Why Virtual Conferences Suck

Lately, I get a lot of questions about “virtual conferences” and how much I believe they will replace the struggling live conference business of today. My answer? In the next 12-18 months we will see a lot of awful failed experiments. Just like the ones we’ve been seeing for the past 12 months or so.

Compare today’s virtual conferences with the movies of 100 years ago. In the early days of film, many productions used a single camera in front of a stage, documenting an existing art form instead of innovating a new one. Creative types soon realized that location shots, multiple cameras, closeups with close-in subtlety rather than theatrical exaggeration – and eventually, montage, sound, and more – allowed new forms of communication with the audience.

Virtual conferences are at the same point in their arc – they pride themselves on reproducing the “real” conference experience – even when that is almost impossible. And worse, some of the “successful” aping of live events reproduces the worst parts. Like “chat rooms” designed to let you interact with people, just like you do at shows. What’s wrong with that? Well, many of the best non-programmed interactions at conferences I go to are random. Often everyone I might want to talk to is busy with a concurrent activity they couldn’t miss, so they aren’t in whatever meeting space is provided. There is one guy in the room or at the table drowning everyone out with his theory of life, the universe and everything, though, and it’s not easy to leave.  The limitation is time – it has to happen on schedule. I want A-synchronous; I can’t get it in “real life”, but I could in cyberspace if we worked on it a bit.  Then I could reach the folks I really want to talk to and have time for a real dialogue, even if they’re busy at this moment.

Or consider how we do keynote speeches at live events. You can’t get close enough, it’s hard to see, and there probably isn’t enough light, power or room to make notes. You certainly don’t have a copy of the presentation to annotate in digital form, just one of those boat anchor books. You may write on it if you can see and have room, but you will likely leave in your room to save weight and space, or send it back at great expense so you can throw it into the trash can in your office later. Then there is the “this just in” update that the presenter should have put in on time but didn’t, so now you have a ton of loose ones…. Now, in a cyber-event, we could make the presentations available in advance (and “just in time” would be fine) but we rarely do. Instead we spend a lot of money on live streaming that often suffers from poor network speed, bad camerawork, and the inevitable high-cost video that is NOT streamed. And an analyst/blogger whine: guest content, live customers, and panels rarely have associated content we can refer to later without logging in to a site we rarely use and don’t want to keep IDs for.

There are many more issues I could raise here, but let’s end it with this thought: Virtual conferences are an opportunity to think about what conferences are for again. There are big social opportunities that can be enhanced, made asynchronous, documented better, and extended beyond the event. But they rarely are. There are chances to provide data in crisp, correlated ways and learn who was interested and why. There are ways to make interactions into more qualified leads than the ones from the person who couldn’t hear your pitch on the trade show floor because someone was shouting about handing keychains in the next booth over.

We can do this better. So far, we are failing even to do it as well as we have so far. As we say on Twitter: FAIL.

About Merv Adrian
Gartner Research VP, technology analyst and consultant, 30 years of industry experience, covering software mostly, hardware sometimes.

12 Responses to Why Virtual Conferences Suck

  1. Karen says:

    Excellent thoughts.

    I’d throw in that the worst virtual conferences are those that are one way – just a presenter talking to a slide with no interaction between the speaker and the attendees. As both a presenter and an audience member at these types of events, I can say that they are a miserable failure from both sides of the stage.

    I believe the best virtual conferences will be those that borrow from distance learning concepts (both sync and a-sync content, discussions, and interactions) while taking advantage of desktop sharing and streaming where it makes sense.

    No more “talking slides” as a method for pretending a virtual conference is a real one.

  2. Merv Adrian says:

    Amen, and thanks for the comment. There is much more to be said, and I hope I have more folks saying it!

  3. Karen says:

    I also think that virtual conference hosts tend to try to hard to control the discussion. If you think about in person conferences there are many opportunities to split off into groups, go to dinner, hang out over coffee…yet virtual conferences rarely offer that sort of interaction.

    It would be great if they actually turned on the WebEx features that allowed participant chats and perhaps side conversations, much like what happens on Twitter during an in-person conference.

    For those hosting, I’d say: don’t just cram a series of one way WebEx sessions back to back and call it a conference.

  4. Jake Freivald says:

    Merv, this is a great post. The analogy between virtual conferences and early movies is spot on.

