Illustration by Ainsley Wagoner

It’s been a challenging time for conference organizers around the world. With country after country going into lockdown to slow the spread of COVID-19, and many tech companies implementing travel bans for their staff (leading to speakers and sponsors dropping out), organizers found themselves forced to either postpone their events or cancel them altogether.

As they were scrambling to come to terms with what was happening, a two-year-old Slack workspace for design conference organizers, set up by design leader and industry veteran Nick Finck, was suddenly on fire. Over the coming weeks it became a fountain of knowledge for organizers who have not only been sharing their struggles but also ideas and resources around taking events online and connecting the community.

In this article, three conference organizers tell their story of how they adapted to the new situation, and we also hear from a seasoned conference speaker about the challenges and opportunities of speaking at virtual events.

Kristina Halvorson does a virtual Q&A on how the event industry has been impacted by Covid-19.
Watch a Q&A with Kristina Halvorson on the impact of COVID-19 on the events industry and how organisers can innovate to sustain their businesses, which was part of Admission Online (an e-conference using a new tool called Vito created by the team behind ticketing platform Tito).

Pivoting from in-person to online events

Kristina Halvorson, founder and CEO of content strategy consultancy Brain Traffic, runs renowned content strategy conference Confab as well as Button, a new product content conference debuting in October. Over the last nine years, her team produced 22 events but she never thought she’d end up organizing a conference online.

“When I launched Confab in 2011, I wasn’t signing on to be a virtual events producer,” she laughs. “But we built up such an outstanding community and a brand that we’re really proud of that I just wasn’t willing to go quietly. We also decided that if we ever needed to gather the community together online, now was the time to do it.”

Andrea Rosen, head of Adobe’s annual 99U Conference, found herself in a similar position. Her team put a lot of work into the experience and production of the in-person event over the last 11 years.

“Safety and peace of mind for our attendees, speakers, and staff were paramount for us,” she points out. “We made the decision to pivot 99U to a digital experience early on to quell concerns we were hearing from our community, and feeling ourselves, and to give our team time to thoughtfully plan for the virtual edition.”

An unexpected silver lining was that the 99U team got to open up the content of the conference absolutely free to creatives worldwide.

“It’s something we’ve never been able to do at this scale before,” Andrea reveals. “And the response from the creative community has been nothing but positive.”

Promo banner for the Adobe 99U design Conference.
The theme of this year’s 99U conference, taking place on 17 June on Behance, is the creative self, an exploration of what it means to be a creative.

Andy Budd, founder of design consultancy Clearleft, had the same experience. Having had to postpone the new San Francisco leg of the agency’s Leading Design conference at short notice, the support his team has received from the community has been overwhelming.

“Folks understand the challenges we’ve been facing and have been super supportive,” he says. “The same is true for our suppliers, who have bent over backwards to help. It’s a testament to the generosity of the design community, and the relationship we’ve built over the years.”

The Clearleft team created a whole new event – SofaConf – to give back to the community and connect them.

“We wanted our first foray into online events to be its own thing,” Andy explains. “Creating a new brand gives you the freedom to experiment, without any preconceived notions of what the event will be like. It will also hopefully give us a bit more leeway to fail. If you’re paying £49 for a new online event, and the feed goes down temporarily, you’re more likely to cut us some slack than if you paid £499. So it’s our opportunity to play with the medium in a fun, low risk sort of way.”

Splash page for the SofaConf stay-at-home design conference.
SofaConf will be focusing on the skills designers and product people will need in their back pockets to navigate whatever comes next.

Innovating and experimenting with new formats

For both Andrea and Kristina, it was an important consideration that the virtual edition of their existing event didn’t feel like an afterthought or repurposed content. They approached it as a unique experience, while still keeping the spirit and intentions of the in-person events intact. Andrea calls this period the ‘Spaghetti on the Wall Era’ of the events industry.

“We’re all experimenting with formats, platforms, tempos, and timings to see what resonates with audiences,” she explains. ”For 99U in particular, we’re planning to offer different avenues to consume the conference content, as everyone has different media habits, time constraints, and learning styles. I therefore have been looking to the education space even more than the events space for inspiration and have been doing a lot of information-gathering to see how universities, consultancies, and art institutions have approached learning in online spaces.”

“We couldn’t just reproduce the schedule of the in-person conference,” Kristina, also one of the speakers at SofaConf, adds. “This actually came out of a conversation with my good friend Erika Hall who said that you have to design a conference for people’s in-home reality. People may be sitting in front of the computer or running around, trying to keep track of the event on their phone, while they’re also trying to homeschool their kids or sitting in a private space with their partner.”

