The people who say online conferences will never replace in-person conferences sound like the people who said no one would ever meet the love of their life online.
Technically, they are right—online conferences won’t replace in-person conferences. Online conferences will evolve into distinct, superior experiences. And it will happen within a year if it hasn’t already.
When I was a naive 22 year-old entrepreneur, the first conference I attended was a disaster. It was a disaster because I was an idiot. In preparation for SXSW—a cutting edge conference where the tech world descends on Austin, Texas—I ordered a box of business cards. Much like a high schooler buying a box of condoms for the first time, the purchaser used the product far less than he hoped.
People attend the SXSW conference for three reasons: develop their careers, advance their startup, or get a peek at the next big thing. I was there seeking investors for my “youtube of sports commentary” startup. My approach involved brilliant strategies such as “if someone is wearing a sport coat, they might be an investor” and “if someone is bald, they are old, and have capital.”
Cold approaching hundreds of conference goers was a misguided fundraising strategy. My startup joined the “90% of new businesses fail” cemetery. After other failed attempts, I started a company successful enough to provide the opportunity to present at 60 conferences in 22 countries. At this point, I know all the tricks: attend happy hours for the real action, reach out to attendees before the event, and follow up quickly because opportunity has a short half-life.
But then COVID happened. And now all conferences are online conferences for the time being.
Come to your senses
The primary complaint about online conferences is that they don’t feel right. “Feel” is the operative word—we are in the early days of online conferences and product designers have yet to dial in the sensory experience. You can’t bask in someone’s smile, soak up the musicality of their voice, or appreciate the warmth of a firm handshake.
We use our senses to (literally) make sense of our environment, so this concern is reasonable. But it’s unfounded.
We’ve had the tool to make solid human connections in online conferences since 2015. Zoom invented it. It’s called the breakout room.
So let’s examine breakout rooms to break down how our senses translate in Zoom.
At an in-person conference, it is not uncommon to find yourself with a terrible view of the presenter’s slides and an excellent view of the back of someone’s head.
Online, a golden retriever trots into the shot and tail-wags hello. A spouse burps a baby walking past the frame. These moments are glimpses into an intimate, private space: the home. Less artifice and “presentable selves,” speakers find that these “unprofessional moments” come across as relatable and human, making their messages connect better.
And it’s not just the animals and people that add to the effect. We are scratching the surface with Zoom backgrounds, from experiments such as a 100k-follower Twitter account dissecting bookshelves to synchronized team building exercises using virtual backgrounds.
Also, everyone’s appearance gets a bump up in Zoom. The company has a feature that applies ever-so-subtle adjustments such as downplaying wrinkles, increasing facial symmetry, and tweaking lighting.
Given that the research is clear that attractive people receive advantages at work, Zoom is levelling the playing field.
Much of Zoom’s early success is attributed to consistent and high-fidelity audio. Compared to an in-person conference, you never have to crane your head to hear a presenter or damage your ears because you are seated too close to the PA system. But the most important aspect of Zoom is not how you sound but what the platform enables other attendees to hear.
At the bottom left of every square in the zoom grid is a treasure. A treasure marketing that companies spend billions on every year: a name. Recalling a name is effortless in Zoom.
Anxiety over remembering someone’s name is a common occurrence. Research shows that forgetting someone’s name actually has negative effects. Knowing people’s names means you can say their names aloud, the sweetest sound. When I lead a session in zoom, I regularly mention people’s names to give them some shine and sparkle a sense of community.
Once, I was giving a talk at an entrepreneurship conference in Armenia. I overindulged on the lamb, and what started as a minor rumble in my gut escalated to my stomach going to war with itself.
At 3:00 am that night, my handler took me to a hospital. A nurse hooked me to an IV and my condition improved ever so slightly before we taxi’d to the airport.
That lamb was good but not worth the agony of the trip home. My facial expression in the photo below was unfounded (I only have the “before” photo. The “after” photo would give me PTSD). The flight back to Austin was 36 hours of bracing stomach pain and seesawing between brain fog and passing out.
Sparking connections with wonderful people at a conference feeds the soul at the expense of feeding your stomach. Conference coffee tastes like coffee-flavored brown water. conference eggs taste like egg-flavored wet dust. Conference pizza is the saddest of them all, because it tastes like nothing.
And I’m an omnivore. Conferences must accommodate for all manner of allergies and dietary requirements, which is difficult for the organizers to manage. And leads to attendees eating food with the taste and nutritional value of cardboard.
I’m sure all of us can recall conferences we attended where the scent of freshly cut flowers wafted through the conference hall. Where the smell of scratch-baked bread enchanted your olfactories.
Oh wait, you’ve never been to a conference like that?
Neither have I.
Because they don’t exist.
Zoom’s inability to convey smell is not a bug, it’s a feature. A feature that saves us from close-talkers with coffee breath and attendees who forgot to pack toothpaste.
Contact between shaking hands is intermittent. Contact between your feet and the floor is interminable. An entire day on convention floor concrete is brutal on your feet and back.
In Zoom, this problem doesn’t exist.
But it gets better. The best conferences understand that small-room programming facilitates genuine connections. More intimate formats such as this demand flexible spaces and logistical challenges—cattle herding attendees between rooms is difficult. Navigation-challenged participants and organization staff have a more difficult time, which is all the more likely if they are visiting from out of town and unfamiliar with building layouts.
In Zoom, these issues disappear.
And one more benefit: your butt in a comfortable seat. You get to sit in the comfort of your chair. Not some injected plastic monstrosity designed for LEGO man ergonomics and compact storage. And don’t get me started on the meat locker temperatures.
Connection Strength: Strong
In the 17th and 18th centuries, coffee shops came into vogue. Coffee shops gave rise to thought-provoking conversations and serendipitous interactions, which set the wheels of the Enlightenment in motion. Breakout rooms bring the same potential with no geographical constraints or COVID risk.
I’ve been running online sessions since 2018 and COVID has changed the game. COVID-inspired innovation and adaptation, from design sprints to AMAs to collaborative writing projects, show that the impact of breakout rooms are building momentum.
Our five senses are what we use to navigate the world. And then there is the sixth sense: Something just out of reach, that we can’t quite articulate, but resonates nonetheless. Breakout rooms trigger my sixth sense. There is something big happening in this tool’s ability to connect me to interesting people and collaborate in new ways. And this is only the beginning.