Why online conferences win

Bigwig Showcase logoAfter returning from Internet Librarian, I’ve been thinking a lot about conference models and how the ALA and library conferences in general need to change in order to survive the next 5-10 years. The existing ALA model is broken beyond repair, and while I know that the ALA has a task force on virtual membership working now, there needs to be a much wider look at the virtual aspects of conferences than just focusing on how membership works.

Here’s some numbers, just to illustrate what I mean, using the BIGWIG Social Software Showcase for illustration purposes. I can’t go fully into the story here, but the only reason that the Showcase came together in the first place was because of a severe break in communication on the part of LITA. Those of us running BIGWIG decided that the best way to attempt to make change is to illustrate it…Be the Change you Want to See, and all that rot. :-) As a result, Michelle, Karen, myself and a ton of amazing presenters came together virtually and physically at ALA to show what one new model for conference presentations might look like, and how it might work.

So…how does this relate to new conference models? Well, one aspect of this new presentation model is that it is no longer a temporally limited event. To the numbers!

Between June 1 and July 31, 2007, the Social Software Showcase site had 4,838 visits, with 16,035 pageviews. Most people who visited weren’t just looking for one thing…the average is 3.31 pages per visit. I chose June-July because that was the period during which we were actively promoting the Showcase, it got some press here and there…it was an active part of the library community.

Here’s the exciting part: between Aug 1, 2007 and now, the Showcase has gotten over 800 visits, with another 1800 pageviews. 87% of these visits are new visits, from people who have not been to the site before. It’s been roughly 100 days since the height of the advertising and the Showcase is still averaging 8 visits a day, 18 pageviews a day, and of those 6.8 people are completely fresh visitors.

So here’s what I hope that ALA learns from this illustration…I’ve heard, through various channels, that virtual participation scares ALA because of the potential loss of the revenue generated by conference attendance. BIGWIG, a somewhat rogue organization, with no official sanctioning nor advertising, has managed to capture the eyeballs of over 5700 people (a full quarter of the total attendees of ALA Annual) and serve them almost 18000 pages of content. And those numbers will continue to grow as long as the content is relevant. Will the content cease to be relevant eventually…sure. But by leveraging cutting edge thinkers and by not insisting that topics be decided on months or years in advance, we maximized the longevity of the information.

To put it bluntly, how then do you monetize these eyeballs? BIGWIG chose not to, as a function of what we are trying to accomplish. But the ALA may have no such limitation, so how best to leverage this? I can assure you that membership would rise, generally, if the ALA held things like this. BIGWIG has an enormous amount of people interested in it, mainly because of the Showcase. Several new members of LITA came about only because they saw the value in the Showcase. I would be guessing, but I think that membership would probably cover an enormous amount of the “lost” revenue for virtual participation.

The other financial possibility is of course advertising. Companies would pay to advertise on these pages, in the same way that they currently pay for space in the exhibition hall. If you make the advertising relevant to the content, most people don’t even mind. I know that if I were getting ads for microphones and digital recorders while I was watching a presentation on podcasting, I would be glad of the knowledge, especially if I wasn’t a techie to begin with.

This doesn’t begin to scratch the surface, really, of the number of ways that ALA could benefit from virtual memberships and conferences. The ALA needs desperately to consider how it’s going to handle the next 5-10 years, because if it doesn’t step into the virtual world for librarians, someone else will.

13 thoughts on “Why online conferences win

  1. “I can assure you that membership would rise, generally, if the ALA held things like this.”

    Absolutely. I’m a staunch non-ALA member, mainly because I have yet to see what they have to offer me that’s worth the cost of the membership. (I was a member for several years, and felt like I got zero return on the investment, so this isn’t just random assumption about the value of membership.) But if they offered more interesting, useful, on-target professional development opportunities that were both time- and location-shifted, I’d seriously consider rejoining. Because that has value for me. An overpriced, jam-packed, badly organized conference of stale sessions held during the worst part of the year… that won’t EVER get my membership.

    Keep doing what you’re doing, please. If ALA chooses to learn from it, that’s fantastic. If they don’t, someone else will, and we need more of what you’re proposing.

  2. I just got back from Internet Librarian, too – my first time. Place-shifting and time-shifting make conference proceedings more accessible and speed up the sifting process. (As I learned by skimming through showcase.litablog.org.) Still, I would like to keep the benefits of interaction with peers and learning from others’ questions. In my experience, the online conferencing model proposed by Tom Peters offers the advantages of place-shifting while permitting the live examination of ideas. Archived sessions offer the benefits of time-shifting.

  3. I think I remember asking at the WELL in about 1993 why we didn’t have a virtual conference BEFORE the conference.

    All the presenters would present their stuff online before the conference, and then the face-to-face would actually be a DISCUSSION rather than a lecture.

    Just presented at CIT and tried to make my session more interactive – had an audience of about 30, and stopped with about 20 min left, and went around the room person by person and had them talk.

  4. Hi, Jason. I second the idea that online (and in-world) conferences enable both place and time-shifting. When we record, archive, and podcast an OPAL online event, it is not unusual to see ten times the usage of the archive within a couple of months, compared to the number of people who attended live online.

    Steve Stone’s idea via the WELL is interesting, too. This really need not be an either/or situation. Either you have an in-person conference or an online conference. What I call “combo” events (both in-person and online) work quite well. I’ve even been involved in a few “triple plays” (in-person, online, and in-world) that are productive and useful.

    How to monetize (gotta love that word!) online and in-world events is no trivial challenge, but we need to begin experimenting with some models.

  5. Virtual meetings are all very nice, but its never the same as meeting people in person. In addition, real-life conferences give you a chance to see places you might not have gone otherwise…virtual conferences mean you stay right where you are.

    Virtual conferences could enhance real-life conferences, but I don’t think they should replace them.

  6. Jason, thanks for attending Internet Librarian in Monterey, and I hope you found it worthwhile. As I mentioned in my little welcome speech, we had a record turnout this year, which is due primarily to the variety and excellence of the presentations from people dedicated to the information profession.

    I’m sure that online conferences have their place, but I have to agree with Todd that people still want to meet in person from time to time. As long as that holds true, Information Today will continue to organize them. Regards.

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