Making Virtual Real

The past eight months have been an almost Sisyphean effort by the FWD50 team to pivot to a virtual event while keeping the spirit of an amazing global community. Until a week ago, we really had no idea whether this would work.

Turns out, it did.

A conference is more than content, so we added tools for one-to-one, small group, and unstructured large groups, and turned our many partners loose on them. They didn’t disappoint, organizing mini-conferences, Ask-Me-Anything sessions, and post-talk gatherings.

A conference is live, spontaneous, remarkable content. We had some recorded talks—mainly to accommodate speakers from far-off timezones. But there’s a vast difference between a recorded talk and a live one. The vast majority of our content was delivered live, as interviews, talks, and chain reaction panels.

But there’s something more about conferences. There’s a vast difference between live—after all, any webinar can be live—and real. And somehow, along the way to reinventing what a conference can be, I think we found it.

We found ways to engage with the audience across chat, social platforms, and the content itself. We brought in surprise guests—Kofi Arthiabah and Sean Boots—for impromptu chats. We checked in with topic rooms and the lobby, live on the main channel. We asked unexpected questions, went long on fascinating conversations, and it felt … authentic.

It’s hard to pinpoint what exactly that means. But it’s clear from the hundreds of messages we’ve received since we wrapped on November 10 that the audience felt it too:

  • “Once again, FWD50 sets a new standard.”
  • “This was one of the best-run conferences I have ever attended or spoken at.”
  • “It’s my first year attending FWD50. I am kicking myself for not attending in the past.”
  • “Every single session that I attended was mind blowing.”
  • “I came into this conference not knowing what to expect. I was BLOWN AWAY. What an amazing lineup.”
  • “As expected, FWD50 is leading the way in building virtual events that bring the world together in ways that weren’t possible in 2019.”
  • “While I miss the face-to-face aspect, this is as good as it gets for a digital conference.”
  • “It just keeps getting better every year!”
  • “Some of the most inspiring and fascinating speakers, all on a platform that was easy to use.”
  • “Very impressive speakers, content and use of technology to facilitate a remarkable virtual conference. Depth, breath and diversity were outstanding.”
  • “The tools more than proved that digital conferences can be just as engaging!”

Now comes the hard work of following up. We’ve got recordings and transcripts of every session, which we’re editing and will be publishing on our platform so attendees can check out what they missed, or revisit what they loved, for the coming year. We’ve got reports to run, partners to follow up with, and 2021 to plan.

But we’re going to take a bit of time to regroup, and take a deep breath. Thank you all for coming on this extraordinary adventure with us, for being present, for testing new waters, for asking hard questions, for investing the time in preparing and learning and connecting.

At the start of this year, we wondered whether technology could bring us together. The answer, it seems, is a resounding and unequivocal “yes.”