Virtual Events Are Dead, Long Live Virtual Events

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By any scientific metric, the risk of COVID-19 infection is greater than it’s ever been, while mitigation efforts have regressed to a shrugging emoji. Being offered an alcohol wipe by a smiling, unmasked flight attendant before spending hours breathing other people’s air in a narrow metal tube is panglossian, to say the least.

If your eventual destination on that airplane is to a developer conference or other in-person event, well, you’re in good company. The events industry has also attempted to return to normal, gladly welcoming us all into packed conference rooms. To their credit, many organizers are taking public health seriously and continue to require masks and encourage social distancing. Sometimes it took a little public pressure, though, for them to get there. Even so, there hasn’t been an in-person event I’ve attended this year that hasn’t had people come down with COVID-19.

Like some of you, I don’t have much of a choice – going to events is part of my job. Indeed, one thing I’ve noticed is that the people that are happiest to be back are the sponsors, and boy there’s a lot of them. I’ve been to multiple events where sponsor attendance is fully a quarter (or greater) of all attendees. Indeed, sponsors saw major negative impacts from the last two years of ‘virtual events’, as lead capture from virtual events was far lower than in-person and lead quality dramatically dropped, so it’s not surprising they’re happy to get back out there. It’s just harder to have conversations in a virtual booth about what you’re selling, and it’s much more difficult to stand out in a sea of logos.

Virtual events have also been tough on speakers and attendees as the lack of attentiveness (which I’ll get into later) makes it hard for both to engage.

So, what gives, anyway? I’ve been thinking a lot about this as I plan the next installment of Deserted Island DevOps. In doing so, I’ve come up with a theory of developer conferences and events, and why they’re obsolete on their current trajectory. We’re shifting the focus to creating an event around the speakers to in-turn give virtual attendees a better experience.

Why We Come Together

Let me start with a disclaimer, here – I’m going to generalize quite a bit in this piece. These generalizations shouldn’t be taken as a slight, or as a deliberate attack.

I’ve spent a fair amount of my career around developer events, both in-person and virtual. Over that time, I’ve identified a few broad groups and concepts that events require – speakers, attendees, sponsors, and event content itself (and the organizers that select that content). The exact members of these groups, and their nature, can vary from event to event but it holds as a model for everything from a KubeCon to a DevOpsDays.

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Virtual events didn’t change this model, but my biggest takeaway from two years of strictly virtual events is that people absolutely need to see each other in-person. There’s a myriad of reasons for this, but I’d like to call out two that I find most compelling.

  1. People aren’t really good about talking about failure online. Be it over Zoom, in a chat room, anonymously, whatever – it’s something I’ve noticed time and time again. I believe this is due to a host of social and cultural reasons – the lack of body language to help nuance discussions, a fear of being recorded, the flat affect that digitized voice tends to lend itself to, etc. I’d suggest that it comes down to a difficulty in being vulnerable over digital mediums. This is a problem for events, though, because a huge part (perhaps even the primary raison de etre) of an event is the ability to be vulnerable with people inside or outside your team. This is what leads to learning and insight – being able to share, listen, and work that connective function of your brain meats. Virtual events simply haven’t been able to replicate the hallway track, and this is a huge reason why. Worryingly, if you accept my presupposition here, they never will.

  2. Attentiveness. What I mean by this isn’t “people pay attention to the talks” (they don’t do that in-person or online), what I mean is that you are present when you’re in-person. This in-person presence benefits the attendee in terms of mental flexibility and thinking. (I wrote about this here – the idea of a constructed space, where a change in scenery really does help change your mindset and open you up to new possibilities). Additionally, the presence of executive or C-level attendees allows for increased efficiency on the part of media or analysts, allowing them one-on-one time with key decision makers. The presence of sponsors allows for in-person testing of new marketing strategies and ideas. Crucially, this attentiveness is not present for virtual events. Indeed, we’ve seen a recognition of this as events shrink their content programs down to allow for time-shifting and bite-sized videos. It’s a known quantity that virtual event talks are pre-recorded in most cases. This can signal to attendees that there’s a lack of attentiveness on the speaker or organizers part! The sad irony here is that pre-recorded talks can require a greater amount of effort than live ones to create, record, and produce. We’re left with a curious dichotomy, where virtual events wind up taking a lot of effort to put together but are undervalued in respect to that effort.

