Open source events are popular as much for the networking opportunities as for the skill building exercises and knowledge sharing. Events run the gamut from single focused internal talks and multitrack corporate external events to the international conferences. While decades of experience shape these events, today a global pandemic is driving a hard shift from physical to virtual venues. The change is likely permanent as virtual venues are unlikely to disappear once the novel coronavirus is curtailed or conquered. There are already hints that the future will see a rise of hybrid versions.
Behind all of these events is an OSPO or small events team managing the details, gathering speakers and volunteers, promoting the benefits, and calling open source fans to attend. Those responsible are invisible when all goes right and wishing they were if things go wrong. In short, event management can be a thankless job. Through it all, they make everything happen no matter what minor glitches or major pandemics might plague them along the way.
The purpose of this guide is to help OSPOs and open source event team members pull off successful open source events through the sharing of experience and resources of those who have done so before and during the Covid-19 pandemic. This guide is meant to be a living document in that it is expected to be updated as the challenges of this time continue to unfold new obstacles and opportunities for event managers.
Table of Contents
- Guide Description
- Open Source event types
- 4 key elements in virtual open source events
- Finding a theme or event focus
- Choosing a venue
- Organizing the event
- Marketing an open source event
- Lessons Learned
This how-to guide addresses opportunities and obstacles as well as issues and resolutions common to physical and virtual venues, for both internal and external audiences. Further, several specific issues, potential resolutions or mitigations, and ideas unique to each of those venues and audiences are discussed separately. This format was chosen to better enable the reader to review and choose tactics and strategies as befitting their own event, available resources, and end goals for organizers and attendees.
Resources are provided as separate addendums. For example, the attached budding speakers list was jointly formed and seeded by the people, companies, and the Linux Foundation who collaborated to build this guide. This approach is meant to enable others to also collaborate in building and strengthening these resources over time.
Readers are encouraged to check back for updates to the guide and resource addendums regularly.
Open source events are educational and networking hubs for the benefit of specific or at-large open source communities. Whether intimate or gigantic, these events are essential to the growth of the open source movement, of individual careers and professional reputations, and the growth of specific open source projects.
It is easy to think of open source events as similar to planning, organizing and promoting other technology events. While there are some similarities overall, open source events are in a category of their own.
“Honestly, there are a lot of differences. A traditional tech event is more about strategic alliances and partnerships and how can you help me and how can I help you, but all for more of a capitalistic purpose, as it were,” – Angela Brown, senior vice president and General Manager of Events at the Linux Foundation.
“By its very nature, the open-source community is deeply passionate about what they do, and very passionate about open-source. That passion extends into everything,” - added Brown, who has worked on tech events for other companies since 1994. She joined the Linux Foundation in 2007 after the organization arose from the merger of the previous open-source Development Labs and Free Standards Group. Linux Foundation events began to take shape almost immediately.
The good news is there is a long laundry list of event management skills that are easily transferable from tech events to open source events. However, failing to keep key differences in mind can set your event up for failure from the start.
“When you realize what those motivations are, it does infer and change how you are actually going to create an event,” - Brown explained.
Those motivation differences also create some interesting, and often misunderstood conference feedback.
For one thing, open source programmers are passionate so they are quick to approach organizers at conferences to report what’s wrong or what could be improved. These encounters can sound like harsh judgments and complaints, but they usually are not.
“It’s what they do: find bugs and fix them. That’s how we can iterate and make events better. It doesn’t mean that people don’t actually enjoy the events, but it definitely was funny. I had a hard time with that at the beginning,” - laughs Brown.
There are marked differences in OSPO and event teams charged with supporting open source as well. Team history, skill sets, and aims and goals can vary widely.
Most open source event organizers have funny tales and war stories to share. But not all of them came to the task by the same path. Some, like the Salesforce team, picked up the responsibility just before a pandemic locked them down.
“In the world of open source we want to make sure people know we’re just starting to dip our toes into these events that are very specific to open source, but we have done quite a few,” - said Alyssa Arvin who worked in engineering marketing at Salesforce for seven years before moving to its OSPO in December – roughly a month before the novel coronavirus went viral on a pandemic scale.
Open source event types
There are four general categories for open source events. The first two are determined by venue: physical or virtual. The remaining two are determined by audience: internal (company employees and partners) or external (open to people employed outside of the event organizer).
Event types can also be categorized by purpose or goal.
“There are events that we’re doing to cultivate a community internally. There are events that we’re trying to do to appreciate the external communities that we rely on. And then there are the events that we’re doing to support the Open Source Projects that come out of Salesforce” – Joshua Simmons, formerly a senior strategist in Salesforce’s OSPO.
Many organizations have experience in conducting open source events in physical venues, whether those are onsite or off, or for an internal or external audience.
“The process is pretty similar for internal and external events, other than the marketing piece,” – Shilla Saebi, Open Source Program Manager at Comcast.
However, virtual events are significantly different and completely new to many organizations who soon discovered they would need to learn how on the fly.
“Physical events and virtual events have different advantages and limitations. Physical events can create an in-person emotional experience but not everyone in the world is able to attend due to location or related travel cost. On the other hand, virtual events are scalable. They have an easy entry point,” – Teresa Terasaki, Brand Experience & Events and Program Manager, Open Source Community at [Google Open Source].
