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State of the event industry: the perspective of tech conference organizers and developers

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“I don’t think the fundamental reason why people attend conferences has changed or is going to change – it’s about those meaningful connections.”

Kevin McDonald, Chief Commercial Officer at Web Summit


The event industry has had to change significantly to adapt to the pandemic and it is continuing to transform. Globally, all the different entities involved  – attendees, speakers, organizers, and sponsors – have had to adjust to this new reality.

While preparing JetBrains Connect episode #8, we asked event attendees and organizers about how the industry is tackling these new challenges and what they think the industry will look like in the future. 

In May and June, the JetBrains Market Research & Analytics team interviewed five tech conference organizers and launched a survey. With the help of the survey, we collected a total of 801 responses from people who participated in conferences during the pandemic. About 98% identified themselves as attendees, 23.5% participated as speakers, 8.6% as event organizers, and 2.1% as sponsors. Please note that participants could choose several roles. The majority of survey participants were Developers (79.6%), and respondents came from the USA (10.8%), Germany (8.4%), Russia (7.7%), India (4.9%), Poland (4.1%), Ukraine (3.7%), Brazil (3.6%), Spain (3.5%), China (3.3%), and Italy (3.1%).

Here is what we learned:

  • As the event industry was hit hard during the pandemic, conference organizers are being urged to reconsider activities and come up with new creative formats.
  • Organizers, attendees, sponsors, and speakers realized that online formats have a range of advantages, for example, accessibility, lower costs, a broader audience, and are easier to manage. However, traditional in-person conferences seem to be more efficient in terms of networking.
  • Event organizers are using a variety of online interactive activities, like real-time chats with participants or speakers, virtual booths, audio-only discussions, live games, and competitions.
  • It seems that both online and offline formats are here to stay – offline for higher engagement, and online for attracting more global audiences. Hybrid events will also develop.
  • The value of pre-recorded content and the importance of high-quality video production have significantly grown.

What is happening with the event industry?

How has the attendees’ behavior changed?

How are event organizers overcoming challenges?

What motivates speakers and sponsors to participate in online conferences?

What is the future of the event industry?

JetBrains’ perspective

What is happening with the event industry?

The event industry was one of those most affected during the pandemic. Recent restrictions and requirements urged organizers to rethink their approach and offer brand-new formats for participants. Some organizers canceled their major conferences and focused instead on online events. Please note that by Conference event format we mean a meeting, lasting a few days, which is organized around a specific subject or community. It includes one or more tracks of talks and draws more than 100 participants.

According to our survey, online has become the leading conference format during the pandemic. To be more precise, 81.5% of all respondents (attendees, speakers, sponsors, and organizers) participated in online conferences during this time. Before the pandemic, only 34.1% had participated in such events.

How has the attendees’ behavior changed?  

Among the respondents who identified themselves as conference attendees, half of them visited 1-2 online conference(s) a year before the pandemic. Since the imposed restrictions, attendees started participating in online conferences more frequently.

It seems that the general experience with online conferences among attendees is positive. The majority were satisfied with the online format. The survey highlighted that 75.1% of respondents were going to participate in virtual conferences when the restrictions are over. Aside from this, 44% claimed that their attitude toward such events has improved.

Also, attendees were able to identify the benefits of digital events. For instance, the survey respondents claimed that the major advantages of attending online conferences are time saving, accessibility, and cost saving.

We were also curious to know what motivates attendees to participate in online events. According to the survey, the top goals for participating in online conferences were Education / Learning new things and Networking.

During online conferences, attendees were able to try new formats of interaction. The most frequently used ones were real-time chats with participants or speakers, virtual booths, audio-only discussions, and live-games or competitions.

While making the infographics for this blog post, we prepared more detailed survey data. And so, the values in the JetBrains Connect episode on YouTube might differ slightly from the current infographics.

68.7% of respondents confirmed that the online conferences they attended were free to participate in. About 30.2% claimed that the conference participation was paid for by themselves or their employer.

Despite the benefits of online conferences, attendees were lacking live communication and experiencing Zoom Fatigue (tiredness associated with overusing virtual platforms). The survey respondents highlight the major drawbacks of online conferences such as limited interaction with speakers / participants, networking opportunities, and the emotional experience. 

How are event organizers overcoming challenges?

In spite of all the restrictions, many event organizers embraced the new reality and started offering more unique, technological, and interesting solutions. We had interviews with event organizers of several prominent tech conferences to learn how they are addressing the challenges.

Please see the major insights from the interviews:

It turned out with the current state of events, organizers depend highly on the essence of their business and what they did before the pandemic.

The organizers of commercial conferences and conferences by non-commercial entities whose goal is to raise money to form the organization’s yearly budget were gravely hit by the pandemic as they lost a major source of funding. According to our interviewees, online events seem to be less effective than traditional, in-person events from the perspective of lead generation and advertising. So, the sponsors are not always willing to invest money in online events. The attendees are also not always ready to pay as much for the tickets as they used to for offline conferences. Such commercial event organizers are forced to offer online events but are eager to go back to the offline format.

The organizers of events whose primary goal is not to raise money (e.g., community conferences organized by user groups, conferences whose main goal is for marketing and raising the profile of a product or service), were less affected. They are more eager to experiment with new online formats.

