David Mytton

Presenting is just one part of speaking at conferences, and how to adapt to virtual events

Published in Product Engineering, Startups.

Presenting is just one part of speaking at conferences, and how to adapt to virtual events

The key to marketing developer products is producing high quality content across a range of channels.

Yet, calling it “content” downplays the importance. It’s not content – it’s the product, not something separate that is run by a marketing team. You wouldn’t deploy to production if your tests were failing. Why would you deploy to production if your documentation is out of date? Developer products are useless if the developers don’t know how to use them.

A product has many features. One of those is the documentation but there are many others. The user experience, onboarding, helpdesk articles, language SDKs, tutorials, templates, icons, individual functionality, conference talks, webinars. They all support each other to make up the overall package.

The many components of a conference presentation

When I was at Server Density, selling SaaS infrastructure monitoring to IT teams, our approach to conference presentation “content” was as part of a package.

  • Presenting: I would deliver a talk to a conference on a technical topic. It is important not to self-promote during talks – nobody wants to listen to a pitch, but they will listen to 30 seconds at the start/end about who you are and what you do. Even better is to talk about a technical topic based on how you solved a difficult problem, because you can discussion the business problem it is solving (i.e. your product/company) as the context.
  • The Slides: During the talk, I would auto-tweet a link to the slides which would then usually be retweeted and shared by attendees. Include your Twitter username in every slide because people will Tweet quotes and photos and you want them to easily be able to tag you.
  • Twitter Ads: During the conference, we would run ads on the Twitter conference hashtag directing people to a custom landing page sharing the slides / additional materials for the talk. The page would also collect email addresses.
  • Engagement: After the talk, reply to all the mentions. Disclose extra info, answer questions, send people to your slides or landing page (where relevant) and thank everyone for any nice comments.
  • Sponsoring: We would sponsor the conference to at least provide some useful swag e.g. customised notebooks; not low quality pens, t-shirts, tote bags, leaflets or other items people will discard immediately. Ideally we would have a stand and team members present giving demos, too. Although technical attendees do not want to sit through a product pitch, I was often surprised at how many browse the stands during the breaks.
  • Writeup: I would write up the talk into a blog post. You can use imagery from the slides and provide more detail than a simple transcript which just reflects the time-limited format of the talk itself.
  • Video: Once the video was available, promote it on social channels, newsletters and embed into the blog post. If you publish it on YouTube, you can pay to have captions transcribed and attached into the right place which helps with accessibility and SEO.
  • Networking: Getting out in the breaks and after-party/drinks to meet attendees. Not to sell to them, but to share knowledge and learn about what other people are doing. I hate “networking” and found this the hardest aspect of conferences but I’m still good friends with several people I met through my involvement with the MongoDB community.

Adapting to a world of virtual conferences

Breaking down these components is especially relevant now because the coronavirus pandemic has stopped all physical conferences. These have been a huge part of the go-to-market strategy for developer products so how should companies adapt?

As you can see from all the components above, the talk is just one part of speaking at conferences. There is significantly more value in the long-tail of all the aspects of a talk than just speaking at people who happen to be present in the room at the time.

Companies have been running webinars for a long time. Conferences are just more complicated versions of webinars (mostly due to having multiple speakers presenting from multiple locations). In the next few weeks I’m going to be “attending” several conferences that I had originally planned to attend in-person. The talks are the same, they’re just being delivered via video conference.

From the above components, the only one you cannot run as effectively remotely is networking but you could still experiment with some novel ideas e.g. a group Slack, pairing attendees for random chats, running small group discussions, etc.

Sponsoring is more challenging because you cannot emulate the spontaneous nature of people coming up to your stand or booth. You can still have your name associated with the branding of a conference but opt-in contact with attendees will be more difficult. Perhaps attendees will be more willing to hear more of a commercial pitch during talks, or perhaps organisers will be happy to send out materials as part of their normal communications e.g. in newsletters or announcements. I expect there will be some experimentation over the coming months.

Valuable materials increase in value over time

A big challenge to adapting operations in the current pandemic is the uncertainty around when things will return to normal as well as what the new “normal” will be. Companies will certainly still need developer tools but will there be as much travel? Will conferences move to an entirely virtual model (with huge environmental benefits), or perhaps there will be a new a hybrid model with remote + physical attendance.

At least one advantage to no-travel is all the extra time that can be spent writing.

Whatever happens, we can be sure this crisis will end. If you produce high quality materials they will be useful for many years to come. Valuable materials increase in value over time. Some of my most highly trafficked blog posts are several years old, and that was certainly the case at Server Density. The best content is evergreen.

The biggest mistake is failing to create high-quality content early enough. There are plenty of examples of how to do this well – Stripe Docs, Zapier’s Guides e.g. Remote Work, Cloudflare’s Blog – but I often see approaches to “content” as simply writing short blog posts on an irregular cadence as an after-thought to the product. That won’t work. It takes years to develop but investing the time, effort and money in high-quality is crucial to successfully selling in the developer market.