The Future of Conferences is Online

Here’s a prediction: In the next few years, online conferences will take a meaningful market share from traditional in-person, physical conferences.

Update: In the five days since I published this article, my prediction has gone from “kind of out there” to a no-brainer. Now it’s newsworthy when a conference isn’t cancelled. By the time you read it, this whole post may be totally obsolete.

Why IRL conferences are doomed

At this moment (late February 2020), every single event planner in the world is debating whether or not to cancel their already-scheduled conferences this year due to COVID-19 fears. Just in the last two weeks Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, GDC (Game Developers Conference) in San Francisco, Facebook’s F8 in San Jose, and Shopify’s developer conference in Toronto have all been canceled. There are certainly more to come.

Empty seats at a conference

Even setting aside pandemic fears, traditional conferences are probably not sustainable in the long term for several other reasons:

  • Borders are tightening (c.f. the US travel ban’s impact on science conferences)
  • Environmental guilt about unnecessary flying is becoming a factor when making travel plans.
  • Potential audience members are more globally distributed than ever, making it harder for organizers to select a convenient location.
  • A massive portion of conference costs go to facilities, making them unnecessarily expensive and limiting who can attend.
  • Forcing people to take time away from their responsibilities to travel to a conference limits who can attend, and is increasingly being recognized as a barrier to inclusion.

I suspect that widespread cancellations of conferences this year will lead people to question the conventional way of organizing conferences going forward.

What do you really want out of a conference, anyways?

It’s worth identifying what the core Jobs To Be Done are for conferences:

  • Education – Expert, timely content you can’t get anywhere else, along with dedicated time to learn.
  • Networking – The ability to meet and interact with other people in your field.
  • Marketing – Companies put on conferences like Dreamforce and F8 to promote their products to a captive audience. Sponsors pay for access to those highly targeted leads. Speakers speak at conferences for exposure and reputation building.
  • Company-funded vacation – Admittedly, a significant appeal to many conferences is the opportunity to spend a few days in a fun city (or Las Vegas) on the boss’s dime.

Aside from the free vacation aspect, these JTBD can all be served as well, or better, by online conferences.

Online conferences can theoretically happen today

If you wanted to replace your canceled IRL conference this year with a virtual conference, the tools to hack that together already exist. You can use Eventbrite to sell tickets (you were already probably using this for your physical event). Sessions could be broadcast via a series of private webinars on Zoom. You can create a Discord server or Slack team to handle the social interactions for participants.

While running a conference using a number of different tools kludged together should technically work, there’s enough friction created by switching between them that it might create too much cognitive overhead for attendees.

Examples of online conferences

  • In 2016, Venkatesh Rao ran his annual Refactor Camp conference online for about 50 people. They benefitted from already having pre-existing online relationships, so the tool friction wasn’t a big deal.
  • Wistia canceled their in-person conference and held CouchCon in 2018, a virtual conference they documented here. They used a mix of live and pre-recorded sessions using CrowdCast, the most advanced tool I’ve found so far (aside from Zoom).
  • Apple’s WWDC attracts far more interest than they have capacity for, so all events are streamed online and available after the conference for people who didn’t win the ticket raffle. There’s essentially been a virtual WWDC for several years now.

Existing tools for online conferences

I haven’t actually tried any of these yet, but it does confirm that other people are thinking about this:

What a dedicated conference tool can look like

The ideal conference app might best be framed as “Twitch for business.” Highly performant live video streaming is a table stakes requirement, of course, but what would really set a dedicated conference tool apart from Zoom is the community experience.

One of the big benefits of a conference is the serendipitous conversations that happen outside of the official sessions. In addition to discussion around the conference talks, there also needs to be a way to start both group and 1:1 conversations in an ad-hoc manner.

To support these community interactions, users need to have a rich representation of themselves inside the app. Imagine when you register for the conference you build out your “Conference Lanyard” by importing data from your LinkedIn profile (or Github, or Pinterest, or whatever service is appropriate). You customize your avatar with some Memoji-style options. You answer some icebreaker questions or tag areas of interest so like-minded people can find you.

Customized avatar generator at avataaars.com
Customized avatar generator at Avataaars.com

Ideally, just like an IRL conference, much of the interesting content would be generated by attendees, rather than just watching a series of scheduled webinars.

Required functionality

A viable tool would likely require the following:

  • Video streaming. In 2020, the quality probably needs to be close enough to Zoom quality, and support hundreds or thousands of participants. This is admittedly a high bar.
  • Session calendaring
  • Messaging (Session chat, user direct messaging, ad-hoc channels)
  • User profiles
  • Ticketing / payments
  • User moderation
  • Admin for organizers to define things like custom artwork, sponsorships, etc
  • Maybe someday this tool also generates the marketing site for the conference?

Wrapping up

After laying out the functionality above, I wonder how much of that you’d need to validate the concept. You can probably run an entire conference today by wiring different tools together and heavily leveraging Zoom and Slack. I’d worry about the friction of switching between tools though, and how it would impact attendee participation.

Also, perhaps there’s an opportunity to build just the admin side of the tool a virtual conference organizer would need to run a conference through a Eventbrite/Zoom/Slack stack…

I’m positive that someone is going to build a very successful online conference product, and attending conferences online will be commonplace even after COVID-19 fears subside.

Written by Mark Allen, who is currently open to new product management and design roles in Toronto or with distributed teams. Say hello on Twitter.

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