What’s the future of the virtual conference?

June 11, 2009

What’s the future of the virtual conference?

I am in the middle of attending Microsoft’s Server Technology Business industry analyst event. I have attended this for many years but this year Microsoft decided that it would be a virtual event. Sessions would be streamed over the web to be watched whenever. One on one sessions were scheduled with executives and customers in 30 minute increments. There was one live session (slides over LiveMeeting). So, what did I think? I had very mixed feelings. I was happy to forgo a plane trip. It is much nicer to sit in my own office and sleep in my own bed. However, I don’t think that the virtual conference itself is ready for prime time. Here are the things that don’t work for me.

There is no substitute for personal interaction with people. When I attend an industry analyst meeting I pay attention to more than the words the speaker is saying. I read the body language. I want to understand how the management team relates to each other. I want to have hallway and lunch time informal conversations. I also want to be able to talk to invited customers informally.

Streaming videos for presentations are a wonderful idea but the vendor providing the videos needs to make sure that this works with many different networks and many different systems. I happen to use a Mac which wasn’t the system of choice for the Microsoft hosts. Even those using Windows and Explorer had trouble with the videos stopping in mid sentence. Even if the vendor tests out the videos internally, they cannot begin to guess the participant’s environment.

Will a typical analyst have the patience to watch five hours of pre-recorded videos? Not likely. I might listen to a video that I am particularly interested in (like cloud computing or service oriented architectures, for example). But I will not listen to all the presentations. There are simply too many distractions and too many things to do. That is the reality of my life as a researcher, analyst, and writer. The reality is that unless you present compelling presentations with information that draws me in you will not capture my attention for long periods of time. The context of this type of meeting hurts the  virtual conference. It is something like watching television. If you start to watch a program and it gets boring, you start to channel surf. If you expect the audience to watch from beginning to end you have to grab their attention.

The reality is you can get away with a lot more in person than you can in a virtual meeting. In an in-person meeting there is enough going on and enough possibilities of interaction that it works. In a virtual meeting you have to pay much more attention to the details. It is show business. The virtual meeting has to be orchestrated and managed so that the seams do not show. Microsoft had a good idea when they planned the meeting. They actually sent each of us a LiveCam so that speakers and audience members could see each other. It was never used.

I think that we will get to the point where we can have meaningful virtual conferences — someday. But they have to have the following characteristics before I will be enthusiastic:

1. Virtual conferences need really good planning and execution. It cannot simply be a disconnected voice with some slides on a shared screen. That is called a conference call.

2. Streaming or live video is wonderful but it needs to have the technology foundation so that it will work no matter what the customer/participant’s environment happens to be.

3. If virtual conferences are to work they have to be conferences.  I don’t think that we have good models for executing virtual conferences that work. They need to be electric, informative, and have interactivity.  Right now the virtual meeting is not a true model. It is simply old execution applied to a new idea.

I think that we will see the emergence of a true virtual conferencing model. I can’t tell you that I can visualize a virtual conference that I would enjoy. Like many analysts, I am not good at passively sitting and watching. I need to be engaged and part of the action. I am not sure how you do this virtually. But I am ready to be surprised and delighted since it would be great not to get on an airplane.

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About Judith Hurwitz

Judith Hurwitz is an author, speaker and business technology consultant with decades of experience.

  1. Attending the Virtual Edge Summit with many vendors in the space providing platform solutions for effective virtual conferencing. http://ow.ly/1anch

  2. It’s great to find this dialogue on virtual conferencing. I’m just embarking on research into this as we are hosting a virtual conference in the spring and are looking to outsource.
    Are there any suggestions of where to go? Maybe we can force the beginnings of a new leap in the power of virtual conferencing.
    All suggestions and advice welcome

  3. From what I have learned from friend that used to travel for big companies, now they can’t travel as much and have to do more virtual. Conference calls are more common now.

    but sure for it to work it should work well.

