Jessica and Derek Balsley are wife and husband founders of “The Art of Education.” Their online community serves global art teachers with social networking, professional development, an online magazine, and resources. This year they decided to organize an online conference to present hot topics in art education to their worldwide audience. They used standard web conferencing technology and we can learn a lot from their experiences.
The conference was held on June 25 and was a resounding success. They had about 700 registrants, a five-hour program, and rave reviews. I looked over the AOE website to investigate how they promoted the conference. Even though the conference is over, the promotional page is still online at http://www.theartofed.com/aoeconference/. I recommend taking a look. It is an excellent study in building audience demand.
Note that the page speaks directly and conversationally to the reader. The first sentence is “Have you attended an Art Ed conference lately?” Not “AOE announces an upcoming conference.” Jessica (as the public-facing voice of AOE) sets up value propositions for taking part in a conference, downsides of traveling to a physical conference, and promises of what their conference will provide.
One of the most compelling persuasion techniques they use is cleverly crafted comparison charts that contrast a physical conference with their online conference. When prospects see the $99 registration fee compared to an estimated $900 in costs, it makes the decision process an easy one!
You can read through Jessica’s recap of the conference on their site. She includes screenshots of their InstantPresenter web conferencing interface and talks about the format and feedback from attendees.
I spoke with Derek to dig a little deeper into the details of what went on behind the scenes. Here are some of the highlights from our talk:
FORMAT AND TIMING:
They started out with thoughts of having each guest presenter make a live presentation. But with the sheer number of people involved and the tight scheduling of one short presentation after another, they came up with an alternate approach that ended up working fantastically. Each presenter prerecorded his or her presentation on video and uploaded it to a private password-protected AOE YouTube channel. Forcing the upload to YouTube kept formats consistent and made use of the existing upload facilities and storage space on YouTube.
Derek downloaded the videos and made them available for playback in InstantPresenter. Derek and Jessica ran live hosting duties on the air using a webcam to interact with attendees and introduce each topic segment. Each presenter joined the session during their video playback and used the keyboard to answer audience chat messages, provide additional detail, and basically run a completely interactive backchannel in conjunction with their own presentation.
This gave AOE a fallback safety net. Even if a presenter had connection difficulties or an emergency on event day, their content could still be used. If an attendee had technical difficulties, they could watch the recorded videos later.
Jessica and Derek used the live interactive features of InstantPresenter to run polls, canvass the audience, and host prize giveaways.
Total elapsed time from initial planning to event day was an amazingly short five months. This truly showcases the advantage of the online environment. I don’t think it would be possible to pull off a physical event in that short a time.
They ended up running the event for five hours straight, without a single coffee break. Jessica and Derek spelled each other when necessary, but attendees needed to decide when there was something they could miss in order to take a break. Derek concedes that this is an area they need to revisit. Some scheduled breaks would have helped.
Still, their records show that there was a fairly consistent level of around 450-500 simultaneous attendees at any point during the conference.
PROMOTION AND ATTENDANCE:
Derek said they realized early on that terminology was key. This needed to be promoted as a “conference” – Not a webinar, web conference, or webcast. People needed to associate the event with the same benefits they get from a physical professional conference. Most of the promotion was done directly to the existing AOE community. Probably 85% of their registrations came from the AOE list.
Since the event was targeted at art teachers rather than technology professionals, the technology had to be easy to use and they needed attendee support. InstantPresenter gave them a phone number and email address for attendee support and AOE also staffed a customer service phone line. But Derek admitted that diagnosing attendee technical problems is almost impossible with that many people. Pragmatically, you end up resorting to “refresh your screen or try logging in again.”
One of their biggest concerns was relying on a Flash-based conferencing system. Derek was worried about iPhone/iPad users getting access. But it did not seem to be a significant problem in practice.
One of the things they did notice was a tendency for typed chat to slow down when overloaded by too many simultaneous messages.
They decided not to worry about draconian security measures to prevent registrants sharing logins to avoid an extra admission fee. The price was low enough and the community was strong enough to trust their audience. If one or two slipped through the cracks without paying, it was easier than inconveniencing everybody with excessive password management.
Derek said the scariest thing was simply starting the event and realizing it all had to work correctly just at that moment, with hundreds of paid attendees waiting. For some reason, Jessica lost display of her own webcam video on her computer at the start and they weren’t sure attendees could see her! But it settled down quickly and ran smoothly.
Derek summed up the event with a simple statement: “Our goal was to provide a tremendous amount of value for our customers, and from the feedback, we succeeded. The average response to our survey question of ‘would you attend again’ was a 9.8 out of 10.”
The Art of Education online conference demonstrates the value, power, and practicality of web conferencing as a tool for community building, education, and even revenue generation. The technology was not the point of the event, nor should it ever be. It was simply there to support the needs of the hosts, the presenters, and the participants. Truly a textbook case study.
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