Making BoS USA Online Great: Lessons Learned Running our Online Conference

Lessons Learned Running Our First Online Conference

In March 2020, we ran Business of Software Conference Europe as an online event – our first ever virtual conference. Even with the short timeframes involved in putting this together, and the significant distractions going on all around us, the conference was a resounding success, with attendees noting that the experience of the online event was remarkably close to an in-person event.

As ever, we focused on two principles:

  • Learning new skills and ideas
  • Meeting other smart people.

We learned a lot and there are definitely things we’ll iterate on at our upcoming online conference this September, BoS USA Online 2020, to make it even better. We’re also learning every day from other online events that help us all learn the things that work and the things that we can do to create a memorable, fun and valuable experience.

Here’s some of the things we learned that will help us to make BoS USA Online even better:

BoS Conference Europe Online Event 2020 BoS USA Online

1. Zoom and screen fatigue – it is real

Turns out, staring at a screen for a full 8 hours a day is both a) boring, and b) exhausting. Sitting in an auditorium for a day is very different from sitting at your desk all day. New surroundings, different people, even different smells keep you interested and alert (plus you tend to wander around during networking and breakout sessions to stretch your legs and explore the venue). When you try to convert that into an online experience it is not going to be the same and it shouldn’t. People are distracted by work, home life, and the everyday environment – so you have to work harder and try new things to keep people from burning out and from losing interest. Keep it snappy – you can’t expect people to stare at their screens for hours on end and not get distracted.

What we’ll do at BoS USA Online:

Each day will be shorter to make it more manageable to take in the information you’ll learn.
We’ll also have a 5-minute break each hour to encourage you to step away from your screen.
We will make some of the content and talks available PRIOR to the event, so you can watch in your own time, think of your questions and make the most effective use of the time we have together.

2. Less is more

It’s very easy to let an online event get away from you. New ideas, fun features, and wanting to pull out all the stops can quickly become a haze of overcomplicated and overwhelming information that no one really needs – just because you can have ten buttons for different things, doesn’t mean you should! We want our attendees to go away inspired by new ideas with a fire lit under them; we don’t want to mar that with information overload.

What we’ll do at BoS USA Online:

Keep it Simple, Stupid! We’ll use tools you’ll almost certainly familiar with (like Zoom, Slack, and Google Docs) to help you participate in the full conference experience.
We want you to focus on learning and meaningful interaction, not learning a whole suite of new tools.

3. People like to meet people

At a BoS conference, you could meet up to 300 people. Online, it’s just you and a computer – so facilitating those one-on-one interactions is key. Networking with those you sit next to at a conference can be easily translated online with the use of small breakout rooms that allow them to turn off the mute button, turn on their camera, and say hello to real people. BoS conferences have always been about meeting and connecting with people, learning from one another, and sharing ideas and information and it was super important to us to keep this level of engagement a prime aspect of our online offering. Thanks to some smart Zoom features, and the growing confidence people have in using webcams and speaking to camera, we were able to provide a sturdy platform to allow “standing in the coffee-queue” interactions, and being able to introduce yourself to the person you wanted to get in front of.

What we’ll do at BoS USA Online:

More time will be factored into networking, both of the ‘randomly bumping into someone in the foyer’ and ‘birds of a feather flocking together’ type.
We will also make it easier to follow up with people you meet in a Zoom room.

4. Be aware of where you’re participants are and what time it is

This is a tricky part. IF it were an in-person conference, we’d all be in one place. IF we were only broadcasting to one place, we would all be in a specific timezone. But, we’ll be broadcasting to people all over the world – lunchtime in one place is breakfast elsewhere. We also have to accept that people will not be able to stay for the whole thing; family commitments, sleep, or even just internet woes will see people come and go throughout the online event and that’s okay. We wouldn’t physically strap you to your chairs if we were in Boston!

What we’ll do at BoS USA Online:

We’ll schedule the main events of the day so that the majority of people in the US & Europe can take part at a reasonable hour, given that they are where most of our attendees for BoS USA usually come from.

5. The more interactivity, the better

We’re fully aware that sitting in front of a laptop watching a screen for hours at a time is not a thoroughly exciting prospect. A conference is all about the back and forth – the insightful talks from the speakers followed by the questions from an engaged audience. It’s hard to replicate the sound and feel of 300 people in a room, but the more we can do that, the better. The more different faces and voices we see and hear, the more it will feel like a conference you’re taking part in, and not just a video you’re watching.

What we’ll do at BoS USA Online:

More interactive Q&A sessions, and more opportunities to see and hear from your fellow attendees.
We’ll also be doing more smaller breakout discussions and exercises in groups, something that is just not practical in a physical setting.

Having done it once we are not deterred by going online and we will be back doing it all again (this time with added experience) at BoS USA Online 2020 in September. We can’t wait to see what new things we learn, what new features we can try out, and which amazing people will attend.

Find out more about BoS USA Online

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