Due to the COVID-19 (Novel Coronavirus) pandemic, we’re living through unprecedented times that have put life on hold practically everywhere on earth. This very much applies to business gatherings such as conventions, symposiums, training programs, and conferences as well. The 2nd Edition of our Machine Learning School in Seville was one of many such events that were threatened to get canceled altogether. As the BigML team, we had to think on our feet and quickly react to the turn of events. The decision was made quickly to virtually deliver the content for FREE instead of telling the registrants thus far “Sorry folks, we’ll see you next time.” To be honest, we weren’t sure how the virtual event would be received given that people had a whole new set of priorities.
To our delight, many more thousands than originally planned for positively responded to the changes as if to say, “We won’t let this public health crisis keep us from our longer-term business and career goals!” As we were getting close to the event, we ended up with nearly 2,500 registrations from 89 different countries representing all continents but Antarctica! Over 900 businesses from a diverse set of industries and close to 500 education institutions made up our body of registrants. Overall, we observed a healthy 60%/40% split between business and academia, respectively.
As the event neared on March 26, 9 AM Central European Time, we were pleased to host nearly 1,600 attendees live. They were happy to give a shout out to us on Twitter too, seemingly enjoying the fact that they were making the best out of their situation. Considering that CET is not the most convenient in many other parts of the world like North America, this was quite amazing!
The high and participatory level of attendance from Day1, fortunately, carried over to Day 2 thanks to our distinguished mix of speakers ranging from BigML’s Chief Scientist, one of the fathers of Machine Learning, Professor Tom Dietterich to BigML customers (and partners) presenting real-life use cases as well as our experienced instructors delving into the state-of-the-art techniques on the BigML platform.
Virtual Conferences are Here to Stay
Given this fresh experience in putting together our first virtual conference, we have a feeling this may be the wave of the future in a post-COVID-19 world that may drastically alter business travel habits and further limit opportunities to make contact at shared physical spaces. While one can easily make a case that human interactions online are not the same as in real life, we must also recognize that there are a different set of advantages in being virtual. Virtual events are perhaps best described not as perfect substitutes in that sense, but rather, as adjacent branches of the same tree. For those who are aspiring to organize virtual events in the future, here are a few pointers to take into account:
- Coronavirus or not, life goes on. It pays off to have a parallel virtual event delivery plan even if your event is sticking with the good old co-location format.
- Time zone differences are absolutely key for virtual conferences given spread-out speakers and attendees. Try and find the best balance based on the expected geographical center of gravity of your ideal audience.
- Practice makes perfect. It’s best to schedule multiple dry-runs with each speaker prior to the event.
- Have a ‘Plan B’ in case connection issues surface and be ready to shuffle content around to avoid people rolling their fingers and waiting for something to happen. Experienced moderators are key to carry out those transitions smoothly.
- Make it (nearly) FREE! Unless your business model revolves around selling event tickets, it’s better to convey your message to a larger audience that has taken the time to register (for FREE) to your event. Attention is the most valuable currency in a world where content is constantly doubling.
- Count on word of mouth to spread the message more so than traditional marketing channels. If your value proposition is strong enough people will show up.
- Hands-on experiences beat dry, theoretical presentations online as most people can follow the steps involved in a virtual demo session (e.g., Machine Learning industry use case) void of distractions in their home office or other personal space provided that you give them access to the necessary tools. We made it a point to mention attendees can take advantage of the FREE-tier BigML subscription at the beginning of the event.
- Overcommunicate. This applies equally before, during and after the event. Tools like Slack, Mailchimp, your blog and social channels help make up for the lack of physical contact.
- Simulate the real world as appropriate. We put together four parallel “Meet the Speaker” Google Meet sessions in between regularly scheduled presentation/demo sessions to simulate the coffee breaks in physical spaces and they turned out pretty popular.
- The all too familiar linear narrative is broken in the online world so it’s best to embrace non-linearity by breaking your video and/or slide contents into digestible pieces and sharing them online shortly after the event.
Are you planning a Machine Learning themed event in 2020?
Let us know of your idea at firstname.lastname@example.org and we’d be happy to collaborate on it to better serve your audience.
Meanwhile, stay safe and carry on!