Among the main advantages to a physical event are the social interactions, networking opportunities and a new environment in which to spur innovation and collaboration with others. These happen to also be the greatest weaknesses in virtual events.
Among the main advantages of a virtual event are increased safety during a pandemic, scalability, affordability, accessibility, and no travel or other associated costs. But virtual events have downsides too.
“In recent months, we’ve seen a significant increase in participation at virtual events. Virtual events are able to reach new geographies and enable people who wouldn’t normally be able to join to attend traditional, in-person events. But they aren’t able to provide intensive in-person experience like physical events do,” – María Cruz, Program Manager, Community Engagement at Google.
Beyond these general categories, are myriad subcategories of event types. Most are determined by topic, but others are categorized by time or intensity.
“Events like sprints for projects come to mind. For example, sprints on the Python language orbit around every Python conference. They hold several days of sprints, both for people who are core to the project to make headway while they have the good fortune of being in the same physical space with each other. But also, as an onramp to new contributors,” said Josh Simmons, former open source strategist for Salesforce. He also previously served as President of Salesforce’s Open Source Initiative.
“Sprints are going to be an important one to look into at some point. You might want to make sure it’s on your radar.”
Regardless of the type of open source event you’re currently planning, virtual will reign supreme in venues for as long as the pandemic lasts and will probably remain a strong option afterwards. While most organizations are learning how to host a virtual event on the fly, shared experiences are beginning to reveal some good guidance.
4 key elements in virtual open source events
Pivoting to virtual open source events is a smart and natural move during the Covid-19 pandemic. But that is not to say it was an easy move to make.
“First we had to negotiate out of all of the contracts we had this year. It was a lot to contend with because if a local government bans large gatherings, for example, then you’ve got force majeure in your favor. But just being in a pandemic doesn’t free you from the contract,” said Brown.
“It quickly then became necessary to research virtual event platforms and try to figure out which ones really meet our needs. But perhaps the biggest challenge was in rolling those out and trying to create the same type of attendee experience as in physical events, which to be quite honest, you can’t create the same thing. Right? So, you move on to planning an entirely new and hopefully just as engaging experience,” Brown added.
But the stress endured by teams scrambling to make virtual work is not for naught.
“This is an opportunity to think outside the box including platform, format, content, timing, and interactivity. We can also reach audience groups that you don’t normally reach at in-person events,” said Terasaki.
Teams should get comfortable with planning open source events as they’re likely to still be in use far after the pandemic rush subsides. However, virtual events are also likely to evolve.
“Considering the level of innovation in accessibility for remote participation, and the positive impact it has on the event’s reach, there is a chance that events transform to a hybrid format. This would imply that an event can both be in-person and virtual: while some participants will gather in the same venue, there could be a portion of the speakers presenting virtually, with some attendees joining remotely as well,” said Cruz.
Deciding the focus of your event is the first and most important step as it sets the scale, tone, and pace for the rest of the event planning.
“First, figure out what your purpose is and why you are gathering people together. Who are you looking to gather together, and how do dates and timing work for that group? There are so many events out there, or there have been so many events out there already. How is yours different and why would people want to attend? These are questions to ask yourself and team,” says Brown.
In short, make sure you’re bringing an event with value to a group that will value the information.
Once you know the purpose and the intended audience, you’ll be able to quickly determine other parameters, such as the type of virtual venue technologies you will need.
Funding: registration fees and sponsorships
Registration and sponsorship fees are typical funding sources for physical open source events, but these may be harder to muster for virtual events. Traditionally, open source events fare better if registration fees are low as that tends to bring in larger attendance numbers. Sponsorships cover many if not all of the costs at many events, or at least any shortfall from lowering the registration fees.
While many organizers are not seeking to profit from an event, most would like to cover their costs if for no other reason than to offer more events to the community.
“A lot of that comes down to why a sponsor would sponsor that event in the first place. That varies. For some events like Linux Kernel Summit, for example, which is annual meeting of 80 to 90 people, where the Linux story evolves, and the core kernel developers sit down and decide what’s going to happen with future release cycles. Sponsors pay good money to get a seat at the table at that event. That is really the only benefit they care about,” says Brown.
“Whereas another event like Linux Plumbers Conference attracts developers who are working in all of the core subsystems of the Linux kernel, that so many companies and organizations depend on. A lot of companies sponsor that event, not because of the individual benefits that they find in a sponsorship perspective, but simply because they know it is important to support the community. It benefits everybody. But then you have other events like KubeCon, where it is a lead gen thing,” Brown added.
Virtual events incur costs too and organizers must decide whether to pay them or seek funding elsewhere. Consider that given the long dry spell in open source events and conferences, there is pent up demand now among sponsors and open source recruiters who are effectively cut off from much of the open source community. Finding a way to involve sponsors in virtual events helps restore the full circle of open source relationships.
Code of conduct
It comes as no surprise to anyone that a code of conduct is just as imperative for online behavior as it is in real world events. However, your current standby code of conduct may need some revamping to ensure all the virtual bases are covered. Be sure to comb through it carefully before deeming it the official rule of the venue.
