Creating an online conference where people can sit and chat like in real life

Inspiring entrepreneurs Lenka Koppová
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Imagine an online conference which feels like you are there with the other attendees and can have side chats in corners, or table discussions. It seems to good to be true doesn’t it?

When Cambridge Social Media founder Lenka Koppová realised the two day event she was organising with Shifties was going to have to become virtual, she wanted to recreate the in person feel of her events. As Lenka prepared to host 2021’s Cambridge Social Media Day online again, we chatted about working remotely with a team, planning events, and being honest with your audience.

Lenka talks about:

  • How she built her community
  • Why enabling people to network around her event was essential
  • Communicating with a remote team
  • Helping attendees and speakers get comfortable with a new platform
  • Setting expectations

The transcript

Rachel Extance: Hi! So this week on Micro Business Inspo, I am talking to the wonderful Lenka Koppová, the host of Cambridge Social Media and Cambridge Social Media Day.

Lenka Koppova: Hey, thank you for having me so happy to be here.

Rachel: Would you like to start off by just telling people a bit about who you are and what you do?

Lenka: Yeah, so I’m a social media marketer and I help businesses with their marketing. I help them understand how the world of social media marketing and digital marketing and all that comes to marketing a small business entails. And I help them understand the landscape of build them strategy and train them to be able and feel empowered to do their also social media marketing, more efficiently without feeling too much of an overwhelm and too much of panic and anxiety when it comes to marketing.

Rachel: Great. So what we’re talking about today is about hosting a virtual event and also doing that with a remote team because I thought it was really interesting the way that you have adapted over the last couple of years.

So Lenka started off with a meetup and then decided that she was going to hold an event. Would you like to tell people a bit about the background to Cambridge Social Media Day and what you did.

Lenka: It’s definitely been a journey. It’s been about five years since I very randomly started Cambridge Social Media Meetup, which is in-person meetup. How else at the time? Everything was in person. And it grew very quickly. 

Then I realised that in Cambridge, where I was based, there was a market, there’s lots of people who need help with social media marketing, with marketing. So I decided to bring experts from all around the UK to Cambridge to really help my community understand social media even better, and also have a chance to learn from the best in the industry and meet each other and kind of connect and share their experiences.

And that’s what we did for two years, 2018 and 2019. And obviously 2020 came and we were not able to do that anymore.

Rachel: When 2020… you’d planned the event, hadn’t you? You were all set to go?

Lenka: We literally, beginning of March or end of, I think February, 2020, we have announced the date. We almost have signed on the venue. Yes, it’s happening on this day. It is happening of course it will be bigger and better than ever. Get ready! I then went for two weeks on holidays to India and I come back and the world is in pieces. I realise, well, we’re probably not running any in-person events, so go back to the drawing board and what are we doing?

Rachel: So how did you go about doing that? Because obviously you’ve got the initial shock haven’t you? You’ve got that all my goodness. We’d planned, this we’ve started, this told people, but then you also had the problem that everybody was in their houses. You couldn’t go and meet up and have discussions. So how, how did you handle all of that?

Lenka: It was definitely very interesting because 2020 was the first year where I really had a team around me. It was the year when I partnered with Shifties and with Alex. And it was the first time where it wasn’t just me because the first two years it was a new event and I was pretty much doing everything, especially in the lead up to the event.

I am the project management, the communication, the marketing, the speaker outreach. It was pretty much all me. With a little bit of hands-on help on the day and obviously with some specific help with design, but it was just me. So 2020, it was very interesting in terms of I had a team, I had the remote team and we had to go from in-person event to a new kind of event where we still kind of didn’t know if, we kind of hope that may be in autumn will be possible. Everyone kind of imagined that, oh, a couple of months it will be good and pandemic will be over. It was very interesting to then figure out, obviously we knew Zoom existed, you know, we had WhatsApp and Facebook messenger groups. But it was so interesting then to be like, okay, we will not be able to be meeting in person.

We can’t use proper whiteboard or all the tools for brainstorming that we would usually use. So it was a lot of a learning journey with figuring out and streamlining communication, because we definitely weren’t… everyone has a different preference, so we tried a little bit of everything and there was something on email and something on WhatsApp or Messenger and something was commented here and stuff.

It was, so it was such a big of a chaos, but luckily the team at Shifties they have little bit more of an experience with the digital tools. Obviously, they have their own team. And at that point, the team had to be remote as well. So very quickly they were like, okay, we’re using these tools. You’re going to use Microsoft Teams, they will be everything. It will be applied. It will be tasked. It will be there. We will use like WhatsApp group for fast communication. We have email, so we kind of slowly figure it out, but it was a challenge.

Rachel: Do you think that making those decisions and laying down the ground rules about this is where we’re going to have these discussions helped?

Lenka: Absolutely. Before we did that, it was the big chaos. It was, we didn’t know what’s happening. We missed tasks. Everything was taking way too long. So definitely done making those decisions that we will use these tools and this is how communication should work out. If you need something quick and fast, do it on WhatsApp.

