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Online Events: Tips and Tricks

You may have “attended” one or more online events by now, such as webinars or conferences of some kind. You’ve noticed that some went smoothly and others… well, not so much.

My team at Anyscale has run twice-monthly events this Summer, our Ray Summit Connect series of talks and our Anyscale Academy live training. We’ve learned a lot about what works and what doesn’t. I was inspired to write this post based on our experiences, as well as the events I’ve watched that had problems.

Requirements

Our events are more like classic webinars. We don’t need a full featured conference replacement for these events. I’ll return to that challenge below.

We want tight control over what attendees can do. In our case, we expect our tools to provide the following:

  • Disabled audio and video (except for speakers, of course)

  • Moderated chat

  • Moderated Q&A

  • Recording of the event

  • Statistics about attendance

Pick the Right Platform

We use Zoom’s Video Webinar service, for these reasons:

  • We can disable audio, video, and chat for attendees, greatly reducing the risk of “Zoom bombing”, including the accidental annoyances where someone who is unmuted carries on a personal conversation that interferes with the speaker. Speakers are panelists, without these restrictions.

  • We use the Q&A feature to allow attendees to post questions that we can moderate. We only allow panelists to post to the chat window and Zoom also allows us to chat amongst ourselves or everyone, as needed.

  • We can start the meeting early for the panelists to do final tests, go over the event plan, etc., before “broadcasting” to the attendees.

  • The quality of Zoom’s audio and video are best in class.

Another nice feature of Zoom is the ability to use a background image, which we use for branding purposes. This feature works even better with a green screen, which I recommend if you appear in a lot of video events yourself.

Online events are not new. Organizations have done webinars for a long time. Other platforms offer similar features that enable audience participation in controlled ways.

We use Eventbrite for registration and communicating with registrants. (I believe Zoom has this feature, too, actually.)

I’ve seen other events use Slack as the vehicle for people to ask questions, socialize, etc. Slack or something similar is a good idea for longer events where you want to retain the ability to continue conversations long after a particular Zoom session has ended. I think Slack works well for this purpose, just as it has proven itself for general use. Don’t use Discord. While it works fine, most professionals are already using Slack and don’t want to be bothered with learning how to use a new tool.

This brings up a general point; remove as much friction as possible for your speakers and attendees to participate, while satisfying your core requirements. I’m dealing with one European conference team at the moment that has been tedious and irritating in their policies and expectations. I won’t speak at their event next year.

Creating a Smooth, Yet Reasonably Interactive Experience

For our Connect events, we now prerecord the talks and play the videos at the appointed times. We do this with a Zoom meeting, so the speaker has a few of us as an audience, both to make it feel like he or she isn’t talking to The Void and so we can offer feedback and suggestions.

This may appear to undermine the desire to simulate a live, interactive experience, but it actually works well for the following reasons:

  • It allows the speaker to redo sections of the talk and allows us to edit out all mistakes, providing a smoother, higher-quality presentation. No more live demo failures!

  • It minimizes the risk of anything going wrong when “live”.

  • We can post the talk videos as soon as the event ends, not hours or days later after we edit the videos.

  • We ask each speaker to answer questions posted in the Q&A field while his or her talk is playing! As a result, most questions are answered immediately.

  • We have two or three talks, fifteen minutes each, followed by a live group discussion and final Q&A, where the speakers and host all have their cameras and microphones turned on. 

  • After the event, we post a blog post with the links to the videos on the Anyscale YouTube! channel and the slides for the talks.

I think this approach works so well that I strongly encourage event organizers to abandon live talks and prerecord everything.

I attended an online photography event recently where the speakers were live. Some struggled to get connected, forcing the host to ad lib for a bit to fill the void. Once connected, the host would banter with them for a bit, and then the speakers would do their talk. Slide transitions where handled remotely by the audio-visual team. Often there were awkward delays waiting for the next slide. More banter would occur after the talk.

Here’s what I would have done. I would prerecord each talk with the speaker driving his or her own slides. Glitches would be edited out for a smooth presentation, with no pressure on the speaker to “get it right”, especially for those people not accustomed to public speaking. The technical crew would play the video at the appointed time, perhaps after a live intro from the host. Then I would have the speaker join the host for some live banter after the talk.

Full Conferences

A full, multi-day, multi-track conference has more requirements and considerations, including the following:

  • If you have multiple tracks, you will have more concurrent activity to manage, including multiple video streams, room hosts, etc.

  • Your anticipated audience will be larger. Make sure your platform can handle the load.

  • You will want to support video on demand, available immediately after the talk’s time slot. 

  • You will want the ability for attendees to download the slides from the conference site.

  • You will want speakers and attendees to be able to chat or have video meetings long after the talk time slot.

  • You will want sponsors and you will need the ability to provide them with virtual “booths”, demos, and meeting rooms.

  • You will need a fancy website with some or all of the following features:

  1. The full schedule, searchable, with pages for full descriptions.

  2. Attendees can create profiles and their own schedules of talks.

  3. Registration with different payment tiers, e.g., for tutorials vs. the rest of the sessions.

We are now organizing Ray Summit. We are partnering with Linux Foundation to produce the event and we are using Meeting Play as the platform, since it will satisfy the previous list of requirements and these additional requirements.

I spoke at two other conferences this year that successfully used a combination of Zoom (for the live presentations; they didn’t prerecord the talks), Slack (for all Q&A, networking, etc.), and YouTube! (for posting videos later). Both organizations already had experienced conference teams and their own websites with all the required features like schedule management, registration, etc. The combination of tools worked well for them.

Final Thoughts

Online events miss a lot of the energy and networking that in-person events have, but they can still be quite good. Your audience can be much bigger, even if your event isn’t free, because attendees can watch from home. 

Even for experienced organizers, running online events requires new approaches and creative thinking about how to make them work well. We have learned a lot while running the Ray Summit Connect and Anyscale Academy events. We feel better prepared for our forthcoming Ray Summit. My last tip is try your own “practice” events before running a full conference. Hopefully this post will also help you prepare for your events. Best wishes!