“It’s not just about having the code of conduct, it’s about knowing how to actually execute on it,” said Brown.
Diversity outreach is important in efforts aimed at building broader interest and participation in open source and open source projects, and to increase event attendance.
“Tech has a representation problem, period. And Open Source requires someone to have volunteer time, basically to contribute. That is sort of the proxy for privilege. So we end up with Open Source having an even bigger diversity in representation problem than tech itself does,” Simmons said.
“We have to do a lot to intentionally overcome that. We proactively look for speakers with name recognition but also if the speaker can be a woman, great. If it can be person of color, all the better. If they can be a gender minority, fantastic. We’re trying to both tap into people with name recognition as well as people who can be role models,” added Simmons.
Finding a theme or event focus
The first step is to determine the theme or focus of the event as that will guide everything that follows in event planning.
“At the core, you have to decide what the purpose is of the event and who you plan on being there. That will in turn define where the event should be, what kind of venue it should be in, what the setup should be, and how you are going to market it,” said Brown.
Theme and expected attendee size affect the event’s setting and tone. There are events where the purpose is to include and attract more people. Conversely, there are some events where the headcount does not matter, for example, a hackfest or a technical forum. “At that point, it is really about creating an environment where people can come and all they have to focus on is getting the work done that they came to accomplish with other people. And hopefully having a good time while they are doing it,” Brown added.
However, deciding the purpose of the event can be a tough call. Gauging topic interests can be measured in several ways, but it still may come down to an educated guess.
Among other things, Salesforce uses its Volunteer Time Off (VTO) program, which is an internal program focused on giving back to the open source community, to judge event interest.
“So much of this is trial and error. Like all Open Source program offices, we are trying to figure this out. We also try to tie it to exact metrics such as the number of volunteer hours we get. Just to see if this is something that is of interest to people,” said Alyssa Arvin, Senior Program Manager, Open Source at Salesforce.
For example, if Salesforce aims for 40 people to volunteer at this event and 50 employees sign up, they know interest in the event is high. However, if only 15 employees volunteered then “okay, this might not be the best event. Or maybe we weren’t marketing it correctly. So we adjust our event strategy and plan too. Having metrics helps us find a hit topic or theme for the event,” said Arvin.
Comcast uses polls to narrow their event topics.
Saebi says she reaches out to the community with a quick survey or a poll in the Slack channel to ask, "’Hey, we’re thinking about doing a conference. What topics are exciting to you? And then do you also have any speakers that you’d like to recommend?’ All they have to do is choose their top topics from our list."
Do not be afraid to consider a target audience as an event theme too. A lot of mutual good can come from helping different groups find opportunities and overcome challenges in open source.
“We have events that focus on our employee resource group. Examples include a project for the LGBT community, one for women in technology, and another called BOLDforce for our Black, African American community. People are really excited and waiting for these events,” said Arvin.
Ultimately, the event’s topic or theme is its purpose. Therefore, is must be highly focused and clearly articulated.
“Most recently we’ve been focusing on events aimed at building our internal open source community,” said Simmons.
Choosing a venue
Choosing a venue has always been largely driven by strategy than exotic locales.
“The Linux Foundation gets a ton of requests to hold events in India, in Africa in different countries in South America, a lot of emerging countries where there’s a lot of potential for future open-sourced community members,” said Brown.
“But there’s the economics of it to consider too. Events are not cheap to hold and we can’t be everywhere. But we don’t want to limit the opportunities or potential from these emerging areas or other areas that we simply can’t be in. So we think that virtual events gives us an opportunity to reach a larger, more diverse audience around the world, which is huge,” Brown explained.
Because of the global pandemic, many event organizers are having to pivot from physical conferences and events to virtual ones. However, an eventual return to events in the physical world are also in the plans, as are budding ideas for hybrid events that blend virtual and physical activities.
“Which format to choose depends on the open source project goals. Virtual events can be very valuable in reaching new geographies and transitioning to a virtual only connection is more seamless than with physical events. So in the future there will be a combination of both formats” said Terasaki.
Sometimes the budget or other factors dictate the venue options.
“Sometimes if budgets are looking good for the year, for this year, for example, with pandemic, probably not, everything’s going to be virtual, but for previous years, we’ve done internal events even externally at nice little venues. It just depends on the event and it could be an internal venue as well,” said Saebi.
There are distinct pros and cons for each venue.
For example, “virtual events open up more opportunities for people who have geographic restrictions or economic challenges to participate in physical events. We saw people from 82 countries attend a recent virtual event. This is roughly 50% more countries represented than in-person events,” said Terasaki.
Comcast has also seen greater attendance at virtual events.
“We did a talk on InnerSource internally and it went really well. We had, I think, 170 people show up, which is great. It’s more than what we would have had in person,” said Saebi.
“We’re testing, experimenting, and learning. We have been breaking it up because people are getting Zoom exhaustion and conference call exhaustion and video chat exhaustion. We’re trying to avoid doing the traditional eight-hour days. We’re breaking it up and starting small, but so far so good.”
Google also found shorter formats work better in virtual events.
“At small online developer events, past experience taught us that we lose approximately 30% of the audience every 60 min. Getting attention from the audience for a longer period of time at virtual events tends to be difficult. Shorter format is usually preferable. Look at Flutter Day 2020 playlist to see some examples of short presentations showcased during an event,” said Cruz.