Andy’s team also believes that back-to-back video calls can be fatiguing and that attendees struggle to maintain concentration for long periods of time. SofaConf is therefore spread over five days (covering product strategy, research, service design, content strategy, and interaction design) with long breaks between sessions.

“This allows attendees to dip in and out of the event, while still getting work done,” Andy explains. “It also allows attendees to join live from both Europe and the Americas, or catch up with the recorded sessions later. So like all good designers we’re trying to design around our user needs and the nature of the medium!”

It’s another big benefit of the digital format: attendees can be enabled to go at their own pace, curate their own agenda, and don’t have to worry about a travel budget or childcare. The digital edition of 99u also offers on-demand talks, workshops, and materials, while Kristina and her Confab team decided to work with their speakers to pre-record all of their breakout sessions and make them available in a library of talks, for attendees to access for 12 months after the event.

Translating talks into a virtual format

Despite the obvious challenges, brand and content strategist Margot Bloomstein, who has been giving talks and workshops around the world for more than a decade, points out that virtual events open up some new possibilities for speakers as well. No longer are attendees coming into a big conference room to sit with a few hundred other people but are in their office or living room.

“It affords you the opportunity to offer a more intimate presentation to an attendee,” she explains. “People are attending by themselves, and your face on their screen may only be a couple of feet away. Eye contact matters more than ever, and it means the conversation can be more one-on-one.“

The format also means a speaker can present more options and nuance to activities, which is especially useful for workshops or more hands-on talks.

“My BrandSort message architecture activity, for example, is great when you can facilitate a face-to-face card sort,” Margot points out. “But I also teach how you can conduct a similar activity using Trello or a printed worksheet. It’s more like personal training. In some cases, I suggest attendees consider attending with colleagues – so they can have a Zoom breakout or offline chat to work through the material together.”

Margot also points out that offering recordings of the sessions makes it easy to add captioning and transcription, review important points, or simply turn up the volume – all vital components to make the content more accessible and support a variety of learning styles. For some best practices to follow, check out Molly Watt’s advice on sharing accessible content during the Coronavirus pandemic and Jon Gibbins’ online events accessibility guide.

Watch Margot Bloomstein and Denise Jacobs share their thoughts on public speaking in the time of COVID-19 and taking speaking engagements online (and read the summary).

Building connections in a digital space

While the content is arguably the most important component of an event, one of the biggest challenges of transitioning to an online format is how to recreate the community and networking aspect.

“Building connections and intimacy in digital spaces simply requires more time and investment than it might in IRL spaces,” Andrea explains. “While we’re creating interactive touchpoints and opportunities for connection, we’re also operating under the assumption that some audience members may prefer to navigate this experience on their own time, at their own pace, and without participating in interactive spaces – so we have to make sure it’s still a great experience for that faction, too.”

The agenda of the online edition of Confab only featured two talks to kick off every day. The rest were live conversations with book authors, panel discussions, tool demonstrations, and moderated group sessions to facilitate networking.

“We limited the group conversations to eight to 12 people, so that they could have more intimate connections around topics they care about,” Kristina explains. “In the same way that you would at a meal or over drinks.” Kristina also wanted to bring some fun into the online edition of Confab, which the in-person event is known for.

“We hosted a cake decorating contest, an attendee pet show, and a variety show that we recruited attendees for,” she laughs. “This also included some evening activities: a cocktail/mocktail-making hour, game time, and karaoke. We hired a virtual production company to assist us, and we made it very clear that we didn’t want it to be super glitzy and over-produced. We just wanted the community to be able to spend some time together and have room for laughter as well.”

Splash page for the Button, virtual design conference.
Just like Confab, new product content conference Button will feature live Q&As, demos, small group connections, and an on-demand library of all talks and slides.

Looking into the crystal ball

While there’s definitely room from some well-designed and well-curated events to bring people together, it’s uncertain when in-person events are likely to resume.

“That’s the million dollar question, isn’t it?” Andy sighs. “My guess is that it’s going to take a while to discover, manufacture, and vaccinate a large enough part of the population to make in-person events a reality. We’re committed to restarting our in-person conferences only once it’s safe and people feel comfortable doing so.”

Kristina agrees. “I think events will be impacted for about two years, or until a vaccine has been widely distributed. The next Confab is in May 2021, and I’m not holding my breath about that. I do think, however, that it will no longer be an option to live stream events once they pick up again. It’ll be a requirement. As for attendance, will it have fallen, or will people be so wildly excited to gather and meet each other again that sales go through the roof? We’ve all been trying hard to look into our crystal balls, and as a business owner cautious optimism has always worked well for me.”

Sign up for the 12th edition of 99U (free to attend on Behance on 17 June), and also check out SofaConf (22-26 June), and Button (19-21 October).