And it’s a wrap: Preventing virtual conference fatigue

Jun 25, 2020 | Hot Topics

At some point, I’ll muster the energy to write about what I learned but right now I’d like to tell you about the experience of sitting through online user events from Altair, ANSYS, AVEVA, Bentley, Hexagon, PTC, SAP, SAS, Siemens, and Tech Soft 3D — in addition to NAFEMS’ CAASE and all of the normal industry, company, and investor events. Often, several events were scheduled for the same time, which made life extra-complicated. I learned you can’t have more than one session of many platforms open at the same time — who knew?! It turns out, there’s real fatigue involved in doing too much stuff online. Recommendations at the bottom, but let’s start with a few things that worked and didn’t.

What went well?

  • For the most part, the technology worked. There was one spectacular failure — see below — but, in general, it was OK. As good as a purely passive experience can be, at any rate.
  • The speakers and events that understood the limitations of the mechanism produced more engaging events than those who simply put a digital front end on what they would have presented in person.
  • A positive case in point: of the hundreds of sessions I attended over the last few weeks, ANSYS CEO Ajei Gopal’s keynote at Simulation World was probably the best. It was short (16 minutes), he laid out the world-changing benefits of simulation, how ANSYS meets customer needs, and issued a call to action: do more, do better. Use that simulation superpower.
  • Another one that worked really well in its own geeky/nerdy way was the PTC LiveWorx keynote by OnShape’s Jon Hirschtick and long-time PTCer Mike Campbell. They tag-teamed on their content and then used a Vuforia app to try to diagnose a fault in a piece of home audio gear. They were engaging, human, and got their messages across: Vuforia will rule the world, and PTC’s Atlas will change how we work. I remember both the message and the demo — and that, after all, is the point: to get that message to stick.
  • Far less “produced” than ANSYS, PTC, and most others was Hexagon’s VTD, Virtual Test Drive, event. It was more interactive and felt like a (very long) web meeting — and I mean that in a good way. The speakers weren’t pre-recorded, which meant that they could reference one another rather than speaking in a vacuum. People sometimes spoke over one another — just like in real life. And the event was spread out over several weeks, meaning nothing was too overwhelming to fit into already busy weeks
  • Bottom line, as a mechanism for talking at attendees, I’d say these tools work well. To gauge interest, to interact, they’re a failure because the communication is one-way.

What didn’t go well?

  • When technology failed, it was spectacular. SAP had a very ambitious vision for digital events to replace its SAPPHIRE Live, with multiple channels of content, each targeted at different audiences and held on different days. Some of it started being “live” (meaning recorded but available on their website) weeks ago, but the big TADAAA liftoff was supposed to be the musician Sting leading into the SAP CEO keynote. I don’t know, but I’m guessing that telling the world that they could tune in to see Sting perform led to a huge overload on the conference system. The CEO and other keynotes eventually went out over Twitter on the day, but it was an embarrassing start. (The keynotes are now available for replay on the conference site.)
  • And that brings up an important point: when it didn’t work, or when it was too hard to find what I was looking for, I moved on. And I’m sure others did, too. I have good intentions about going back to the SAP keynotes but … there will always be another urgent thing, pushing that off the day’s to-do list.
  • Most events put replays up instantly; some didn’t. To the prior point, if I can’t watch a replay when I think of it, it might not happen later. That’s especially important if …
  • Some events put too many things at the same time, thinking along in-person conference lines. The logic there is that if you have interesting sessions running concurrently, an enterprise will send more people so that it doesn’t miss out on the content, bumping up numbers and registration fees. That’s flawed, especially if you hope to cross-pollinate, say to get CAD people to explore CAE or structural CAE to fluids or PLM to ERP. Content should be staggered so that one human being can attend the sessions that matter to their jobs — and if the conference format can’t do that, the replays should be available quickly, before the attention span moves on.
  • For these massively complicated events, vendors should build suggested agendas to get people to the key sessions rather than to random ones. And make the search engines far more useful by adding good descriptions and tags — don’t just throw up 200 sessions and hope for the best. Sample agendas might be for CAD people, for specific product users, for investors, an introduction for people who know nothing about the company or its products — organize all of that awesome content so that attendees have a way of starting to engage.
  • Some events tried to have timelines for Asia, Europe, and the Americas — the CEO keynote starting at 9AM in each time zone, say. I understand why –to make it as much like the physical events as possible, and to respect each group’s normal working day– but it made for a very confusing experience. I’m up early, in the Eastern US, so watched replays from Asia, then caught some of Europe and rounded out with US events. Assume attendees will be watching asynchronously and perhaps, don’t bother with the added complication of time zones.
  • That said, AVEVA World Digital did add unique geo-specific content, but I believe it all went live at the same time.
  • Breaks! One event (apologies, I don’t remember which but it was brilliant) had “go outside” in the agenda. It was a legitimate 15 minute break between sessions – long enough to stretch and get a snack. Not long enough to get lost in another work task. And they came back to the same screen, so even if one did get distracted, the restart was audible.
  • I’ve attended day-long things, events in several hour-long chunks in one week, and events spread out over several weeks. I’m not sure there’s a “best practice”, but the day-long events are incredibly challenging for the audience. How long can we sit still? How much multi-tasking do we have to do, checking email, taking calls, etc.? When I’m offsite at an event, I can focus on it to the exclusion of most other things. That’s not really possible when everyone knows I’m just not answering the phone. If the point is to get and hold people’s attention, shorter is always better.

