The technology industry has reeled, recoiled and rallied in the fallout resulting from the COVID-19 (Coronavirus) contagion. Many vendors have offered their software and various cloud services free of charge for organizations working on humanitarian causes. Others (such as telcos) have simply offered extra free services for everyone to lift the human spirit and allow people to get on with their lives. As the pandemic plays out, a return to general business is also being seen, albeit with employees working remotely using collaboration software to connect and communicate to an even greater degree.
But one thing has changed markedly. There are no trade shows, conferences, hackathons, user group meetings, customer summits or any other type of convention being staged.
Now that we’re practicing deliberate social distancing, any thought of getting several hundred (or thousand) people in the same room sat ‘cheek by jowl’ is of course out of the question.
Suddenly, the tech industry has had to reinvent this element of its market outreach and move to hosting virtual events instead. So what makes a good virtual technology convention, what elements should it feature and what aspects of real world events can it never hope to fully emulate?
Don’t jump too fast
As with many aspects of the pandemic itself, the first lesson here is: don’t panic. One major vendor well known for its work with enterprise Linux conscientiously canceled its event last month and announced a virtual online alternative, only to then cancel the virtual event too.
These things take time and spokespeople need to be realigned, re-briefed and in some cases repurposed so that they’re ready to deliver an online presentation. Customers might not be available (even virtually) in the same way now, so some company staff may need to cover ‘case study’ sessions designed to showcase technology implementations.
There’s a lot more to consider. Hosting a real world event has an almost completely different dynamic i.e. people get together for a convention breakfast, attend a keynote, wander off to breakout sessions and look forward to a boxed lunch. But how long can you reasonably expect individuals to sit at their own computer screen and experience ‘death by PowerPoint’ in the comfort of their own self-isolated world?
Virtual event examples
From the events currently being offered, it appears that many companies haven’t completely thought the process through yet, or at least the whole digital delivery idea is still a work in progress. Open source database company DataStax has changed its big morning main-stage show to ‘weekly keynotes’ as part of what would have been DataStax Accelerate, had it happened in person.
Staying with databases, MongoDB has continued to list the full roster of sessions online for its MongoDB World event, which it has now renamed MongoDB.live to refect the changing nature of content delivery. One imagines that the content will be now broken up somewhat, rather than delivered as an all-day connected session stream. Still staying with databases, MariaDB says its OpenWorks ’20 will no longer be an in-person event.
“While we’re disappointed that we won’t see you in New York this year, we are still planning to share OpenWorks content with you digitally. Select sessions will be recorded remotely and made available to stream on-demand. We are also exploring new ways to engage digitally, including online office hours and Q&As with experts,” notes MariaDB, at what is arguably a fairly practical, pragmatic and flexible level.
From these virtual event examples then, it appears the best advice is to host a CEO-style keynote (or indeed keynotes, spaced out) and then still focus on a day (or two, not three) of online content delivery, the bulk of which should be made available as a smörgåsbord of pick-and-mix online on-demand content for users to consume in the comfort of their own (possibly self-isolating) homes.
While many tech industry trade shows do stretch beyond two days to three and in some cases four days, the two-day virtual event benchmark appears to be about the maximum. That being said, single day key dial-in sessions with on-demand downloads for after could well become the de facto norm.
A virtual-to-virtual world
Timo Elliott, innovation evangelist at SAP advises that now, it’s not just a virtual world, it’s a virtual-to-virtual world. In other words, beforehand only the audience was virtual, but now the presenters have to be too — and most people’s homes are not set up as a TV studio (Elliott’s attic turns out to be an exception).
“It’s not really a presentation problem, it’s an audience problem. It’s easier than ever to make noise, but harder than ever to get listened to. A deluge of digital is coming down the pipeline: so how does any single event stand out? This is the challenge that organizations will have to conquer. That said, it ups the game: at a physical event, people are more or less stuck, no matter how boring. But in cyberspace, every other possible distraction (including family co-workers) are just an arm’s length away. All the content has to be ‘with people’ not ‘at people’, so think about co-creation of content between the host and the attendees. This is a lot like how so-called unconferences work and it means giving up more control. Again, tech firms need to get ready for a new world order in many ways,” said Elliott, who offers his own tips on virtual presentations here.
If we think about the virtual events that have personal breakout sessions where human interaction is encouraged, we also need to consider the new ‘work dynamic’ we’re creating.
“This is a time when Zoom (as in the video conferencing platform) is fast becoming a verb and people are hosting live Instagram discussions. So we need to be reminded that it’s not so much about the volume of content or the slickness of our presentation, but rather its about how these tools are changing the way we work, learn and collaborate as part of the future of work. Make no mistake about it; we are not likely to go back to post COVID-19 normal, but in the process, we risk falling victims to the ‘vanity of exposure’ that online collaboration tools offer. What I mean by that is, some people are naturally better on video than others and some people might unintentionally ‘showboat’ or talk over others when connected remotely. Let’s move forward electronically, but let’s do so with a conscientious human edge,” said Avi Reichental, founder of XponentialWorks, a corporate advisory firm that specializes in Artificial Intelligence, 3D printing and robotics.
New business models
As 2020 continues and more tech organizations realize that they will have to host their trade show events online, these firms will need to think about new conference business models in order to monetize their very existence. People are ready to pay for real world events, but they’re arguably fairly unlikely to want to pay for online conferences in the same way.
There will also be a lack of tactility.
With no physical get-togethers, techies won’t get their commemorative symposium t-shirts, backpack book-bags, their branded partner key rings, bags of jelly beans and mini-flashlights (other giveaways are also available)… and they won’t even get lunch. A bowl of noodles at home and a web-connected laptop is a long way from an annual convention that some people look forward to all year.
Virtual work methods have been catapulted at us as fast at COVID-19 itself, let’s hope the world copes comprehensively and proficiently with both.