A recent discussion came up on Facebook about whether to stream a virtual summit / conference as a set of live sessions or whether to play out pre-recorded videos. The answer to this isn't always the same, but it is easy to decide based on the type of session being delivered.
Before we get started, it's important to understand the terminology I will be using to refer to each method of presenting the content:
- Live Session. This is a session that's delivered by the presenter(s) in real-time using live-stream capable meeting software such as Microsoft Teams, Zoom, or by local software Wirecast, OBS, Xsplit that can capture a screen to stream live to YouTube, Facebook etc.
- Pre-Recorded Session. This refers to a session that's been recorded ahead of time as video file (e.g MP4) with the video being played for attendees at a specified time. These sessions will have been recorded using technology such as Camtasia.
- Pre-Recorded Web Pages. Some virtual conferences present video content embedded on a set of web pages that are made live "on the day". These web pages are usually open for a day or two and then taken down. There's no concept of start time and usually no site chat.
- Hybrid Live Session. This refers to a session that contains both live and pre-recorded elements, for example a live introduction, followed by a pre-recorded element. The pre-recorded video will also be played over the live-stream.
6-Years of Virtual Summits/Conferences
Unbelievably, we've been running Microsoft-focused virtual conferences for over 6 years! The video below was the trailer video for our first ever online event, SP24 (24-hour conference that followed the sun in April 2014).
Here's a run-down of what we've done:
- SP24 (2014) - The first-ever Microsoft-based, 24-hour conference that went "around the globe". The organising committee comprised of people from 5 countries who had a common passion for SharePoint. SP24 had sessions in multiple languages, multiple tracks, and utilised producers and anchors worldwide to help produce the live sessions. We also had pre-recorded sessions to play alongside the live content. (Huge thanks to Matthias Einig, Paul Gallagher, Stefan Bauer, Vlad Catrinescu, Jasjit Chopra, Jon Manderville, and Raphael Londner. You helped ignite the spark that sent us down this crazy path).
- SPBiz (2015)- This virtual conference was a business-focused 3-day conference centred around the topic of SharePoint.
- Collab365 Summit (2016) - This conference saw a team of 11 travel to Microsoft HQ in Redmond. We set up a green screen studio, and streamed 3 days of live demonstration and discussion sessions. We also included pre-recorded sessions from the community. (Thanks to Mark Kashman from Microsoft for giving us the opportunity of a lifetime. Visiting Microsoft was always on my bucket list!)
- Collab365 Global Conferences (2015, 2016, 2017) - These were all 24-hour conferences. We gradually started to introduce some high-production valued content by creating a 'green screen' studio at them. This allowed us to have more control over the live aspect of the event.
- MCT Summit 2018. This was an in-person conference where we had a man on the ground, Nick Brattoli. Nick streamed some of the in-person sessions, live.
- 6 Solutions Days - Solutions days were single-day events that saw vendors in the Microsoft space present their solutions, virtually.
- PowerApps Virtual Summit -1-day conference centred around Power Apps.
- Microsoft Teams Virtual Summit - 2-day virtual conference on Microsoft Teams.
- Microsoft Flow Virtual Summit - 2-day virtual conference based on Microsoft Flow (aka Power Automate).
- Collab365 SharePoint Virtual Summit - 3-day virtual conference on SharePoint.
- Power BI and Excel Summit - 3-day conference on Power BI and Excel.
- GlobalCon1 (March 2020) - 5-day conference covering Microsoft 365.
- GlobalCon2 (June 2020) - 7-day conference covering Microsoft 365. This has also seen us run two live Ask-Me-Anything sessions at our Warm-Up days. These proved to be really popular with hundreds of questions being asked.
- GlobalCon3 (Sep 2020) - 6-Day Microsoft 365 conference. This time we gave lots of registration bonuses such as "Beginner Training" and Ebooks. This was to help attendees get up to speed.
- GlobalCon4 (Dec 2020) - 6-Day Microsoft 365 Conference. This conference saw us introduce 2x Turbo Tuesdays which are shorter 15-minute sessions. Take a look at the registration page or look at the agenda.
Across all of those conferences we have attracted in excess of 120,000 registrations. You can view our 2019 and 2020 line up on the Collab365 Events portal.
Format of sessions
As you can imagine with all of the above, we've now delivered hundreds of hours worth of content to thousands of attendees.
During all of those events, we've tried many different session formats:
- Demonstration Sessions. These sessions are by far the most common for us and involve the presenter usually sharing their screen to demonstrate features in a product or PowerPoint slides. We've presented these sessions as Live Sessions and also pre-recorded.