  4. Joel, well planned and produced virtual conferences, meetings and events can be costly (to Judith’s point #1). The perception is that they cost very little but that is not the reality–they often cost less and if you can leverage the event/content after the live event the value and ROI keeps going up. Some, mainly the media companies (magazines in particular) have been able to drive costs down by being self sufficient and doing all the production and promotion in house.

    When it comes to the attendee, the cost savings is huge in travel, longing, parking and other incidental costs not to mention the lost productivity that can be experienced in travel. If the event has booths, again the exhibitor’s costs are usually much less and lead generation and or actions come in very favorable for virtual events (in most cases).

    For the meeting or event producer, there are costs related to production, perhaps meeting planning, streaming (to Judith’s point #2, a lot of the streaming solutions are now there with the mac but the 3D meeting environments are still struggling with that except qwaq and SL), promotion, moderation and technical support, speaker prep etc. What people are finding is that overtime, as they do more virtual meetings and events the costs keep coming down and many are moving to persistent environments where they have access and use of the environment 365, 24×7. That will probably be the trend.

    Point #3 is the biggie for me. We aren’t really there yet at least for a reasonable price point but I think in a year or maybe 16 months the experience will be very different. We’re in the early innings from a technology as well as user interface and interactivity standpoint but I think progress toward the ideal solutions is being made and will be accelerating.

  5. […] Virtual Events Business & Marketing Leave a Comment Lately I came across the Future of Virtual Conferences post from Judith Hurwitz. I cant agree more with her. Virtual Conferences and online […]

  6. You make a great point about what we can learn from online education — although I expect that they still have a lot to learn as well. I don’t think that we can assume that a virtual conference has zero costs. What about the preparation, the coordination, the content? If we want virtual conferences to be excellent maybe we should think about a fee. For example, we have different expectations when we use a free online service than when we pay a fee. I expect the same will happen with virtual conferences.

  7. Excellent points. I think the virtual conference is in the same position as online education was 10 years ago. Educators attempted to use the traditional classroom and traditional pedagogy as a model for how online education should work. Sadly, some still do. Many online educators, however, have adapted the technology to deliver a new type of educational experience.

    Virtual conferences need to keep the things we love about conferences – networking, learning, and the random fruitful interactions. These need to be preserved in a way which contextual information (accents, linguistics, body language) is still transferred.

    Also, as the cost of holding the conference approaches zero, then so should the entry fee. The number one reason many people don’t attend more conferences is the cost. This should encourage conferences to decrease fees and increase participation, which will gain a much larger audience (thus increasing sponsors). This does not seem to be happening.

  8. […] Hurwitz wrote a good piece about her experiences of the Microsoft Virtual Analyst Summit. There is no substitute for personal interaction with people. When I attend an industry analyst […]

  9. […] and Tools Business did the virtual conference thing for industry analysts last week. Fellow analyst Judith Hurwitz ably describes the limitations of this format. I concur with much of what she […]

  10. Excellent post. Not so much at your level, but I do spend many hours online, I have watched 1000’s upon 1000’s of videos (especially training and podcasts over the years). Twenty five years working with computer has me quite comfortable in the online space – not so comfortable in the public space (yet, but well in process of fixing that).

    Two things crossed my mind that I wanted to share. 1) You mentioned body language and how you rely on it as a part of your assumptive process….I think the online comparison to that is word (voice) inflection. It doesn’t take long to pick up someone’s attitude and feelings online. People will be surprised at the bond that are created. I’m talking business connections – but the leader of that surely would be the personal sites where many have married because of online connections.

    The other thing that I wanted to reply to. You’re absolutely correct, too soon and I do agree, the ultimate virtual conference is yet to be imagined. You talked about the need to be engaged. I think the bridge to people feeling engaged will be when people approach online with the same openness and honesty they bring to face to face conversations, which I don’t think will happen until people feel comfortable giving up the idea of “face first.”

    Very thought provoking post. Thanks!

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