Earlier today, I participated in my first ever virtual conference at WordCamp Europe 2020 with Kinsta. If you’re not familiar with the term “WordCamp”, it’s a conference for WordPress users, fans, and communities to learn from and connect with each other. Last year, I attended WordCamp Tokyo, the largest WordPress conference in Japan, in person. Going into WordCamp Europe 2020, I had a few thoughts on how the virtual aspect would pan out, so I wanted to share my post-conference perspective.

First of all, WCEU 2020 was not originally supposed to be a virtual event. It was changed over to a virtual event after it was clear that the COVID-19 pandemic was going to force everyone to stay at home. With that in mind, I think it’s amazing how quickly and efficiently the WordPress community came together to reorganize the event into a fully virtual one – definitely not a trivial task.

Kinsta's virtual Zoom booth at WordCamp Europe 2020.
Kinsta's virtual Zoom booth at WordCamp Europe 2020.

The WCEU 2020 conference was primarily powered by Zoom. I think Zoom is a decent tool for team meetings and one-to-many webinars, but I don’t think it was the right tool for something like a WordCamp. That’s definitely not a criticism because I’m not even sure if the right tool exists at the moment.

The thing I missed the most from in-person WordCamps was the organic relationship-building. For example, at WordCamp Tokyo last year, people would walk by the Kinsta booth and start talking to us. Taking it one step further, if I was chatting with an interested party privately, my colleague could chime in as well. This year’s WCEU experience was missing that aspect because Zoom simply isn’t designed to allow for these kinds of interactions. We compromised by using “breakout rooms” for people who wanted to chat one-on-one or in a different language. While breakout rooms allow for a private conversation to occur, it lacks the organic “conversational bleed” that happens in an in-person setting.

Another thought I had was how future virtual WordCamps are going to attract sponsors. In the context of sponsoring WordCamps, I think there are varying degrees of the motivational composition behind sponsorships. For example, some well-off companies may be 80% supporting the community and 20% looking for an solid ROI on the sponsorship. On the other hands, smaller businesses may feel the opposite way.

I think WCEU 2020’s UX wasn’t well-optimized for sponsors. For example, I visited various sponsor booths throughout the day, and they were pretty empty for the most part. When I say “empty”, I mean that in a relative way. At WordCamp Tokyo, I was constantly talking to interested parties and potential leads the entire day. Today’s virtual WordCamp experience was very different. There were less people, but the people who stumbled on our booth ended up staying for a long time – the behavioral differences were interesting.

It’ll be interesting to see how future virtual WordCamps improve on the UX and conference experience. Here are a few things I’m thinking about.

  • The most noticeable missing component was the sense of space and the spontaneity of in-person events. I’m convinced those two things can be recreated to a certain extent with VR. The barrier of entry for a VR event may be too high for some people (VR setups are expensive), so it’ll be interesting if VR could be offered as a more expensive ticket option.
  • Speaking about WCEU 2020 specifically, I think the distinction between sponsors' presentations and sponsors' virtual booth was not made clear enough. A few of the attendees I spoke to weren’t fully aware that virtual booths were available all day.
  • If VR is not a feasible option, it would be great to have some sort of in-browser animated experience where you could control a virtual character and walk around a virtual space – similar to an RPG game. The space would have sponsor booths scattered around, and clicking on a sponsor booth could launch the relevant Zoom meeting automatically. I think something like this would make a virtual WordCamp more interactive, and you could even build easter eggs into the experience (nerds love easter eggs). I think an experience like this would bring back the “discovery” aspect of WordCamp to a certain extent.

All in all, I think the organizers of WordCamp Europe 2020 did a great job with the conference, especially considering the short timeline and the current situation around the globe. It’ll be interesting to see how WordCamp US tackles its virtual experience later this year.