Episodes

Louis Rosenfeld on Virtual Conferences

“Ultimately, in many respects it was a better experience than people might ordinarily get.”

My guest today is my friend Lou Rosenfeld. Besides publishing books — including my own Living in Information — Lou and his team at Rosenfeld Media organize and manage industry conferences. In this episode, we talk about how they transitioned the recent Advancing Research conference from an in-person to a fully virtual event.

Listen to the full conversation

Show notes

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Read the full transcript

Jorge: Lou, welcome to the show.

Lou: Thanks, Jorge. Glad to be here – again.

Jorge: Yeah. Usually I start episodes by asking guests to introduce themselves, but you not only have the distinction of having been our first-ever guest on the show, you now have the double distinction of being the first-ever repeat guest on the show.

Lou: Well, Jorge, I’m glad to be a Guinea pig in any of your experiments, so thank you.

The remote Advancing Research Conference

Jorge: The reason that I thought it would be interesting for us to have another conversation now is that the coronavirus pandemic has driven all sorts of changes in our society, in our economies, and in the way that we work. And among those changes, we are meeting differently, and we are doing things like conferences differently. And you and your team organize conferences and had the experience recently of having to very quickly restructure an event that was scheduled to be live and in-person. And you had to switch it to have it be all online. And I’ve heard nothing but good things about that experience, and I was hoping that you would tell us how you did it.

Lou: Aw, well, thanks. I’m glad you’re hearing good things. I mean, the general response among attendees and speakers and sponsors, actually, seem to have been very positive and I’m really grateful for that. I think it’s really important that when you say how you did it, that’s a… going to be a collective you, not an individual you, because it was really like a Herculean effort. I mean, I call it a moonshot, where we had like a couple of weeks that involved our speakers, our curators, our internal team, a lot of vendors. It was massive.

The conference was Advancing Research, and actually it’s the first time we’ve done it. We were going to do it in New York City, and it was programmed, and it was actually sold out five weeks in advance. And then suddenly everything hit the fan or started to, and at first we were going to create a hybrid event of in-person and virtual because New York City was still open for business, and you know, it’s still seemed like a lot of people wanted to come in person, and the venue was assuming we were coming, they weren’t going to refund our money, or even a part of it – a lot of moving parts.

And then ultimately, we went into a new mode where you could not have people in-person at any scale, and, at least some force majeure clauses kicked in and, you know, we still financially took a big bath, but we had a great program. We felt very strongly that people wanted us to continue with it. The speakers had prepared at that point for probably about four months. Because we do extensive program design and then months of speaker preparation once the program is in place, and we didn’t feel it was right to cancel for them. Nor did we feel like it was right to cancel for attendees if we could do a virtual event.

Changes to the conference

So, what did we do? We decided we had to stick to the original two-day schedule for the main program, just single track. And two days was not ideal in terms of keeping people engaged. You know, you’re basically running nine hours a day. But we felt like we kind of had to stay true to that on behalf of the attendees. We didn’t think it was going to be easy for them to adjust their schedules at that late point now, two, three weeks before the event. So, we kept that together. We’d have also inconvenienced many speakers to change it.

And so, I wrote a little article in Medium if people are interested. They can probably just find me by searching my Twitter ID, @louisrosenfeld. I wrote some of the ideas up, but I will tell you a few highlights. One is that it’s hugely important to prep speakers for the remote experience. Our speakers were already prepped from a content perspective. They were in great shape, had fantastic talks. But we did two rounds of tech checks to speakers, one the day of, but more importantly, one during the week prior.

And you will see, if you’re doing a virtual event of any type, that speakers, if they’re new to this, they don’t know where to stand or sit. You may want to do one or the other. Their faces aren’t close enough to the camera in many cases. Their technology is problematic. And so we actually, gave them a credit to order their own equipment. Go get a better mic, that type of thing. At that point, it wasn’t always possible for Amazon to turn it around very quickly, but we did our best. Things like lighting, things like what they wore, and also getting them comfortable with the technology.

In our case, we used Zoom Webinar. But, not so simple, we actually then streamed a livecast version from Zoom to Vimeo, and then we embedded… it’s a little Rube Goldberg, but we embedded the Vimeo stream onto a password protected webpage on our website, conference website. So, we made the content and the livestream exclusive to paid attendees. Not surprising.

