Making a great online conference experience at WordCamp Prague

March 10, 2021

My name is Jan, I am a Toolset developer and for the past several years, I have been actively involved in the Czech WordPress community. On Saturday 27th of February 2021, we held an online conference WordCamp Prague 2021

Switching an interactive, in-person event to the online format while keeping most of its magic has been difficult but certainly not impossible.

As this year’s lead organizer, I want to share pieces of this sometimes arduous but extremely rewarding journey, together with some crucial ingredients that made it a success beyond our wildest expectations.

Let’s just face the truth: If I knew what I was actually getting into, I wouldn’t have said yes. But I am deeply grateful that I didn’t know. Even after being on the team two years prior to this one, the experience of being a lead organizer is pretty much non-transferable.

Even so, I — a backend software developer with questionable social and team management skills — was very reluctant about taking such a huge responsibility.

One of the things that convinced me — besides the fact that, apart from the then lead organizer, nobody else from our team was willing to take the role — was that this time, we were going to do an online conference.

This unique situation meant two things that removed most of my anxiety. First, nobody knew what to expect from an online WordCamp Prague: It was a completely new thing, an experiment, even. Let’s do our best and see what happens.

Second, the budget was no longer nightmare-inducing, compared to previous years (especially the fact that we were never sustainable without sponsors, and every time, we worried if we would manage to secure enough funding).

With the pandemic foreseeably about to wreak havoc on our small country, with all the uncertainty, and with me in strict isolation until a vaccine is available, a fully online event was the only realistic way we could actually make it happen.

And so we did.

Specifically, by “we”, I mean the fourteen of us: My fellow WordCamp organizers, most of whom have been on the team for years (many of them previous lead organizers), some new faces, and a small recording studio owner who demonstrated superhuman patience during the whole process. Even with this amount of people, it took considerable effort, and without the dedication, good teamwork, and communication, this wouldn’t have worked at all.

Part of the WordCamp Prague 2021 organizer team at the closing speech

The Recipe

My goal since the very beginning was to make it very interactive and to emulate the experience of a physical conference — where, as everyone who ever attended one will testify, the true magic of WordCamps happens — as closely as possible.

A great source of inspiration was WordCamp Europe 2020, which had to be hastily switched to an online version just a couple of months before (and I deeply empathize with its organizers, it must have been an extremely hard blow for them, much harder than for us who have “just” booked a hotel in Porto or already bought non-refundable airline tickets). I got some ideas from there that we copied and also some things I knew I wanted to avoid.

So, here’s our “online WordCamp recipe”, if you will:

A local target audience

From the get-go, we decided to explicitly focus on the Czech and Slovak audience, and we didn’t accept any English talks whatsoever (some of the speakers who applied will be talking at our monthly meetups, though).

The reasoning behind this was what I call online conference fatigue. Attending an English-speaking WordPress event is very easy these days, with WordCamps or meetups happening every couple of days or weeks. There’s nothing wrong with that, of course.

But, considering that many of our fellow citizens aren’t fluent English speakers — the language barrier is still rather high, unfortunately — and that we were told there are no other WordCamps planned in the Czech Republic or Slovakia for the upcoming year, we found ourselves in a unique position to kind of fill this niche (side note: Czechs and Slovaks understand each other very well) and to effectively add some value to the WordPress ecosystem in our region.

In the end, I believe this was one of the main reasons for such a high attendance (over 650 registered attendees, 595 of which showed up).

A proper online conference platform

WCEU — and other WordCamps as well — went with a combination of YouTube Live or Crowdcast for presentation tracks and Zoom for networking or virtual sponsor booths. While that is affordable, relatively easy, and accessible (and once again: I cannot blame WCEU for this choice due to the time pressure), I was not entirely satisfied. The result felt a bit confusing, constantly switching between browser tabs or different applications.

We put a lot of effort into finding a good platform, and we eventually settled on Hopin. It wasn’t without its quirks and little obstacles, it definitely wasn’t for free. But it worked great for the attendees. It allowed us to have a main “stage”, networking rooms, sponsor booths, even the schedule all in one place. It was immersive.

Front page of the event on Hopin

One track only

I have to admit that the two-track experience of WCEU (which also meant two networking rooms on Zoom) was pretty overwhelming. I can be an information sponge and I had a hard time deciding what I want to see or where I want to be the most.

Also, we didn’t have enough resources to effectively run multiple tracks for WordCamp Prague. To cover one track for a whole day, you need at least two hosts and then two other teammates who will stay in the networking room (we called ours “foyer”). We were very lucky to find our two hosts and we decided to go for quality instead of quantity.

From the feedback we received, this was a good choice. Even with keeping presentations to only one track, many people still struggled with wanting to be both in the main track and in the foyer at the same time.

Pre-recorded talks, live Q&A

One of those things that I truly liked about WCEU — and that we’ve easily agreed upon — was that our speakers’ talks would be pre-recorded and then they would join together with a host for a live Q&A session.