- Discussion-based Sessions. These sessions usually comprise a grid of talking-heads as a panel (see pic above). They can take input from the audience or just debate around a topic. We've also delivered these live from a green-screen studio (with presenters present in the physcial room) and where the entire panel is remote.
- Ask-Me-Anything Sessions. These are a great session format as they require the audience to post questions into the platform's chat. A producer sends the questions to the AMA pannelists to answer live on-air. Post AMA feedback from the experts on the panel is usually that of great excitement.
- ChatJam Sessions. These sessions are similar to TweetJams and see all the attendees enter into a virtual session room to watch a video asking questions. As the attendees see the questions, they share their answers and opinion in chat. Attendees love these. It gives them an opportunity to have their say and get involved!
- Virtual Reality Sessions. We also delivered a VR session by Mark Stokes and invited attendees to watch a session from within a Virual Reality auditorium. The response to this was pretty minimal, but has great potential. We plan to revisit this format when headsets become more popular.
Now I've shared what we've done and also discussed the different type of sessions we've trialled, let's get to meat of the post!
Let's answer the big question...
Are Live Sessions worth adding to your conference agenda?
The short answer is: "No, unless the session format absolutely dictates it".
No matter what subject your virtual conference covers, the attendee experience is the most important part of the entire event. After all, the main reason you are doing the conference is to educate and entertain your audience.
For the vast majority of attendees, Pre-Recorded Sessions are always going to be better quality than either Live Sessions or Hybrid Live Sessions. Pre-Recorded will not only be the best quality (when viewing), but will also be more refined because you've been able to edit the session to make it more polished ahead of time.
There are massive risks with Live Sessions and also some risks with Hybrid Live Sessions, so why bother introducing those risks if you don't have to?
In my opinion, I think it's unfair to both the attendee and the presenter to try and "risk it with live sessions" when there's another alternative.
A presenter can easily spend hours (or weeks) preparing for a session. If the session doesn't work properly, you've wasted their time and also the attendees time.
Imagine seeing these comments in your session room chat:
- "This is rubbish! I can't hear the presenter"
- "Can anyone see what's on the screen? It's blurred for me"
- "The session is not playing for me, can anyone else see it?"
- "Can someone tell them their mic is muted?"
Believe me, we've had all of those over the years. As an organiser, it gives you a horrible feeling in the pit of your stomach. You feel really bad for the presenter and also potentially thousands of attendees who were excited to watch that session.
As mentioned earlier, we've actually done lots of live sessions. In fact, in the early days we actually preferred it! During our first couple of 24-hour community conferences, we thought it was what both attendees and presenters expected. After all, that's what happens during in-person events, so why not emulate that in virtual events too?
Fast-forward 6-years and I now believe strongly that you shouldn't go live unless the session format dicates it (e.g Ask-Me-Anything). We've seen so many problems with live which results in a very poor perception of your entire event. It's both embarrasing and demoralising when it all goes wrong.
Here's a summary of the problems we've had with Live Sessions over the years. There are many more, but I decided to list the most common ones:
- The Presenter cancels at the last minute.
- The Presenter's microphone doesn't work or has poor quality sound (e.g echo, tinny, reverb).
- The Presenter's camera doesn't work or is grainy.
- The Presenter's shares the wrong screen or the screenshare simply doesn't work.
- The Presenter's internet connection dies or breaks up during the session (the latter occurs so often).
- The Presenter's demonstration goes wrong as a back-end system or local technology doesn't work. Some refer to this as the 'demo gods';
- The Anchor or Producer suffers a problem at their end.
- The Live Session can't be viewed in certain countries/locations.
- The Live Session quality varies massively based on the technology used and where you are in the world.
- The stream doesn't work on certain browsers.
- The platform isn't configured correctly (e.g wrong time, wrong stream keys, etc)
- The Presenter gets the time wrong due to timzeone issues.
- The Platform warns you for copyright (incorrectly in our case).
Pros and Cons of Live Sessions
To offer a reasoned argument as to whether you should consider Live Sessions, let's have a look at the pros and cons of utilising Live Sessions.
In my opinon, there's absolutly no point in 'going live' unless it's crucial that interaction is needed from the audience. The risks of going live simply aren't worth it. The presenters can still get great interaction by being present in chat to discuss their session with the attendees. This is now the approach we always take. The only sessions we do LIVE are discussion-based sessions where the attendees ask questions.
Idea: If your presenters enjoy being 'live' (many do) deliver their main sesson pre-recorded but then involve them in an Ask-Me-Anything or discussion panel. These are good fun and it's not a catastrophy if they fail because the presenter has already wowed the audience with their expertise!