Having the speakers in Zoom Webinar was comfortable for them. They were mostly comfortable with presenting in Zoom. But when we did the those tech checks, we made sure they were comfortable because I can tell you firsthand that, when I presented remotely, especially early on when Zoom was new for me, I didn’t always know where to find that “share screen” button when the, you know, I had that deer-in-the-headlights moment. You may be very experienced in Zoom but there still may be things that you don’t have much experience with as a presenter in Zoom. So, we got them comfortable with that.

It was nice in Zoom, to not have the attendees there. Attendees are all experiencing things through the livecast. And that made it easier to manage the Zoom space as a space for speakers and curators and the MC. We also found that the signal actually worked pretty well for people consuming the livecasts. There were surprisingly few technical problems. They were almost exclusively due to poor local bandwidth, which is often correctable by plugging into a router directly or getting closer to the router or turning off background apps that suck bandwidth up and just using the right browser. We found that Chrome didn’t work well, it didn’t play well with Vimeo, surprisingly.

Establishing contingencies

So, we also put in place like a huge number of contingencies. Like, I got to tell you, the thing that kept me up at night the most was what if… what if Zoom goes down, what if Vimeo goes down? What if our website goes down? What if the speaker’s local connection goes down? And we came up with contingency upon contingency. And we only had one problem technically, with one speaker having to go to the contingency because they’re local connectivity was suffering.

So, I can get into some of those if you like. I will just say this. I would not rely on a recording as a backup. I don’t think that’s necessary; I don’t think it’s very good for the speakers, I don’t think it’s very good for the attendees. I think just having something as simple as the speaker dialing in to Zoom on their phone, or at least using a phone connection with the Zoom client on their phone. Muting that connection, having it ready to go to unmute should their computer crap out and having us ready to run the slides for them was a much better backup plan than having a recording ready to go. So, there’s just like a whole bunch of these little persnickety things that we had to learn in two weeks’ time.

About the team

We also had a fantastic MC, Cheryl Platz, who we already had lined up to be our MC. And we got so lucky because she was someone who was very comfortable with being an MC remotely. And she did it like making sure speaker number one got out of the way while she chatted up speaker number two and made sure speaker number two had their screen shared before she went away. So, she was just a fantastic, fantastic MC. Our curators, Abby Covert, as you mentioned, and Steve Portigal, and Natalie Hanson, all did a wonderful job. Our team did a wonderful job operating the whole thing. And it basically allowed the program to really stand up for itself, and the technology didn’t get in the way.

The sponsor experience

I do want to mention one more thing though. We’re a company that puts conferences on that really try to appeal to our sponsors. So, I will say, we never let our sponsors call the shots in our program. We’ve never done pay-for-play. The integrity of our programming efforts is tantamount, critical for us. That said, we want to have sponsors participate. And when we do an in-person conference, we have an expo and sponsors get involved in other ways.

In this case, we went to our sponsors two weeks before the show and said, listen, we’ll work with you, and we’re going to develop a platform for a secondary program of sponsor-led events that would happen before and after the conference each day and during breaks. And we will basically create a webpage and essentially a platform and some support for sponsors. You are the sponsors, here are some ideas. This is your chance to step up, show your support for the community, your thought leadership, highlight your really great ideas, your great content. And Jorge, they really did step up to the plate.

In fact, in a way, we had too many sponsor-led activities. We had something like 43 sponsor-led activities over two days. And they were fantastic. Like we’ve had people saying, I want to get a recording of that great session that MailChimp did or that Mural did, or whatever, and I don’t know if you see that happen very much in an in person event that that people are dying for the sponsor’s content. And again, it’s because you’re doing it virtually, the sponsors are pushed in effect to make sure what they’re doing is engaging and not just a pitch or no one’s going to come. And we opened the sponsor events to our broader community. We have, each of our conferences has an associated community of thousands of people that can participate. So, the sponsors ended up getting better turnout and better engagement than normal because they did, you know, we opened it up, but they also did a great job with their content.

