The coronavirus pandemic has suddenly changed quite a few things with respect to meetups and how people network. Having helped run several popular tech meetups over the years, I’ve got a good handle on how to run physical meetups.
We did our first virtual meetup – the Utah Data Engineering Meetup – on March 18th 2020. This was right as society started going into lockdown mode, with many tech workers getting a crash course in working from home and running their lives virtually. Though it was a hectic time for people, we had great attendance and participation in our meetup.
Since then, I’ve hosted or participated in several virtual lunches, coffees, meetups, and mini-conferences. Each time, it seems like people are getting better and more accommodating with virtual events. That said, many people are still trying to figure out how to run virtual events.
Over the last several weeks, I’ve been asked by over a dozen people my thoughts on running virtual meetups. Here are some thoughts on what I think works, and some ways virtual meetups are very different from physical ones.
The Meetup sandwich
What makes a great meetup? Some people argue that the talk makes a great meetup. To some extent, I agree. The talk will make a good meetup, but providing an avenue for authentic networking and relationship building makes a great meetup. My personal preference is that the meetup is a community, versus a sales pitch. But that’s just me…
This brings me to something I call The Meetup Sandwich. A meetup usually has three parts – the networking/food, the talk, then the after-talk networking. The talk is the ceremony. It’s what you expect. But it’s not where the most important parts of a meetup typically happen. People come to an event for the talk, but they become members for many events because of the community. Networking and relationships are how a meetup becomes more than the sum of its talks, a vibrant community.
In a virtual meetup, it’s critical to preserve networking at all costs. I’ve seen some people treat their meetup as a webinar, and it just doesn’t have the same vibe. The communication flow is very one-way, and the community aspect is ignored. If there’s no community, a meetup will die. It’s that simple.
To maintain networking and community during a virtual meetup, I suggest a few options.
- Pre-record the talk and post it a day or so before the event. This inverts the traditional meetup flow, and gives the attendees a chance to discuss the talk during the meetup.
- If you can’t pre-record, allow 15-30 minutes of free flowing chatting. In many cases, people already know each other. This is a great chance to catch up. Especially when people have been cooped up in the house all day, it’s important that people get a chance to talk.
- If time doesn’t allow for either above scenario, have a separate lunch virtual meetup where people can chat and network.
Virtual meetups don’t need to be as long. Nor do they have to start at their traditional times, which are usually after work. Ask your audience and get a sense of the best times that work for them. People aren’t commuting to the meetup. With routines being upended – especially if people also have to homeschool kids – the old schedule may need to be revised.
Another thing to consider – the cliques that formed at physical meetups are now removed. People are forced to interact with one another on a level playing field. Consider ways to engage 75% or more of the audience in discussions around the meetup’s topic, as well as helping people get to know each other. See this as a big networking opportunity that would be impossible in the old days of physical meetups.
Speakers and audience
Before recently, meetups were mainly local events, usually with local speakers and audience. Occasionally a non-local guest speaker traveled to give a talk. It was high friction for the speaker; if audiences wanted to see a speaker at an out of state meetup, it required a flight. The result was high friction on all fronts if you wanted to do something non-local.
Virtual meetups remove these frictions. Geography is not as meaningful. You can find speakers from outside your local area, who would otherwise be nearly impossible to book at a physical meetup. As an attendee, you can drop in on any meetup in the world. Virtual meetups open the doors for reimagining how tech communities interact with one another, on a global level. This is similar to the effect that Spotify had on new music discovery for unknown bands.
Which video platform to choose? If you’re doing regular video conferencing, then Zoom, Google Meet/Hangouts, and Microsoft Teams are great options. Many people already have them, either through their company or personal account.
The big question is whether you’re going for a webinar feel. Zoom offers webinar capability. Big Marker and similar are also good options.
Really, there are countless other video platforms out there. Research and see what works best for your needs.
Marketing your event
People don’t magically attend your meetup – you’ll need to market your event. Whereas Meetup.com was the standard way to get attendance in the old days, virtual meetups aren’t constrained by geography. Due to the pandemic, Meetup.com now allows for virtual events. I’m also seeing people use alternatives such as Eventbrite (free if you don’t charge), LinkedIn, and Slack to promote their virtual meetup.
For example, one of my upcoming virtual meetups has an out of state speaker, and loads of out of state attendees. The event was marketed on Slack and LinkedIn, and attendees registered through Meetup.com.
One key thing – make sure the event is easily added to a calendar. It will otherwise be forgotten. Make sure the event gets onto the speaker’s and attendee’s calendar. Google Calendar and Microsoft Outlook will automatically embed a video conferencing link when a calendar invite is created. Zoom’s calendar functionality is very similar.
Make it look professional
If you’re presenting – or spend a lot of time in virtual meetings in general – consider investing in your video and audio gear. Here are some items we use for our virtual meetups and video conferencing.
Video. Most laptops have decent webcams. However, many people ignore lighting. At a minimum, invest in a light ring, like the QIAYA.
Raffle prizes, food
Food and raffle prizes are the mainstay of most meetups. Virtual meetups make both of these a lot trickier. We always have our sponsors cover the raffle prizes and food. Thankfully, some of them are still eager to help in these lean times.
For raffle prizes, I’ve heard of companies sending gift cards, and things like Qwiklabs credits to winners. For food, some sponsors are sending food to attendees via DoorDash or similar. These are obviously expensive options, so choose wisely.
Happy virtual meetup!
These are new days for everyone doing virtual meetups, and we’re all trying to figure things out. That said, I think we’re iterating to some solid practices with virtual meetups. Once this pandemic subsides, it will be interesting to see what new meetup practices stick around.