When Attending a Virtual Conference, It’s the Little Things

By Jessica Knott
Associate Editor
Editor, Twitter

Like Jim and Stefanie, I attended TCC and SLOAN-C. Both conferences left me with big ideas and a lot to take with me into my professional practice (not to mention posts for ETC Journal, which will be rolling out in the coming weeks). But before I dive in, let me take a brief detour to direct your attention to my colleague Stefanie Panke’s write-up of her TCC experiences and state that I agree wholeheartedly with her assertion about badging. As of this year, I am sold on it. Additionally, I encourage you to read Jim’s words on session selection and his call for the flipped conference as a solution to virtual conference overload. Their reviews were amazingly well done, inspiring me to take a trip back to the drawing board for some deeper pondering on themes and my experiences.

Stefanie Panke

Stefanie Panke

Last year, I found the badging experience to be somewhat superficial, but I believe now that I was approaching the whole thing somewhat incorrectly. Watching TCC 2013 unfold and seeing the interactions between attendees, I have a better understanding of the values badging provides. I saw people make personal connections based on the badges they had earned, and I saw their virtual experiences become personal ones. This is not a feeling I had at SLOAN Emerging Technologies, despite a more active Twitter back channel.

Now, as the true focus of this post, I’d like to discuss the pros and cons of the two conference experiences. I am a virtual conference veteran, but found that the close proximity of these two events provides an interesting comparative look at how little touches make attendees feel at home and connected.

Laura Pasquini

Laura Pasquini

The biggest pro of both conferences was by far the people. While I felt lost most of the time in the Emerging Tech experience, with a large, hard to wield PDF of offerings and e-mails from vendors asking me to come visit their booths and thanking me for rich conversations that were never had, the Twitter back channel provided an excellent mechanism for grounding myself and allowing my brain to focus on what I was learning. Laura Pasquini (@laurapasquini) wrote an excellent blog post of her experiences at the conference. Though she attended in person, her perspectives are pertinent for those present and virtual.

Laura also sees the value in harnessing the mental and networking power of those around you to drive the vast array of ideas and innovations you encounter at a conference home. My recent article on professional cohorts offers another means for distributing this work. If you can make friends to share your cognitive load, in person or online, then perhaps the creative ideas you foster as a result of new information can gain traction. And, with help, who knows how far they’ll travel?

Other #et4online “superstars” to check out:

  • @tjoosten
  • @veletsianos
  • @timbuckteeth

Even with this back channel, however, Emerging Tech was hard to manage from a virtual perspective. The PDF program guide was 77 pages long and difficult to search. I found myself relying more on backchannel recommendations for sessions to attend than my own interests and ability to find my way. The web interface was also rather difficult to navigate, and I felt relatively lost most of the time. I realize this may have just been me. But I encourage those attending in the future to spend more than the 45 minutes I spent familiarizing myself with the site and PDF. I was less prepared for changes and roadblocks than I thought I was. Contrast this to TCC, with an easier to navigate web presence and a more active Twitter “guide” (@tcchawaii), which made navigation and way finding a breeze. Even on day one, with technical glitches causing problems, a web page was quickly crafted and communicated, and the conference continued with little disruption.

The biggest con falls in a seemingly tiny detail. As a solely virtual attendee, I was painfully aware that I was not making the trip to Las Vegas to meet up with my colleagues. Yet, for the week leading up to the conference, my mailbox was filled daily with upwards of five to seven e-mails from vendors saying how excited they were to meet me. I was offered exclusive interviews with CIOs and chance-of-a-lifetime experiences. All I had to do was drop by their booth. My e-mail replies asking how I could participate virtually were 100% unreturned.

After the conference was no better. One vendor even sent me a detailed e-mail about the conversation we had in their booth. They raved about the insights I had regarding our shared e-learning industry and even commented on the Michigan State-based comments I made on the tradeshow floor. But I was not there. My e-mail follow-up asking if they could have confused me with someone else and requesting an interview for ETC Journal has not been returned. I choose not to reveal these vendor names until I have granted them sufficient opportunity to provide their stories.

These touches may seem small to organizers, but they made a world of difference in my feeling of connectedness. For every amazing back channel interaction that made me feel like it was as good as being there, there were two vendor e-mails that made me painfully aware that I was not. I am still cleaning up and unsubscribing. I will think twice before participating at this level again.

TCC had hitches as well, such as moderators who were occasionally absent or seemingly not as experienced as those moderating at Emerging Tech. However, this could perhaps be chalked up to the smaller conference or the occasional technical difficulties encountered by the TCC Internet provider. Experienced moderators are hard to come by, and conferences like TCC offer an excellent training ground for larger, more complex arenas.

In conclusion, virtual conferences are amazing professional development experiences, but they should be approached with tempered expectations. The content will be as incredible as it would be if you were sitting in the room; however, you may have to be aggressive in finding connections and networking events. I was naïve to allow vendors to sully my experience, and I will be more prepared in the future. I will have my sessions mapped and spend more time with the PDFs or websites in preparation. In a virtual environment, much as in a virtual course, attendees must take more control of their experience. I was not as aggressive as I usually am, and I felt it. But my heartfelt thanks go out to the TCC team as I really didn’t have to do much to feel at home in their environment. Whatever they’re doing, I sincerely hope they continue.

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