Introduction

After an event I like to wrap up some of my thoughts on how the event started and some of the lessons learned. This post will be broken out into the two parts of the story on the event and then some of the lessons that come with running an event. For those that don’t know me I run many community events in the NY/NJ/PA area and involved with helping other events either get started or with supporting them by volunteering my skills, time or helping them reach people.

The Back Story

Each year I host a local Azure event in New Jersey as part of the Global Azure Bootcamp. It’s a 1 day event held on a Saturday at the local Microsoft office in Iselin, NJ. It’s been a very successful event with about 90 out of a possible 100 that can fit in that office safely. In our area we’ve seen a demand for Azure training and information grow drastically over the past 3 years. Due to the local office being closed for public events we’ve had to spread our wings and take to the cloud.

This year was our first virtual Azure event on our own. Alone in the sense of no major support from a company. It would be a grassroots event where we would have to push this out to the public to gather sponsors, speakers and attendees with little visibility / marketing. Events like this cannot happen alone. You need a solid team to help and that’s something that I knew I had in my pocket.

It start with a phone call from Rajaniesh Kaushikk who was an attendee at the 3rd Global Azure Bootcamp. He reached out to me and said we haven’t had an Azure event since the pandemic, would it be possible to run one before the end of the year. If it wasn’t for his push, I would probably never have run this event. Raj’s energy had set the spark for me to gather the team. Jason Rivera who runs M365 Philly events like the User Group and M365 Saturdays. Manpreet Singh from the Tech Platform who always helps out with NY/NJ/PA events and many other events within the community.

The bootcamp was initially planned to have 4 speakers and short and quick, easy to manage. What would be a small event with a few people, no stress, easy to manage. We put out some feelers but launching a call for speakers on Sessionize.com. We were a bit overwhelmed with the response. Speakers from around the globe were applying to our little event from regular people wanting to share their experience, seasoned professionals, Microsoft Certified Trainers and even Microsoft Azure MVPs. We had 34 sessions and 22 speakers to choose from which included 8 Microsoft MVPs, a handful of C# Corner MVPS, Bloggers, Speakers, YouTubers. Quickly our event gained some momentum at least from the speaker community. We ultimately settled on 18 speakers, although we knew that would be a handful to deal with in just 1 day. We had to have 2 tracks and run longer than we’d like to. It was a virtual event, so our focus wasn’t on just EST time, we knew we’d have audience in attendance from other areas.

As I just mentioned the event was planned around EST time. This created some challenges for speakers from around the globe. We had some dedicated speakers! Eric Cheng from Sydney, Australia presented his session from 3am his time. Any many others presenting at 9pm their time. I was blown away by the commitment of the speakers and they were so appreciative of the opportunity to speak at this event.

Running the Event

Prep Work

There is a lot of work that goes into these events. There’s a ton that goes into prior to anything you might even see from the outside. I’ll shed some light into some of the major areas.

Team – you need a solid team of people to do actual work. You don’t want to end up doing everything yourself. I am known for taking on too many things and doing everything myself. You need to form a team and be able to plan, delegate, track, and keep that ball rolling. This is always challenging in a community ‘free’ event. Watch out for volunteers that simply volunteer to put their name on it. You need grunts and you need influencers. It’s very common for other MVPs to come along and offer to help but those typically aren’t the ones that put in the real work. They might help your event get some notoriety or help with promotions, but they aren’t the ones building the website or making slides [typically]. Get a balanced team – with some people that are motivated to help and do work. If you’re the leader then you need to be sure to lead and delegate. Give people tasks and check in and follow up weekly / bi-weekly.

Graphics – no event can happen without some great graphics. You need catchy event graphics, speaker promotions, sponsor promotions and more. You could sub this out to fiverr but if you can link up with someone that can use Canva or even better Photoshop then you’ll be set. I used to do all the graphics but for this event I was able to get help from Omer at SoHo Dragon.

