19 May 2015
Running a kickass online conference with 400 attendees for $50
We ran JekyllConf, a free online global conference for all things Jekyll static site generator on May 2 2015. 400 people showed up. It cost $50. And we'd never done anything like it before.
Here are the lessons we learned.
We’ve been busy building product around an open source project called Jekyll. Jekyll has a large community - we estimate there are over 1 millions Jekyll websites live on the web today. However, the community is not particularly centralized so we had no easy way of getting CloudCannon in front of a large audience of Jekyll users.
This led to the idea of hosting a conference for Jekyll, a day where we could bring the community together and celebrate all things Jekyll.
At this point we had a huge number of unknowns. Where should the conference be held? How do we get speakers? How much should we charge?
For a team who had only attended a handful of conferences we thought “How hard could it be?”.
Here are our lessons learned from running our first conference - JekyllConf.
1. An online conference format rocks
We had no idea where the Jekyll community was physically centralized. We also had no sense for how many people would be interested in a conference for Jekyll. Could we get 10 people to come? 100? 1000?
An all online, totally free event seemed like the natural way to run a conference. It reduced the risk on our end and it reduced the barrier for anyone to participate. People seemed to love this.
...walked away confused about diffs bw. static & dynamic websites. Overall, an excellent eg. of a virtual conference: #jekyllconf! (2/2)— Vijay Krishna Palepu (@vkrishnapalepu) May 2, 2015
I had no idea @JekyllConf was even a thing... so awesome that it's livestreaming.— jason lewis (@canweriotnow) May 2, 2015
2. Tools to run online conferences are available for free and are easy to use
Hangouts on Air for broadcast
The best thing about Hangouts on Air is that not only can you live stream the event, but the video is automatically uploaded to YouTube almost immediately after the event finishes. Those that couldn't participate at the time don't miss out.
Twitter for discussion
On Twitter we used a hashtag #JekyllConf to keep the conversation trackable. We also created a second hashtag #QandA on the fly to better monitor questions for speakers. The medium is also public, so we thought it might encourage good behaviour and further spread awareness about the conference.
Twitter worked well for getting questions from the audience, but it didn't quite encourage the free flowing conference dialog that we had envisaged.
If we were to do it again we might look at a medium with a bit more cohesive feel like Slack.
We had speakers enter the “Green room” (a private Google Hangout) 15 minutes before their start time. This gave us a chance to test their mic was working, check their slides and answer any last questions. This step was crucial as the majority of speakers had minor issues.
A few minutes before they were on we would send them a link to the Google Hangouts on Air stream where they would log in and immediately mute themselves.
Our MC would do an introduction, the speaker would talk on camera for a minute or two then bring up their slides. At the end of the talk our MC would ask the speaker questions from Twitter. One of the limitations of Google Hangouts on Air is you can show your face or your screen not both at the same time.
We needed three people to run JekyllConf. An MC, someone onboarding speakers in the Green Room and someone handling the twitter account.
4. Saturday timeslot seemed to suit our audience (developers)
Saturday morning PST turned out to be a great time to host our conference. The speakers and audience didn’t need to take time off work to attend, we struck a good balance for timezones and what better way to start the weekend than listening to a bunch of geeks talking about Jekyll?
5. Call For Proposals
There's a thing called a CFP - a Call For Proposals.
It's a stage of conference planning that normally happens between announcing a conference and the conference actually happening. During this time you advertise for speakers (they will approach US!?) that want to talk.
There are even channels that would love to assist you to find speakers like CallbackWomen.
But. We didn't know about it.
We thought that a conference organisers main job was finding and curating the speakers at the conference.
We shouldered all that work personally and found almost all of our speakers.
We thought that people would only sign up for a new conference if there WAS a speaker line up AND that speaker line up was great. Launching with few speakers or any speakers of low quality would surely be a sign of a poorly managed event and cue the downward spiral.
So we searched for awesome Jekyll influencers and enticed them to speak.
With that said, JekyllConf didn’t exist until a few months ago. It’s hard to know if we could of pulled in speakers using a CFP without credibility.
6. Diversity is important
The purpose of JekyllConf is to showcase Jekyll as a tool and a community to be taken seriously. It has grown from being a bedroom blogging tool for hackers to a powerful platform that some very large organisations trust to run their websites. We want to see this trend continue.
I think we did a great job in showcasing interesting, unique use cases and perspectives of Jekyll as a technology. However, we did a poor job of representing Jekyll as a community.
We ended up with a speaker lineup that included 8 men and 0 women. We hadn't tried to exclude women, but we hadn't made a special effort to include any either.
Some people did not like this and took to Twitter vocally when they saw we had an all male speaker lineup.
I thought we already had a conversation as a community about mostly white dudes speaking at an event? http://t.co/BRFApomdW8— Nick Quaranto (@qrush) April 27, 2015
Also, dearest @jekyllrb, you are great but you need to TRY HARDER on the speaker diversity front.— Beth McKeever (@linoleumtile) April 27, 2015
This was a huge learning curve for us as it’s the first time we’ve faced serious criticism. We realised we’d made a mistake and tried to be as open and honest about what we were doing to fix it.
The steps I'm happy that we took are:
- Replying to the tweets saying we had much room for improvement on the diversity front
- Private messaging the most vocal people and understanding what we could do to improve the situation
- Adding a conference code of conduct
- Reaching out to our speakers to let them know we were aware of the issue and were taking it seriously.
- Publicly addressing the issue on a podcast
Running an online conference was a great experience. We are so proud that we brought the community together and created a resource which continues to serve the Jekyll community.
From our initial goal of 3 speakers and 100 attendees, to 8 speakers, 400 attendees and more than 2000 YouTube video plays in the week since the conference it's been a hell of a ride.
We have learned heaps. We did something good for an open source community. We met awesome people.
We'll do it again, but we'll be older and wiser.
Oh and where did the $50 go?
- Domain name - $12
- Mailchimp account - $10
- Uber ride to the conference (my office) - $7
- Bluetack and printing for our MC background - $12
- Celebratory burrito (With guacamole) - $9