January 28, 2021
Ep. #1, Defending Our Thesis with Dr. Aleks Krotoski of BBC Radio 4
In this inaugural episode of Unintended Consequences, Kim Harrison and Yoz Grahame speak with the award-winning journalist and social psycho...
Since the start of 2020, almost everything that was once “in real life” (IRL) has gone virtual. For most of us, our offices have closed, so meetings and water cooler chats are online. We attend digital conferences. We set up our personal friends and family gatherings on our work Zoom accounts. Even as we thankfully transition into a post-pandemic year, many of these virtual aspects of our lives are likely to remain a mainstay.
However, this was not the case back in August 2017, when I started my foray into running virtual developer events on what is now cfe.dev. Since then, CFE.dev has hosted more than 100 online events – twice monthly meetups plus occasional virtual workshops and even multi-day online conferences.
At the time, the cards were stacked against a purely-online model. Back then, Meetup.com didn’t allow non-IRL meetups to be listed on their site – all events had to have a physical location. A majority of event management and ticketing platforms were the same. Obviously, that has changed since last year.
In this post, I want to talk about some of the lessons I’ve learned over the course of 4 years of building and organizing a virtual community around meetups, conferences and workshops on cfe.dev. I have not always succeeded, so these lessons are drawn from both my successes and failures. As the pandemic hopefully begins to come to an end and we adjust to our new “normal,” perhaps you’re considering keeping your activities online permanently or on the other hand, weighing whether to move them offline, I hope that the lessons I share might help guide you in making the right decisions.
Maybe you’re skeptical. You might be saying to yourself, “Of course you think virtual events are great, Brian – you run them!” But the thing is, I was skeptical too! I actually started cfe.dev with the intention of running offline, in-person meetups and conferences. I only started doing online events as a way to build the “brand” while I programmed IRL ones.
That didn’t happen (for the most part). Instead what happened was, I went from being a skeptic to (somewhat of) a believer. Surprisingly, attendees were always engaged and active, and seemingly enjoyed and learned a lot from them. They didn’t just passively sit in front of their screens, they would chat with each other, ask the speaker questions, and interact with the community as a whole. In the end, I came around to the idea that virtual events offer something more valuable than just being a poor replacement for IRL events.
So why the caveat that I was “somewhat of a believer”? That leads to Lesson 2.
If you’ve ever run IRL events or conferences, you’d probably agree that, while they’re logistically complicated, they’re also extremely rewarding. In my experience, even when I thought an event was a failure for whatever reason, the feedback from the attendees, either verbal or via formal feedback surveys, said otherwise. Making real, personal connections can make up for any rough edges from an attendee perspective.
This isn’t the case for a virtual event. If an event isn’t captivating or interactive in some way, attendees will disengage and do other things or leave entirely. If you’ve attended an online event over the past year, you’ve probably noticed that unfortunately, it’s easier to build an underwhelming virtual event than a worthwhile one.
The first mistake organizers tend to make is focusing too much on trying to replicate IRL events. From all-day sessions, to hallway tracks and expos for sponsor booths, in my personal opinion (and from what I’ve heard from sponsors), those experiences simply don’t translate online.
One final mistake I see is focusing on production value over authenticity. In my experience, this usually leads to virtual events that are just a collection of pre-recorded videos strung together. These feel less like “events” and more like glorified YouTube playlists. It’s better, in my opinion, to risk some polish in exchange for some realness. If the presentation portion must be pre-recorded, at least bring the speaker on stage for live Q&A. Give the audience something they can’t get by watching the session recording.
…which leads me to Lesson 3.
Here are some things that make virtual events great:
If you keep all of these strengths and common pitfalls of virtual events in mind, and take advantage of the lessons from organizers (like myself) who have been doing this before the absence of IRL activities, you can build a strong and long-lasting online events and community strategy.
Brian Rinaldi is a Developer Advocate at StepZen with over 20 years experience as a developer for the web. Brian is actively involved in the developer community running meetups via CFE.dev and Orlando Devs. He’s the editor of the Jamstacked newsletter and co-editor of Mobile Dev Weekly and co-author of The Jamstack Book from Manning. You can learn more and connect with him on Twitter @remotesynth.