The Problems Of Coming Together

The benefits of in-person interactions are invariably marred by the drawbacks, of which there are many. I would argue that there’s never been a ‘safe’ in-person event from a health perspective. If you’ve been a frequent flier to developer conferences, then you’re certainly familiar with ‘con crud’, the generalized colds and flus picked up on the road. Whatever mitigations you put into place for an in-person gathering last only to the door, and you can’t control what people do on airplanes or after-hours. A ‘safe’ in-person event requires sacrifices for public health that I don’t really think people are willing to bear… well, at least the people who the event is for. More on that later.

In-person events also dramatically increase the risk of sexual and physical harassment for attendees, staff, and speakers, and these risks are especially acute for women, minorities, and LGBTQIA+ individuals. The prevalence of after-parties and happy hours, all of which are oriented around alcohol, increase the risk of sexual and physical harassment. This isn’t a knock on alcohol – I’m not moralizing here. It’s just a curious dichotomy to see organizers mandate masks and testing for COVID-19 but also happily shoving alcohol at you. Kinda like how you’re free to wear a mask if it makes you feel comfortable… For those of us who don’t have an option, pushing everything to ‘personal choice’ is damaging to our psychological safety. I’ve worked four different events this year and my brain continues to crack and ping over the constant evaluation of risk and comfort I’m forced to make. I never find peace until I get home, safe and sound. I listen to peers in the industry, and observe the difficulties they have with staffing booths due to people contracting COVID.

I suppose the free drinks are a good thing, because they help me forget the utter insanity of our modern world, if only for a moment.

There’s a bit of maximalist rhetoric out there about how it’s impossible to do in-person safely, so we shouldn’t try, or that the challenges of harassment are so great that it’s folly to suggest we can create safe convivial spaces. On the flip side, there’s people who argue that virtual is a mistake, that it can never be a replacement for in-person gatherings, and we’re all fools for suggesting differently.

There are tradeoffs to take into account for any event, and part of those tradeoffs are balancing these competing interests and factors. By dancing around our motives, it makes it more difficult to be honest about the tradeoffs – and, really, most people want in-person to come back because they enjoy getting to go on trips, and see people. It’s part of what makes the job fun! We just want it to happen in a safe manner. The rush to in-person is, in my opinion, significantly driven by this.

The problem is, we have to dress up these events in the guise of ‘continuing education’ and give them a veneer of academic rigor and respectability, just so we can go hang out in the hallway and kvetch. The talks are useful ways for people to test ideas out, or to learn something new, but as I’ll talk about in the next section, flying across the country to talk to a room of people is probably the least efficient and effective way at communicating ideas in 2022.

The problem with events is that they exist for you to be marketed to by sponsors, and it’s really hard to do that virtually.

The Different Perspective

Let’s think back to the model I introduced earlier - speakers, sponsors, attendees, and content.

There are two intractable parts of this model – the attendees, and the speakers. This can also be styled as ‘learners’ and ‘teachers’, ‘customers’ and ‘providers’, whatever. Suffice to say, you don’t have an event without the people that come to it and the people that they’re there for.

What about ‘content’ and ‘sponsors’, then? Aren’t they also intractable? I would argue that they are not. These are almost an anomaly unto themselves, and they exist in lockstep. The content baits the sponsor trap, as it were – you need content to entice attendees to come be marketed to by sponsors. This isn’t exactly a grand secret, the program committees for even large community events work very hard at building an interesting and informative program, but their decisions are intersectional. This reduces the ability of the conference to act as a filter, even if the perceived benefit of speaking at a conference is an imprimatur of authority. That said, we don’t necessarily need events as a platform anymore! Talented individuals can create highly compelling talks on video, publish them to YouTube, then advertise them via social media for a pittance compared to the cost of traveling to and presenting at an in-person event. We can build our own platforms, we don’t need KubeCon to give us one any more.

Let’s turn our gaze to sponsors. Events cost money, and organizers need to make it. Smaller community events – think DevOpsDays – need to cover expenses. Larger ones, like KubeCon, need to recoup costs and turn a profit for the organizers. Even explicitly marketing-oriented events, like AWS re:Invent, need to offset the millions and millions of dollars spent on venue and advertising in order to remain fiscally responsible. The lack of presence and attentiveness from attendees meant that lead capture (i.e., how many people came by your booth) went through the floor. Even the most jaded attendee will usually wander around the sponsor pavilion to gawp at the exhibition and logos. The lack of quantifiable leads as well as the reduction in mindshare resulted in grave dissatisfaction among sponsor marketing teams. The result? Pretty much every B2B SaaS company I know has already burnt their 2022 marketing budget for in-person events, down to the dime. They’re hungry and I can’t blame them.