Physical venues are a different arrangement entirely. There are different venues around the world for different types and sizes of meetings. But the building isn’t the only consideration.
“Reliable Wi-Fi is critical. We use our own network company now that we bring with us. But even today, most of the Wi-Fi and internet in venues is actually run by the companies that traditionally do not understand the bandwidth drain that our community will take, or the fact that they’re going to be walking around with three different devices on them that are all pulling from the bandwidth at the same time,” said Brown.
The Wi-Fi issue is easy to miss on the planning end and hard to ignore at the event.
“The venue tells you everything is fine, and they can totally support 100 people. But you really want to be looking at 3 times that. Again, it depends on what the people are going to be doing at the event but whatever that is, there’s a lot of bandwidth drain,” Brown added.
Organizing the event
An open source event succeeds or fails on details. Organizing every element, no matter how small, is thereby crucial, no matter what the venue is. Most successful event organizers have a plan or a checklist they follow to make sure details are not overlooked.
Salesforce works with a template they call a program plan wherein the company identifies the overarching goals and maps out specific paths. The questions asked internally to flesh out the planning include:
Who are we going to engage with?
How is it going to be publicized?
What is our follow-up strategy?
What is our pre-event strategy?
What metrics do we need to use? The number of attendee or engagement levels on social media, something else?
Below are tips for planning details you may want to add to your own event planner, or use to build one.
Selecting a date
Both internal and external events can easily overlap with other events which will negatively affect your event’s success. Selecting a date to enhance your odds for success is therefore of prime importance.
“We have an open source events calendar in our organization that our team manages and updates. All the big open source conferences are on the calendar, and others too, because you don’t want there to be a scheduling conflict with your event, but neither do you want to burn people out by stacking conferences too close together,” said Saebi.
“I try to schedule our conferences in a slower month and in the middle of the week so people are home and free to enjoy their weekends,” she added.
Watch out for overlaps with local events unrelated to open source too, as well as for local occurrences ranging from planned strikes and protests to holiday observances.
“If you plan an event in Germany, for example, and it’s a national holiday, even if all of your attendees are coming from outside of Germany and have no problem going to the event on that day, it’s going to be very difficult to get the support from the local venue and vendors that you need, or all the restaurants might be closed, or taxis might not be running, etc,” warned Brown.
You may think virtual events would be exempt from such concerns, but they aren’t. Holiday observances can still affect attendance and the availability of vendor support in everything from technical support to the mailing of welcome gifts or other swag.
Finding and selecting speakers
First, align speaker selection with specific goals. Closely consider your goals for the event. But you may also want to reach towards your company’s overarching goals as well as those of open source communities. This is no time to think small.
Consider speakers within your organization too. But finding speakers from outside of your organization doesn’t have to be any more of a daunting task than finding them internally.
“I find many of our speakers from past Open Source Summit events and the Cloud Native Computing Foundation (CNCF) speakers bureau, but those speakers are mostly related to CNCF projects. I think it would be a fantastic idea for everyone to contribute to building and updating a Linux Foundation speaker’s bureau,” said Saebi, who also keeps a database of speakers that contains notable external speakers, and speakers across Comcast.
Other sources to look to for possible speakers for your event include paypercall.io, which Saebi finds “extremely helpful in finding speakers, especially those in open source.” And, of course, social media such as LinkedIn and Twitter.
“I have a list that I created on Twitter. I would recommend other folks to create lists as well, but they’re also more than welcome to subscribe to my list. It is called ‘open source speakers’ and it’s three words,” said Saebi. Saebi says she too looks to underrepresented groups in open source to help her find speakers. For example, she may ask women she knows in open source for recommendations on potential women speakers.
Developing internal speakers
Also consider speakers for your event based on your organization’s internal needs to develop and encourage a new and deeper bench of brand ambassadors.
“Internal events are a safe environment of your peers. So, we try to find people who have never given a talk before and give them this larger practice round because there’s anywhere between one and three hundred people dialing into it. That gives them the confidence to go and submit to an external conference,” said Arvin.
There are ways to add to the comfort and pacing of those new to speaking, and for more seasoned speakers too who may be feeling the wear and tear of many virtual events and far too many Zoom sessions.
“We pre-record the presentation, then we can add captions to make our events accessible. In that way, presenters can also focus on live Q&A on the day of,” said Cruz.
Just keep in mind that you may need more than a presenter, particularly for virtual events.
“Moderators are needed more than ever. We recruit seasoned speakers for the moderator’s role, then presenters can focus on their presentation and live Q&A,” said Terasaki.
If you’re planning a virtual event, you’ll want to pay close attention to your platform options because they vary significantly in many important ways.
“We did a virtual event platform comparison of 65 different platforms and a lot of these were simply about content delivery. And obviously, for Linux Foundation events, we’re looking for something different than that,” said Brown.
The results of the Linux Foundation’s platform comparisons are now freely available. You’ll want to check back periodically because this is a fluid document, Brown says. But here are samples of the results as of September 2020:
The Linux Foundation is also journaling their organizers’ experience with each platform after an event to give members a more detailed accounting of successes and failures. You can find that in blog posts on the events landing page.
