Estimated reading time: 30 minutes
I’m about to take a deep dive into what it took to deliver the first WordFest Live 2021. I’ll get technical, practical, as well as personal. I hope to impart some of our gained knowledge and experience, as we took on the challenge of building a virtual event from scratch for 2,000+ attendees.
Table of contents
- Where we started
- The Big Orange Heart Events Platform
- Taking the next steps towards WordFest Live 2021
- Speaker selection process
- The Venue
- The Delivery of WordFest Live 2021
- Wrapping up
Where we started
The Big Orange Heart (BOH) team has been delivering events into our community for many years, supporting the charitable mission to reduce remote workers’ social isolation. In a pre-COVID world, our monthly in-person events attracted a healthy and regular audience. For several years, these events have been live-streamed, to make access more readily available to community members unable to travel to the physical locations.
The team of volunteers has developed a high-quality live-streaming experience, with volunteers such as Leo Mindel of Sotic, making great efforts every month for the community.
As news of the COVID crisis developed in early 2020, the BOH team discussed the issue and made an early call to suspend all in-person events. The announcement of the UK’s national lockdown came almost a month later. Our last in-person event took place on February 27, 2020.
Looking back a little further
WordFest Live 2021 started as something different. Back in 2019, the Big Orange Heart team delivered #DoSummitGood. An event that brought various for-good entities together across the WordPress ecosystem. It was delivered on Giving Tuesday, an international day of giving following Black Friday/Cyber Monday, and intended to be a mechanism to fundraise for the various non-profits featured. While the event was a success in terms of the delivery, content and attendance, it failed to achieve its fundraising goal. With little more than $500 raised throughout the event.
Although the fundraising hadn’t achieved the success, we’d hoped, little did we know it had been the first large-scale use of a tool we would later become so heavily reliant on – Streamyard.
Transitioning from in-person to virtual events
Just one month after the last BOH in-person event, we delivered our first virtual event. Taking place on our regular monthly date, and the transition was relatively easy, in part due to our experience of live-streaming sessions before the lockdown, along with the prior use of Streamyard.
The speakers joined the hosts ‘backstage’ on Streamyard. At this point, we connected Streamyard to Restream to allow us to stream the content to multiple locations.
When we went live with the speakers, we would simultaneously stream the content to the BOH YouTube, Facebook Group and Twitter. Our next step was to embed the YouTube feed into a webpage and included a Chatroll live chat. The process we’d built here was to become the core foundation for what would later be known internally as the BOH Live Events Platform.
We used our regular Meetup signup process to allow attendees to indicate their intention to attend. However, there was nothing stopping anyone from visiting the webpage and joining the live chat.
Here is where some cracks started to appear in our process. Unauthenticated access to any live chat can lead to potential problems. We were fortunate in those early days and didn’t run into any significant issues with inappropriate content shared or spam messages sent.
Attendee feedback indicated that they loved the format and enjoyed the ability to connect over chat. It was an encouraging sign for the team.
Connecting with the community
A significant element to all our events has been, and always will be, the ability to connect with people. At this early stage in our virtual events, we wanted to ensure people could come together.
Streamyard was an incredible tool for delivering content for attendees to consume; however, it didn’t intend to support people’s coming together. As a remote worker community, we were very familiar with Zoom, long before the service’s vast public uptake.
As part of our signup process through Meetup, we would email all confirmed attendees a link and password for a Zoom call. We would open this Zoom call for 30 minutes before the live-streamed session and again after the sessions had finished.
The result; attendees would come together for a short networking session on Zoom, then head over to the webpage to watch the live content where they could keep the conversation going over chat, and then finish up in an informal Zoom call at the end to connect. It was our first step in enabling the community to come together virtually.
The early mistakes
This early process wasn’t without its challenges. As I mentioned already, an unauthenticated live chat was a severe concern. But we’d been lucky here, and it was just luck.
The more significant issue we faced was with the use of Zoom. At this early stage, Zoom had very little in the way of protection for participants by default. Unfortunately, Zoombombing became a thing. And whilst we’d taken all the precautions available to us at the time; passwords, waiting rooms etc. It wasn’t enough. With 100+ registered attendees for each event, there was no way to know every attendee sitting in a waiting room on Zoom. So we would have to let people in, without really knowing who they were.
