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.