How Virtual Events are Changing the WordPress Event Landscape

As I write this, in a normal year, I would have just gotten home from St. Louis after what was sure to be a successful WordCamp US 2020. I would have seen many close friends I only see once or twice a year, maybe I would have gotten to speak, and I definitely would have made new connections. We’d have seen a great recap of what happened with WordPress this year, and we’d know what city we’d all get together in next year.

But this is not a normal year. WordPress events — WordCamps, WordPress Meetups, and events surrounding the WordPress ecosystem — have been cancelled or have gone virtual. WCUS 2020 went virtual, and then was cancelled due to virtual event fatigue.

So what does that mean for the WordPress event landscape in general? Will the rise of virtual events continue or even replace certain in-person events permanently? Here’s what we know so far.

The first thing to note is that virtual events, even in the WordPress space, are not new. WordSesh and WooSesh are both very popular, free events that generate a lot of buzz, great content, and make financial sense for the organizers. In-fact, WordSesh has been around for many years, and WooSesh emerged in 2018 after WooConf decided not to hold their event.

I spoke at my first virtual WordPress event, run by Environments for Humans, back in 2014.

All of this is to say that virtual events are not new, and despite virtual event fatigue, they aren’t going anywhere either. They were a growing industry before the global pandemic, and the pandemic accelerated that growth by making more people familiar with the technology required to run, and attend, virtual events.

That acceleration has lead to a growth in online resources. In the WordPress space alone we’ve seen more online courses launch, more virtual events, and even virtual happy hours.

People started to get creative with how they connected and cultivated a community.

One fun, creative result of WordPress events moving online are the WordPress Mega Meetups. Several WordPress Meetup organizers will get together and plan a coordinated event bringing all of their members together virtually. The first one garnered over 130 attendees, real prizes, and more.

Another platform that came from the cancellation of WordPress events (or at least was accelerated because of it) is Learn WordPress, a place where people can go to attend pre-recorded workshops on specific, WordPress-based topics.

I recently got to interview Hugh Lashbrooke, the Community Team Lead heading up Learn WordPress, on my own podcast for my WordPress: Year in Review project. He stated that these were much more focused workshops, with a clear outcome-based structure. He also alluded to the fact that the aspiration for the platform is to host online courses.

The reason we’re seeing growth in this area is because there are huge benefits to hosting online events. You don’t have as much overhead for organizers or attendees. There’s no need to find a venue, figure out floor plans, or feed people. And for attendees, there’s no need to potentially book a flight or hotel room, or travel at all.

There’s also a good blend of sync and async learning. Virtual events that give attendees the opportunity to interact in chat or on video are still cultivating some of the networking that you see at in-person events. But I know that if I can’t make a talk at a specific time, I have the opportunity to view that talk shortly after. There’s no wait time for processing videos and putting them online because they’re already online.

I recently spoke at Page Builder Summit and was pleased to see the organizers had the speakers pre-record their talks instead of broadcasting them live. This took away the stress of broadcasting a live talk and being at the mercy of internet connections and interrupting children.

They also encouraged speakers to be in the chat at the scheduled time for their talks. This allowed me to interact with attendees in real time as they watched my talk — another facet of virtual talks that can be stressful. You don’t want to break your flow as a speaker by checking a chat room that’s likely 30 seconds behind you.

Another great benefit of virtual meetups is the opportunity for communities to cross-pollinate more regularly. Looking at the mega meetups, you have meetup organizers from all over combining powers and making a great experience for their communities.

I was able to speak at The Carlsbad WordPress Meetup — my first CA event, and a group I likely wouldn’t get to present to otherwise. And at my local WordPress Meetup, we have folks coming from all over to speak using the newly virtualized format.

All this means there’s an opportunity for new perspectives, more diverse speakers, and the cross-pollination of ideas from community to community.

All that said, there are also drawbacks. For one, I sit at my computer for 8–10 hours a day. I’m less likely to spend non-working time there as well. I suspect a lot of people feel the same. Like I said earlier, virtual event fatigue is real.

Between meetings for work, staring at a screen for work, staring at a screen for entertainment (have you seen Ted Lasso? SO GOOD), that’s a lot of Zoom time. It’s easy to want to get away from the computer for events you’d otherwise attend in person and catch the replay later. But there’s one drawback that stands out more than any other (for me at least).

Look, I’ll be honest. When I go to WordCamps, I’m seldom in talks. I’ll go to a couple. But I spend most of my time talking to people I wouldn’t otherwise have the opportunity to meet. Hanging out in the hallway track, meeting people at booths, sitting at random tables during lunch. It’s this extrovert’s dream.

But it’s also a strong “yay” vote for bringing back in-person events as soon as possible. Connections happen a little more organically at in-person events than at virtual events.

I have no doubt that in-person events will come back…hopefully in 2021. While flagship WordCamps have already been cancelled (at least the in-person versions), as communities start to open back up, we’ll see more WordCamps and Meetups as well.

However, as much as I talked about the drawbacks, virtual events are here to stay. They are convenient, allow for learning on our own time, and enable people to speak and attend events who otherwise wouldn’t be able to.

I suspect that moving into 2021 and beyond, we’ll see a healthy mix of both. Perhaps we’ll even see WordPress communities who were unable to have in-person WordCamps hold them virtually due to less cost, overhead, and logistics.

And hearing from more voices in the community is a great thing.

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