Google looks for a specific set of features and functionalities, as well.
“We value compliance, safety, diversity, Inclusion, and accessibility. We try to pay extra attention to that and adjust the environment for online events. Do we have captions? Does the recording platform have a function for speakers to change font size for speaker notes?, etc,” said Terasaki.
“Choosing the right event platform is the key for success. A great user interface with multiple engagement tools and functions that attendees are looking for at virtual events is imperative,” Terasaki added.
Events held in physical venues also require careful attention to apps and networking platforms. Some of the options are flexible enough to successfully pull off cross-over duties between virtual and physical, which may make them useful going forward with blended venues.
“MeetingPlay started as a networking app. They have done a very good job of pivoting to be a virtual event platform. That’s one that we’ve been really happy with,” says Brown.
“For physical events, we do have some options we like for networking and to facilitate people meeting each other at events. One that we use is an app called Brella, which is really a networking app, but it’s not a full-blown event app that we would keep a schedule on and do push notifications. It’s really just for networking and it has an event matchmaking feature on it,” Brown explained.
Make sure your expectations and goals are aligned when deciding to use these types of apps.
“For example, in an Open Source Summit, I’d say probably only 15% or 20% of people actually like using Brella or any other app, but the people who are using it, get huge value out of it,” says Brown.
Start by identifying the tasks, dates and times you need volunteers to help out.
“You can’t do this by yourself, you have to have volunteers to help with this initiative. I look for ‘day of’ volunteers as well as folks who want to help with some of the organizing, but mostly ‘day of’ is the most important,” said Saebi.
“A few things to check that your ‘day of’ volunteers can help you with is, will there be a check-in station for when your conference attendees arrive? And there should be,” Saebi added.
Soliciting volunteers for a physical or a virtual event can be challenging. But there are several ways one can be successful in the endeavor. Take for example, how Salesforce manages and encourages volunteerism.
Volunteer Time Off is a formal program at Salesforce. It begins on the first day of employment when, as part of their on-boarding, new employees often go to volunteer somewhere with their on-boarding class. Volunteering is thus established early on as both the spirit of the company culture and as an ongoing job expectation.
“Volunteering is really a core part of our business and that’s well enshrined in company programs and well supported. So, we thought let’s tap into that to help people make those first contributors to Open Source. To help them get over that hump of the initial barrier of having never contributed to Open Source before in such a way that we are both raising awareness of our reliance on Open Source and on Open Source’s reliance on volunteers,” said Simmons.
It turns out that Volunteer Time Off is an excellent source for volunteers for open source events as well.
“So much of this is trial and error. Like all Open Source program offices are trying to figure this out. We also try to tie volunteer hours to exact metrics to see if the event or topic is something that is of interest to people,” said Arvin.
She cited an example of how volunteer metrics translate to a broader interest in an open source event. For example, if the Salesforce OSPO aims for 40 people to volunteer at an event and end ups getting 50, then the company has a strong indication that people are interested in the topic or event. But if just 15 volunteers responded instead, then that is a strong indication that the event isn’t a good draw or that the marketing may be off target.
“Having those metrics also gives us a baseline of what our employees are interested in doing. And it tells us what is working in spreading the word of Open Source,” Arvin said.
Gifts, swag and acknowledgments
Gifts, swag, and acknowledgments remain important elements in event planning. Generally, they are used to reward, thank, and incentivize speakers, volunteers, attendees, sponsors, and communities.
It was wise to order these items early as traditionally it takes longer than you’d think to have the items made and delivered on time. Early orders also give you a chance to have changes made if something is wrong with the order or a vendor fails to follow through. But given recent cutbacks in the U.S. Postal Service and the extraordinary workloads other carriers are dealing with during a pandemic, it’s wise to order even earlier than normal.
And, yes, you can give gifts, swag, and acknowledgements in virtual events too. Some of these can even be digital such as a month of a TV or video streaming service, or credits on riding services like Uber or Lyft. Credits on food services such as Instacart or UberEATS is another idea. Of course, many event organizers also send traditional gifts, particularly to speakers and volunteers. Your budget will affect your gift and swag choices too.
Just be careful to think your choices through to avoid pitfalls. For example, don’t give credits to digital services unless you’re sure those services are available locally for speakers, volunteers, or other giftees. There are also other things to consider, depending on location and other factors.
“One time, I got the speakers really nice gift baskets which included mugs and fruit and all kinds of nice goodies. But the speakers couldn’t fit those in their carry-ons. I felt so bad. So, if you’re buying a gift for people who are traveling, make sure that it’s something they can travel with,” said Saebi.
Think back to swag and gifts you’ve received or seen at other conferences. That’s likely to help you come up with good ideas for yours.
For example, Saebi says that one of the best gifts she received at a conference, she’s still using today. “I’ve been using it through the quarantine as well, it was from the Linux Foundation for the Open Source Summit, North America. I want to say either, I think Los Angeles maybe, or maybe Vancouver, but it’s a cutting board that looks like a surfboard. It’s amazing. So yeah, I think personalized gifts like that are really nice,” she said.