Pros and Cons of Pre-Recorded Sessions
To balance the argument, it's also worth looking at the Pros and Cons of utilising Pre-Recorded Sessions.
Pre-recorded should always be the default session type unless you have a good reason for going live. However, be careful with streaming a pre-recorded video (as though it is live). That's also got some of the same "technical challenges" as doing it fully live. Instead, have it play from YouTube / Vimeo directly.
Thoughts on Hybrid Live Sessions
If you'd like to play a pre-recorded video to minimise some of the risk, one option you have is to upload the MP4 and stream it using platforms like Restream or OneStream. With this approach, you do have to be wary of streaming speeds and the attendees ability to view a live stream. Quality can vary doing this and it will never be as good as if you are playing it natively from Vimeo, YouTube or Wistia.
I do think this approach is better than pure live because you've removed technical production problems like a presenters internet going down, but it's still risky. Streaming a pre-recorded video "live", relies on your origin source (your PC or Cloud Service) and the platfrom you are passing it through, to have stable and fast internet connections.
A quick story on how this can go wrong...
We actually tried to run one conference on Crowdcast. Crowdcast is a nice conference platform. It has all the features you'd expect, but it didn't allow you to play a pre-recorded video from Vimeo or Youtube. However, it could injest a live stream (into their session rooms), so that's what we did. We used Restream and sent the pre-recorded video live over to Crowdcast. After the first session, this failed badly because of the incompatibility between the two technologies.
Luckily, we were also streaming to YouTube at the same time using OneStream (similar to Restream). Because of this, we were able to send the attendees into the YouTube live event.
Thoughts on Pre-Recorded Web Pages
We haven't really talked about this method of delivery at all. However, I would take a bet that outside of "technical conferences" it's the most common delivery mechanism of all.
What do I mean by Pre-Recorded Web pages?
Imagine your event is 3-day virtual conference with 50 sessions. Before the first day, you create 50 web pages (probably in Wordress) and embed each video into it's own webpage. You will also add information such as speaker bio, session info etc.
On the morning of the first day of the conference, you will then publish the pages, and email your audience the links. The attendee then visits the web page and clicks 'Play' on the video. It's a very isolated experience, but I've still been astounded by the positive feedback from summits that choose this approach. Don't discount it if you are on a budget or if technology scares you!
Do we use them?
We haven't used this mechanism for the main event, but we did make an entire back up of a conference using exactly this approach. We created it on a Wordpress website that was hosted with a different provider from the main conference. If we hit problems with the main event, we'd direct everyone to the relevant page.
I would never use it as the main delivery mechanism. There's something amazing about getting everyone into a virtual session room at the same time. It generates a lovely buzz! Simply having a chat next to the session makes it really feel like we're connected and together. It's also impossible (without getting technical again), to play sponsor adverts or add any intro videos using this approach.
What are the risks with each approach?
Whichever mode you choose, you will always carry some risk with it. In summary, I'd categorise them like this:
- Live Session: Very high risk. Expect a good % of your sessions to have some quality/production/technical problems. If the session completely fails, you can't move to a back-up. It's game over.
- Hybrid Live Session: Moderate risk. You should be ok, but make sure you have a backup stream running as well. This means you can move people over to Plan B. For example, if you are streaming videos over Microsoft Teams and that has an outage, you'd want to point people to a streamed event in Youtube.
- Pre-Recorded: Lowest risk. The only thing you need to have a backup for is the "platform" (e.g You conference website fails over to Youtube) and also the video provider (e.g. Vimeo failes over to YouTube).
- Pre-Recorded Web Pages: Miniscule risk. This approach is pretty much the same as adding web pages to a web site. The only backup you may want to consider (due to high load) is a clone of you web-site or use a reverse proxy like Cloudflare to cache it all.
How do we run our Summits?
We're always looking for ways to improve our Collab365 Summits, but at the time of writing this, this is how we would deal with these types of sessions in our conferences:
hybrid live session
Drop in Sessions
How do we run Demonstration Sessions?
For any session that doesn't require an audience to interact or ask questions we ask for a pre-recorded session. We also ask the presenter to join the session room's chat and answer questions from the live audience.
IMHO, this is the best of both worlds. The audience can enjoy watching a high quality session and also have the presenter answering questions in chat as it plays out. Nearly all feedback from our presenters has been positive.
Although we never hide it (I am writing this after all), many of our attendees think the session is live because we give the same experience as though it was live. We play the same second to every attendee at the same time. e.g if you join the session 20 minutes in, you will see the 20th minute of the video.
How do we run Discussion or Ask-Me-Anything Sessions?
