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User conferences are vital to any organization, and they are especially important for smaller, growing companies. Companies engage with users to demonstrate the value of their products, and users provide candid feedback and practical knowledge. Here’s how I learned to love virtual conferences.

I have a lot of experience running, speaking, and engaging at conferences. This includes being content chair for OSCON Java, JavaOne, and Oracle Code; and giving keynotes at Devoxx, Geekout, JNation, Joker, Open Source India, and other tech events.

JFrog’s in-person user conference (JFrog swampUP) historically hosted about 500 attendees. Unfortunately, this year the pandemic forced us to exchange live meetings with a virtual event. The combined registration for swampUP online in North America and EMEA time zones was more than 4,400 global attendees. That’s an impressive number, but the path to virtual conferences was not without challenges. For others struggling to move from in-person to virtual events, I hope these recommendations will be helpful.

1) Pre-recorded sessions are key

Interesting speakers can be a great draw to bring in registrations. We considered having live video sessions to mimic this experience but decided instead to pre-record the majority of the presentations. It turns out this approach made a big difference for a number of reasons.

At a traditional in-person event, attendees must wait until after a talk to ask questions if they are able to ask questions at all. With pre-recorded talk tracks, attendees interacted with the speaker at the moment. Pre-recording content also gave us the ability to ensure a high production value and great viewer experience. We would not have been able to edit out slip-ups or cut down talks that went too long during a live event.

Pre-recorded tracks allowed speakers and attendees to interact with one another for the duration of the session. They enabled a high-touch experience that helped make everyone involved feel like part of a community, which is a major goal of user conferences.

2) Using the right platform matters

There’s a reason members of Generation Z are now known as “zoomers.” They’re coming of age as a global pandemic forces them to attend classes and their first jobs remotely, often by using the Zoom video conferencing platform. It’s another data point illustrating the ubiquity of the platform and the use of typical video conferencing tools more generally. While there are good uses for Zoom, like happy hours and one-on-one meetings, leveraging it for every virtual communication need is a mistake. For example:

  • The benefits of Zoom are lost in speaking sessions where hundreds of audience members are watching but can’t interact.
  • Virtual booths also don’t work well in Zoom because they require attendees to provide their details to join, which doesn’t result in a lot of engagement.

A better model for interaction already exists in streaming platforms like Twitch that pair video with an active and engaging chat. Text chat scales to thousands of attendees who can comment on and ask questions about the video content without disturbing those who are listening. Add to this an engaged speaker or moderator on chat, and you can enrich the value of the content.

Some event platforms provide this mix of video content and messages, with an upgraded chat functionality that more closely models the tools we all use for work communication like Slack. This type of simultaneous streaming and powerful chat functionality was an important factor in selecting the final platform for our event.

The best engagement at virtual conferences is a rich and vibrant chat. Zoom is popular, but its chat functionality isn’t conducive to that type of engagement, so you have to be careful to pick and choose platforms that help you provide the best experience for the audience.

3) Localization is still important

Most of our big user conferences were held in one location in the past. However, in some instances, we were able to travel to different cities and work with smaller user groups. Local outreach like that is an undervalued way to build communities and show your commitment to customers and the developer ecosystem.

In a virtual environment, that sort of engagement is impossible. However, it’s still possible to localize content. In fact, because our virtual event generated a larger, more global audience, localizing was crucial to making everyone feel welcome.

To create a localized feel, we ran video streams in different time zones so that people in European or Asian countries didn’t have to stay up exceptionally late or wake up early. We also provided subtitles when possible and made sure that our speaking tracks included topics that discussed regional concerns.

The future is hybrid.

There is no replacement for in-person conversation or face-to-face learning sessions. Emulated conference halls on virtual platforms look clunky and are difficult to navigate. Virtual vendor booths don’t draw the same sort of engagement physical booths do at a live conference.

Yet, virtual conferences are orders of magnitude cheaper than physical conferences, which can run upward of $1 million. Despite the cheaper price tag, it’s easier to attract and cater to a larger, more varied attendee population when everything is online. Other virtual events, such as webinars, have proven to be useful lead-generation devices even when a pandemic isn’t forcing everyone to work from home; clearly, there is value in online sessions even when the world is back to “normal.”

If I’ve learned anything from my experience, quickly switching to all-virtual shows, it’s that we should always be willing to change our approach and adapt to evolutions in work environments and how people communicate. Others tasked with hosting their companies’ shows should not simply return to the same physical events they’re used to; try something different and develop new strategies. In short, the future of conferences is a hybrid approach.

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