Before shopping for gifts, make sure to make a list of everyone who should receive something, and then buy a few extras for volunteers who join last minute or people you may have initially overlooked, like moderators or an emcee.
Recognitions can take the form of gifts or public shoutouts. Often, organizers choose to do both.
“I usually do include recognitions in the beginning and at the end of the event. But those should be personalized too. For example, some people are shy and they don’t like public attention. So I don’t say, “Hey, stand up, wave your hands.” Some of them would say they hate that experience. And so, I think just calling their name out is good enough,” said Saebi.
Often volunteer are given matching tee- shirts with the event logo on them if it’s a big external event. Stickers, even general open source stickers, are a big hit with volunteers and attendees. Both stickers and tee shirts are often on a table for the taking by attendees and volunteers, so you may want to add something a little extra just for volunteers.
And, it’s perfectly ok to regift swag too. After all, spreading the word of other conferences, communities and projects is entirely the point of stickers and swag, so feel free to spread it around.
“I always take other swag as well from other open source conferences, especially for our internal events because not everybody has the opportunity to go to let’s say Open Source Summit, North America. So in that case, Nithya, myself, and members of our team, we always have extra swag and extra stickers to offer later,” said Shilla Saebi.
Registration fees continue to be a vexing issue.
“Most of our events have been free. We may have done one where it was external facing and we charged a small fee and we noticed that it was harder to get people to register. But charging a fee helps reduce no shows so it’s a difficult decision,” said Saebi.
Comparing your event with similar events is often a good way to measure market expectation and response.
“We very much look at what everyone else is charging. Like most folks who are planning open-source events, we’re trying to cover the cost of the event rather than make money on it,” said Brown.
While traditional tech events charge up to $4,000 or even more for people to attend an event, open source events rarely command similarly high fees.
“In the US, companies understand the value of a developer going to a conference, so they often fund several conferences throughout the year. But there are still a lot of countries where that’s not true and developers have to foot the bill on their own,” said Brown.
“China and Japan are both great examples where we simply can’t charge the same registration fees there. We have to be very careful where we hold events because developers do not get travel budgets to go to events. They barely get any money to go to attend an event or a registration fee. You really have to think about what that local market will actually bear too,” said Brown.
Economic cycles also affect what can be charged for registration and sponsorships. There are other considerations to how to handle registrations as well, such as GDPR and privacy policies. Compliance with the various privacy regulations must be maintained in the registration process and everything that occurs afterward.
“You really want to be careful of that in your registration. Let people know you’re going to be sharing their contact information, because you’re legally obligated to do so. It is important to get the right verbiage in there, especially if you’re going to have sponsors that you’re giving any information to,” said Brown.
Be sure to print any materials you’ll need from marketing and directional signage to banners and attendee handouts a month or more ahead of the event. Typically, attendee materials, including event stickers, are distributed at registration.
“We put stickers on all the tables that people are sitting at, stickers for the actual event,” said Saebi. “Make sure to get the pronouns of your speakers. And ideally you should perhaps even ask for pronouns when people are checking in to the conference. If you have pronoun stickers like she, her, they, them, that’ll be nice to add on the sticker table as well.”
Registration desks also have swag readily available as well as name tags, lanyards and other event items. These can also be used in virtual events in various ways from standard pics or avatars, to a variety of gamification options.
Social media is as strong as ever in promoting and recording events. A well-chosen hashtag is therefore essential to your efforts.
Typically, hashtags are set up prior to the event and generally plastered everywhere during the event.
“The hashtag is really helpful because if I have a unique hashtag on Twitter for a certain event, I can actually go back and look at all the tweets from three years ago or two years ago from that event. And you can keep that same hashtag going for future events, or however you want to do it. But it’s nice and useful thing to have,” said Saebi.
“And it gives people a platform or idea or an area to go. I know a lot of people congregate on Twitter. I also make sure to tell the speakers to put their Twitter handles on their slides. They don’t have to, it’s just a suggestion in case people want to reach out to them,” Saebi added.
Side events and break planning
It’s general knowledge that neither speakers nor attendees are keen on early morning events and talks. What may not be so generally known is that fact holds true for virtual events as well. People may be attending from home, but their early mornings tend to be a bit frantic, especially if there are kids to get to school and pets to walk.
“Now I start at 9:30 AM or 10:00 AM, and then we leave 30 minutes or an hour in the morning for people to congregate and eat breakfast. I think 9:00 AM start time may work as well. But I usually do 9:30 or 10. Considering that we do after events too at physical events, it can be really exhausting on people to be on for 12 or 14 hours that day,” said Saebi.
Don’t drag the day on too long for virtual events either.
“It’s one thing to get someone to attend a virtual event, but what’s your dwell time going to be? How long is someone going to stick around? That’s the big question that we are trying to figure out because what that looks like in this first round of virtual events that we do is going to help us decide what we do with the ones after that. But there are related questions too such as is a full day just too long and we need to break these up into couple hour increments a day and do them for more days or do something entirely different,” said Brown.
The length of events matters significantly. Based on surveys and feedback, Comcast found that neither speakers or attendees like one hour talks.
“Those are too long. I try to do shorter talks. If it’s a keynote, we can do 30 minutes, maybe 35 minutes max. But typically, the talks are 25 to 30 minutes, keep them short and sweet,” said Saebi.