It led to one incident where an individual was allowed access, who then invited fake users via a bot. The person responsible for the bot kept himself quiet and unassuming, so whilst moderators worked to remove the bots, the individual controlling them was still present.
Eventually, we removed the person without too much interruption to the attendees, but it had put a considerable strain on the team trying to moderate.
It was not something we wanted to continue with. Our team of volunteers should not feel under pressure from unknown bad actors every time a free event is delivered.
The Big Orange Heart Events Platform
At this point, I wanted to look at ways to incorporate all the good we’d been able to develop and remove the negative as much as possible.
The challenge was how to bring a virtual community together safely.
We had the delivery mechanism resolved. We were happy with the process, speakers kept remarking how easy it was, and attendees would repeatedly provide positive feedback.
It was now the community part that needed resolving. Zoom was not an appropriate option for the style of event we deliver, while it has breakout room functionality; it does not fit our needs. It’s a great business tool and one I use daily, but in this instance, we were trying to use it in a way it was never intended for.
Being a huge fan of open-source, this felt like the right place to start. I quickly discovered Jitsi – described as a collection of free and open-source multiplatform voice, video conferencing, and instant messaging applications for the web. Being an open-source solution presented possibilities that were not available through Zoom.
Building an appropriate solution
Whilst Jitsi is an excellent solution, it still presented some of the same issues Zoom did – it was intended to be used as a single conference call with everyone coming together in that single instance.
It isn’t how we connect in real life. When we attend an event, we’ll enter the event space with fellow attendees and decide who we’ll connect with. We aren’t generally dropped into an enclosed space and expected to speak, one at a time, with 40 to 50 other people. It’s a big issue when using video conferencing for any form of event.
We can add a substantial cognitive load to attendees by asking them to jump into video conference calls, without knowing beforehand who they will be joining. Internally we’ve coined this Zoom-roulette. It’s not a positive experience for attendees.
So my mission was to enable a way to allow attendees to start a video conference themselves, in a safe environment, whilst knowing who was on the call before joining. It also needed to be in a single user interface, so there was no need to move between different areas to connect with others.
I wanted to build as close an experience as possible as walking into a sponsors hall at an in-person conference. You can see all the various groups of people, and it’s your choice as to who you join or don’t join.
The result was a custom app, utilising several open-source technologies that enabled precisely this experience.
A safe virtual event
The next step in this journey was to ensure attendees could participate in a safe environment. We wanted to provide open access to all, once we knew who was within the event. Having to move between Zoom calls, with various passwords and links is a terrible experience.
So we turned to the platform we use for our registration process – Meetup. As we deliver several events, we run a Meetup Pro account. The significant advantage this offers is access to their API.
I approached Tim Nash, a long time supporter of BOH and someone I see as highly respected in the development world. We talked about the issues we faced and set about developing a solution that would authenticate users.
Tim quickly developed a solution that would authenticate the user into a WordPress site based on their RSVP to a specific event. It was a turning point – it meant we could now know our users and give them free access to all the tools – live chat, video conferencing, access to talks etc.
On May 28, just two months after our first virtual event, we opened access to the Big Orange Heart platform.
Taking the next steps towards WordFest Live 2021
With the knowledge and experience, we’d been building throughout our events’ delivery; we decided to offer the platform to other meetup communities for free.
It was a further step to support our mission. Several communities quickly came on board, including PHP user groups and wider digital-focused groups.
It helped shape the platform through broader user feedback, with more than 12,500 registered attendees coming through it in the first six months.
We felt it was stable enough to open it to a much larger audience – WordFest Live 2021.
Making the call to deliver WordFest Live 2021
As a Board of Trustees, we met on September 9, 2020, and voted on the concept to change #DoSummitGood into WordFest Live 2021. The idea was to allow the event to have a hyper-focus on WordPress, over donations into the charity, as #DoSummitGood had had previously. It was to enable the content to appeal to a dedicated audience. It delivers two-fold; the audience benefits by receiving targeted content for their area of interest, and sponsors can connect with their potential client base.
The shift to a niche focus enables a better experience for all involved.
