Unbundling conferences

This week, I was given the opportunity to host a webinar and moderate a discussion on women in tech in Africa, organized by AfricArena and the Africa Women Innovation & Entrepreneurship Forum. For those interested, here is the replay.

My active participation in a handful of webinars during this social distancing period, and my passive participation as an attendee to many more, has me thinking a lot about conferences and digital events. 

On one hand, I suspect that once given the opportunity to travel again with more regularity, people will be eager to do so. But will their eagerness extend to a willingness to sit in a conference hall breathing the same air as 500 other people? I don’t know. 

I personally have a bit of a tenuous relationship with conferences. My reasoning for attending is almost always entirely networking related – very rarely do I enjoy sitting, cramped on uncomfortable chairs, listening to a person or a panel talk about things at an extremely high level. Also, I’m a snob. 

Perhaps that’s the challenge with conferences and events – they are one-size-fits-all solutions for a diverse group of attendees, each different intended outcomes for their participation. The annual conference/music festival SXSW publishes their attendee demographics every year, and just look at the number and variety of reasons why people attend –

Notice that “because I want to learn” or “the content” isn’t included. (Are these not business goals?) And while the above reasons a specifically business-related, this doesn’t take into consideration that, surely, most SXSW attendees attend because a) it’s a week or so out of the office, b) their employers are paying for it, c) they have hit critical mass, and perhaps most importantly, d) it’s fun. 

And to be sure, I’m not criticizing event organizers on the continent – creating and curating content is hard, it’s hard to get all the people that ought to be in the same room in the same room at the same time, and events, in general, are tough to make money on, especially at the beginning. 

Yet, as social distancing compels more events to go digital this year, it continually exposes the shortcomings of digital events, and the tools that host them. While I don’t believe that COVID-19 spells the end of physical events, it is nonetheless an opportunity for us – the ecosystem – to revisit what we are trying to achieve through our participation.

Unbundling conferences

If physical conferences, broadly speaking, are comprised of content and networking, we can easily see the shortcomings of digital events in their current attempts to replace conferences.

From a content perspective, I personally would love to see more interactive workshops, unconferences and experiences that facilitate a two-way exchange amongst attendees, and not just a one-way exchange between speaker and attendee, with a limited amount of Q&A. How that can be accomplished digitally remains to be seen. 

Meanwhile, our sudden, overabundance of webinars also underscores the importance of creating good content. On one hand, it’s now easier than ever before to get a diverse set of speakers onto the same (digital) stage at the same time. On the other, perhaps a low barrier to creating digital events is not necessarily a good thing, from a content quality perspective. I imagine that webinar-fatigue is a real thing. 

The same dynamics apply from a networking perspective, as well. The very nature of the costs associated with attending – including ticket costs and travel costs – are not necessarily a bad thing, in that they act as a selection filter driving up the (perceived) value of those who are actually in the room. And, for better or worse, certain events optimize for exclusivity too.

But it seems that the main concern about non-physical events is that they prevent more high-value relationship building and, in particular, do not allow for serendipitous encounters. To the first point, that might be true, but as we increasingly take Zoom calls in the absence of our ability to meet face-to-face, I wonder how much our behavior change in this direction will stick. To the second point, I’m not necessarily sure that’s a bad thing, either.

Let’s take a lesson from online dating. First of all, 40% of all relationships in the US now start online. But what’s even more staggering, according to a 2017 study, is that the divorce rate amongst those who met online and got married is around 7%, compared to an average of 40-50% in the US. 

In other words, intentional, filtered, and curated matching processes create positive outcomes, and this is happening increasingly online. 

Another thing that’s surprising is the downward trend of relationships beginning with an introduction from friends or coworkers. Are we bad matchmakers? And comparably, are high-value network notes, from a business perspective, not as valuable as we may believe them to be? 

Meanwhile, any innovation or continued unbundling in this space will be especially interesting on the continent, where convening is particularly difficult, expensive and time-consuming. 

We can imagine additional opportunities to better curate digital connection and community within the ecosystem and across sectors or “jobs to be done”, and to better formalize what is currently informal (i.e., WhatsApp groups). 

To be sure, as we increasingly see things “unbundle” – the unbundling of television, the unbundling of financial processes, the unbundling of marketplaces – we’ll continue to see the rise of niche, sector-specific and vertical businesses (i.e., vertical social networks). Which means more opportunities for solutions fit for purpose and the uniqueness of the African early-stage ecosystem. And like anything else in tech, those who can build strong network effects will create the most value and win the opportunities at hand. 

Notes from around the ecosystem

This week in startups actually hiring – MAX.NG is looking for Project Managers, Sales Managers, and Product Managers.

Amidst the protests in the US, several venture investors have launched initiatives to support black founders. I hope that these initiatives extend to African founders too. Here are a

The pan-African neobank Eversend has successfully raised nearly €700,000 (almost $800,000) through a crowdfunding campaign, in which they hit 125% of their fundraising goal.

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