Flattening of hierarchies

And a lot of our attendees found that the interaction in Slack – this is where the discussion went on – was superior than the interaction they might have in person. The hierarchy was flattened in many cases, introverts were able to ask questions, even of speakers, and interact with each other… Ultimately, in many respects it was a better experience than people might ordinarily get. And the time zones are an issue, but we always make our recordings as well as our sketchnotes and our trip notes and other materials available to attendees after the event, and that was part of the exclusive deal. They got all that content. So, if they missed something, or slept in or didn’t want to stay up late, they could go back to it.

So, it was a fantastic experience. But now that we have that under our belt and we have two more conferences we’re doing this year and some partially clean slate with one and a fully clean slate with the other, we’re really excited to try some new ideas out, as well as folding in the experience we had with Advanced Research.

Jorge: I want to touch on something that you said there towards the tail end. I’m actually going to mix two things that you said. So, one was about the flattening of hierarchies, because one of the things that I’ve observed in participating in remote meetings of all sorts, I have noticed that flattening of hierarchy, where all of a sudden it’s like there’s no place in the physical room where the person is standing in, and this is the speaker, and you are the audience and sitting over here. All of a sudden, everyone is kind of on the same plane literally, everyone’s got a little thumbnail, and you are one of many little thumbnails. And I know that when it’s a webinar on something like Zoom, you don’t see the “Brady Bunch screen, ” but it’s almost like everyone’s on the same playing field, more so than they are in a physical space.

So that’s one thing that I wanted to follow up on, particularly in the context of the sponsor experience, because I was super intrigued when you said that sponsors got more… I don’t think I’m going to do service to what you said, but the way that I interpreted it is they got more traction on their presentation somehow from folks. And I’m wondering if the fact that in a physical conference, you have space set aside for sponsors – they have their tables, and that’s where the sponsors live – and then you have the presentations, which usually happen in some kind of auditorium-like space. But now, everyone’s using the same technologies to communicate, and there is this blurring, this potential… I mean, you made the disclaimer. It’s like we’ve always been, you know, very serious about not letting sponsors drive the program. And it strikes me that there’s an opportunity here for potentially blurring the lines between those that doesn’t exist in the real world just by the very nature of the places where we’re meeting, no?

Lou: Well, yeah. I think that’s a really good point, and it makes me think of sponsored search results versus organic ones and how you differentiate them. We, as you might expect that we would always err toward being clear:** here are sponsor-led activities. They’re optional. They’re part of the program in a sense, but they’re not. These are not the speakers we’ve spent the last four or five months prepping, but this has a role and this helps make things feasible for us as a business and you know, one of the really interesting things about this, though it comes back to actually you, Jorge, and the book you wrote for us Living In Information, because I thought a lot about the metaphor of designing place, especially as we put together these sponsor places.

Zoom Lounges

Zoom already has, like, we did the sponsor events in Zoom, but with Slack channels – and we’re going to take a slightly different approach in the future – but, regardless, we got kind of mucked up by Zoom’s sort of uneven use of the place metaphor. I mean, you have Zoom rooms and you have Zoom, I don’t know, events, and Zoom spaces… Honestly, they’re not really clear, and I find that a lot of people, myself included, abuse the terminology that Zoom would like us to use because it doesn’t really make sense. I want to call these things Zoom Rooms, but that’s a product, that’s a specific product.

So, we ended up calling the sponsor Zoom areas, “Zoom Lounges,” which are places, they’re places that are part of the bigger place, namely the entire conference – I’ll come back to that term in a minute – but they had a different flavor. A lounge is not a place that you will necessarily have to… it’s a place that you can relax in a way you can still learn and still interact. Some of the sponsor activities were completely interactive, some were, happy hours, and a trivia contest but they were not classrooms and they were not auditoriums.

I was actually, you know, along these lines, looking at the Hopin platform last week, because I was a sponsor at IXDA Berlin, and they used the Hopin platform as Zoom alternative. And that’s been designed around the place metaphor for events much more concretely, and they have an expo area that we were in, and they have a number of other uses that really kind of run ahead with the place metaphor and there’s a bunch of problems with it – we can get into that if you like – but I really thought a lot about your ideas when we were putting this together and it’s the second time one of our books has really resonated well for us in conference design. The other is Donna Lichaw’s A User’s Journey and trying to have a narrative arc to how the events unfold over time.

