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Thursday, June 18, 2009

Rant: Virtual conferences - come back in 2015

Everyone is finding costs tight at the moment. Travel budgets have been slashed, time away from work needs to be justified, everyone is looking for savings. Part of this involves working "virtually" - by phone, by videoconference and so forth. There has been a huge upswing of interest in collaboration technologies, online conferencing and so forth.

For certain use cases - especially internal meetings between team-members - this is OK. Maybe sales meetings with clients, where both parties know each other well, and have access to high-end telepresence rigs and dedicated rooms and high-bandwidth connections. Also, events like public webinars which are 90% "broadcast" and 10% Q&A seem to work OK, up to a point.

But for multi-party, interactive, conferences, it's an atrocious model. It just does not work. Period.

I've attended two supposed online analyst "events" this week - beyond the basic webinar. Both have used some awful metaphor of a virtual conference hall, complete with tacky "lobby" graphics. I'm not going to enumerate all the technical difficulties & useability issues - but I've had enough crashing browsers, random/multiple passwords, indifferent sound quality, interminable logins etc to last me a very long time. Using a netbook with a small screen makes everything worse, too - I can't imagine trying to do this on a phone.

Put it this way - I have 3 PCs with different browsers. All of them crashed or failed to display one of the events at least once. The last straw for me - and the one that prompted this post - was when the after-event "what did you think?" feedback page crashed Firefox.

I hate it when some conferencing app "maximises" itself on my screen - how am I supposed to type notes into a text document? I absolutely abhor the inability to download complete presentations in advance - yes, I know you don't want people to flip ahead, but I'm sorry, I *do* and I'm the "customer" here. I want to know if the next 60 mins will be relevant to me, or go back a slide, or prepare questions for later on. I'm not interested in video, at all.

I have no problem with remote events - but please, please, PLEASE just send me a dial-in number (UK-based or Skype) and email me the Powerpoint.

I haven't - and won't - attend a full large-scale virtual "industry forum", say with 200 participants. Everyone knows that the true value isn't in the sessions, it's in chatting with peers over lunch or a coffee break. It's the little conversations (or even nods/headshakes) with your neighbour. Also, it's "too democratic": I want to be able to make eye-contact with the moderator, who will recognise me & know I'll have a good question, and allow me to interrupt. If I'm chairing the event, I want to see people's eyes, notice attention-span rising and falling, look at what makes people put down their batteries. I want to shake the speakers' hands and swap business cards.

Bottom line - there are plenty of good roles for collaboration tools. But events and conferences aren't in that category. Certainly not now, possibly not ever.


Joe Willcox said...

My thoughts exactly - and music to the ears of my many friends and former colleagues in the telco sector conferences and exhibitions sector!

vinnie said...

Dean, you don't think some version of telepresence will evolve to make the experience less painful?

Dean Bubley said...

Vinne - not any time soon, no. Emulating a full, interactive, multi-party event, where many attendees have existing personal relationships, is extraordinarily difficult.

It's very very difficult to create the same sort of collegiate atmosphere, even with telepresence. And I can't see people having *good* telepresence in home offices any time soon.

An in-person event is a "serendipity vector", where unexpected meetings and conversations provide much of the value.

(I lightheartedly coined the term "serendipity vector" with one existing acquaintance and two new ones, over lunch at a conference last week, for example)

Maybe 2015, hence the title. But I doubt it.