To take things forward, on September 17, we formed a small team of core volunteers:
- Dan Maby – Lead Organiser
- Michelle Frechette – Speaker Lead
- Hauwa Abashiya – Sponsors Lead
- Paul Smart – Sponsors Co-lead
- Cate DeRosia – Marketing Lead
- Leo Mindel – AV Lead
- Tim Nash – Operations Lead
- Giles HT – Volunteers Lead
And October 1, we published a basic holding page on the site. October 21 was the official launch of the concept. And the event then delivered 93 days later.
The planning phase
The organisers’ core team comprises a diverse mix of individuals who all had experience delivering in-person events. It was crucial in aiding the progression of the planning phase. However, there was a learning curve in front of us – this wasn’t an in-person event.
First, we needed to decide how this event would be different from the myriad of other virtual events available to the community.
I have fond memories of the early days of WordSesh, during which the team delivered a 24-hour version. Having had the privilege of meeting Brian Richards and knowing how passionate he is about this event style. I reached out to him, to discuss it before we’d made any public announcement. We didn’t want to create a feeling of competition; this event was intended to complement the options available.
The concept of a 24-hour event was forming. The idea was to celebrate our community, our global community. And the mission statement was born:
- To enable a 24-hour global celebration of WordPress, bringing our community together in a safe environment, whilst facilitating freedom of movement within a virtual environment.
We needed to look at a way to manage the 24 hours and make them digestible for attendees. Our intention was never to encourage people to join for the full 24 hours; it was about making the event available to everyone, at some point over this time.
A global celebration
As with any event that intends to reach an international audience, time zones became a challenge. We initially discussed the idea of travelling between global continents over the 24 hours. But this proved to be challenging due to the number of continents. We looked at regions, which is where we settled on the concept of Oceania, Asia, EMEA, and the Americas.
These four regions encompassed six of the seven global continents – Africa, Asia, Australia, Europe, North America and South America. Antarctica we’re sorry not to have been able to feature you!
As a global celebration of WordPress, we wanted to encourage speakers, attendees, volunteers and sponsors from these four regions. We wanted individuals that represented their particular parts of the globe to feature.
Call for speakers
One of the first tasks was to create an open Call for Speakers.
The subject of WordPress and the community around it is vast. There are so many areas that the term ‘WordPress’ can cover from technical development to implementation via a drag-and-drop page builder, or deep dive into technical SEO to higher-level marketing practices.
We wanted to include it all – this was, after all, a celebration of our community.
And of course, we wanted to ensure our community’s well-being was discussed and approached in the topics.
I’m incredibly grateful to have had the privilege of working with Michelle Frechette across the speaker management. We so gratefully received her experience and depth of knowledge across multiple areas of the event.
Call for speakers – technical
We used Gravity Forms to build out our Call for Speakers registration form. We used several add-ons to facilitate this and help automate many back-end processes.
In the back-end, when a speaker submitted a session, it would create two draft posts in two custom post types of `Sessions` and `Speaker`. It would allow us, once speakers and session were selected, to quickly publish their details.
We use Pods for the building of our custom post types and custom fields. It allowed us to build a two-way relationship field between the Session and the Speaker CPT. It allowed us on the front-end to display data from the two sets of custom fields on their related posts.
Of course, there would be no event if it wasn’t for the attendees. So it required a smooth registration process.
We made the decision to make the event as accessible as possible, to as many as possible. So we charged no fee for attendance. We didn’t want cost to be a limiting factor.
However, the event needed to fundraise for Big Orange Heart. So we settled on the concept of an optional donation at the point of registration.
Open Registration – technical
Because we were already using Gravity Forms on the site, it was a logical choice for the registration flow.
This form needed some additional add-ons to facilitate the workflow.
The Stripe add-on enabled the optional donation. It was displayed based on a conditional logic within the form, based on the attendees’ choice to donate.
The User Registration add-on created a user in WordPress upon successful registration. If the user granted permission, the form then synced their details with Active Campaign for future communication about the event. It then sent an optional invite into the BOH Slack via the Slack add-on.
And finally, a post was published in the custom post type of `Attendee` if the person registering chose to have a public-facing profile on the Attendees page via the Post Creation add-on.
Call for Sponsors
The lion’s share of fundraising would come in the form of sponsorship. To facilitate this, we needed an open Call for Sponsors.
Before opening the call, though, we needed to define the sponsorship options. Often a challenging task, as we wanted to ensure there was real value for the sponsors.