Sponsors also have a vested interest in content – just ask any program committee how many thinly veiled product pitches they get every year. They also appreciate the imprimatur of authority they receive for having someone up on a stage talking about their solutions. That’s why they wind up paying developer advocates to come up with talks that skate the boundary between “advertisement” and “useful advice”, then submit those talks to dozens of conferences a year.

There’s a link, then, between the content and sponsor bubbles. Sponsors need content to get attendees, content doesn’t have a place to be presented without sponsors. Symbiotic relationship. If you’re a professional speaker then you’re probably getting paid for it, after all.

Attendees and Speakers

Let’s talk about the intractable parts of our model now, the attendees and speakers. You can characterize these groups in any number of ways… students and teachers, audience and influencers, worshippers and priests. Either way, there’s an almost ecclesiastical distinction between the two groups. A conference with no speakers is just some people hanging out, speakers with no conferences are simply monks translating texts in the dark. The spark of creativity and verve that occurs at a conference has to do with this fundamental dualism.

We do have models for events designed for these groups. DevOpsDays events are specifically designed around this interplay, as well as the general idea of ‘unconferences’ where attendees create ad-hoc groups around topics selected that day.

To be somewhat blase, we work under the assumption that if we get a lot of smart people together, then something educational will come out of it. I think this is a bit too reductive and misses the other axes of interaction that developer conferences provide. These groups are somewhat transient identifiers… Within attendees, different levels of experience will lead to ad-hoc promotions as groups coalesce and drift apart. Within speakers as well, peers and new entrants will commingle to learn from each other, swap war stories, and network. Thus, solving for the needs of the attendees will also in many ways solve for the needs of the speakers. If we start from the position that events are “a paid vacation from your day job”, then what should we optimize for?

There have certainly been virtual events that have attempted to optimize for their format, and try something different to inspire attendees to have these sort of moments. Most recently SLOConf experimented with entirely ‘bite-size’ talks, meant to be time-shifted and watched during intermittent breaks. I think this is a novel way to optimize for attendee experience, but I think it fails at optimizing for speaker experience.

Something Different

What would it look like for a virtual event to solve these optimization problems independently? Rather than trying to create something that felt like an in-person event, but online, or a way for sponsors to get you to look at their web pages? What if we could make a great experience for virtual attendees, and in-person speakers?

In short, this year’s event is a DevOps conference for the virtual crowd, but a DevRel conference for the speakers. By selecting for the criteria above, we’re trying something very different from traditional virtual (or hybrid) events.

The problem with a traditional hybrid event is that the loser in the trade-offs is always the virtual attendee. In-person speakers and attendees reap the benefits of venue, focus, etc. while virtual ones are relegated to secondary (at best) echoes of what’s happening on site. I think the way to fix this is to specifically craft the experience of each group. The only way to get a ticket to the in-person event is if you’re invited to come (and the only way to get invited to come is if you are speaking or if you’ve spoken before), which means we don’t have to worry about a dual experience for the attendees. If you’re there, you’re a “speaker” – if you’re not, you’re an “attendee”.

Rather than having to provide a half-baked experience to viewers, we can create an engaging and lively program for them, designed to encourage them to treat the event as destination programming. We can ensure Q&A, roundtables, and interactive portions are optimized for this specific category of ‘live participant’ rather than trying to merge an in-person and a virtual attendee experience, or deliver a sub-standard experience based on ability to attend.

For speakers, the calculus flips. A curated, salon-like atmosphere to present their ideas to attendees and each other, unstructured time to network and chat about what’s working and not working in their field, new insights and realizations sparked from the tinder of interpersonal interactions. This is possible because the speakers will be in-person. Really, this is a natural outgrowth of the speaker experience in previous Deserted Island events – speakers all sat in a Zoom with each other, acting as a virtual ‘audience’ for each talk. This time, they’ll get to continue the conversation after the stream goes to sleep, and walk away from the event refreshed and engaged with their colleagues and community.

If nothing else, it’s going to be something completely different from any developer conference you’ve spoken at, or attended.

Registration is open today. Block off time on your calendar, cancel your meetings, grab a bowl of popcorn and your favorite tropical drink and tune in live to Deserted Island DevOps 2022, September 14th and 15th, live on twitch.tv.