/musician who played music sometimes in the background prior to a session and others as part of a performance between sessions. This broke up the soundscape and offered a way to mentally transition between events, besides offering some entertainment.

What is easy to forget when designing an online conference is that IRL events offer affordances that break up the experience even simple things like walking between sessions or going to the lobby to grab a coffee and passing booths, registration desks, or bumping into colleagues. Art is a way to provide a sensory form of stimulation as we transition in and out of events and within the spaces between.

Create a Hub and Spoke

A central platform is critical. In the case of Distributed 2020 everything was all in one place with no deviations from its Hopin platform: it was where you started and where you ended. RSD9 and AEA were a bit of a hybrid with home websites that jumped into Zoom events, while The Great Wave used a single home site that linked to multiple media channels.

In each case, the most successful experiences came from knowing where the base was and how to access that easily. The Great Wave curated all of its content into one space, which was easy to navigate.

The hub-and-spoke model provides a single point of entry into the event, but allows for a multi-media experience by providing a back-and-forth with other platforms. It breaks up things and makes things more interesting without getting lost. For example, linking to a platform in another browser tab provides a means to view photos, listen to audio files, watch a video, or chat while keeping anchored to the main conference.

Facilitate Discussion

What honestly surprised me was the quality of discussion within some events. Both Distributed 2020 and The Great Wave had specific ‘animators‘ who were there to facilitate discussion when necessary and moderate content as well. This kept people on track when needed and also provided provocation for further discussion. For example, moderators might drop in a link to a specific resource that was being discussed in the session or point out another session in the conference that built upon it.

Create opportunities for people to connect to each other and the content using the channels provided. The traditional Q & A format where people sit through an entire talk and then wait their turn to — maybe — ask a question is antithetical to the online live experience. If conference organizers don’t support this then they might as well simply record talks and post them up online. There’s no real value in live events without the opportunity for people to share and exchange during the event. Facilitators or animators are a way to enhance this and also keep it a safe, respectful place for conviviality. This includes using social media to encourage people to follow them using hashtags or other means to track what’s happening.

Thankfully, there were almost no transgressions of etiquette and decorum from those seeking to self-promote or disrupt constructive debate with their non-sequiturs’ on trivial or irrelevant matters among the conferences I attended.

Go Beyond Your Platform

The most intriguing model of the four was the Great Wave, which used Soundcloud, Google Photos, Zoom, Vimeo, and other performance ‘spaces’ to create a multi-media experience for attendees. It worked far better than I ever expected it to. However, it worked because of having a single website platform to launch from (see previous point). Had that not been well-organized I could have seen it be a disaster.

RSD9, Distributed 2020 and AEA relied largely on the experience within the site and through whatever social media mentions were made by attendees. While this was pretty standard, I felt that it was a lost opportunity. There was little that was special about the experience, even if the content might have been fine. For some, this will be enough. For me, I was interested in something more having spent most of the past 8 months on Zoom calls and watching YouTube live-streams.

Time Shift

One of the lost opportunities that every conference missed was in the lead-up and follow-up. While there may have been months of preparatory work in building the conference, what none of the events did was take advantage of the digital time space created by the shift online. Advanced promotion of the events for each of them was pretty standard: some social media mentions, a few “coming soon” emails, and maybe a thank-you afterwards. In every case the opportunity to engage attendees ahead of time and beyond was lost.

While many might argue that this is not what conference organizers are meant to do, I’d challenge that by saying that if one of the key points of a conference is to provide learning opportunities and networking then it makes sense to use the conference event as a means of focusing those activities in ways that are sustained. As I’ve written before, learning fails in bad systems. A system that views learning solely as an event will fail. Particularly in 2020.

Some conferences, like The Great Wave, managed to spawn a series of self-organized events and networks, which helped. But even things like the LinkedIn groups that were organized around most of the conferences were left relatively quiet and relegated to simple promotional or marketing roles rather than fostering true engagement with the content and conference themes.

New Value Models

Lastly, the ultimate criteria for assessment is value. Was the time, energy, cost, and attention worth it? In all cases, I’d say yes. However, in some cases I’d be disappointed if next year the offering was the same. The Great Wave was by far the most value-rich of the conferences in terms of time, output, and cost. It’s model of multi-platform experiences, integrated format that wove together a variety of media formats and content, and the quality of the presentations made it the one that I will remember going into 2021. It’s also the one that I’ve translated learning from into actions afterward more than any of the others. That is where real conference value comes in.

AEA allowed me to feel like I’d been reunited with my friends and family – as it often did — and I appreciated the ability to attend every single event if I chose by making the sessions available for up to three months after the conference. This provided a wealth of value to me. That also comes with a cost as there wasn’t the same sense of urgency to view or block time off on the week of the event. The community feel that often comes from the conference was partly lost as a result.

RSD9 provided much flexibility by stretching things out over a week. This also allowed for much participation and also diluted the ‘festival’ feeling. Distributed 2020 made the most of this by having multiple days scheduled in four-hour blocks each day.

Online Learning’s New Frontier

The pandemic at the beginning of the 2020’s has been widely credited as a force for accelerating changes that were already starting to happen. The ability to deliver an online conference has been around for years, yet with the inability to travel, gather, or connect in-person safely the choice to deliver learning and network building events digitally is now a necessity, not an option. Like any human endeavour: these events require good design.

The technology is here to allow us to do things we couldn’t do before and derive much more value from the content and network of attendees than ever before. I suspect that when there is a return to times we can gather safely, the lessons we learn from conferencing online will hold and translate to some new hybrid model for online-supported learning. If we are serious about learning, we will need to adapt and change.

This very thinking is behind the launch of a new endeavor to support learning about change and innovation called the Cense Academy. This project is about building on the lessons from learning in a time of physical isolation and global need. The time to innovate and learn is now as many of us find ourselves at home with the stakes rising as quickly as the opportunities to make a difference are.

Photo by Ruthson Zimmerman on Unsplash, Unsplash, and Marvin Meyer 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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