Social Media Promotion – no event can happen without promotion. You won’t be seen or noticed without a social media presence. We failed in this event to secure an Azure Community Bootcamp twitter profile, so everything went out from my personal account or M365 NYC account. I’m sure people were not thrilled to be getting tons of promotions from my personal twitter and LinkedIn, but I didn’t care that much. Mute me. The point is that you need to get the word out. Involved the speakers, sponsors and organizers in the promotion. It’s everyone’s job. If you can create a game for attendees to promote, then do that as well. Our primary methods of promotion were LinkedIn and Twitter. We posted our event on Eventbrite which has some built in traffic that can also help. We also cross posted on the NJ & PA user groups on Meetup.com. In hindsight I should have reached out across the USA to the Azure meetups. I would have if I had more time.

Ticketing – mentioned above we used Eventbrite for our ticketing which can help with some promotion sales. It takes a good amount of time to setup the Eventbrite for an event. It’s not difficult but you should be asking questions and gathering the correct information of the attendees. You want to think about collecting information if you are sharing with sponsors. Important things like company, location, phone. You must also ask if you can share the information. I highly suggest an option to be added to the mailing list. Building a mailing list is critical for building an audience.

Website – you will need a website. Hopefully someone on your team can make one or you could use a wix.com site. We’d prefer to have a custom site, but we started out with no site. Ultimately, we decided we needed a site to look like a legit event. Legit in the eyes of the world you at least need a website. Not a meetup.com event, not a Eventbrite event. You need a place on the internet that you can see the event, the schedule, the speakers, etc. We went with wix.com because we could have a site up and running within a few hours. Another requirement is that it needs to be mobile accessible. Using wix it was easy enough for volunteers to help update and did not need to know programming languages or anything else. Just use the web interface to make changes. We also used Sessionize embed for the speaker / sessions / schedule which was a bonus since we did not have to build that integration. You can check it out here – https://www.azurecommunitybc.com/

Speaker Call – having a formal speaker call allows potential speakers to submit their information to you for evaluation. Sessionize.com works great for FREE events. ** Sessionize is a pay service BUT is FREE for a FREE event. You must apply when you host a free event to get it for free **. You can use the speaker call to bring in speakers. You can customize the form with custom questions. The platform allows you to invite content members to help select speakers. You can accept / deny speakers from the platform easily. You can build the schedule inside the platform with rooms and time slots. You can email out all the speakers from it to communicate event updates. Most importantly you can use all the information from Sessionize to embed into another website. You do not need to recreate the schedule, sessions or speaker lists on your site. You can simply use the embed code to post the information. If your feeling frisky you can even customize the CSS to style it as you wish.

Sponsors Call – Community events I run are free, but we do need sponsors to help. Sponsors help pay for website costs, domain names, email accounts, and some other misc fees. Once you run an LLC for a User Group you’ll see. You need to file taxes, have accounting software and whatnot. Even though I keep those at the bare minimum there are other expenses. Plus, you want to have a great event with some giveaways. Normally the sponsor dollars cover food which is not happening at the moment, so they cover the web hosting fees + giveaways. It’s the truth that someone pays for a free event. I’ve covered many a user group pizza night on my own dime. It’s fine because I am able and willing to do so. You understand when you run a user group. My insight here is keep the sponsorships to a normal amount and make it fair. We didn’t solicit sponsors for money for this event, I just wasn’t prepared to ask for money not knowing the outcome. I felt that big sponsors wouldn’t be interested in such a small event [turned out to not so small]. Our sponsors have donated resources like time from their employees or services. We thank SoHo Dragon and the Tech Platform for their support this year. Both of those sponsors help out with ALL of my events no matter how big or small.

Tech Challenges

Meeting Platform – we chose MS Teams Live Events to run the meetings. There are some pros and cons to this approach.

Pros #1 it’s easy, you run 1 long event for each track and you are done. No need to have attendees drop in and out of sessions. This was a huge draw since we did not have a huge moderator team. #2 you can’t see the live attendees – if there are no attendees the speaker doesn’t know so they don’t act differently. Present without the concept of an audience. We’ve seen / attended and even presented to teams events with 1 or 2 people and it’s just not fun. [not this event but with others]

Cons #1 you can’t see the live attendees – The speaker doesn’t know who is in the session or how many people attend. This can throw speakers off if they plan to have Q/A or interactive sessions. It just doesn’t work in this format without planning [using surveys or forms for questions and circling back], #2 there is a delay – this causes disconnect between the presenter and the audience. If you are asking questions, it just doesn’t work great. It can take a minute or so before the audience hears the question and then replies.