Navigating uncertainty

Jorge: Another thread that I wanted to pull on in what you said has to do with how you and the amazing team that helped you put this conference on, how you navigated this period of uncertainty. I’m placing myself back to that time, which seems like a long time ago, even though it wasn’t that long ago.

Lou: Another world, Jorge.

Jorge: Yeah. Well, it was the moment when we were starting to step through this weird portal that we’ve stepped through or are stepping through still. Right? And it was a moment where we didn’t know…. there was a lot of uncertainty. Like we didn’t know if people are going to be able to fly. We didn’t know if people in this city over here are going to be dealing with it differently than those of us over here, right? I have family abroad. And I talk with them every week and I can compare notes with how they’re dealing with the situation and how we’re dealing with the situation. And I could tell that everyone was coming to the same conclusions, but not everyone was coming to it at the same times.

And when you’re trying to coordinate an event that is going to rely on people traveling, I would expect that it would have been tremendously stressful. And I’m wondering if there are any tools, processes, approaches that helped you and your team come to the decision eventually to transition to a fully online conference, even though I don’t think it was a given perhaps at the time when you were starting those conversations no? So, can you think back to what it was like making that decision?

Lou: About that pivot? Oh, I don’t know that there was any one thing that guided us. I think that was part of the difficulty, was this sensation of the sand shifting under your feet every 15 minutes. So to give you an example of that, while we were still in the assumption that we were going to run a hybrid event, last month, and not go fully virtual, there were about three or four days in a row where I drafted a communication to our attendees who had already registered, explaining to them what was going to happen and how it was going to work. Before I could send it, that would change, and then it changed again. And then finally, all right, we’re going to go full virtual. We have no choice now. Change again, and it was exhausting. It was just, oh my God, we don’t even, we can’t keep up with these changes.

So, that was the hard part, psychologically. I think once we knew we could only do a virtual event, we were committed to doing it for the reasons I mentioned earlier that, you know, attendees had already booked it, although not all of them want to go forward with the virtual event. I think, 90 or 85% still wanted to do it. And the speakers have already done all their work. It didn’t feel like it was fair to them, and we felt like it was just going to be a fantastic event programmatically, which it was, to be honest.

So, at that point it was, okay, we don’t really have to think, we have to do. It’s not an emotional thing anymore. We have a point on the calendar we have to be ready for, and let’s just work weekends and nights and we’ll get it done. And we did. I’d say, if it was a day earlier, it would have been a lot harder. It just seemed like maybe that’s the psychology of how you use your time, and we just managed to get it in, in the nick of time. I don’t know. Maybe it’s just the way these things work, no matter how much time you have.

I was talking with Steve Baty and I probably am mispronouncing her first name, Janna DeVylder at Meld, in Sydney, and they were putting on one of their events, not UX Australia, but a different one, and I think they had one or two days and they pulled it off. Well, here’s one of the stressors. So, I also know people who were doing events in May. I would rather not have had one or two days to pull it off because you won’t learn as much. You’re just going to throw it in Zoom and hope for the best. And they did a great job, but there was very little they could do in terms of trying new things and thinking it through. Or you do it you know, where there’s… we’re talking about back in March, if you have a May horizon, by time May rolls around, the expectations are going to be much higher and the economics remain uncertain. So, I’m really glad our event wasn’t in May or April for that matter. We had just enough time pull it off and still keep our attendees.

Jorge: So, what I’m hearing there is that folks may have been more forgiving because they knew how short of a timeframe you had to pull things together.

Lou: Yes

Tweaks for future events

Jorge: So, with that in mind, do you have thoughts on what aspects of the experience you’re going to tweak for the next events? Because those are happening further in the future, right?

Lou: Right. So, the next one we have is Enterprise Experience used to be known as Enterprise UX. This’ll be the sixth one, and it’s taking place August 31st through September 3rd. It was originally going to be in San Francisco, and now it is virtual of course. And the program has already been created, it was originally designed, like most of our main programs, two-day, single track. We’re now going to have it as a four-day, shorter days, each day, it’s like a mini conference, each day has a very strong theme. And we’ll allow people to go to one, two, three, or four days. And you know, so there’s a lot of sort of how you take something that was designed to flow over two days and make it flow over four days. And that’s where things like the narrative arc are really important to consider. How do you keep people engaged? Not just in the middle, but in the beginning and the end, and hopefully they register for all four days.

