Our team had booked the location, the speakers were confirmed, the afterparty planned. But seven weeks before GrafanaCon 2020 was scheduled to take place in Amsterdam, the global pandemic forced us to pivot from our annual in-person conference to a completely virtual event.
The only thing that was certain was that much was uncertain.
For us, user conferences aren’t just about picking a unique place to go to (though it’s hard to beat GrafanaCon 2016, held aboard an aircraft carrier, the USS Intrepid). As a remote-first company that builds open-source software, we celebrate the fact that our team as well as our community and customers are spread across the globe. Our annual GrafanaCon is a special opportunity for us to connect, share, collaborate—and rally around a major release (in this case Grafana 7.0). Personally, it’s among my most favorite times, where I get to hear firsthand how our users are solving interesting problems.
The show had to go on, so we asked the team to adapt to a different reality: the COVID-19 way of life. Given the new challenges of working from home—and in many cases, juggling different family commitments—we couldn’t imagine many people being both totally available and focused on two jam-packed days. We decided to spread it out to two sessions a day for two and a half weeks (which led to some remarkable learnings we didn’t anticipate). Registration would be free, and recordings of all the talks would be made available on demand immediately after. We rebranded the conference GrafanaCONline.
So what happened? We had 19,000 registrations from all over the world, almost 50 times the number of people we had expected to host in Amsterdam. Though Grafana has grown to more than 550,000 active installations and is used by more than a thousand customers, our in-person conferences had remained relatively intimate. Most of this year’s attendees would not have been able to participate in a physical GrafanaCon in Amsterdam. That was a huge win.
As for the actual conference: Every session went off without a major hitch (note to virtual event organizers: be sure to check your speakers’ audio setups and equipment ahead of time), a new product was launched, and the attendees found the content engaging.
Here are 7 things (the good and the bad) we learned:
Virtual meant more participation
We opted for a very light registration process, asking for only an email address. We had debated different options ranging from asking 35 different registration questions to asking none, just ungating all content—I personally leaned this way. We went in thinking 10,000 registrants was an absolutely stretch goal; we almost doubled that.
Keep registration simple
An unexpected and amazing benefit of the longer format was that we could make changes nearly every day to improve the process. (If it had been a two-day conference, we might have had time for some very slight adjustments.) For instance, responding to feedback, the conference team streamlined registration by enabling sign-up across any of the conference pages versus a single registration page. And one sign-in would provide access to all content versus just one particular session. At one point, we sent a bunch of confirmation emails that opened with “Hi [not provided]” because of a mismatch in mapping fields between Salesforce and Marketo, which we quickly fixed. We also evolved our daily email to registrants to make it easier for them to schedule and attend sessions of interest.
Find the right streaming service
We struggled with several conference and video platforms and ended up making a last-minute decision to ditch an entire event platform because of poor international streaming experience. We opted to stream everything via YouTube and render the sessions on our conference site. We knew YouTube required no install, was easily accessible, and could scale. The only drawback was that the community often shared the direct YouTube link (versus streaming on our site), which meant we lost some registration tracking. Instead of unlisting the videos, though, we embraced this. We went where the community wanted us to be.
Conduct a post-conference survey
In our post-conference survey, 86% liked the format of two sessions a day over two and a half weeks. The most common suggestion we got was that we could condense the timeframe. For the next one, we will probably try to do it over one week. To be honest, the two and a half weeks completely burned out the logistics team!
COVID complicates participation
While we were ecstatic about the 19K registrations, the number of live attendees for any given session peaked at about 2,000. In our survey we found that a small minority (19%) of respondents only wanted to watch live content. So it’s clear that in the COVID reality, many could not commit to live scheduling.
We used Slack for the live Q&A after each session, as well as for “hallway track” chat. This had pros and cons. While it’s well known, Slack requires a separate sign-up/sign-in process. Plus, at one point we ended up with a channel of more than 2,000 people, so the conversations became hard to follow at times. Next time, we’ll do channels for each session. One big advantage the Slack Q&A had over the typical in-person version was that it gave more people the ability to ask the speakers questions, and more people (such as our engineering team, or even other community members) a chance to jump in and help answer them.
“Snack N Slack”
Something that worked pretty nicely was having a small group gathering on a “Snack N Slack” private channel, where our executive leadership hosted some of our customers after the opening keynote. We sent each external attendee a Grubhub gift card ahead of time to handle the “snack” part. One lesson we learned was that over Slack, we needed to seed the room with questions to get dialogue going. We’ll also probably try this over Zoom for more personal interaction next time.
Speaking of next time . . . Yup, we’re planning another GrafanaCONline later this year. Even post-COVID, we may continue to do some virtual events because of the greater accessibility they offer. And when we can meet in person again—imagine that!—we will surely apply some of our learnings from our very first quarantine conference.
Raj Dutt is the cofounder and CEO of Grafana Labs, the company behind Grafana, an open-source analytics and monitoring solution for databases.