Tuesday, 28 October 2008

Online Conferences and In-Person Conferences

Lisa Neal asked a great question in a comment on Learn Trends 2008 - Free Online Conference:
What do you see as the main differences between in person and online conferences?
I have a bunch of random thoughts on this and I'm hoping that folks will chime in. First let me start with a couple of predictions:

Prediction 1 - Online only conferences will rapidly increase and will slow down in-person conferences

Prediction 2 - Smaller, targeted, short-burst, rapidly planned conferences will emerge.

Now, don't get me wrong, I still very much like to do in-person conferences. I believe Face to Face Still Matters. I very much am looking forward to attending both DevLearn in a couple of weeks.

That said, the fact that George, Jay and I can pull together an online only, free workshop just through a bit of elbow grease and get 2,000 people to come tells me that we will see more of this in the future. The tools are there to make these things happen. Ning really makes it easy to do one of these. Or you could do it as a Facebook group. You can add a Wiki or Aggregator or other things to make this a bit better. But really, when you think about what you do at an in-person conference:
  • Attend Sessions
  • Go to the Expo
  • Have Discussions - some random topics with random people
  • Have Drinks, Dinner
The first three have direct online equivalents. We are not doing an online expo in our conference, but I'm thinking that will be next year.

On discussions, I believe that it's harder to have effective discussions on specific topics at in-person conferences. Threaded discussions are more effective and normally you don't have these in-person. You do get a better random effect in-person. You sit at a table with people at meals and get into conversations on all sorts of topics.

A couple of big advantages jump out around online conferences:
  • Online conferences have a dramatically lower cost in terms of time and expense. It's hard to get all the way to an in-person conference. I've had to lower the number I attend.
  • Online conferences allow recording of sessions so that you can participate even if you can't do it real-time.
I do think most people will "attend" an online conference quite differently. They won't leave work for the week. This will be a part time thing. We generally schedule making that assumption. Only use half the day. Don't try to pack too much in.

In-person conferences have an advantage of getting more attention from the attendees. I actually think that in-person deserves more. People still spend lots of time and money going in-person and not doing the things it takes to really be prepared: Be an Insanely Great Professional Conference Attendee, Conference Preparation and Better Questions for Learning Professionals. Online will suffer more than in-person from lack of preparation.

The flip side is that online can provide time to get people prepared during the conference. Have someone spend part of the time thinking about what they really need. Post that as questions in the discussions. So, while you get more attention in-person, you have more time online.

Given the dramatically different cost/time structures, I don't see how online conferences can do anything but increase.

Does that mean a decrease of in-person? Yes. If the sessions you are interested in are being offerred online, will you still go to the in-person? Maybe, but it certainly makes you question it. With the economic downturn - my bets are tough times for the next 24 months of in-person conferences.

I'm also predicting that we will see more impromptu online conferences. If several people were interested in a topic, they can easily pull together a few speakers, create a ning group and set up a quick conference. They can advertise through social media. Cost is very low. And the topics can be targeted. Really, I'm not sure that a week long event that we've designed is the model to use. I love the list of speakers, but we could have made this 5, 2 day conferences. Or randomly spersed two day conferences. Or even a week long - session - discussion - session type thing.

Because of the impromptu nature, you can be much deeply focused. In-person conferences and even larger online conferences have a tendency to focus more broadly in order to appeal to a large audience. Impromptu conferences want to attract an audience, but it probably is better to have it smaller.

Once you go online, you have a lot more options. As an in-person conference organizer, you really have challenges trying to pack everything you can in that week. You also have a cost basis that's completely different.

I actually think this is also going to impact local events. Here in Los Angeles, you may have to drive 45-90 minutes to get to a local event. Most often the topics again have to be broader. ASTD Los Angeles' special interest groups (SIGs) are trying to figure out what it means when they start doing online sessions that are potentially available worldwide. In many ways, attracting a broader audience makes the sessions more interesting. But what does that do to local?

Actually as I've been writing this, my feeling is that there are going to be new types of financial models and businesses emerging from this dynamic. I just had an idea for a new business.

I'll be curious what people think of the topic more generally ....

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