If obviously, if there’s something urgent, yes, give the person a call. But if there’s something that you need from the team flexibly use WhatsApp group, if there’s something longer then just use email, if it’s a task or if it’s a file, then just go to the project and create a task, assign a task, you know, watch what’s happening with the files and what’s happening in MS
Teams or this using Microsoft Teams for a calls and stuff like that. That it makes sense that every people’s kind of in one place.

Rachel: And you found an innovative way of hosting the conference didn’t you? You used a new platform that people hadn’t come across before.

Lenka: Yeah, absolutely. So in 2020, when lots of event organisers decided to go online, decided to go virtual with their events, I started seeing the same things happening
all over the place. It was either Zoom and, you know, trying to Zoom for either webinar kind of approach where the host has the rules and can do whatever, but then the guests can kind of just chat in the comments. Or using Facebook Live too, again, just a similar, you can live stream, people can comment, but there’s no interaction. And for me, and for the team, we knew that the people connecting with each other, the networking that’s happening around the event, that that’s the key, that’s the kind of unique selling point as the specialty of our event. And we definitely didn’t want it to lose that.

We wanted to make sure that whatever we do, we have the human element in there. It’s not just about the talks. It is about the people connecting with each other. So we spent a lot of time researching and going on trials and tests and showcases of different tools and discussing the pros and cons of different price points, because some were from really cheap to incredibly expensive. We then discovered a tool Remo that seems like a perfect fit for us, where it is a virtual conference room, it looks like and feels like a virtual conference room. You have the layout of a room. You have tables, you can design how many people will be allowed to sit on a table, so you can have big tables, we can have smaller tables, you can name your table. So thinking a little bit more of a topic and theme, and then people sitting on the table can have a video conversation, not dissimilar to Zoom or Skype and they can have conversations with each other and no one else can hear them. Or you can also have this wonderful experience of people watching so they could see who’s sitting on which table with whom, if someone wants to join your table, if there an empty seat, you know who the person is.

You hear like the lovely knock to be like, Hey, someone straight to join your table and then, you know, you can kind of say, oh, this is a person I really want to talk to. You can direct message them and be like, Hey, let’s grab a virtual coffee and sit together on this virtual table and have a one-to-one conversation. Or when you see something like, oh, I don’t want to talk to so I can move to a different table because I could see you just joined my table. So I think for us, it really allowed us to bring the people connecting with each other element to the event.

Rachel: Yeah, one of the things that sometimes puts people off at an event is not knowing somebody when they walk into a room, or finding themselves at table and maybe feeling awkward about asking maybe they feel like they should know, or there’s a conversation going on, and it’s like, well, how do I break into that? One of the nice things about it is that you do already know, you know, you can, because you’re on your computer, you can look at the name and you go right that so-and-so and you can find out a little bit about them and you can even go off and research them quickly before you, before you start. So that’s a really great… you know, the icebreaker is almost out of the way aren’t they.

Lenka: Yeah, because, as I said, the kind of, you have a virtual business card attached to your avatar. So when people are moving around, you can very quickly see who they are, what they do, check out their social media links, direct message them privately. And you can really see who they are. 

And that’s why we also had smaller tables that were like two, three people. And we have tables that are kind of quiet zone. They give you the opportunity to sit there muted, not have your camera on or anything, either to completely step away from the conference, but also be present, but kind of have the time to observe and maybe find a one, two people that, you know, and you had access to the full attendee list. You knew who is online. So you could always search by name and be like, I know so-and-so should be here today, so I will try to find them and I will try to join them. So definitely this has added a layer of hopefully comfort to people joining the conference and I think it would really help you also there’s a couple of pre event test events for us as a team and for all the people to get familiar with the tool.
So there were a couple of very quick kind of informal events happening where people just joined and got their hands on the platform as a little bit of a conversation. And then on the day they knew where to click what’s happening, how it’s working, and they felt a little more comfortable than moving around and actually enjoying the conversation.

Rachel: Absolutely. And it’s got nice little details as well, hasn’t it, like, there’s a lift that goes up and down floors and trees, and it’s just got nice little things. So for your speakers, what, obviously, your speakers had to adapt too. They’ve gone from being on stages at in-person events to suddenly doing digital events.

What’s that? What’s that like? What do you go through? Do they… how do you, communicate with them ahead of the event? And then also make sure that everything runs smoothly for them during it?

Lenka: So similar to our attendees, we make sure that our speakers have seen the tool before, that they have experienced how to the tool works. So we have not only extensive documentation that we send to everyone where they can read how it works, but they can watch some tutorials, everyone can join Remo kind of for free and set up your own profile and go through the platform on their own. But we’re also hosting speaker test events, where again, we explain to speakers what their account allows them to do, how they should, or shouldn’t behave because speakers have a little bit more power in the tool so they can do certain things.

So we were kind of cautioning of like, please don’t do this because it would cause potentially some trouble. And also as a speaker, this is how we work. So how it will look like, try it on your computer, figure out your setup. The sometimes depending how many screens you have and what is your preference and what do you want to see or slides some notes at the end, the attendees, everything.

