I made the decision to attend the Women in Product 2020 Virtual Conference just a few days before the conference itself. Until then, I was on the fence about the value of a virtual conference. But, curiosity took over, and I wanted to see it for myself.
Before talking about the pros and cons, I do have to say with full sincerity that the team behind the conference, along with all the volunteers, did a fantastic job with the “digital logistics” of the three-day conference by sending sufficient reminders before the d-day, giving clear instructions on how to get into the conference, and monitoring all the sessions throughout to respond to queries and concerns. A wonderful job indeed!
Picture: A screenshot taken from the final few minutes of the conference as people showed their appreciation on chat
Why Conferences Matter?
People attend conferences because it helps them extend the mental models they have in their mind by sitting through sessions that teach them new ones, letting serendipity take over by bumping into strangers who become friends, and having the opportunity to escape into a new world for a few days, away from the daily responsibilities and chores.
At least, that’s how I think about it.
A lot of that requires being present in the same physical space as others. Can a virtual conference match that, or perhaps transcend it?
Let’s look at some of the Good, Bad, and Surprising of attending a virtual conference. Some of these points are specific to WIP, but most revolve around the general theme of virtual conferences.
I want to reiterate this once again because of the splendid job: I loved how well the WIP team handled the digital logistics of the event. Beyond that,
- I was thoroughly pleased by some of the features offered by the conference platform, Hopin. There are two worth calling out: The Networking feature pairs you up with a random attendee for a 2.5 minute chat, thus simulating the serendipity of real-life encounters. And, the Messaging feature lets you search for and send a message to any attendee at the conference, including the speakers. Think of how powerful that can be for a moment, as it gives you direct access to some extraordinary women.
- While listening to a speaker, I would often look at the Chat on the right and learn something new from others who were sharing their insights. And be able to share mine in return. This is impossible at an in-person event. The virtue of making it virtual gives you access to the insights of the audience, along with the speaker, without interrupting the session.
- Before entering a session, I would quickly look up the speakers’ bio and set up my Roam Research workspace to take notes from the event. During the session, I would take notes if I find something insightful, and once the event was over, review them again to find connections with my existing notes. This ability to be prepared and truly reap value out of a session would have been a lot harder without a laptop and monitor in front of me.
Now, switching gears…
- I dearly missed being captivated by a speaker while sitting amongst a crowd. The tension you feel when you’re sitting next to strangers, the way a crowd goes silent when the speaker reaches the climax, followed by the deafening sound of applause… all that makes an experience more real, which I missed.
- Some of the sessions were underwhelming. Without naming names, there were sessions where the speaker simply mentioned a slew of cliched, pithy quotes, such as don’t stop learning and be confident in what you do. It’s not bad advice, except I forgot it the minute they said it since it wasn’t backed up with a memorable story.
- Finally, not surprisingly, the entire event was filled with distractions, given its virtual nature. I could switch between Stages at the touch of a button, get a message from anyone at any point, or be sucked into the stream of never-ending messages in the Chat on the right. I also realized while listening to a few speakers that I was able to clearly spot those who were reading from a screen on their end from the slight vacillating movement of their eyes. This realization distracted me a lot.
Did you notice it while reading the article?
As I sat down to reflect on my experience, it hit me: the things that make a virtual conference good are also the things that make it bad.
The flexibility of being able to message anyone also meant anyone could message you. The convenience of switching between stages meant you could barely sit through an entire session without itching to switch. The virtue of being able to take notes meant your devices were always with you, robbing you of the opportunity to immerse yourself in the experience.
Like many other trends propagated by COVID-19, such as online education and remote work, virtual conferences are here to stay. So the question to you before you attend your next (virtual) conference is, what best practices can you follow to get the most out of it?
I personally reaped good value for the $149 spent and time invested into WIP 2020. But, I realize now that without setting up the best practices, it just as easily could have been 10 hours spent staring at a screen, passively consuming information through one ear and letting it slip through the other, akin to water being poured into a drum with a big hole at the bottom.