Similarly, Comcast found that talks need to be short in virtual events as well.
“People are getting Zoom exhaustion and conference call exhaustion and video chat exhaustion. We’re trying to avoid doing eight-hour days. We’re breaking up talks into much smaller sessions over more days but shorter hours per day,” said Saebi.
It’s a common problem for all event organizers on the moment, but it probably bodes well for events post-pandemic.
“There’s a huge challenge because one, people are stuck at home. You could argue that they will have no problem sitting in front of their computer all day at a conference. But the flip side of that is people are tired of being stuck at home. As things open up, people just want to get out of the house and experience some semblance of normal life again,” said Brown.
Socializing and networking have always been big draws at conferences. That’s why breaks should remain frequent and certainly placed between every talk. In physical events this allows for the always popular and beneficial hallway track. Most organizers are still struggling to create a similar experience in virtual events. However, experiments are currently underway.
“I recently went to the InnerSource Commons event where they had virtual breakout rooms. You could actually be moved into another Zoom room with other folks and just kind of relax and have a more chill conversation and then go back to the main conference when you want. I thought that was really good,” said Saebi.
Evening events are common at physical venues. These can last from 30 minutes to a couple hours and can be anything from mixers to dinners, but they always have a social and networking vibe. Distributing virtual or physical drink tickets, usually limited at two per person, controls the cost and limits excessive drinking as it reinforces the code of conduct. Tickets are good for alcoholic drinks but other drinks as well such as water, coffees, juices, and sodas.
Other questions organizers will need to answer in advance include whether the event should be private and if so does it need a passcode. Do you need to send invitations or will an announcement on Slack or social media work as well or better?
Code of Conduct
The Code of conduct remains critically important to any event, physical or virtual.
“I’m proud to say we’re one of the first open-source organizations and events that had one at their events,” says Brown. She says the Linux Foundation’s code of conduct is freely available in the creative commons license and “anyone may pull from it.”
However, just having a code of conduct alone is not enough. It is important to distribute your code of conduct before and during events and regularly point people to it.
“We put it out at registration on a banner, it’s very easy to find on our website. It goes out on our email communications. We mention on the keynote stage. You also need to make sure that whoever is running your conference knows how to address any code of conduct issues that come up,” said Brown.
Comcast uses its own existing code of conduct for internal events. And uses a template to compose one for external events. Other organizations do similarly.
Food and drinks planning
Food and drinks are part of the necessary planning in physical events. If the event is internal and held on company grounds, food and drink options are often limited to what the company’s selected caterer offers. However, there are a few planning tricks that can make that easier to arrange.
“I place an order through the catering company for the maximum for our internal venue, which is 300 people. And then I ask how late I can adjust the order. Typically caterers will give you two weeks which is great because by then you’ll have a much better idea how many people are expected to attend that event,” said Saebi.
“I learned that little trick from wedding planning, because that’s how it was for our wedding. So I started asking the same thing for conferences and discovered that I don’t have to have the exact number today, as long as they give me the date of when they need it by,” Saebi added.
Besides a headcount, you’ll need to consider varying dietary needs such as diabetic, gluten-free, vegan, vegetarian, kosher, and keto diets. Coffee, tea, diet drinks, sodas, and water should be plentiful and available all day.
This is also an area where you may need a volunteer to lend a hand.
“Assign one person to be the contact for the caterer. All they have to do is answer their phone when the caterer calls and let them in the venue. Everything else, including the bill, is taken care of in advance, so the only additional thing the volunteer might need to do is maybe guide the caterers to where they need to go,” said Saebi.
Once the menu is decided, make it known to attendees when and where the food is, and what’s on the various available menus. If you’re not serving lunch or dinner, offer a list of nearby restaurants and cafes so attendees can easily see their options.
Food and drinks for evening events must also be based on a range of dietary restrictions. Mixers can rely on light appetizers only while dinners may contain several courses and menu options. Dining and drinking venues within walking distance of the event venue or hotels generally work best as it simplifies transportation issues.
However, the pandemic may have permanently changed how food is served in future physical events, at least during the event itself.
“Communal food may shift to grab-and-go, pre-packed boxes moving forward instead of buffets,” said Cruz.
In virtual events, food and drink are choices made by the individual attendee. The alternative is to offer digital credits with food delivery apps so attendees can have a meal or respite together in a casual Zoom or other platform networking room.
While patterns were set, trends made, and playbooks refined before the pandemic, everything was upended after the pandemic hit and will likely change again once the pandemic subsides. This makes followup evaluations all the more crucial in adapting and improving the function, performance, and attendance in future events.
Post-event surveys are a steadfast measure on everything from speaker performance to event relevance and the general enjoyment factor. Typically, the results are used by organizers for future event planning, but not always. Positive remarks are often shared with the speakers who earned them. And positive comments about the event are often used in marketing materials for future versions of the same event.
Further, snippets or full videos of speakers are sometimes shared with speakers for inclusion in their own work portfolios, on YouTube, and to market future events.
Comcast, like many companies, has a tight policy around making and sharing videos of speakers at events. Speaker consent is one of the top requirements. Costs are another determining factor. Even so, videos are only shared internally with “strict guard rails around anything requiring legal compliance.”
