Microsoft Build: The all-digital dev conference is the future of tech events

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Mobile World Congress was canceled. Facebook F8 was canceled. Google I/O was canceled. But this week, Microsoft went ahead with its Build 2020 developer conference, hosting a completely virtual event. Can Microsoft build a better Build? I was impressed with my first taste of virtual events — all because of Microsoft Teams.

Frankly, I thought I’d sing the praises of Tofurky before Teams, but here we are. Welcome to quaranconferencing.

Microsoft is well-positioned to lead the way, according to Bob Bejan, who runs global events at the company.

“We’ve already conducted more than 15 large-scale virtual events, including a partner summit for over 4,000 attendees and a Microsoft employee town hall with our CEO, Satya Nadella, and the senior leadership team,” Bejan wrote in Fast Company last week.

To access Build, journalists signed into a special Teams channel using a custom-built email address, then were thrown into a lobby. With a wave and smile, I greeted a colleague I haven’t seen in ages. We peeled off into a corner as folks clamored around us and shared a quick moment catching up, then waved goodbye and agreed to meet up again after the keynote to compare thoughts.

Except we’re a thousand miles apart, of course. Despite that, it felt pretty intuitive.

Build attendees also engaged using Teams, which facilitated conversations and live reactions during sessions. They used Teams for networking and community connection opportunities and, of course, the platform powered the many sessions using Teams Live Events. Microsoft told me it intends to publish “how-to” guides following Build, to let other events follow in Microsoft’s virtual footprints.

As the first all-digital event, Microsoft Build sets the stage for the year ahead of us. Yes, German trade show IFA promises to be the first post-Coronavirus trade show, but I fully expect the rest of the big tech events to be virtual. A physical E3 is as shelved as the Sega Genesis, and the organizers behind CES have told me they are planning for a potentially virtual event.

Other events have gone virtual already. SXSW recently kicked off a new series of programming called SXSW Sessions Online — essentially Q&As with people who would have spoken on stage. More intriguing are plans from the brilliantly organized and beautifully executed Collision conference, which intends to run Collision From Home from June 23 to 25.

“Quite honestly, I don’t think you’ll ever replace face to face interactions,” Paddy Cosgrave, the founder of Collision and its big brother Websummit, told me. “But in a world where it’s no longer possible I think there is a good alternative and the alternative for an online conference is an online platform. A conference that enables networking.”

The organizer couldn’t share details on what that will look like yet, but I’m optimistic. If anyone can do it right, it’s Collision. Virual conferences aren’t merely a replacement, of course. The challenge, Cosgrave noted, is building something that takes advantage of the new platform.

“In a disconnected world, everyone wants to connect but it’s really hard to meet new people. We’ve spent more than half a decade building software to network virtually at our events, and connect in advance. Much of those same tools for Collision from Home will be fully at play from the end of June. We hope that goes some way to enabling people from all over the world and from different sectors, to connect with each other in a meaningful way,” he said.

Meanwhile, technology legends Barry Myers and Alfred Poor are planning a new virtual event to sit alongside Myers’ Getgeeked show.

“As an attendee, you’ll be able to click on the exhibitors’ tiles in any order you want just as if you were roaming the floor,” Myers told me. “When you click on their tile, you will access that exhibitor’s ‘portal,’ [where]you will be able to video chat with them, download press materials, request review units, etc. When you’re done interacting with that exhibitor, you exit back to the ‘show floor’ and choose another exhibitor.”

The big mistake people make with online events is that they try to take an on-site event and replicate it, Poor explained. “Instead, I recommend starting with this one question: What is the experience that participants seek from your event? For our technology trade show event, we believe that our audience wants an easy way to find out about products and services that are relevant to them. They also want to make serendipitous discoveries, and to make connections with existing and new contacts.”

That means fewer crummy bag lunches and more interactivity – which certainly sounds like a good thing.

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