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Online Events, Experience From Three Perspectives

aaronpowell profile image Aaron Powell Originally published at aaron-powell.com on ・11 min read

The world has moved to online events for the time being, and over the past few months I've attended and spoken at a number of user groups, conferences and solo live streams so I thought I'd share some insights on what I've learnt from them, so in this post I want to share the views as an attendee or speaker or organiser. My goal here isn't to discuss all the complex tool chains you can setup with NDI, OBS and thousands of dollars’ worth of hardware, instead I want to look at things that I've seen working to make a community work in an online space.

Hosting Online

This is an obvious starting place for us, what are you going to use to host the online event? There are a few factors to consider in this space, but I think the most important first decision is what style of event do you want to host and there are two styles I've seen used, conference call or broadcast.

Conference Call Style

Let's talk about this style of event first as it is what people have the most experience with, there's a good chance you're doing one or more of these a day already! Tools like Microsoft Teams and Zoom play nicely in this space and have free tiers (or you “know someone with a paid account”) to get an event setup.

As an attendee they are a bit of a mixed bag. Often you'll need to install a desktop/mobile app to use them, rather than just relying on your browser and this can be a bit of a turn off for some people if they can't install something on their device or have concerns about the invasiveness nature of some of these apps.

Once you're in though, they are a good attendee experience. You can see each other, you can chat, and if feels a bit like you're socialising with others, even if you're all behind cameras. But this is a double-edged sword from a speaker and organiser perspective.

Since conference call tools tend not to have an owner for the event (generally) but are more a communal space, you can end up with the same faux pas of the common conference call, people not muting and limited control over attendee contributions. I was attending a meetup the other day and another attendee was multi-tasking by watching something else, but not on mute, so their audio bleared over the presenter and the hosts couldn't do anything about it but constantly calling out to the person to mute themselves. But let's leave moderation to the side for now as there's a bigger piece I want discuss there.

What about being a speaker? I really like about presenting on conference call style events because you can see the audience reactions. Presenting online is hugely difference to presenting in person and the main thing I miss is being able to see the audience reactions. Are they losing focus? playing on their phones? falling asleep? Being able to get this sort of feedback helps adjust how you present and even if you can only see a few of the attendee's cameras it can be really useful to boost someone's confidence. Ultimately, it feels like it's more personal when presenting on a conference call style event.

Broadcast Style

This brings me to the other style of online events, broadcast style. Tools that fall into this category are ones like Microsoft Teams Live, YouTube Live and Twitch, and sometimes a middleperson broadcast platform will be used like StreamYard or Restream.

From the attendee perspective these can toe the line on being an engaging learning session and a dreaded webinar, you know the one I mean where the presenter is so far removed from the audience that you may as well be doing something else because it's just downright boring and an engaging experience. For proof that this can work as a community platform you need to look no further than Twitch. While Twitch is primarily used by gamers, there's plenty of developer streams out there too, with more seeming to pop up every week.

As an organiser looking to do broadcast style I can't recommend more highly than using a service like StreamYard or Restream. These platforms offer a web interface that you run your event via and push out to anywhere that supports RTMP and this is what services like Twitch or YouTube Live consume. The two services that I've mentioned both have free tiers that are adequate enough for what most community events need, offering multiple presenters, screenshare with picture-in-picture and a backstage area without the need to dive into tools like OBS and learning video production. Paid plans focusing on features like removing the services watermark, customising the scenes more and streaming to more locations at once.

For a user group, being able to stream out to a single location is more than adequate as it helps you focus your community around one place (useful for ongoing discussions post-stream) and the same goes for solo streaming. I personally stream using Restream to Twitch, but also to YouTube Live as it saves the video to my YouTube channel. And this is another benefit of broadcast style, they (generally) make it easy to get a video export of the event to upload somewhere if it's not automatically recorded.

The primary drawback with middleperson broadcast services is that there is additional lag between the presenter and the audience, so this can make engaging with the audience a bit trickier. So, it's best to play around with destination platforms a bit, but I've found Twitch is the closest to real-time.

As a speaker, this is my preferred style of event. To present I don't have to install anything new, it's just a browser which I screen share/allow my camera access to and I can get down to presenting. Yes, it's true that you lose the ability to “see” the audience, since there's no other video/audio on the feed (likely just the organisers), but that can help reduce nerves if you're not confident public speaking as you can't see anyone. I have more confidence in that I'm not going to get interrupted while speaking and can engage with the audience as I desire.

I will say this though, landing a joke when you've got no feedback other than a delayed chat… that's hard!

Being a Community

Something that is really important to remember when going down the path of online events is that you're a community, whether it's a user group, conference or your own stream, and that community is the most important part. These are places not just where people learn about something, they are also places where people catch up with friends so it's important to think about how you'll build that in an online space.

Moderation

I touched on this briefly above, but an important thing to look at when doing online events is how you're going to do moderation. When you're doing events in a conference call style this is inherently challenging, as anyone who does conference calls to work can attest. You'll have people who forget to mute themselves, people forgetting they have the camera on when they do whatever, people wanting to jump in and ask a question as soon as it pops into their mind or worse, someone violating your Code of Conduct.

Of all the conference call platforms I've used, I'm yet to find one that has decent moderation tools that allow you mute or eject people easily, so this is something that you really need to be on top of as an organiser, how do you create a safe online space, set the stage for the speaker to be comfortable and successful and ensure that the audience is respectful. Thankfully, the worst I've been involved with is people forgetting to mute themselves and this results in the speaker/organiser having to be louder and shout-ier than them, but to a degree this reminds me of in-person events when people forget how loud they can be!

