Taking an in-person developer event online

Is online-only the future of events? The good and the difficult in taking a developer event online.

We wrapped up our Creative Cloud Digital Partner Days on Thursday. This event was originally intended to be held at Adobe MAX Europe 2020 in Lisbon, but with the pandemic still in full swing, both in-person events were cancelled.

I wasn't sure what a live conference over video stream would be like, but our team's organizer, Ingo Eichel, pulled it off. I suppose I shouldn't have been surprised; his real-world events are always logistically flawless, informative, well-attended, and fun.

I think a lot of folks in developer relations are wondering what a world where travel is severely restricted means for our profession. Based on this week's experience I'm encouraged and feel as though an entirely new tool has been added to my tool belt, one that I still need to learn the nuances of, but that clearly has more merit than I might have otherwise assumed.

What was good


No matter what spot on a map we might pin down for an event, by definition, some people will be nearer to that spot and others will be further away. Distance represents a time and cost barrier for some community members who might otherwise attend. In the past, we'd tried to lessen some of that burden by rotating the event around a few cities year after year.

Going online removes those barriers almost entirely, leaving only time zones as a limiting factor.

Given where our staff and developer community are concentrated at the moment, we planned carefully to start the event in the early evening in central Europe, just before noon on the east coast, and early morning west coast. Any choice in time will have tradeoffs but we felt that making sure these regions could all call in during the waking hours was the right move.

As a result, turnout was easily triple what we usually see at the in-person events.


Along similar lines, since there was no travel commitment required, we were able to get more speakers with relevant content. Where we usually have 7-8 speakers on a single day, we had 20+ speakers across two half-days.

Not only that, but we were able to get executive speakers who normally wouldn't be able to attend, like Scott Belsky, Chief Product Officer for Adobe, and Govind Balakrishnan, Senior Vice President of Creative Cloud Products & Services, and Simon Longbottom, Vice President of Creative Cloud Services & Strategy. This was a big win for our developer community to be able to see the level of strategic importance placed our on developer platform and ecosystem.


Call it engagement or whatever you like, but having tools like running live chat, Q&A modules, and polls made the event more fun and interactive. Depending on who you are, that statement may be either obvious or a little cringeworthy. For me, this was a learning opportunity and way to enjoy time together with people I'd usually be right in the room with.

A few of us on the staff side picked up on the importance of these interactive tools early on and committed to being there with our audience. The chat was my favorite of the interactive tools, and it was fun to get in and ask questions or offer my own reactions to the speakers along with the audience.

The after show

This one was the surprise addition that took on a life of its own. A few of us stayed on both days after the event ended to have an open-ended conversation about general developer topics. We spent time reacting to the live chat, answering their questions, and bringing some audience members on stream to talk with us.

Each after show session went 1-2 hours, with lots of folks hanging around for the whole time. This wasn't the same as a post-event beer with the community, but it was something akin to a variation on that theme (well, some of our friends in Germany were enjoying a beer or two anyways).

What was challenging

Speaker shuffling

With 20+ speakers across two half-days, moving speakers on and off "the stage" was a challenge (and for the record, not one I had to deal with, thankfully). This actually went very well overall with almost no technical issues, if you can believe that.

Time management for speakers is always tricky (I'm still working on this as a speaker, myself).

Other hard things related to speakers:

  • "Can you hear me?"
  • "Are you seeing my screen?"
  • "Which of my screens are you seeing?"

But none of this is unique to online events.


This one, however, is unique. When it's time for everyone to split out into different rooms, how do you do that?

Yes, there are solutions out there that approximate multi-room experiences, like remo.co and hopin.to. I know these were considered, but I'm not sure why we didn't go with them.

I haven't mentioned the actual streaming tool we used yet because you haven't heard of it and probably can't get access to it, since I believe it's an enterprise solution. We used BlueJeans Events. The video and audio quality were great, including streaming video and animations during presentations (that almost never works in other tools).

But BlueJeans Events doesn't have the ability to break out into rooms within a single instance. So instead for breakouts, we sent out links to different BlueJeans instances, and attendees had to disconnect and dial back in to another instance.

This worked fine enough, but you can imagine how that experience could be improved upon.

More ways to engage

Chat, Q&A, and polls were surprisingly good, but I want... more.

What do I want? Please let me know. I haven't had a chance to think this out, but I suspect whole worlds exist within this feeling.

Event polls aren't a measurement

Tell everyone you know: in-event polls are great for engagement, but they are not a scientific measure of anything.

Did 31% pick strawberry and 50% pick chocolate? So that's 50% of what?

It's 50% of people who happened to see the poll, who don't roll their eyes at things like polls, who resonated with one of the answers available, and felt like clicking something while you had the poll open for a few minutes while they were trying to listen to a presentation.

50% in favor of chocolate seems like a big deal until you realize that only 15 out of 100 attendees responded, and a few of them came to complain later because they'll only eat chocolate if mixed with strawberry, so they selected chocolate first without realizing they'd only get one chance to answer.

These are just silly examples, obviously, but the takeaway is this:

The polls were fun, and we'd do them again. It's a great offering for attendees who like that sort of thing, it gets them engaged, and offers some fun topics for the chat as a side-effect. Just don't let your team jump to wild conclusions without a cold, hard look at the underlying numbers.

Is online-only the future of events?

Like I said at the outset, online events feel like a new tool in the developer relations tool belt for me. But they are not a complete replacement for in-person events.

We're going to hear over the coming years vigorous arguments that either in-person events are the only way, or that online events should replace them.

The truth is in the middle, and that new truth that deserves some further exploration. I'm looking forward to exploring.