Some organizers reconsidered their traditional conference formats. For instance, a conference now may consist of 1-hour daily online presentation over 1 week, which was not really possible before the pandemic.

With the rise of online conferences, the importance of video content has increased. Since the need of seeing the famous speaker in real life is now less relevant, there is little incentive for the audience to attend the talk live if they know it will be available as a video.

“For me, watching an online presentation live or watching the video afterwards is almost the same thing. Most conferences will end up publishing the videos anyway.”

Sandro Mancuso, Co-Founder of Codurance

  • The rising interest in video content incentivizes the organizers to create, for example, a series of pre-recorded video discussions on a particular topic instead of conducting a live event.

“We have some events where we do the recordings first. For example, recently we prepared a series on software modernization. This topic is crucial for us and is really aligned to our services. So, we decided to design a six episode series. We recorded all of them; now it is in editing. It will be released soon. We have a dedicated marketing team that is working on preparing such pre-recorded video content.”

Sandro Mancuso, Co-Founder of Codurance

It has become easier to control the content quality and receive feedback. Now organizers have access to video statistics: number of views, churn rate, etc. During offline conferences, people are usually too shy to leave a room during the presentation, if a talk is boring. At online conferences, participants close the tab as soon as they get bored:

“What I like about the virtual events is that you really see who can deliver good content and who can’t. You cannot hide behind a big audience as during the offline events because people are already just sitting there, because they are in the venue. If the audience does not like a presentation in the virtual world, they close the tab and come back later for another talk.

Also, you can see peaks going up and down during a conference. If a speaker is boring, you see a drop. It’s more about the content, and less about some other stuff. That is a huge upside of virtual conferences.”

Sead Ahmetovic, CEO & Co-founder of WeAreDevelopers ‍ 

  • Event organizers started focusing on online formats and exploiting its benefits: broader audience, lower barriers for attendees and speakers, and less time and resources to organize. 

The advantage of the virtual events was that we actually were able to get speakers from all over the world. Some of the speakers we wouldn’t even dare dream of being at our in-person events, because the travel is too far. I remember one speaker at our event gave the first session of the day at 9am CET but he was actually based in San Diego, so it was midnight for him. That was really fun. But that is also an enormous opportunity. And for us, the online only event has been a tremendous success, because we suddenly had an audience of 1400 people for a one day event.

Karim Ourtani, Member of the board at dataMinds

What motivates speakers and sponsors to participate in online conferences?

During the survey and interviews, we were able to gather some information about speakers and sponsors. As there are few survey responses, please, consider this information as qualitative insights.

Speakers’ and sponsors’ perspective

According to the survey, the major advantages of online events for speakers and sponsors were accessibility, time saving, cost saving, ease of managing participation, and a broader audience. In addition to this, they mentioned that the opportunity to pre-record videos is also a benefit.

The major disadvantages were limited interaction with the audience, insufficient live feedback, lower audience engagement, technical issues (e.g., bad internet connection), and unpredictable attendee turnout. Sponsors also mentioned a lack of leads / sales as a drawback. 

During our interviews, event organizers pointed out that speakers are now lacking the main event benefits – traveling opportunities. On the other hand, they highlighted that it has become easier for sponsors to contact attendees at online events when looking for potential employees. Unlike during offline conferences, such interactions are away from the public eye, and the attendees are less worried that their boss or colleagues will find out about their contact with a prospective employer.

What is the future of the event industry?

Restrictions are being lifted in some countries and hopefully life is gradually going to get back on track. However, we all understand that the world will never be the same. So, we asked event organizers and survey respondents how they see the future of the event industry.

Survey respondents predict a couple major long-term changes: more hybrid conferences, increased interest in video content, and a higher expectation to record talks.

Event organizers highlighted in the interviews that companies whose main funding source is conferences will more than likely resume offline formats. However, both online and offline formats are here to stay – offline for higher engagement, online for attracting more global audiences. 

Also, hybrid events will develop. For instance, one of the interviewees mentioned that cinemas are looking for potential clients and started negotiating with event organizers. So, the use-case may look like this: event participants sit in cinemas (a small group of people, no need to travel far away) and watch the online conference, then discuss it. In this way, organizers will unite several physical locations via online channels.

At the same time almost all event organizers whom we interviewed expressed a high level of uncertainty regarding the future, as the event industry depends highly on other industries.

JetBrains’ perspective

As an active participant in live events, JetBrains of course misses the opportunity to meet with our community in person. At the same time the new restrictions also push us to adjust to the new reality and improve our online formats and points of contact. 

For example, JetBrains Connect – the new JetBrains series on YouTube – was our way to reach out to and learn from IT experts on different topics despite the circumstances.

To see a discussion with Kevin McDonald, Chief Commercial Officer at Web Summit, Maarten Balliauw, and Paul Everitt, JetBrains Developer Advocate Leads in .NET and Web&Data, on what the future holds for IT events, please check out the JetBrains Connect episode on YouTube.

Watch other episodes of JetBrains Connect, stay tuned for JetBrains Webinars, and reach out to us on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, and Instagram. We love feedback and talking to you!

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