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Dec 08, 2020 05:22 PM

‘Most online conferences will be like mind-numbing Zoom calls’: Web Summit internal memo, March 2020

On March 20, 2020, Web Summit held a special virtual town hall for all Web Summit employees. An internal memo, shared below, was circulated. This memo provides an insight into the platform we have built since, as well as the philosophy that guides all product and software development at Web Summit – how we approach online conferences.

Creating meaningful connections has always guided us. It’s what our company, our software and product development – our entire approach to conferences – is all about. We don’t talk about it all that much externally, but it is what we obsess over internally.

If we have a superpower as a little company, it’s this: connecting the right people to each other. Few if any other conferences, as they move online in the coming months, will be able to do this like we do. Our superpower is creating meaningful connections.

There’s nothing new in this for us. After all, in our mission and vision statements, “creating meaningful connections” already sits at the very top. It’s driven our approach to software development for nearly a decade. But remember: our software should operate as an invisible hand nudging people towards each other. Attendees don’t like to feel corralled by cold, faceless algorithms.

To put everything in a broader context, the etymology of the word conference is conferre, a Latin verb that means to “bring together” or “connect together”. This is the overwhelming purpose of our conferences – it’s the reason why attendees join us at our conferences. This should be the basis for almost all conferences, but I think organisers sometimes lose sight of this. As everything moves online, most conferences will make the mistake of simply streaming content, when their focus should instead be on connecting people together online.

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Our online conference software is all about creating meaningful connections – not just streaming video content. Here’s what our Mingle function looks like. Image: Web Summit

We enable meaningful connections

So what does this all mean for our conference, Collision? In short, our key objective for Collision from Home will be the number of measurable meaningful connections we create for our attendees using software. This will be our North Star.

Our engineering, product and design teams have already aligned around this single key objective and, in the coming days, all other teams across the company will do likewise.

A reminder: a measurable, meaningful connection is a connection between two or more attendees that creates value for each attendee, which can be measured and compared over time.

Here are some examples:

Connecting a journalist to a startup with a story to tell that results in coverage

Connecting an investor to a startup that results in funding

Connecting an attendee to an exhibitor who becomes a customer

These examples will be very familiar to many teams who already track these outcomes as part of their OKRs, as well as to the teams who help perform countless experiments at each conference to challenge and refine our assumptions. Tracking the compounding outcomes of meaningful connections for attendees over weeks, months and years after our conferences will remain a priority, even in an online environment.

When thinking about Collision from Home, we need to ask ourselves at an individual, team and company level:

How can we maximise the number of measurable meaningful connections for attendees, exhibitors, speakers, investors, startups and everyone attending Collision from Home?

What most online conferences will get wrong

For Collision from Home, our first fully online conference, onstage content will remain a secondary objective, as it does for our offline conferences. While we will continue to insist our content is measurably better than any other conference, this will remain a secondary objective.

For the avoidance of doubt: content is secondary because consumption of content at conferences is, as we can demonstrate from our own randomised survey data, a secondary objective for attendees. The primary objective for attendees at our conferences is networking. This is why networking – maximising measurable meaningful connections – is also our primary objective in how we refine our software for an online-only conference.

We think streaming or broadcasting video and audio content was solved a century ago, arguably first by television stations like the BBC and before that by radio stations. Just streaming talks to attendees should therefore not be considered “an online conference”, never mind “innovative”. Connecting attendees online is what should be considered an online conference. Many conferences will err on this.

Of course, we’ll do video and audio content incredibly well. We already have a strong plan of action, and have quite a number of extremely experienced radio and television producers and broadcasters on staff.

Most online conferences will likely fall into the trap of creating online conferences that are barely distinguishable from mind-numbingly elongated Zoom calls. We will not. Others will be limited by the software available on the market, which for some time to come will likely focus on providing lowest-common-denominator features that emphasise an ability to stream content, in its various forms, over networking.

There are understandable reasons for this. The nature of product-development cycles under the venture capital model tends to prioritise the maximisation of customer growth. Platforms, as a consequence, tend to remain quite feature limited or unsophisticated until they reach market maturity.

To reiterate, our key objective, our North Star, for Collision from Home is creating measurable meaningful connections between attendees. These connections will, of course, take many forms. Here, however, are three primary forms to help you think a little bit about what various teams around you will likely be focused on over the coming months:

1. One-to-one connections, for example:

    1. Investors and startups

    2. Exhibitors and potential buyers

    3. Media and speakers

2. One (or a few)-to-many connections, for example:

    1. Workshops of varying sizes

    2. Group Mentor Hours

    3. Speakers addressing small groups or huge audiences

3. Group connections, for example:

    1. Connecting Serbian entrepreneurs into a single channel or group

    2. Connecting fintech startups into a single channel or group

    3. Connecting people interested in a particular speaker into an AMA channel, so that, similar to Slido, they can ask questions and others can upvote these questions

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An attendee sets their schedule using our bespoke conference app

We’ve been doing this for years

These examples are by no means exhaustive, but should help give you an idea of what we’ll be working towards at an individual, team and company-wide level.

For years, our software has enabled measurable meaningful connections and, for years, we have run literally hundreds of experiments at each conference to attempt to validate and refine our various theses. In other words, while we are moving fully online, our approach, which has proved so successful, shall remain unchanged.

While much of our work over the coming weeks will be to port functionality to our web app from our mobile app for our first online-only conference, today every team will do a 30-minute deep-dive on their specific objectives for Collision from Home. This will include an opportunity for Q&A. You can join every hangout or pick the ones most relevant to you.

I hope this has been helpful, and welcome any questions or feedback you may have.

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