A security event not long ago pointed to a different direction for conference events. This was Shmoocon, a hacker conference that was well, a hacker conference. It’s casual, there’s guys with ponytails…it’s not a thing anyone shows up for in a suit. It costs dramatically less to attend (a factor of ten, more or less) than a conference you might wear a suit to, it has few frills, the audience throws things at the speakers, and people get hugely excited about the talk where the guy shows how to put a video camera into a remote-control model airplane (and I don’t blame them – building a predator drone on the supercheap is interesting grist). It’s the kind of event that’s willing to take some chances with format and function.
I didn’t attend Shmoocon, however. I’ve never been there. But I have a reasonable sense of how it was this year because it was streamed over the net. Other conferences, even fairly stuffy ones, have streamed things like keynotes, of course. But this was streamed across three tracks of breakout sessions simultaneously. Don’t like what’s on channel 1? Try one of the others.
Production wise, it was a bit of a mess. But most of the time a determined viewer (I’m guessing but I think there were about 300) could follow any given session reasonably well. I think the operation was hampered by the lousy, lower-than-paid-for internet connectivity that one often gets at hotels.
Hard to watch, but it’s the right idea.
So here’s my question: does this mean that someday soon all Shmoocons will be something produced entirely on video, with everyone watching from home?
Yes. Before long it will be possible to attend most technical conferences without attending. You’ll have to pay a few bucks, but it will be worth it even though you probably won’t watch all that much of it and you’ll only watch some of it with any real attention. It will be worth it to conference organizers because they’ll reach a broader audience and all that incremental streaming viewer revenue is going to add up to more money than the conference itself generated. I suspect that over the next five years, most people who currently attend a couple of national conferences a year will find themselves only attending one every other year or so. Our culture is destined to be one that travels a lot less than it does now, across the board. The only question is the timeframe.
Well, and also no. The thing that was absolutely clear from watching Shmoocon online is that the biggest part of what made it desirable to watch was the energy that was apparent in the room, even over the cameras. With apologies to the Shmoocon folks, I don’t mean to say that it was extraordinary energy. Indeed, one or two of the sessions were verging on lame (which happens at every conference at least some of the time). It was, in short, just your typical conference meeting energy. Some like-minded people had come together in the same set of rooms and they were making something happen.
But the fact that they were there, that some smart speakers who don’t normally sit in the same room and talk to each other were doing just that – this is what made the event worth watching as it was being streamed. That’s the frame for the event and it’s vital. It’s a piece that will still need to happen even when we move to a format that is primarily designed for video consumption. Think of it as the live studio audience for the future streaming conference.
This will change conferences. It’s hard to say how, in advance, but from a marketing point of view, anyone who’s going to have a message radiated out from a streaming conference will absolutely have to be in the room, have to bring experts who are worth putting into the conversational mix, and need to rethink the balance they strike between trying to make a splash on an exhibition floor and sponsorships that create wider message and branding. Getting pre-roll in the video stream may be the best bang for your buck.
Within my group, we’re crafting events this year that experiment with the increasing usability of video. We’ve got an all video-based conference, Filter, coming up in April. In late May we’re doing an event that won’t be streamed (at least that’s not the current plan), but that will nevertheless have a design that’s far more focused on delivering key content from a highly focused main stage. I think of it, a bit, as a broadcast studio set. It’s vital to the event producer to have absolutely the best audience in the world. It’s vital to the marketing professional to have their client be part of that smaller, vital audience.