Pushing out some thank you Tweets and adding a logo to the site simply doesn’t offer this value. So this is where we worked with the platform and built out additional functionality that enabled dedicated sponsors ‘Tables’ within the areas used for attendees to connect.
Having had the privilege of working with Hauwa Abashiya on WordCamp London, I was so pleased when she agreed to join us to lead the sponsor’s team. In combination with Paul Smart, we set about building out the packages.
Call for Sponsors – technical
Along with the work already completed on the platform – Lewis Cowles stepped in as a volunteer. He undertook some great work to modify our sponsors’ area within the BOH Events Platform.
As the event would move between Regions, sponsors would change. However, our wonderful Global Sponsors – Fused and GoDaddy Pro – would remain throughout. It presented a particular challenge, in that we didn’t want to shut these tables down.
The result was to enable any table marked as Global, to remain visible across multiple locations within the platform. Meaning a sponsor team member might be on an Oceania page and an attendee might be on an Asia page, but they can both connect in the same space and see each other before joining.
Call for Volunteers
The next phase in the journey was to open the Call for Volunteers. Continuing the focus on the global nature of WordFest Live 2021, we wanted to ensure the whole team was representative of people from across our international community.
We opened the public call, then set about ensuring this information was available across multiple online locations, focusing on Facebook Groups, online communities, and news outlets outside our regular WordPress bubble. We wanted to attract people from each of the four Regions, so we proactively reached out to places where they would be active.
Through the process of managing the volunteers, an issue was highlighted that will help shape future planning. A key team member in the volunteer’s operation had to drop away from the project at a critical moment unexpectedly. It resulted in the need to find an alternative lead at short notice, which is a challenge in its own right. However, to compound the situation, there was unknown information about the steps taken to date.
I’m deeply grateful to Giles HT who stepped into the role, along with the incredible efforts from the rest of the team to support this situation.
The takeaway from this – every key role requires a lead and a deputy. We had implemented this model for several positions but not all.
I’m very grateful for every person who played a role in delivering WordFest Live 2021 – at every level.
Call for Volunteers – technical
The Call for Volunteers was a relatively simple form submission with the data synced to a Google Sheet that various team members had access too.
Once submitted, the Volunteer Lead contacted the individuals and disused availability and requirements for the roles.
There are additional lessons to take away from the Call for Volunteers on the technical side – on some level; we were a little too successful in our outreach. We were overwhelmed with the number of people stepping forward to support the event, which led to an unexpected issue – we managed the process too late in the day.
Being a virtual event and needing to manage a distributed team of 60+ volunteers, opened a ream of technical and personnel challenges.
Not least was our lack of knowledge of many people who had offered to help. It was both a wonderful and challenging situation. Wonderful – in that, it demonstrated the outreach had worked. And so many wanted to support the cause. We’d tapped into the global community we’d been hoping for. Challenging – because we now needed to understand who all of these individuals are, their skills and find appropriate ways to provide access to tools that had a considerable risk factor.
I’ll get into the technical delivery soon but in short, and as an example to support this statement – we used several AWS virtual machines to live stream the pre-recorded sessions. We had so many operations that needed to be undertaken across this setup; our internal team couldn’t manage it. So we needed to rely on the skills of volunteers. Mistakes on these virtual machines had the potential to bring a halt to the live event.
These concerns were quickly alleviated by every volunteer’s incredible nature, skill, and enthusiasm across the event.
We had the privilege of working with some incredible people, and it would be an honour to work with every single one of them again.
Speaker selection process
We wanted to be open about our speaker selection process and chose to share this with our speakers as they registered to speak.
I’m of the firm opinion – there is no perfect speaker selection process – when trying to ensure a truly diverse range of individuals, knowledge and abilities.
Diversity was at the forefront of all our conversations, not just in the speaker selection, but across everything.
Specifically, for the speaker selection, we decided to run an initial blind selection process. An anonymised Google Sheet of speaker details was created by adding just the talk title and description from every submission, I then removed all identifiable information. Speakers’ names, pronouns, and any reference to companies, products, or services were all removed.
This sheet was then given to fifteen internal team members, with very different skillsets and interests, to read and place a score between one and five on each session based on the information available.
