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Lessons from a year of virtual events from GitLab’s manager of Developer Evangelism

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In early March of 2020, I met the CEO and founder of Hopin for a demo of their new events platform. COVID-19 was spreading and I had started contingency planning in case our community events at GitLab would need to go virtual for a time. By the middle of that month, a pandemic was declared and communities around the world were forced to rapidly transition to virtual events.

One year and thousands of events later, virtual events remain the norm and will be part of any community’s future. Whether you’re an event organizer, speaker, or attendee, the lessons we have learned from these events over the past year can help you navigate virtual events going forward.

Lesson #1: This is a chance to expand your community

With in-person events, the financial and time burden, visa issues, and other accessibility issues limit the number of people who can actually attend an event. Virtual events remove many of these barriers. This opens the door for both new audiences and new speakers to participate in events they may not have had access to before.

In order to maximize the impact on the diversity of your community when switching to virtual events, event organizers should consider things like:

  • Sharing recordings of your event for folks in different time zones or folks who may need to watch a few times to fully understand the content
  • Provide closed captioning of your talks for people with different learning styles or hearing impairments
  • Include links to any presentation materials with your recordings so folks can follow along at a screen size that is easily readable to them
  • Allow speakers to submit recordings of their talks in advance to allow for folks with less reliable internet access and in different time zones to participate.

Lesson #2: Time management is essential

One of the biggest challenges with virtual events is actually keeping your attention on the event. When you’re sitting at a computer to watch the keynotes and panel discussions, it is much easier to get distracted by Slack, email, Twitter, your calendar, people who live with you, your pets, the doorbell, the laundry, your coffee machine, your phone…I think you get my point.

To get the most out of a virtual event, you must be prepared to protect your attention. Treat your office like an auditorium or conference room. Silence your phone, close Slack and all your browser tabs, pause notifications, close your door, and do what you need to do to be present.

Consider blocking off time after the event to catch up on your work. Having time later in the day or the following morning to catch up on notifications makes it less stressful to ignore the noise.

Lesson #3: Be intentional about serendipity

Missing those serendipitous moments that occur when you’re at an event with dozens, hundreds, or even thousands of other folks? Virtual event platforms are iterating fast to improve the event experience for attendees but have yet to encapsulate the nature of personal connection through in-person interactions. Until they do — or until conferences and events can happen physically again — a little intentionality will be necessary on your part. While it may not be the same as striking up conversation at the coffee station, virtual events can still lead to meaningful connections.

Try these tips to get the most out of your virtual event experience:

  • Ask questions. Typing into a chat box is often less intimidating than raising a hand or grabbing a microphone in a conference room, and the answers are just as good.
  • Be social. Follow the speakers you are excited to see on Twitter and tag them in Tweets during and after their talks. You can also use the event hashtag to find or start conversations about the event and the talks. Connect with your new friends on LinkedIn.
  • If you can add a photo to your profile on the event platform, do it. It makes it more personal and people will feel more connected to you than if you are using an avatar.
  • Take advantage of the event’s networking sessions or plan your own. You can use Slack, social media, or the event chat to invite folks to join you. Sometimes sponsors will also plan extracurricular activities in breakout rooms or parallel platforms that can also be good for meeting new people.

Organizers can help promote these interactions by creating space for small group discussions which work best with a facilitator who is trained to keep the conversation moving.

Lesson #4: Lean into the format

Whether you’re an organizer, speaker, or attendee, there are lots of different ways to maximize the benefits of being virtual.

For organizers, focus on leveraging your events platform’s abilities. If your platform offers a chat, ask your speakers to attend their session and answer questions from the chat space. If you have networking features on your events platform, set aside time specifically for networking so your attendees can join without missing a talk or discussion and can connect with other attendees. Video recording is often much easier for virtual events so make sure you have a plan to record and publish your content. Take measures like including closed captions and sharing slides with the audience to make your events as accessible as possible. RespectAbility offers even more great ideas on how to make events accessible.

Virtual events also create unique opportunities for speakers. Encourage participation to increase engagement.

  • Small things like starting your talk by asking folks to share their location in the event chat can help set an expectation of participation.
  • Jumping in the chat yourself (if your talk is recorded) or answering questions in real-time (if your talk is live) can also get folks excited to join the conversation.

But don’t stop there. Unlike many in-person events, most of your audience will be at a computer connected to the internet during your talk. Consider creating step-by-step demos for your audience to follow. Then they can leave the event with something real to represent the new insights they’ve learned.

In addition to the steps described above, like managing your time and notifications to allow yourself to be present, a few more steps will help you get the most out of your virtual event experience.

  • If there are opportunities for 1-on-1 or small group conversations, jump on in. The opt-in nature of this format means the people you’ll be paired with are others who are eager to connect, unlike in-person, when an attendee might be there for the content and free drinks.
  • Take the networking opportunities at virtual events as seriously as you would if the event were in-person. Instead of exchanging business cards, connect with the folks you’re engaging on social media or in the event platform on LinkedIn.
  • In a conference room, it can feel awkward to get up and leave during a presentation. With a virtual event, the burden is gone. If you’re not into a talk, switch to a different talk or take a break and stretch. Note: I don’t recommend working during this time as you can lose your focus on the event and wind up missing later talks and networking opportunities.

Here’s the thread that ties all these lessons together: There are distinct differences between virtual and in-person events, so acknowledge and lean into them, but maintain the same level of engagement as you would provide at an in-person event. Be present, stay focused, and have a plan and goals mapped out for what you want to get out of the event, just as you would for an in-person conference, while leveraging the unique opportunities that virtual events provide. As much as I look forward to returning to in-person events again soon, I believe virtual events will continue to be part of our lives going forward, so we might as well make the experience worthwhile.

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