The other conference we have is Design Ops Summit. It’ll be the third one of those… no, the fourth one of those. And that’s going to be in October. Again, it’ll be virtualized. It was originally going to be here in New York. And we’re just starting that from scratch. So, we get all three scenarios, something that we can’t really change, something that’s been programmed, but we can move the sessions around, and then something that has a complete clean slate.

The thing that we’re going to really work on with both of them, there’s a few little things, like having attendee troubleshooting tech check sessions before the conference starts a couple of different times to make sure they can get in so they’re not late for the conference because they’re having a problem getting in.

More importantly though, is working in a different mode with sponsors to emphasize quality over quantity in their engagement. So not 43 sessions, but maybe 15 really high-quality sessions. And not that there was anything low quality, but at a certain point there’s too much. So, you want to really focus on, you know home runs for every session that sponsors do.

We also are going to be experimenting with a mode for, again, taking your concept of designing digital places, and create a place or a series of rooms for attendees to attend the conference the whole time together, and to do so based on a number of big ideas. So, it could be affinity groups. We’ll have to assemble them in advance. You’re all from the same industry, or you’re working on the same type of problem, and we’ll put you together with people like you and with a facilitator. Or, it’s your team from your organization who wants to attend together, or you just want to be matched with random people.

Either way, they will all be facilitated, you’ll get together before the conference kicks off, you’ll have an opportunity to meet the other people in your room and you will, together with your facilitators, help figure out what are the things you want to learn over the coming days. And you may check in during each conference and at the very end of the conference, you’ll get back together with your crew in your room.

And it could be you be figuring out what you learned, figure out what you might not have learned, and see if there’s anything you want to do together after the conference. So, we’re building an infrastructure to help people do that. It’s not too complex, but it’s not simple. The easy part is the technology. The hard part will be figuring out who to connect with whom and to make sure they’re well facilitated. But that’s like, so exciting, like we can then take that model and take it to the in-person events. In fact, you know, one of the things we’ll do in the future, I don’t think we’re ever not going to have a conference that’s virtual. I do think we’re going to have hybrids, and I’m really also excited by the models we’re coming up with to make a hybrid in-person and virtual event work even if we’re still in the age of social distancing come 2021.

Closing

Jorge: That sounds super exciting Lou. Where can folks go to find out more about the upcoming events?

Lou: Oh, just go to RosenfeldMedia.com. And, if they really are interested in our three events and want to either first to know when tickets go on sale, especially the cheap tickets or apply for scholarships or even pitch a talk, the way we communicate those is through the corresponding communities we’ve created for each of our conferences. For those reasons alone, we think you’ll want to join whether you’re interested in enterprise experience, advancing research, or design operations.

But each of those communities, besides having those kinds of connections to the conferences, each has a monthly video conference call where we have a guest presenter or facilitator. And we get some amazing people to lead discussions because we’re trying to keep the conversation going between the annual events, the other 360-odd days a year. And so, we have these fantastic, like we had a session with Kamdyn Moore and Kristin Skinner and Alison Rand for Design Ops community. I think it was about two, three weeks ago… we had 240 people participate. That’s fantastic. Laura Klein, we had I think 110 people for the Enterprise Experience conversation we had a week or so ago. We do one a month for each community and it’s all free. Go to RosenfeldMedia.com, check out communities. You’ll see them and, Hey! We love this model; it makes really great sense at this stage of pandemic. And so, we’re ramping up to do more.

Jorge: Well, fantastic. Lou. I’m going to include links to those in the show notes. Thank you so much for being with us today.

Lou: Hey, it’s my pleasure. And I’m so happy not only that you bothered to have me on not once, but twice, but that you’re doing this. It’s one of the… you and Andy Polaine are doing two of the most interesting newsletters and also podcasts. And I just find what you guys are up to so interesting, and it’s hard work. I know you put a lot into both the newsletter and the podcast, and I just want to thank you for doing it. Even if you didn’t have me on it, I would be grateful. It’s just wonderful information you’re putting together and making available to the world, and I hope everyone is smart enough after I pitched it to at least sign up for your newsletter if they haven’t already. And obviously they’re already listening to the podcast, so they know that’s great. Thanks again, Jorge, glad to be part of it.

Jorge: Thank you Lou, I appreciate that.