Almost one year ago, or 10 years ago depending on how your Pandemic Clock is running, we were seeing the last of in-person events. My last event was WordCamp Miami 2020. The memories are so clear, yet seem to have occurred eons ago. Looking back at the BetweenSessions I had written really shows how little many of us (except for Mark Maunder) could foresee occurring in 2020 with regards to events, travel, and WordCamps.
The communities team at WordPress.org released its first guidance on March 11, New recommendations for event organizers in light of COVID-19, then followed on July 27 with Announcement: In-person events in rest of year 2020, and last on August 4, Announcement: Flagship Events in 2021.
WordCamps started getting cancelled left and right. I was working with the WordCamp Chicago team, and had first hand experience at what was going through every other planned WordCamp. Often a year of effort, blood, sweat, tears, and so much volunteering time was all down the drain.
The First Virtual Events
Since WordCamps are planned months in advance, there was an intense amount of pressure to still do something. While some camps just ran out of mental, emotional, and physical steam to completely re-build a WordCamp on short notice, others gave it the best shot they could.
The first virtual WordCamps were typically a pre-recorded view with maybe some real time chat for questions and answers. I have to say this was not fun for speakers and attendees, and even worse for sponsors who saw insanely diminishing return on investment (ROI). Direct ROI such as signs up for services, trials, or contests (to get emails addresses) were a fraction of traditional camps.
So the start was rocky, not for lack of trying, but really an inability (actually inability is harsh so let’s go with “unpreparedness”) to pivot and understand a completely new dynamic. This was absolutely nobodies fault, organizers, sponsors, and attendees all had no idea what to expect and frankly minimal to zero experience putting on large scale events. Oh, and of course, everyone was dealing with the personal ramifications of the pandemic. Emotional and mental health were deteriorating and that energy and time to invest in volunteer work was hard.
WordPress and open source communities in general were on the whole less traumatized since a greater percentage of the volunteer and workforces were used to working virtually. The problem then is that sometimes the only physical outlet for many was their local WordCamp and/or meetup. That combination really drove organizers to find ways to become more social.
Zoom and Google Meet met many of the early challenges. The tech community was well prepared since these tools were nothing new to use. They just had a much greater importance and were going to be used 24/7.
We started putting our Zoom rooms together. Getting lighting and equipment set up. Oh and articles like The Best Webcam You Already Have, still one of the most popular posts I’ve ever written. “Camera ready,” and “Zoom ready” became phrases we heard all the time and accepted.
We were entering a new normal and very focused events were starting to see some success. The GoWP Virtual Happiness Hour started simply as a Zoom, their stack has grown to include live streaming to Facebook, and this has been a consistent and successful event. Reaction, a Canadian full service agency, has had similar success with a consistent weekly Zoom. Even the really large players like GoDaddy started with Zooms and have grown their meetups. GoDaddy Pro has been doing twice weekly meetups on their GoDaddy Pro Events site.
And one of my most favorite recurring meetups (which I NEVER EVER would have attended in person) has become WordPress London Meetup (#WPLDN), hosting by the folks at Big Orange Heart. They had obviously ramped up their production value with a customized and easy networking environment.
Attack of the Virtual Event Tools
Steaming tools weren’t new but took an insanely added important. Zoom, Google, Teams, and many other started upgrading and improving their tools for performance, security, rooms, etc. We’ve seen video conference platforms like Bevy, Bizzaboo, and HopIn appear.
Heck, gaming favorite Twitch has become a useful event tool! I’ve seen cPanel taking advantage of it for cPanel.live events, Twitch And Your Business: “Twitch is particularly compelling to businesses focused on reaching a younger demographic. It receives 26.5 Million daily visits and hosts over 400 million unique streams each month. Over 70 percent of users are under 35, and 41 percent are younger than 24. Because of its gamer heritage, the platform’s demographic mix skewed heavily male, but by last year 35 percent of its audience were female, and there are many female creators among its top-performers.”
We also had the rise of Jitsi, an open source set of conference tools that I had never heard of until 2020. It’s also become the foundation for many of the new video conference apps, or as in the case of #WPLDN, highly customized.
Remember Second Life? Well there are now business versions thanks to companies like Virbela, and open source projects like Mozilla Hubs. WordCamp Austin used Hubs for its event and received many accolades. From WP Tavern, WordCamp Austin 2020 Finds Success with VR Experience for Sessions and Networking: “WordCamp Austin 2020 attendees are raving about their experiences attending the virtual event last Friday. It was no secret that the camp’s organizers planned to use Hubs Virtual Rooms by Mozilla to create a unique environment, but few could imagine how much more interactive and personalized the experience would be than a purely Zoom-based WordCamp.”
It will be interesting to see how these more intense virtual event environments grow in 2021. There are technical hurdles, Safari is pretty much unusable with all of these tools, or they require you to download a separate application. And definitely don’t try to use anything but a laptop or desktop to get the full experience. Mobile friendly is not a part of the equation, and I can only guess at how accessibility is compromised.
Where Are We Today?
We are definitely seeing a level of maturity in these conferences, NamesCon Online and the coming CloudFest Online, have built out a great experiences using Hubilo. Jumping between rooms and networking are crazy easy. Similarly, WordFest used the Big Orange Heart platform to its fullest with great success.
The experience has become much more comfortable for speakers and attendees. Are sponsors truly happy? Not yet. The focus has become more about overall branding rather than traditional KPIs and ROIs. This has certainly caused a lot of rethinking with marketing and events departments across ALL businesses. There is a lot of Zoom fatigue and even though the technology implementations for networking are so much better, I am seeing less and less active participation in many of the areas built for socializing. It’s really a shame since the opportunities are so much better than a year ago. And frankly, will never go away. I can’t see some lever of virtual event not being incorporated into in-person events in the future.
So the next time you’re at a virtual event, say “hi” to a stranger!