As an organiser, to be successful you need to make sure that you are actively driving the event, welcome everyone to the event, remind everyone of the expectation you have from them (including the Code of Conduct) and be on top of the chat. You'll also need to be confident to take drastic steps if necessary, like terminating the event if something did become toxic. You'll also want to work with your speakers beforehand to make sure they understand the role you'll play and how you'll be tackling things like moderation and audience participation. If they want to do Q&A ad-hoc, let the speaker roll with it, otherwise keep an eye on the chat to bring up questions at the end.

Broadcast platforms make moderation a lot easier, first off, you don't have audience audio/video to contend with, so you don't have the unmuted problem to deal with. Also, because they are a bit more asynchronous in their communication, it's a lot easier as a speaker to delay responding to incoming questions until you're ready. Some tools even provide you the ability to create a backlog of questions that you can display on-screen for the speaker and audience, which is really helpful as too often we as speakers forget to repeat a question before answering it.

The chat platforms on broadcast platforms are also designed to have moderation on them, whether it's bots, spam filtering or just giving you the ability to delete messages and mute people. As an organiser this sort of thing helps to make sure that the values of your community are upheld and enforceable.

Expanding Your Reach

User groups and conferences are a good example of leveraging privilege, I'm lucky enough to work in the Sydney CBD (well, did!) and meetups are located there so I could easily attend them. But they tend to kick off around 6pm to catch people before they go home, and if you don't work in a short trip to the CBD, you're probably not going to make them. Or, if you have family commitments (I have 2 young kids), staying out for a meetup can mean that you sacrifice time with the family. The same goes for conferences, there's cost to attend, time away from work, travel costs if they aren't in your city, and all of this means that there's a lot of people who might want to attend but simply can't.

Being online changes this dynamic, especially while we're all working from home, as you've removed one of the greatest barriers - travel time. Now your event is accessible to more people and improving availability of content is a win for all.

My friend Lars put up a poll the other day about online event times:

Now that a lot of people are working from home, what is the best time for you to attend an online meetup?

— Lars Klint 🌳🐏🚜 (@larsklint ) July 14, 2020

I'll admit, I was surprised by the response, that people tended to prefer events at the “usual user group time”. The reason that I found this interesting is that it means that the second barrier isn't really a concern to as many respondents as I expected. For user groups I've attended recently, I've seen start times ranging from 5.30pm through to 7.30pm and my preference is towards the later side of the equation as this has meant I got time with my kids and wife from when work ended to the event started.

As an organiser, timing is something that you want to engage with your community on, what works for the majority and what new people can you attract with by having different options of starting time. And this is where having a platform that records content for you is a bonus, as you then have the event available for those who missed it without much additional effort on the organisers.

But as an attendee, I have a whole new world of events I can look to engage with. Now it's easy to jump on a user group in the US (which happen through my lunchtime generally) and watch on to learn from people elsewhere in the world but still on the content that I'm interested in.

More Speakers

This is a bit of an extension on the previous point, by lowering the barrier to attend through reduced travel time and/or more flexible start times, you open up to having people outside the usual radius speak. Case in point, last month's ALT.NET Sydney had someone present from Perth.

Now you're able to bring a wider set of voices to your event because you're only really constrained by what people find to be acceptable waking hours and there's no reason someone in Europe couldn't present in Sydney, or someone in Australia can't speak in the US. So as an organiser you can start looking through your broader networks and thinking of people who you've always wanted to have speak but it's never worked because they were elsewhere in the world.

As an attendee, this really excites me as now I can hear from and engage with people anywhere, learning from them directly in a real-time format, not only having the option to watch it online after the fact.

Keeping the Conversation Going

The biggest loss from moving from in person events to online events is losing the hallway track. I was discussing this a few weeks ago with some colleagues and one of them remarked that the most successful online events they've seen are the ones that don't focus on the hour/day/week that the event happens, but instead foster an ongoing community space. Setting up a Slack workspace or Discord server in which the speakers can spend time with the attendees and do Q&A, while not replacing the hallway track, does go part of the way to giving people more of a community feeling to it.

Another benefit of setting up a server like this is that you can start building a community that's broader than just the one night a month or one day a year that your event happens, it helps give people a place that they can continue to converse and share their knowledge.

Conclusion

We're going to be doing online events for a while longer, it's part of the world we now live in and while I don't feel these are a true replacement for in person events there's very much a place which they belong.

For me as an organiser it means you need to go back to the core of what makes a community, fostering that desire to get together and talk about whatever the topic might be. The tech that you use does play a role in making the events successful, so think about what options you have available and how they fit the kind of event you want to run. Conference call style are great for having that person-to-person feel, but they can struggle with moderation, especially at scale. On the other side broadcast style are easier to moderate but can feel cold.

Online events also open up a range of new possibilities for how you can engage with your community, no longer are you bound by the usual time constraints of getting people before they go home, instead maybe it's possible to be more flexible on when to run so it fits your community.

And don't forget the value in building the community, giving people a space where they can still talk with the speakers and each other, even beyond just the time and place of the event.

As I said at the start, this wasn't a “here's the tech” style post, but if you're looking for ideas here's a few posts:

Have you been attending online events? What have you seen that's working, or not working well? I'd love to hear your thoughts.

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aaronpowell profile

Aaron Powell

@aaronpowell

Hi, my name’s Aaron Powell and I’m a Cloud Developer Advocate (CDA) at Microsoft. My area of specialty is front-end web dev and .NET (especially F#), but I enjoy doing silly things with technology.

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