And this is where my first issue with blind selection comes in – this model favours those more capable of expressing themselves in the written word.
However, this now gave us a baseline to work from. Of the fifteen people reviewing, there was a wonderfully different set of scores across the sessions.
Increasing the number of sessions from 24 to 48
We initially set out to deliver 24 sessions over the 24-hours. While the Call for Speakers was still open, we could see the high level of outstanding sessions coming in, so we decided to increase the sessions to 36.
It wasn’t until we’d closed the Call for Speakers and completed the blind selection process, that we decided, as a team, we’d need to increase the number of sessions again to 48.
Reducing the number of sessions from 148 to 48
So now we need to get from the 148 accepted sessions to the 48 that would feature.
Initially, we reviewed the top 48 scoring sessions from the blind selection, and their identifiable information was made available. From here we initially looked at company overrepresentation. Then we looked at locations given by the speakers through the registration process, to ensure a distributed mix across the four regions.
We did not specifically ask any question concerning gender through the application process. We felt this was intrusive and inappropriate. However, this then raises the question of how do you ensure a diverse gender mix through speakers?
Putting it bluntly – we couldn’t answer this.
Two significant issues arise – we didn’t want to pick lower-scoring sessions to fulfil an arbitrary gender quota. We wanted to ensure people were selected on their merit of the application, and not merely to be a gender-based statistic. Secondly, we didn’t have the data available to make an informed decision around gender diversity.
We also didn’t have any data to help ensure we had a diverse mix of neurodivergent individuals.
To support our desire to ensure this was a diverse and balanced event, we decided to base many of our choices, outside the blind selection, on the individual’s selected regions.
Whilst I would love to share some statistics about diversity, we do not have relevant data to support this properly.
If this is an area you would like to discuss further, I am always very open to taking this conversation forward. As a privileged white, non-disabled male, I’m very aware my experiences will be different from others. I do have a passion for enabling people’s inclusion within our community and am always interested in opinions around diversity and inclusion.
I was incredibly pleased to see such a varied mix of individuals feature across our speakers, on a very personal level. There was a beautiful mix of knowledge, skills, and subject matters covered by people worldwide.
The venue may not be something that instantly comes to mind when you think about a virtual event. But it’s a critical component.
Building the venue
As I’ve mentioned already; a lot of work had been going into developing the BOH Events Platform. However, the platform was designed for our weekly events, featuring one, two or three speakers with anywhere between fifty and a hundred and fifty attendees.
It wasn’t initially built to be a multi-session venue. So we needed to build this out. The core components were there in the BOH Events Platform. But we needed to find a way to enable sixteen concurrent areas for live content – four live stages, over four regions.
Navigating the venue
We didn’t want to shut one region down as we moved to another, as we wanted to allow freedom of movement between sessions and Regions, no matter when an attendee joined the event. But this presented a myriad of UI and UX issues.
Unfortunately, these issues were a consequence of the limited resources from the team of volunteers.
Trying to build out a UI that enables any attendee access to any of the live and complete sessions, meant we ended up with sixteen Stages.
To compound this, we had six sponsor tents per Region, again not wanting to kick any sponsor off, resulted in twenty-four areas.
All this combined led to forty various locations for the attendee to choose from. We intended the Main Gate to be the main thoroughfare for all traffic but appreciate several attendees used, and quite rightly so, the schedule to try and get to the right place at the right time.
UI/UX is something we will do better with going forward.
The Delivery of WordFest Live 2021
To deliver a non-stop 24-hour live event, featuring 48 live sessions, 70+ sponsor-driven sessions, spanning multiple time zones, with almost 2,500 attendees, is no small feat.
Taking a regular comment from our Speaker Lead Michelle Frechette – “it takes a village to deliver something like this.”
And that it did. With 60+ volunteers taking on tasks not just during the live event but prior, to ensure the delivery was as smooth as we could make it.
Keeping on top of all the details
Understanding who was where, and who was doing what, was essential to the smooth delivery.
The concept of understanding who was where seems a little alien when we talk about a virtual event. Surely you know exactly where someone is? Most likely in their office or home in front of a computer. Yes, this is true, but there were plenty of virtual places volunteers, and team members could be, as you’ll see later.