So we make sure that all the speakers have a walk through the platform. They can try and test the different buttons and see how the interface works and how it works on their setups today, so they feel comfortable. And also, we always have a host, someone who is them with a running the event, hosting event.

It’s usually myself and my colleague, Alex. So I’m there introducing the speakers, making sure that they know what they’re doing, and if something’s not happening, there’s always someone who’s happy to jump in, you know, help out, explain, and be a little bit on the side of tech support to try to troubleshoot things.

And most importantly, we always make sure that people know that we are not perfect. That there might be things going wrong, that we’re kind of winging it, that we are rough around the edges. We are doing with our hearts, but no one is perfect. So we get the expectations out there to people that have fun enjoy, but just be kind to each other.

Rachel: And that’s quite… that’s something which people might find being quite a leap, isn’t it? You often think when you’re putting on an event or you’re standing on a stage, you’re doing something where, you know, it needs to be perfect, you know, people would expect it to be polished. And one of the things that I really admire about the way that you do things is that you say, you know, I’m, I’m learning as much as you are. Is that a deliberate thing or is it just how it, how it panned out? What would you say?

Lenka: It’s how it is! It is how I am. I do want to do my best, then I really try to do my best, but at the same time, I know I’m not perfect. And I know there’s always so much more I could improve and I can make better.

And I think it is partially just for self preservation. It was like us telling people I’m a perfect, there will be things going wrong. You know, I am winging it. I’m doing it with my heart. I’m putting, you know, all I can into this, I’m doing the best I can. I have the best intentions, but I am not in control of everything.

I don’t have the powers over everything. So take, you know, take it as it is, enjoy, but if there is a mistake, I’m sorry, it happened. Let’s all be kind and support each other.

Rachel: What would your advice be to somebody who is perhaps working on their own or they might be collaborating with some people, but they’re not with them and they have an event that they would like to put on. They’d like to do something. What would, what would be your advice to them?

Lenka: Definitely when someone was put on an event, it’s have a plenty time to prepare. I see way too many organisations or people wanting to put on a virtual summit or a meetup or whatever conference it is, and they try to do it in a ridiculously tight timeline. They have couple of months to get their landing page together, to get their speakers together, get all the copy, get the promotion and everything, and then they often find out that they don’t have enough sign-ups which for me, I took a year to build a community and then about six months to actually market my first conference.

And it was about a year and a half in the making in the back of my head. Back in 2017, I already knew that I would like to potentially make a conference. And I started putting feelers out, doing some research. But it wasn’t until kind of early 2018 that I made a decision. I found out when you… I put lots of things in place and those had given me nine months to actually realise the event. 

Even the virtual event last year, it was a bit tight. So last year it was all a bit rough around the edges because we had much shorter timeline, with all the changes, going from in-person to virtual. So lots of decisions were kind of happening last minute. As we already had couple of years worth of events and community and mailing list and people expecting this event to happen. So that made it easier then to make the event a success in terms of getting people onto it, even though lots of the decisions in terms of speakers and obviously the software we’re going to be using and all the details of the agenda were a bit last minute, but we had the years of building the community playing in our advantage. 

Be it in-person event, online event, be it solo event or be it team effort, always give yourself plenty of time to prepare and more is better. Like always double the number of time you think you need and I think you’re getting close enough to being realistic about the amount of time to really put on a great successful event.

And also have a think about what is the purpose of the event? Like what are you really trying to achieve? Is it to build your email list because you have a product you’re going to sell? Is it to build a community? Is it to establish yourself as an expert? Because for me the ultimate goal, yes, I wanted to help people, but for me, selfishly, I wanted to get comfortable speaking at a stage and I wanted to become comfortable being a speaker. So that’s why I thought that, hey, the easiest way to do it would be on the safe space of my own event.

Rachel: And Cambridge Social Media Day is coming up very soon, isn’t it, so do you want to just talk about what people can expect this year? 

Lenka: Yeah, so we have social media, they just round the corner. It will be on the 19th and 20th of October. It’s called Cambridge Social Media Day, but it’s a two day event. So it’s buy one, get one for free kind of a deal. And this year, it’s all about being strategic. Over the past two years, since we went online, even with our meetups, we did lots of talks. We did a regular, a weekly free training in our Facebook group, which covered all the possible tactics on how to do LinkedIn, how to do Instagram, how to do Twitter and content and personal, every possible tactic we’ve covered, pretty much, but really get deep on understanding how social media marketing works. Where is the digital marketing as a landscape moving forward, and how can you really utilise these wonderful tools to the full potential without losing your mind or without jeopardising your health and safety?

So that’s why this year we are all about be strategic. Forget tactics, be strategic, and we have wonderful list of speakers, who will cover topics, as I mentioned about social media strategy, the future of social media, digital marketing, understanding your customers and really understanding how you can market to them in the right way, how to build a community from zero as well as how to protect yourself, your mental health and wellbeing while spending a reasonable amount of time on social media.

Rachel: So where can people find out more about you and about the event?
Lenka: So people can head to our website, or search anywhere on the social media channels, Cambridge Social Media, you will find our blue logo and you will find our website where there’s all the information about the event and that’s where you can buy your ticket as well.

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