How one of Europe’s biggest Software Development Conference Companies transitioned to online events and won big
Interview with Sarah Bovagnet
GOTO Conferences has been running software developer conferences since 1997. The Swiss- based conference series, and their parent company Trifork, run an average of 4 multi-day international conferences, 100 full day masterclasses and 75 free meetups for the software community around the world every year, with over 8,000 software developers and professionals in attendance. In the 23 years since their first conference, GOTO has run dev events in Denmark, Sweden, the UK, the Netherlands, Germany, Canada, the US and Spain. All Around has partnered with GOTO in the past on online campaigns to boost event ticket sales and we sat down with Sarah Bovagnet, Head of Marketing at GOTO Conferences, to get her perspective on the seismic shift that GOTO undertook this year as they pivoted from a multi-day in person event to an online conference.
Sarah, the GOTO Chicago conference is normally an offline and in person event, great for meeting with topnotch keynotes and networking. This year’s conference in Spring marked the first time GOTO shifted a major face-to-face event to a virtual one. What was the biggest challenge of moving to a purely online event format?
SB: Our conferences are community-based events that end up taking on the feeling of a holiday with your friends for many of our attendees. We had genuine concerns around how we could bring that online and deliver all the hallmarks of our face-to-face conferences — the networking, informal chats with speakers, the post-keynote drinks, the games, all entirely online.
How did GOTO Chicago pull it off? What steps did the team take to make a multi-day online event feel like the regular conference?
SB: We evaluated every aspect of our traditional setup to see what we could replicate or tweak (random discussions among attendees, catered lunches, happy hours, giveaways), what we could forgo (queues, the obvious travel and hotel needs), and what we could innovate through this new format (dozens of ‘Ask Me Anything’ sessions with speakers, or a guided tour of a quantum computing lab).
We researched, we brainstormed and we worked in close collaboration with our speakers to shape the experience. We landed on a few key elements, like daily online ‘Meet the Speaker’ sessions leading up to the main event, pre-conference swag bags shipped to attendees by mail, short, intimate sessions repeated throughout the conference, extra perks and giveaways from our partners, various ways to reproduce the ‘hallway track’ online as well as masterclasses optimized for online learning. All of this supported by accessible, flexible tools to connect everyone and pull the whole thing off — in this case: Zoom, Slack and an exclusive attendee website.
What sort of feedback has your organisation received regarding its first major online conference?
SB: As one attendee put it to us, “I arrived feeling a stranger and left with that summer camp feeling of genuinely connecting with and learning from so many like-minded folks.” Really, this is the feeling we want our attendees to leave with. 75% of respondents said the event exceeded their expectations in our Chicago post-conference survey, and our customer satisfaction and net promoter scores actually matched or slightly surpassed our last few years of in-person conferences! So many attendees and speakers approached us with incredibly kind words of thanks and support both during the event and after it was all over.
Are you planning to continue with online events? What about after the pandemic subsides?
SB: Frankly, we learned an extraordinary amount from this experience, and we really can’t wait to do it again. Since GOTO Chicago, we’ve been able to expand our community in a really significant way with weekly meetups that folks from all over the world can join, which has been so special. We now have another online conference planned for our European community that will be quite similar to our recent Chicago conference, and we hope to merge all of our future in-person conferences with a parallel online format once the pandemic subsides to keep our events accessible to people around the world that wouldn’t otherwise be able to join us.
What advice would you give to someone marketing an online event?
SB: Online events don’t tend to hold as much weight as face-to-face events, so it’s crucial to communicate how your event will outperform typical virtual experiences. Call out the specific formats, what tangible benefits someone might get from attending, how you as an organiser will ensure attendees have real opportunities to engage with both each other and the content.
What else can businesses that normally rely on in person events do to raise their profile in this time of social distancing?
SB: One thing the pandemic got us to focus on was developing a robust YouTube strategy to capture more video views, engagement and subscribers on our channel – a key pillar to staying top-of-mind and assisting the dev community with quality content.
GOTO needs to reach a very specific tech audience on YouTube, so we tested different user targeting strategies in video campaigns with All Around Digital’s assistance, using only the most relevant videos to capture users’ attention and inviting them to subscribe. Our optimisation approach focused on continual video rotation based on audience profiling and campaign metrics. Our channel views have grown 130% and subscribers gained have more than doubled over the previous year thanks to this strategy. Through frequent video and audience optimizations, we were able to lower our cost per new subscriber by 60%. So this has allowed us to create additional awareness of our educational material, speakers and conference content, in a budgetary environment where we’re not currently doing live events but need to stay active within the software development community.
When will your next event be?
SB: GOTOpia Europe 2020 is our next online conference, coming up September 15-18. We’ve taken all our learnings from GOTO Chicago to plan this online event for our European audience, and we’re really looking forward to another special experience.
Do you think some of the changes you’ve made will be here to stay?
SB: Absolutely. In working to make these online events as accessible as possible by closing the gap between speaker and attendee, we’ve landed on more engaging session and Q&A formats that are here to stay both online and in-person.
Thank you, we’ll have to check back with you after GOTOpia Europe 2020 and see how it went!
Sarah Bovagnet is Head of Marketing at GOTO Conferences.