Weeks before the event, our Playbook started to form. As I’m sure you can imagine, planning for this event meant spreadsheets and documents galore! We trialled some services early on to help with better project management, but we were often working the way the tool needed, not the way we wanted.
We also needed to be mindful that every person was a volunteer, so time was precious. We didn’t want to be investing time in learning a new tool. So we defaulted back to Google Docs and Sheets, with the majority of the team familiar with them.
On the day, however, we didn’t want to be jumping between multiple documents for information. So a single Google Sheet was built, which became the Playbook.
The Playbook featured twenty colour coded tabs that included essential information about speakers, sponsors, volunteers, scheduling, live-streaming, assets and even a miscellaneous that held links to external resources not compatible with a Google Sheet.
It was an essential tool in both the run-up to the event and through the live event itself. With every volunteer given access to ensure we all had the same information to deliver WordFest Live 2021.
Delivering pre-recorded sessions
One (of many) technical challenges that presented itself early on related to the speaker’s sessions. We wanted to provide a calming experience, as much as possible.
Technical issues when presenting live, are a real thing. In this new delivery style of remote talks, we wanted to try and help reduce the problems speakers might face on the day. We started by deciding to ask each session to be pre-recorded.
And this decision had a two-fold impact:
For speakers, it now meant they could edit their session. At first glance, this might seem like a positive, but as you dive deeper into this concept, it can become a real issue. When we present live, if we sneeze midway through, we have no option but to carry on. When pre-recording, the temptation is to edit that sneeze out. For some, this might not be an issue; for others, this can become a huge mountain to climb.
The perfectionist mindset can creep in and time spent recording, editing and rerecording can become a considerable burden, particularly if you do not possess the skills or means to edit video. It can lead to the desire to re-record the whole session, multiple times.
For the organising team, it presents an issue in technical ways. As I’ve mentioned, we use Streamyard for the delivery of live content. And Streamyard is excellent at this, but it was not designed to stream pre-recorded content of any length longer than 10 minutes when we delivered the event. The Streamyard team have since added a feature that would have supported this process.
The other issue relates to accessibility – when streaming a pre-recorded session live, there is no way to enable closed captions other than via live transcribers. Unfortunately, this event simply did not have the budget to meet the $18,000 quote we’d received for a 24-hour live transcription service.
To overcome these two technical issues, we had to get creative.
Delivering pre-recorded sessions – technical (pre-recorded sessions live)
First up the delivery of pre-recorded sessions live. It is where Leo Mindel, our AV Lead, really stepped up the delivery. We spoke at length about the requirements, and his solution was both elegant and practical. We would use AWS virtual machines to be the delivery mechanism of the pre-recorded sessions.
On the AWS machine, we installed vMix; this would, in turn, become a virtual camera for the AWS machine. Then in the browser on the AWS machine, we would join the Streamyard as a guest. This guest user would share their screen, which was the pre-recorded session coming out of vMix.
The above is an oversimplification of the process but provides a concept of the delivery.
The fun then comes with the fact we had four stages that transitioned between two regions. Essentially requiring eight AWS virtual machines with this set up to allow for the continuous stream as we moved between regions.
We relied heavily on our AV Producer Volunteers, in coordination with our Green Room Volunteers to keep this process running smoothly for our Emcee Volunteers and Speakers. And I’d like to congratulate every one of them personally! They did an excellent job.
Delivering pre-recorded sessions – technical (closed captions)
To enable the live delivery of pre-recorded sessions, we came up against an accessibility issue. As I’ve mentioned, the budget didn’t stretch to the live captioning, we had hoped for. We expect to rectify this going forward. However, we needed a solution for this event.
Once we had selected our sessions, we asked if they would be prepared to caption their session and provide a separate SRT file when submitting their video during our outreach to speakers.
I’m pleased to say that almost 60% of our speakers provided this file. We appreciate this is an additional step and one many were not familiar with.
Because the session would be live-streamed, we needed to burn the captions onto the video. It’s a process that requires editing the video of every session. And as I’m sure you can imagine, time-consuming.
At this stage, I’d like to personally thank Paul Smart of Smart Digital for his incredible efforts to edit every session’s caption file.
We used a service called Descript. It allows the user to either upload the provided SRT and sync with the video or if the speaker did not offer an SRT, it would create an automated caption file and sync the two.