If your session requires a two way conversation (with attendees in chat and presenters on camera), the only real solution to this is "go live". We've done this several times and mostly it's gone "ok". We've also had our fair share of problems. Even when you practice it and limit the reasons for failure, problems can still occur. This approach is highly risky, but is worth it. We always warn attendees of the dangers of this format and don't add too many into our agenda.
We usually run these sessions by having someone playing the producer role. They run the AMA in meeting service like Teams, Zoom, GotoMeeting and stream it to YouTube using something like OBS, Wirecast, XSplit. We then take the feed from YouTube and embed it into our conference platform.
Note: Some meeting services also allows you to stream direct into YouTube or Facebook. I know Zoom offer this.
How do we run Drop-In sessions (coming soon)
This is an exciting format for us. We're "hopefully" going to be trialing this format at GlobalCon2. This format will allow attendees to "drop in" to a discussion-based session on a given topic. Once they click "Join Session", their camera / microphone will be enabled so they can discuss the topic of interest. Other attendees who don't want to join, but do want to watch, will be able to view the live stream.
We're also looking at the potential of using this to allow attendees to network like they'd do at an in-person conference.
Don't forget your Backup Sessions
Whatever mechanism you choose, you need a backup plan in case it all goes wrong on the day! For example, what happens if your platform provider goes down?
It happens for pre-recorded sessions too! On a recent conference, we used Vimeo for our Pre-Recorded sessions and it went down for around half an hour. Because we were also streaming the videos to YouTube as a "hybrid live session", we were able to easily switch the attendees over to YouTube. The backup stream (to YouTube) was playing the same second so the attendees missed virtually nothing.
Obviously, if you go completely live then you can't really do this, but you should definitely have a Plan B in case your streaming platform is down or experiences "technical difficulties".
Make sure you give 'Late Attendees' a great experience!
At our summits, we make the sessions available for several hours after they are played out for the first time. We do this to accommodate people in different timezones or people who don't manage to show-up on time. Surprisingly, for those "on-demand" hours you can expect as many views from these "late attendees" as you got from the first run.
Something to Ponder: When you run a virtual summit, attendees won't treat it the same as they would an in-person event. They get distracted and come and go as they please. It's so easy for them to leave a sesson and go to another. For this reason, you need to make the experience as good as it can be, regardless of what time they enter the session.
This means your "on-demand experience" needs to be really good, so they can watch it again easily and read all of the Q&A in Chat. If you'd delivered the original session live, you may find that you need to do some post editing, video splicing or configuration to make this happen. This isn't something you'd want to be doing while your conference is running, it's just too much effort and stress.
Interestingly, if you leave it for a week or two, the buzz around your event is gone and as cruel as it is, hardly anyone will watch them. You're then just "another video" on YouTube.
As the event organiser, it's your job to ensure the presenters get as many views as they can while the event is "hot" and that attendees can catch up with any sessions they missed while your 'conference window' is open.
How do we play pre-recorded videos as if they were "live"?
I've mentioned this several times now, so I bet you're wondering how we play pre-recorded videos as though they appear to be live?
Ever since 2014, we've delivered all but one of our virtual conferences on a platform we developed in-house. The reason we built it was simple - no conference software existed at the time that could deliver the features we wanted to include in our events!
We wanted to:
- Play recorded video playlists (as if it is "live"). We actually have 3 playlists to serve the correct set of videos before, live and after it's over.
- Play a live streamed session. For those sessions that need to be live, then you also need to be able to do that from within your virtual session room.
- Have ways to show sponsor logos and adverts. If your event is free, then sponsorship may be really important to help with the costs. If you are being paid to promote a vendors product you need to offer a good ROI for them.
- Create virtual session rooms providing each session with a ringfenced chat room, playlist, and also include the speaker bio and session description to name a few features.
- Allow attendees to chat with each other and the presenter of the current session. This is ultra important if you go down the pre-recorded option. Your attendees and presenters will love it.
- Have really simple navigation from one session to the other. Most platforms only cater for single webinars/meetings, so moving from one session to another is usually a poor experience. They generally require the agenda to be surfaced on a different web site from where you're currently watching the session.
- Record good analytics. All our presenters want to know how many people attended their session. Google Analytics makes it a breeze to get this data from our platform as we have complete control.
Still, to this day, I don't think there's anything that can play a pre-recorded playlist of videos hosted on YouTube/Vimeo.
Firstly, I hope this article has been useful to you. I believe it's always best to ask yourself "does this session absolutely have to be live?" If the answer is no, don't do it! Also, always have a backup because there's one thing I have learned over 6 years of doing them, things can and will go wrong!
Happy Virtual Conferencing!