    I’m not sure that we currently have anything better for some types of interaction at a given price point, unfortunately. However, if we keep your advice in mind — “Virtual conferences are an opportunity to think about what conferences are for again” — then we’ll improve this format or invent something that supercedes it.

  5. Merv Adrian says:

    Thanks, Jake. It was a quick post – I just rattled it off in a fit of pique – so I didn’t put a lot of work into recommendations. But clearly, we need to get the social media thinkers together with the conference thinkers and achieve some synergies. Real, less-time dependent interaction with presenters (who thus must commit to checking back and responding to “attendees” later); replays that also allow interaction under similar guidelines; two-way video for dialogues; connections to as many presenters as possible…the list goes on and on, and I am just getting started.

    The technology exists to do exciting new things that would make virtual conferences as much better than the old ones (for some uses) as films were compared to old-style stage plays. Both will have their place, just as plays and films do. But unless organizers, content delivery folks, and attendees have better ways to leverage the medium, the idea will wither as soon as T&E budgets come back.

  6. Chas Kielt says:

    There is no doubt that virtual conferences can be better produced and managed. But in my opinion, the failed experiments you reference are a normal, even necessary, part of the maturation process. The first cell phones and recording medium were inconvenient and clunky, and bore little resemblance to their successors. There may always be trade-offs when choosing a virtual event over a physical conference. Impromptu, in-person interaction is an obvious casualty, but this can be supplemented in other ways. Virtual events do have merit. Kalido, for example, is hosting its Kalido Connect 2009 conference completely on-line. The response from customers and partners has been terrific. Many have favorably commented that the time and cost savings are appreciated in this ongoing recession. Early registration is outpacing last year’s physical event, and Kalido is seeing participation from individuals from further afield. In the end, I don’t think it will be an either/or situation. Smart companies will learn the appropriate time and place for each approach.

  7. Merv Adrian says:

    I don’t disagree that we’ll improve if we work at it, Chas. The question is whether we will – I’ve heard positive comments from folks whose primary goal was saving some money too. But that’s not going to be enough to change behaviors when the economy improves.

    That said, good luck with Kalido Connect!

  8. Hi Merv,

    You raise some very good points that we need to consider as an industry. Since virtual conferences are fairly new, the comfort zone of most companies is to mimic a “physical” space. We are starting to hear customers wanting to take this to the next level and consider the “experience” that one provides within this virtual environment. This requires rethinking the environment, interaction and level of control over communications.

    For example, our platform was the first to incorporate Twitter to allow for conversations within the event to filter outward and vice versa. And in come cases, the virtual conference is the springboard for a member-based community.

    At InXpo, we’re exploring these possibilities alongside our customers. Would you be interested in chatting more about your thoughts and what we’re doing?

    Best,
    Cece Salomon-Lee
    Director of Marketing, InXpo

  9. Alan Berkson says:

    Hi Merv,

    I would add to the conversation that most of the best information/value I’ve gotten out of trade shows was NOT on the conference agenda. In your recent blog you extolled the virtues of the free flow of ideas in the open source community as exemplified by TDWI. To extend your movie business analogy, I would suggest the trade show business needs to look to the open source community and the entertainment industry for some clues as to how to enfranchise their attendees. As television ratings
    drop and movie production costs skyrocket, entertainment giants are looking for new ways to engage their audience. The same techniques they are using may be used to extend brands by more effectively engaging their end users. Pioneers like Jeff Gomez of Starlight Runner Entertainment have used a hot topic called “transmedia” to extend brand awareness for companies like Coca-Cola, Hasbro and Mattel. If it works for consumer products, why not for commercial products?

  10. Pingback: Kalido Virtual Conference Scores Big « Market Strategies for IT Suppliers

  11. JKB says:

    Well, sitting in the middle of tech or marketing geeks all day is one thing, but you need work-life-balance. Conferences should provide info on the “life”-side of the balance, too, and make sure that the participants get to relax and enjoy some of it.
    You wouldn’t believe how many of your “geeks” are gourmets, scuba divers, wine conaisseurs, tournament salsa dancers… whatever.
    Tehre is a cool web community on side trips and spare time things on conference locations: ABC4Trip.eu. Check it out!
    JK

  12. Merv Adrian says:

    It’s great to get a comment on an older post like this – even if it’s more in the self-promoting vein and not to the point of the post at all. Real conferences have their issues too, and you’re right – people ought to add other dimensions to their activities.

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