Tech Check – Always do a tech check with MS Teams. Make sure the users can log in and share their screen on the same computer they will do it live. It verifies that the account can get in with no issues. We’ve seen people attend the tech checks and then not able to join because they are using a different computer or different account. We’ve seen people have issues b/c their session is about teams and they need to be logged in to present and also log into teams. They need to use a VM in that case to be part of the live event and show another MS Teams tenant. Also if you get any last minute speakers always do a tech check [got us this time]. We’ve seen people use gmail accounts and then have difficulties logging into MS Teams because it needs a MS based account like hotmail/outlook.

Time Check – send out the schedule in your time zone. Don’t depend on the web or Sessionize to convert it correctly. We had some speakers at the wrong time because they saw online at some point it say something else. Make sure to send the print out / email of the schedule with the time in your time zone.

Multiple Presenters – MS Teams multiple presenters is a problem. One event I moderated had 3 presenters that I would be constantly changing the web cam for. Teams can only show 1 webcam at a time. This is a problem for us in the wrap up session. We want to have all of our organizers on to say their last words about the event. We use streamyard.com to create a live event on youtube and forward our attendees there for the last sessions [the wrap up]. We still don’t know who shows up but it allows up to wrap up the event with a little behind the scenes footage. We give our take and thank everyone involved. Sometimes we raffle items off in there as the close out and if not we just use that as the organizer platform to speak our minds.

Communication – over communication is never a problem. Stay in touch frequently with your speakers and attendees. Let them know about the event at least once a week when you are in the final month. Attendees need to know how to easily access the sessions. Give them multiple ways to get in – post is in the email, use the web, blast it out on social media. It’s never a problem to over communicate how to attendee the event. Same with the speakers – let them know about event changes with the schedule or format. Give them access to a OneDrive folder with the content for promotion materials, slide decks or whatever else you might have for them.

Moderators – have enough moderators for each session. The purpose of the moderator is the welcome the speaker and inform them of any last minute changes, how to share screen, let the speaker know that nothing is sharing, how to turn on subtitles and remind them when time is up and to show the event slides / feedback slide. Have a dedicated moderator for each session and 1 backup so that people can switch out. Never let someone moderate [alone] that hasn’t moderated before. Put a moderator schedule out ahead of time so everyone can confirm that they will be on the watch for their session.

Physical Challenges

Time Management – running events is a full day affair. If your involved, you’ll likely have to take off work. There’s no room to concentrate on the event and try to take a meeting. That means be aware of business owners / CEOs or CTOs on your team. They would likely get pulled away with some emergency. You need reliable sources to help the event.

Real Life – If you have kids let the team know when you won’t be available because you’ll need to focus if you want to do a proper job. My kids are young, so they don’t really listen when I say play quietly. To them that means check out who’s on the camera, draw behind me on the whiteboard, rip my office apart, play with loud toys or just fight because I can’t stop them. They might have made an appearance in this event.

Bio Breaks – you can’t be moderating all sessions on two computers. Sure, it’s possible for a short time but not all day. Make sure you have back up and let the speakers know that you’ll be in the session to help out but popping in and out every 10 minutes. This gives you are free minute to use the bathroom or stretch your legs. It’s impossible to sit at the computer the entire day without leaving. You need to program in some breaks for your person.

Summary

What a day, what a day. The experience of running a virtual event doesn’t even come close to a live event. Live events you get that instant satisfaction of meeting people and hearing about their experience. Virtual events you get to read about it from the few that bother to fill out our the feedback form. If you know me then you know I’m not a huge fan of virtual events, but I know that they are important to keeping the community alive during this time. Despite some of our challenges above I would consider the 2021 Azure Community Event a success. We did it, we held a unique online event that reached 100’s of people and I’m happy with that. We held an event that hosted 18 speakers of high caliber, with 2-3 moderators, 4 organizers, no monetary sponsorships, 1 day, 10 hours, 2 tracks, planned within 2.5 months.

You can visit the event website here – https://www.azurecommunitybc.com/ . We’ll be posted the recordings from the event within the next week. Leave me a comment, let me know if you have questions about running an event in your area or online.

** At the time of this writing I have not yet read any event feedback from our attendees. **

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