Monday, November 29, 2010

Getting real about going virtual

Today I was reading Stephen Abram's blog, Stephen's Lighthouse, and his post urging us to be more proactive when it comes to attending virtual conferences and events in 2011. Clearly there are more and more opportunities for virtual participation and an entire industry has sprung up to support it. I'm sure most of us have attended (or even hosted) hybrid conferences that offered at least a virtual component, if not a complete virtual track.

At NELLCO we have dipped our toes into the virtual event water. In 2008 we ran a survey to find out what members wanted from the Interest Groups. We had 54 responses and about 1/5 indicated that they wished we could provide more of an opportunity for distance participation. To help us meet that need we license Webex and use their Event Center as a virtual presentation environment. We have begun making some inroads. We did a 4-part series on advocacy earlier this year, we often host virtual product demos of electronic resources we offer to our members, and we have had a handful of virtual attendees at some of our Interest Group meetings over the last few years. But we haven't developed a standard operating procedure for virtual or hybrid events; it's not yet been operationalized. I'm going to share the two primary reasons for that as well as my personal reservations about jumping into the virtual deep end.

First, we simply lack the internal support system to do virtual well. It's more than just a speaker phone and a conference line. That we can manage. But to really do virtual in a meaningful and engaging way requires good IT support, independent facilitation for in-person and online (and perhaps even back channel) components, and sufficient technology, including video components. So while we will continue to do what we can with our current technologies (webex and audio) we aren't likely to be wowing you with our virtual presence anytime soon. Good intentions on the part of the event host don't necessarily result in a good experience for the participants.

Second, I'm not sure the Interest Groups are the right forum for virtual participation. In the survey mentioned earlier members were even more vocal about the value of the face-to-face experience that the Interest Groups foster. From the responses, attendance at the IG meetings is more about the collegiality, the opportunity to learn firsthand what's happening in other libraries and how folks are managing, coping, leading, etc. While the meeting content is important for members to be able to justify their attendance, the real value is in the other attendees. In Hybrid Meetings That Offer the Best of Both Worlds, an article in Associations Now by Kathleen M. Edwards, one lesson learned by virtual event pioneers is that content is king. Since content isn't the prime mover for our members to attend our IG meetings, it may not be the right place to standardize virtual participation.

So now to my personal reservations. In a nutshell it's this: if we build it, you will come. If all of our meetings and events can be attended virtually, will the entire face-to-face component evaporate? With travel budgets shrinking and demands on staff increasing there might be a big push to 'go virtual' when you can. And if that happens I think the Interest Groups would quickly founder.

In a Leader Connect post, Ahead of the Virtual Event Curve, on 11/23, Rebecca Rolfes offers some sage advice that I take to heart.
Worrying too long about cannibalization only increases the likelihood that someone else will offer your audience a virtual experience that you should have owned.
I think the challenge for NELLCO is offering the right mix of online and onground opportunities. This means being strategic about when, where and how we offer virtual engagement.

What are your thoughts? What's the best or worse attempt you've seen at providing a virtual conference or event experience? Is there a way NELLCO could do more in this arena?

1 comment:

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