Why Virtual Meetings are OK but Virtual Conferences Don’t Work

Online meetings can be successful if they’re 30 minutes or less and there’s a well-defined agenda. But trying to convert an in-person conference to a virtual conference just doesn’t work.

Briefly, an online conference fails because there’s no interaction, there are too many distractions, and there are no side effect benefits.

I often (about once a month or so) speak at tech conferences. Most of them are in Las Vegas. Well, I guess I should say that I used to speak at tech conferences. The covid-19 pandemic has eliminated in-person conferences as I write this blog post. Many of the conferences that were scheduled are attempting to go virtual and make the conference an online event. That’s just not going to work.

The reasons why online virtual conferences fail aren’t really technical. The reasons why they fail is due to human psychology and behavior.

First, in an online scenario, there’s no real interaction between attendees. Much of the value that attendees (and speakers) get from a conference derives from person-to-person interaction. Most of these interactions are unplanned and take place between session talks.

Second, humans just can’t concentrate for more than about 30 minutes when online. After 30 minutes, attention wanders, the email app opens up, the TV or music turns on, the dog starts asking to be walked, and so on. In a person-to-person event, there is constant sensory stimulation — movement in the conference room, voice modulation and gesturing from the speaker, attendees asking unexpected questions, and much more. All these things help attendees stay focused, often for hours at a time.

Third, attending an in-person conference in Las Vegas, or anywhere else, gets attendees out of their normal environment. In an online conference scenario, attendees are in their same old environment. Getting into a different environment has an energizing effect and when attendees return to their workplace, they’re recharged and more creative (there’s some solid research evidence on this, but mostly it’s common sense).

An online technical conference has no advantages over just watching a presentation on YouTube.

I’m already seeing online event overload with my colleagues. More and more of my colleagues are bailing out on virtual events that last longer than just a few minutes. Online virtual conferences just don’t work.



Left: There is a lot of energy at tech conferences. Center: Most conferences have an expo with all kinds of interesting vendors. Right: All the major tech companies are represented at tech conferences.

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