Tech conferences are like book stores: they must redefine their value proposition, or are doomed to be crushed by Amaz... Youtube!

Sorry for the clickbait, I couldn't resist 😁 I love software conferences. I joined my first conference in 2011, held many talks, have been to even more conferences, and have loved every minute of it. Unless they are online, because I hated all the online conferences I took part of.

As the creator of a database of call for papers, I am seeing a lot of conferences lifting their conference online due to the Coronavirus pandemic. While I find it great that those can still happen, I have a hard time with the value proposition.

In this post, we are first going to look in-person conferences, then what happens when you lift them up as-is online, and finally some thoughts on what could be a different (better?) value proposition.

What I love about conferences

1. Conferences are for learning

Conferences resolve around talks, prepared by knowledgeable people (which doesn't imply "expert"), with a curated program. We attend conferences under the premise of learning something.

2. Conferences are for discovering

Unless I choose expert-level talks (or talks by fantastic public speakers), I am almost always disappointed by talks on topics I already (kind of) know. The 20% new material I might learn will, more often than not, not be worth the time investment. So nowadays, I pick the conference rooms I enter, by the amount of knowledge I already know about the topic. And I often end up being blown away, discovering an entirely new world!

3. Conferences are for meeting new people

Conferences are made for meeting people: inline to get a coffee, at lunch with your impromptu neighbor, during a talk with the person sitting next to you. It is very easy to break the ice, asking what they thought of a particular talk or the conference, ask for advice regarding the program, etc. and ensues fantastic conversations and sometimes longer contacts or even friendships.

I have a hard time with the questions slot at the end of a talk. Either the speaker was not clear, and then it is often too late, the question should have been asked "in the moment". Or I need some time to reflect on the material, maybe try something, read a bit more and then ask a question ; it is thus too early. Most of the questions I hear are in fact statements and not questions. Most speakers stay for a big part of a conference, making it easy to meet them afterwards. That's where you can strike interesting discussions that go way beyond what their talks explained. After you had time to reflect on the content. And as a speaker, it goes a long way to meet people that are truly interested in the topic you are fond of...

4. Conferences are for meeting friends

There, I have to admit it: I have conference-friends.

The .NET User Group here in Nuremberg organizes a yearly community conference. 5 years in a row, I jumped-in at the very last moment, to replace a speaker that was unfortunately hindered. The 6th year, I came as an attendee "only", and I overheard the comment "where's the french guy? It's cannot be a DDF without Tim!"😅

Wherever I go in Germany, I find a few speakers I've already met. Some of them became friends. With many of them, I converse on Twitter on a daily basis.

5. Conferences are for social outreach

Conferences are a gateway to see and be seen. Similar to point 3 and 4 above, but with a twist.

Conferences are a marketing funnels for speakers. They put us on a pedestal and help interested people find us. If they engage with us, we have a (slight) chance to convert the experience into work, help, exchange of ideas, network growth, etc.

As an attendee, conferences are a chance to meet role models in person, regardless if they are a speaker or not. You can do this on social media. But you are then "just an avatar". You can do it via online meetings, but then you have to break the ice.

Have I ever told you the story of how I helped the Dave West, CEO of Scrum.org, save on Taxi fare, get some exercise and 25 min of sun on both our bald heads before a long conference day? We met at breakfast in our hotel. I congratulated him on his keynote the day before and asked if I could disturb him and ask him a follow-up question. He suggested we share a taxi to the conference venue. To which I responded that it is only 30 min away walking from here and I would love to enjoy the fresh air. He tagged along. Those were damn insightful 30 min I can tell you!

6. What's in it for me, the speaker?

How much does it cost to create and present a talk? There are multiples factors to consider:

  • Preparation time: I've accounted for more than 150 hours of preparation time for one of my talks... and that was only the initial version. Since then, there must have been 150 more. It's definitely not the norm, but to put it bluntly: a fuckload of time!
  • Travel and accommodation costs. Those would disappear in case of a virtual conference.
  • "Missed earnings" i.e. the amount of money you didn't earn the day(s) you attended the conference.

What can you expect to get in return?

  • Still too few conferences pay their speakers. It's a shame, but it's unfortunately the current norm.
  • Quite a few (do their best to) pay for travel and accommodation. This is the minimum we should expect. I highlight this explicitly on SeeCFP.com.
  • Free ticket entry to the full conference. Some conferences still try to get the speakers to pay for their entry ticket... those should simply be avoided, named and shamed!
  • Speaker networking event, often in form of a dinner the day before the conference.
  • Things that are hard to measure: visibility, marketing, networking opportunities, outreach, etc. In the immaterial realm, there is also opportunity to travel to a different city / country. As well as the "speaker ego-boost", often combined with speaker-badges / speaker-polo-shirts, etc. to help you be recognized in the venue and strike even more conversations.

As you can see, more often than not, being a speaker is a big money investment and that's a hindrance to increasing diversity. I'll let you browse the #paytospeak hashtag on twitter if you want more insights on this.

7. Synchronicity

The last piece of the puzzle is synchronicity. A conference gets (almost) my full attention. When I am at a conference, I invested the time to travel there. I left my family behind to be in the moment. I might as well use it wisely. There are little to no priority conflicts beside eventual remote calls with clients, but those can easily be planned and performed "in-between". I am there for the conference, meeting people, learning stuff, having fun!

Now let's make it an online conference!

Let's assume we are in the middle of a pandemic, and instead of canceling our event, we decide to virtualize it instead. What happens when you "simply" lift your conference in the virtual space?