With fourteen speakers, the risk that something somewhere would go wrong was considerable. This way, the worst that could happen would be losing the Q&A.

The approach had some unexpected secondary benefits too: Our hosts could see the talk in advance and prepare for the Q&A much better. We knew when it would end, so we could plan our timetable accordingly. The speakers knew they really had to submit their completed talk a couple of days before the event. And so on.

Networking with the speaker afterward

If I had to pick one key aspect that made the most difference, this would be it. Also inspired by WCEU, after every talk (ca. 20min + 5min for Q&A), the speaker was invited to join the foyer (networking room) where the attendees could catch up with them either by asking further questions in the chat or by connecting with their audio and video and talking to them directly.

This ended up being very popular, there were always a couple of dozen people in the foyer. Sometimes, the conversation had to continue in a newly created room after the following speaker had finished their talk and joined in as well.

We had two of our team members always present, ready with some of their own questions for the speaker, to help start the conversation if needed.

Virtual sponsor booths with schedule

The highest two tiers of our sponsor program included a virtual sponsor booth. We suggested the sponsors pick one hour on the schedule and hold their presentation then, instead of having to attend for the whole day.

It was also practical for the attendees, I believe, to know what’s the best time to visit and ask questions.

When not active, the virtual booth was in a “presentation” mode with a sponsor’s slideshow on repeat.

Happiness bar and afterparty

No WordCamp is a proper WordCamp without these two things.

We implemented the happiness bar as another virtual room (same as the foyer) and two to three volunteers were always present to answer any attendees’ questions about their WordPress sites.

As for the afterparty, we created four different “tables” – virtual rooms. One of them also for English speakers, since some of our sponsors’ representatives wanted to attend as well.

To my surprise, two of those tables stayed active for a pretty long time, and when we concluded the afterparty around 10 PM, there were still about twenty, thirty people around. Perhaps we’ve become more used to online socializing because of the pandemic endless lockdowns, but some of the feedback we received went along the lines of “it felt almost like a physical WordCamp.”

Interviews with speakers

In years past, before the conference itself, we usually did write interviews with speakers and then shared the articles on our social media to bring attention to the event. It was usually quite difficult to produce these interview articles: The speakers rarely found enough time for this and we often got late submissions or content that was not wordy enough. Then, the text had to be polished and reviewed before publishing.

This year, instead, someone had the brilliant idea to just do live interviews via Zoom. The advantages were numerous: It was fast to make, we immediately had the final product (videorecording) with minimal post-processing, and it was also fast to view and more attractive on social media than a long text.

A strong, positive organizer team

I can’t stress enough how well my team managed to self-organize and how dedicated the vast majority of us were to deliver a great result. Even under time pressure, we’ve always done our best to keep the spirit up.

After all, we should all remember, it’s a WordCamp, a volunteer-organized event that should be interesting and fun, not a question of life and death. Everything doesn’t always have to be perfect. It’s important to keep that in mind.

WordCamp Prague 2021 organizers

Looking back

In retrospect, the whole experience was intense, difficult at times, but ultimately rewarding beyond expectation.

I find myself struggling to compare it with previous years. The physical event is really something else, and my perspective was dramatically shifted in my new role.

But I will say this: We keep building on the work of previous years. Be it our visual presence, the experience of individual team members with their agenda, or the way we organize and carefully handpick and balance the content of the whole event. It seems that we manage to move the event forward every year, and that’s ultimately what matters.

The most challenging part was time management — no surprise there. Because of the pandemic, everyone was kind of busy with their lives and we started seriously organizing only towards the end of September. In combination with the already somewhat problematic timing, we set ourselves up for quite a wild ride.

If you want to do the event before the main conference season, that also means that you have less than two months from confirming speakers to make everything happen. Practically nothing gets done during December, and the speakers will not plan that far ahead as to apply in November already.

This timing is kind of set in stone for us and we will have to handle everything that we can beforehand so that the run to the finish line is without unnecessary obstacles.

Also, with my limited experience, I would say that organizing a team of — albeit very motivated — volunteers who have different daily jobs is quite different from any sort of project management at work. The primary occupation or other things often have taken precedence over WordCamp and can easily mess up the team’s schedule in a bad way. That’s why we always have to strive for asynchronous communication.

Looking forward

And what’s next? I might apply to lead the next year as well, especially if my teammates decide to continue as well. The idea of starting with a physical event organization around May feels downright ridiculous at this point because of the situation in our country. And since I already have experience with leading an online event, I might as well exploit it. 

For the next year, I want to again iterate on our know-how, keep what has worked, and replace the things that didn’t — simply, to move the whole project a couple of steps forward.

Most importantly, my great desire is to make the preparations run smoothly, do things in advance, reduce the amount of stress for the whole team.

Apart from that, we’ll be also focusing on monthly WP Pivo meetups and other activities of the community, but that is a topic for another time.

If you have any comments or questions, I invite you to reach out to me.

WordCamp Prague mascot, The Wapuu King

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