Automated captioning is not perfect, but it provides a good starting point. The team spent dedicated time watching and editing every session for significant errors in the captioning. It wasn’t perfect, but we felt the solution was better than not doing anything.
Lines of communication
There are two critical communication lines across an event such as WordFest Live 2021 – internal and external.
Externally we needed to ensure attendees were kept up to date and knew what was going on when. It wasn’t just a requirement through the event but leading up to it as well. Cate DeRosia of HeroPress did a fantastic job of taking care of our social media and external communications throughout the whole experience.
With the use of Buffer, she was able to automate a large portion of the social communication ahead of time. It was freeing her up during the event to be responsive to items that needed dedicated focus.
Internally we needed a way to communicate with a team of 60+ people, with as little friction as possible. We’d asked the speakers, sponsors, and volunteers to join the BOH Slack ahead of time. We’d also informed them that this would be our primary form of text-based communication on the day, as the team would not monitor email.
However, text-based communication isn’t responsive enough for the various moving parts it takes to deliver an event such as this. We needed live voice communication.
Discord was the solution that we settled on, another innovative idea from Leo. We created several voice channels in the BOH Discord and brought in strategic individuals to access quickly and as needed.
It was, without doubt, the single most relied on tool throughout the event. Not only did it create a frictionless means of communication for key team members, but it also helped instil a sense of togetherness.
This sense of togetherness was something that struck me deeply as I hit my twenty-fifth hour of being awake.
In the past, when I’ve organised in-person events, they often take a lot out of you both physically and mentally. There’s usually a back room somewhere, where team members grab a few minutes together and often there’s a deep connection – a connection through the work that’s gone into delivering the event. You can usually tell, without a word even being said, how the others are doing.
At this time, I had one of these moments that I honestly didn’t expect from a virtual event. The core team kept the Discord voice channel open throughout the event and would often be silent for long periods whilst we worked on our various tasks. But then suddenly someone would say something, and we all had a connected sense of that feeling.
It was a special moment for me, that sense of connection in a time when we’re so separated.
If you’re here, congratulations! I hadn’t expected quite so much to come out of this post.
There are many lessons we’ve learned through this process. There are things we got wrong, and there are things we got right.
There have been some repeated questions since the delivery of WordFest Live 2021, and I’d like to tackle those.
When in-person comes back, will WordFest Live be in-person as well as virtual?
We’re actively working on this right now. We feel the delivery of virtual events has lowered the barrier-to-entry for so many across our global community. The virtual format has also provided access where there may not have been in the past. So the ability to offer a hybrid event successfully is one of our highest priorities for all our events at the moment.
We’ll be monitoring this closely and, concerning WordFest Live, respect the wishes of the community.
What’s the future for WordFest Live and the Big Orange Heart team?
As for so many; BOH has been hit hard by the financial crisis the global pandemic has caused. In 2020 all paid team members had to be released from duties, as a cost-cutting exercise. I was deeply humbled by these fantastic peoples’ responses, with almost all continuing to fulfil their previous responsibilities voluntarily.
As with all Big Orange Heart activities, WordFest Live 2021 was delivered by a team of volunteers. The work that’s being undertaken requires a considerable time investment, along with specialist skills. Whilst I am deeply grateful to every person giving their time, to build a sustainable future, efforts need to be made to make this financially viable to recruit individuals. It will only benefit the community.
Along with the efforts to build a more financially stable future; all funds raised through WordFest Live 2021 will go directly into developing a dedicated Support Hub from Big Orange Heart. This Support Hub will be freely available to the community and consolidate several support services currently offered by BOH.
Will WordFest Live be an annual event (or more often)?
The delivery of WordFest Live has always intended to support the fundraising efforts of Big Orange Heart. The general concept has been; to deliver an event that supports our mission of reducing social isolation for our community members, whilst offering content on a subject that will provide value for attendees and allow sponsors to meet with potential customers.
The feedback has been overwhelmingly positive. With attendees, speakers and sponsors all making requests for BOH to deliver WordFest Live again.
So I am happy to announce that WordFest Live will be brought to you twice a year, with the date for WordFest Live 2021 2.0 to be announced very soon.
In finishing, I’d like to thank every person that’s made WordFest Live 2021 possible.
And remember… together we can #PressForward. 🧡