And that brings us to speakers, without whom this whole thing would be pointless. If you’re a CEO-level type, you can probably get a teleprompter and pro camera setup but for the rest of us, yikes. Sitting still and staring at a camera while delivering a Powerpoint presentation is … horrible. I walk around, wave my hands, stop and start thoughts and sentences, which works in person but not in a webinar. We need to find alternatives that let people communicate in a way that makes them more comfortable: colleagues could interview one another, they could chat about a favorite project, they could solve a problem together (as Jon and Mike did) — not everything has to be a Powerpoint. And it’s likely that those sessions would project more energy than yet another Powerpoint session, which would hold the audience’s interest.

My suggestions for the next round of virtual events?

  • Check the calendar of partner companies and competitors. All of your customers use other vendors’ products — don’t make them choose which event to attend in real-time and which to get (maybe) in replays. Send out a save-the-date notification as early as you can.
  • Shorter is better. For the overall event and for individual sessions, too. This isn’t the same experience as a live event; this is a person with a screen and a chair. You have to work very, very hard to keep their attention for more than 30 minutes.
  • Simple is OK. A lot of the platforms had bells and whistles that I didn’t use, and that made it harder to find the content I was looking for. I don’t need a glitzy front end; I need to get at the presentation I’m almost late for!
  • Mix it up. Some canned content, some live, some Powerpoint, some chat. Siemens had a fun video that involved exercise bicycles and tech-babble in between sessions. It broke up the otherwise serious content.
  • Triple check your technology. Make sure it works the way you need it to, when you need it to. You might not get people to come back.

Finally, think about the audience. They need guides, breaks, a chat capability (with organizers and/or each other), contests to make it less serious and more fun, less canned stuff and more live content. Promise to send a Tshirt or coffee mug to legit attendees who fill out more than some number of surveys. The care and attention that goes into a live attendee experience needs to go into this type of interaction, too.

For attendees: limit what you choose to attend. I clearly overdid it. Get a Bluetooth headset — walking around while listening (even if I had to dash back to the screen every so often) made it possible for me to stay more engaged, longer. It also means you can get to snacks as needed, and as we all know, that’s key to survival. Try not to multitask — just listen. If you do it for shorter periods of time, that email or phone call can wait. If a session isn’t what you thought it would be, move on to something else. It’s OK – they won’t notice. Take breaks and go outside!

This time of year is always crazybusy for me, with vendor and investor events every week. But it’s so much simpler when I can physically only be in one place at a time. I’m able to acknowledge that I can’t do it all and just let it go. This year, with so much virtual content, I felt I had to attend as much as possible. I am grateful to the vendors for putting on these events and to all of the speakers who worked hard on their sessions — but now I need a very, very, very long nap away from anything digital.

What about you? Did you attend any of the many virtual user conferences? What did you think?

Title image is by Tumisu from Pixabay.