Getting your community event online

There’s been a large amount of change over the last couple of months due to the impact of COVID-19 on in-person events.

As I’ve spent much of the last eight years running, or being involved with, community events I thought I’d share some tips and insights I’ve gained over this time on what you need to consider for going online.

I’m going to focus on tech user group style events where typically you’d have one or two speakers presenting to a group and taking questions.

What’s your budget?

If you say as close to zero as possible, that’s cool, but it will limit how much you can achieve.

It goes without saying that should you want a polished and managed online event that it’s likely you will part with some money – either for the streaming / video hosting provider, or for the hardware or software you will need to capture video or manage the event.

Yes, there are great free services or software out there (Twitch, Mixer and OBS for example), but you will quickly find yourself in the prosumer space where you are expected to know a bit more about where the water goes from your sink.

So, as a starting point, reflect on how much you’re prepared to pay to run a streamed event and how paying more may mean a simpler setup for you to run with.

Right now many paid services are also offering extended trials of their platforms – make use of those trials to test out the platforms and decide on which might work best for your community.

I also came across some good guidance from the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) on what it’s worth knowing about when consuming free services.

What is “live”?

It’s easy to fixate on building an online experience that is 1:1 with what you’d normally have run in person. This can put enormous pressure on you as an organiser and on your speakers as it infers a few things:

  • Reliable internet: the organiser(s) and speaker(s) will need to have reliable (and likely high speed) internet connections for live events to work.
  • Virtual event software: you’ll probably need software that can coordinate across multiple speakers, especially if they are in different physical locations.
  • Access to sandboxed demos or environments: doing a recorded or streamed demo likely means speakers will need an environment or demo which it is OK to record. You don’t want to leak keys or passwords you can’t rotate!
  • Right hardware and software: everyone producing content will be expected to have the right hardware and software to contribute to a livestream.

I’ve listed the challenges, so I guess you’re wondering how to solve them?

Redefine what a “live event” is.

As an organiser you can approach speakers and ask them to pre-record their content or demos. Speakers will still need, at a minimum, software and a computer to record their video.

Once they have recorded and edited their video you can take it and publish it on a platform of your choice. If you have the means you could also combine the videos into a single video and make that your “monthly user group” video to upload.

You could also create some simple branded graphics that speakers could drop into their video to align it with your group.

Clearly the above still infers that as an organiser you have a good enough internet connection to download / upload videos. Unfortunately there’s no way to avoid that!

I’ve seen this approach work well for larger, longer “events” in the global Azure community. The Azure Advent Calendar I produced a video for in December 2019 worked this way as did the Azure Spring Clean from February 2020.

The remaining question here is what to do about attendee questions? There’s often a lot of value derived from the questions asked at group meetings.

How you solve group discussion will vary, but here are some ways that come to mind:

  • Use in-built features of the platform you use: allow comments on videos on YouTube for example. Ensure to moderate questions and disable comments after a period of time, giving directions on how to ask further questions.
  • Use a platform your members are on already: consider Facebook, Twitter, Slack, whatever your members use. If you don’t know, ask them! I’d recommend tending towards low-barrier-to-entry solutions that provide a way to ask questions anonymously.

Both of these solutions require that the organiser(s) and speakers(s) participate in a live Q&A around the time the video is published. This could be during the designated hours for your usual in-person event.

Ideally you want to make sure those questions and answers are accessible by anyone who later watches the video – perhaps via a transcript you upload and share somewhere online. Don’t ask new folks to sign into your Slack channel simply to read the Q&A for a video!

Many traditional media outlets who publish video content online will often host Q&A sessions at a designated time with invited guests or journalists – see how they do it to see if it works for you.

Take a long term view

While we face challenging times today, what do you want to achieve in future?

Making your in-person event also available virtually will likely help your community grow as it gives many more people access to your content at a time and place that suits them.

This means you should consider how you want your video content to be available long term, not just today or for the next few months. Make sure that whichever service you end up using to stream / host your content gives you access to the raw video so you can choose where to host it longer term should current arrangements not suit your community in future.

Also, once you have the option to return to in-person events, how will you continue to service your broader community? I feel this is massively important to think through up front so you avoid building parallel communities that have little overlap.

Practical / tooling advice starts here

My advice here is based on having all speakers in the same physical location as the broadcaster. To date I’ve not personally run a live multi-speaker, multi-location event (this may change shortly… so I’ll add some updates when / if I do this).

Most recently I’ve been using OBS to run in-person event livestreams from a single location (i.e. all speakers are on a local network where the broadcast is happening) and publishing via YouTube’s livestreaming features. OBS is great as you can run it on any hardware you have, on any OS you’re running. It’s free to use, but you should contribute towards its development because that’s the right thing to do…

Screencasting

Here’s a quick runtime of the tech I’ve been using to do various bits of livestreaming or screencasting.

You’ll find that most of the hardware, software and advice online is aimed at streaming games which is a great way to get familiar with this whole streaming thing!

That’s a wrap!

So it’s in the can! (OK, I will stop..)

My key consideration in all of this that you look at pre-recording content so you can publish it more easily than real-time sessions.

Pair this with a pre-scheduled video or text chat with the speakers / organisers will give you a high fidelity experience with minimal hassle.

Stay safe and healthy!

😎

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