1. Attention competition

A virtual conference suddenly competes with my routines, family and work (since I am at my desk). This might sound silly, but it is the biggest mood killer I experienced. I need to diligently turn off all notifications. I must go to the office, close the door and explain my wife, kids and or co-workers that I will be in a meeting for the whole day. I am there, but not there... and this is hard to grasp (similar to remote work in a sense, with even more synchronicity).

Sure, my smartphone allows me to check Twitter and my Emails at a conference venue as well. But being in front of my computer makes it even easier. I guess I should beam it on the TV, sit on the couch and leave my phone on my desk... that would do.

2. The pause button

Watching a synchronous talk online feels somewhat weird. It feels like the worst of both worlds: you cannot really interact with the speaker (see next paragraphs), and you cannot hit the pause button and go grab a coffee.

3. Your real competition: Youtube

Once you pushed your conference online, you are competing against video on demand. At a mouse click, you get to see top notch world class speakers. So what is your value proposition? Why should I settle for mid-level speakers, just because they were the ones who applied to your Call for Paper?

And then is million Dollar question: if I cannot easily interact with the speaker, why I am watching this video of someone explaining their understanding of Ruby on Rails when I could watch a video of DHH (the author of the Framework himself - or some other recognized speaker) on Youtube? There are valid reasons, like getting a fresh point of view, getting entry-level material, getting over the cultural barrier, etc. But still, the question deserves to be asked.

4. Interaction during a Talk

Watching a video asynchronously on Youtube doesn't allow for bidirectional communication. So if you did manage to get this communication right, you would have the upper hand against Youtube. If this works in a very small context, it is REALLY hard to nail down at a bigger scale.

There are some best practices here though:

  • Twitch.tv offers a good example of interaction. What I observed is that being able to focus on your talk and engage with the community and their questions on the side on a platform like Twitch is not easy. The signal vs noise ratio in the chat is sometimes very low. There is a big learning curve to be able to concentrate on the talk, while filtering the input at the same time. But once you get used to it, it works!
  • Apps like Slido, helps you organize the questions at the end of a talk. It allows your attendees to post and upvote questions live.
  • People curating the questions and moderating the sessions is also a good thing, but it takes practice to get it right.

5. Interaction after a Talk

You cannot simulate the hallway track. You cannot simulate waiting in line for a coffee and engaging in a chat with the next person in line. You cannot simulate rolling your eyes at your neighbor when you feel a speaker said something stupid and engage in a flustering-jousting match about the truth of the statement. You cannot "bump" into the speaker at the lunch break and pick their brain about a different angle on their topic.

6. What about the speakers?

The speaker financial-burden is certainly lighter. But so are the immaterial perks: less to no networking, social interaction, traveling, ego-boost, etc. So what's in it for them?

How will you encourage/incentivize people to share their knowledge? Many will be happy to "just present" and give back to their communities. But is it enough?

I don't expect to see more conferences pay their speakers because of this. Their burden will be lighter (no venue), but their income will sink as well. So their net income might very well remain the same. Going online alone will not incentivize them to do the right thing 😣

7. What about competition?

Here's a crucial point for organizers. We cannot all travel to big cities to attend the "big conferences". Thus there used to be a need for local "smaller" conferences.

How will the "big conferences" going online affect your market? The cake just got massively bigger... but the number of people jumping on it increased tremendously as well.

The local community conferences built their value proposition on the networking. They make it easy to connect with people you could potentially meet the following day at the supermarket. How do you hold up against "big remote conferences" when your networking and social contact value proposition just got way harder to uphold?

So what now?

To reuse the initial analogy, if you are a bookstore trying to beat Amazon at their game... your life is going to be hard. You know the drill: "don't fight a pig in the mud, you'll get dirty and the pigs like it". Just calling for people to do "the right thing" and hoping that it works is not an option. Book stores are re-discovering public readings, meeting authors, human curation, building relationships with their customers, etc. They are finding new value propositions that Amazon cannot mimic.

So what is your new value proposition? Why should I attend your online conference, instead of waiting for the recordings to show up on Youtube? Why should I attend your conference instead of buying an 8 hours world-class video-course online?

I hope it transpired in this article that I love online conferences and would be sad if this felt off of my life entirely. They add a tremendous value in tech conferences and have had a decisive forming role in my life. I also love remote-work and I think this will be part of the future for many of us. But thinking that we can simply "lift" (analogy to the cloud-"lift and shift") our events and hope attendees will show up and pay for it is a utopia. It will work on the short-term. But it will not be sufficient in the long-term. For that we have to reinvent your events.

So ask yourself this: what can you do online that you cannot do - or is hard to do - offline? Here are 3 ideas:

  • Leverage the online-connectivity to get world-class speakers together, organize on-steroids panels with people who would otherwise have had little chance to joust with one another. Your value proposition is creating the conditions for a world-class clash. This is only possible when travel is not a problem.
  • Create a very curated experience. Way more than what is done nowadays. Almost at the level of an online class. Your value proposition is then a sequence of talks with expected learning objectives. This is also possible in a local conference, but it is then hard to get exactly the right person with the right content at the right time. Again, this is only possible when travel is not a problem.
  • Create a community-experience during the conference, that might continue after the conference. Use persistent breakout rooms to encourage discussion and sharing between the talks. Encourage the groups to meet before and after the conference. Keep the flame burning after the conference. Your value proposition is to create a long-lasting connection between like-minded individuals. Again, this is only possible when the communication between people is disconnected from travel from the get-go.
  • ... ?

Now it's your turn:

  • What are your thoughts about online conferences?
  • Do you have other ideas?
  • Want to tell me how wrong I am? Go ahead in the comments below... 😅

Photo by Victoria Heath on Unsplash