For the development community, the open source digital experience conference DrupalCon provides a vital opportunity for networking and knowledge sharing. Heading into this summer’s DrupalCon Global 2020, we knew better than to expect physical booths, crowded presentations, and in-person conversation.

Of course, DrupalCon is far from alone in experiencing uncertainty around virtual events due the coronavirus pandemic. But the complexities introduced by a convention built on social distancing and video conferencing remain unresolved based on our experience. Most importantly, the opportunities for discovery and interpersonal connection while walking the convention center floor are difficult to reproduce.

That said, virtual conventions like DrupalCon Global offer positive experiences. Given that a digital format will likely be the norm for such events for the foreseeable future, organizations hoping to draw value from the experience must shift their approach from the beginning. Though future digital conventions will build on these early attempts, technology alone can’t be counted on to provide a strong connection with your audience.

Successful Virtual Events Require Planning, Preparation—and Time

Prior to the pandemic, this year’s DrupalCon was planned as an in-person event taking place in Minneapolis over a span of four days. Though a transition to a virtual event was expected given the ongoing pandemic, the official confirmation arrived with a very short runway to pivot and plan for the virtual experience. The change in programming expanded its reach to an international audience while shortening the event’s programming window from four days to three. These changes understandably introduced a host of logistical challenges.

To accommodate European time zones, speaking events kicked off very early in the morning for West Coast attendees. And, despite the event’s global emphasis, the Asia Pacific audience was left to primarily attend at the end of the day.

Our team approached the event as a pilot experience into the new world of the all-virtual event. While we tried to anticipate the unexpected, in hindsight we needed far more time to plan, and a larger team to staff the event efforts. Schedules shifted. The booth experience required lots of resources and patience. Some of our most unexpected programming ended up being our biggest successes. All of these proved to be key learnings to help inform future virtual event strategies.

Technical Difficulties Introduce Virtual Challenges and New Possibilities

For presenters, the conclusion of DrupalCon Global 2020 signaled the moment planning begins for next year’s event. Having now seen the event’s platform and its attempt to replicate the booths along the convention center “midway,” we have an idea what to expect in 2021. This year, we had nothing to go on but assumptions.

Hosting an event on a video conferencing platform presented its own issues. Onscreen, presenters could only see the number of attendees rather than a virtual audience, who could only appear on video by request. As a result, instead of presenting to a Brady Bunch-styled grid of attendees, the experience felt like being center stage with the house lights cranked up, without knowing if there was an audience in the auditorium.

But the downtime within the difficulties of reaching an audience also inadvertently provided opportunities for new business. In our experience, moments of disappointing attendance also allowed for some productive one-on-one conversations with prospective clients and old friends in the Drupal community. Sometimes, in a bustling convention center, happy accidents like these are not so easy to find.

Despite the global reach of a virtual event like DrupalCon, current platforms struggle to replicate the in-person booth experience. However, as technical limitations hamper the ability of conference attendees to connect with presenters (and vice versa), the demand for compelling, enjoyable content grows.

A Hunger for Personalized Experiences Drives Virtual Improvisation

In preparing to attend and present at a virtual convention, organizations will find their pre-existing plans don’t apply given the limitations of the format. While these changes are difficult to navigate, especially with short notice, they also allow possibilities for experimentation.

Faced with limited or confusing video platforms, audiences crave enjoyable, immediate experiences. Live programming provides a way to offer a more personal experience, and this became our focus at DrupalCon. A DJ we had previously scheduled effectively drew attention by word-of-mouth, which led to us reprising his performance later in the week. But what if there was a way for a product presentation to generate similar buzz? For companies looking to stand out in virtual conventions, viral videos provide instructive insights.

At DrupalCon, we quickly transitioned to presenting an Emulsify-powered take on the YouTube series Hot Ones, which combines a celebrity interview with increasingly spicy food. After recognizing the difficulties with the platform, we quickly sent two of our developers bottles of hot sauce to sample during a Q&A session about Emulsify. By offering a mix of education and entertainment, the session drew our highest booth attendance of the week and took off on social media.

By capitalizing on the the need for unique, unexpected experiences, your organization can stand out amid the current dry, impersonal nature of virtual events.

Virtual Events Demand Invention to Move Forward for Attendees and Presenters

Adding hot sauce to a demo enhanced our DrupalCon experience, but it was also lightning in a bottle. Just as we can’t repeat that presentation and expect the same results, convention organizers must also avoid repeating the issues of these early efforts to stage virtual events.

Conventions are a key annual component of professional development, and organizers have been forced to pivot quickly under difficult circumstances. In the case of DrupalCon, attendance was comparable to its history of in-person events, which certainly counts as a success. But the question lingers: Where does the virtual convention experience go from here?

Do they play platform roulette with other video solutions? Or do they work to refine existing formats to provide a better experience next year? Whatever the choice, the decisions will ultimately reflect our current challenges more than they can anticipate what’s ahead.

As the pandemic goes on, next year will tell a different story for both virtual events and their participants. Digital experiences allow companies to avoid the costs of travel, but they still require an investment of staff and resources. Now that we’re learning what virtual events require, organizers and participants alike must work to ensure that investment is justified.