“If the venue has AV options and if they are not that expensive, we’ll ask them to record it and then we can post it on our open source program office website. We’ve also recorded some ourselves, taken pictures ourselves, and hired a photographer sometimes as well,” said Saebi.
Following up to thank the volunteers is also essential. Consider sending thank you cards and notes, or even small gifts. Adding the results of their efforts- such as growth in attendance or accolades from attendees – to the thank you notes is also a good touch.
Followup activities can also be used to extend the experience between events and encourage further engagement.
“We do try to make sure that people leave with something tangible to do. For example, we may make some suggestions on how attendees can find a project to work on after the event, such as after Tech Talks, the Open Source Tech Talks and the volunteer events,” said Simmons. “We also suggest places to go to get support. Ultimately, we want to make sure they feel strong and empowered coming out of those events.”
There are also followup activities that can help your brand benefit from its efforts in providing useful events.
“We’re very careful about not spamming people but we do send one email that offers more information on different points of interest with links to our Open Source page, our blog, highlights from the booth, and information about any demos that we shared for any of the external events,” said Arvin.
Marketing an open source event
Marketing is the key to success for any event, regardless of venue. Marketing tactics will vary according to size and type of event and the goals the organizers intend to achieve.
However, below are some marketing tips, strategies, and tactics that tend to work out well for many events.
1) Leverage social media: Publicize events on social media channels because messages there can be shared more broadly than to the number of people you have on a mailing list. Consider buying ads on Google, Facebook, and others too.
2) Email campaigns work well: Mailing lists fuel email campaigns. When cultivated and maintained carefully mailing lists can extend the reach beyond the lists of attendees from past events. Typically, the email schedule for a n email campaign is:
a. Announce an upcoming event
b. Push for submissions
c. Reminder for the approaching deadline for submissions
d. Announce the keynotes
e. Announce the event schedule
f. Communicate highlights of various aspects of the event
g. Communicate opportunities for networking, socializing, and nearby attractions
h. Event followup emails
3) Lean in on the power of word of mouth: Reach out to open source communities who will have an affinity for the topic or the event and to local open source groups to spread the word, help build audience numbers, and attract volunteers.
“If you’re in, for example, Austin and you’re holding a local event for primarily the Austin open-source community, there are a ton of companies locally that you can reach out to. Whether that is companies like Home Depot or IBM that have big open-source development centers there, or whether it’s reaching out to the local tech and open-source organizations of which there are a lot,” said Brown.
4) Create media partnerships: Ideas on ways to leverage media partnerships include being added to their calendar of events, an exchange of results or services, advertise their and your events on the respective websites, ask for press coverage of the event for additional promotion for it, develop educational opportunities for the community, and other mutually beneficial activities that grow both audiences.
5) Cross-promote two or more events: “I met with the team that runs our engineering Tech Talks and asked for their assistance ahead of time. They put it on all of the channels where they promote their Tech Talks. Anything basically where they announce and promote upcoming events, they included my event as if it were one of their Tech Talks. But then we had to narrow it down some since they have quite a large following who are interested in other things,” said Arvin.
6) Target open source groups: Post announcements and information on places such as the Open Source back channel and the Open Source chatter, which is to say your intranet system. Also, tag various Open Source specific projects, for example, The Python Group. Further, ask speakers to share it with their teams, their chatter page and their Slack group as well.
However you choose to market your event, be assured that the appetite for more information and more opportunities to network has never waned despite current circumstances and challenges.
To the credit of the TODO group, open source communities and organizations, and open source fans, events have continued on despite the challenges. It’s only natural that such an open group would open source the lessons learned so far too:
1) Project sprints are increasingly of interest: Sprints for projects are becoming increasingly popular. For example, a sprint for The Python Language is common at Python conferences. Typically, there are several days of sprints. Some are designed to accelerate headway from people who are core to the project while they are in the same physical space with each other. But some are onramps for new contributors, keeping a vital pipeline filled. And some are introductory and ideal for newcomers.
Consider using sprints as satellite events to your conference to build feeders for projects and languages you support and need support in. But be forewarned, it is not as easy to do as it sounds.
“We tried and didn’t work as well because Salesforce has so many different programming languages, and every team is using a different one. When we tried to make it too specific events, even those outside of Open Source, generally aren’t as successful internally. The lesson is that sprints and events can be too narrow,” said Arvin.
2) One day conferences tend to be a hit: Take for example, Salesforce’s one day event planned for 50 people in San Francisco at an offsite venue. that we held it at. More than 50 people showed up and stayed the entire day. The talks were by Salesforce and other companies. Marketing was mostly grassroots with most of the messaging targeting the local community and inviting local speakers.
“It ended up being a huge success. We had really positive feedback around it and people stayed the whole day. It is always a win when you don’t lose people halfway through the event,” said Arvin.
3) Maintain bonds for your projects: Did you lose your maintainer or are they about to leave to work somewhere else? Project contributors are bound to have a lot of questions you’ll need to answer to keep momentum going.
“I think it’s important to call that out. And not just in the sense of the specific instance and how that ended up being useful for the project because we had the maintainer who was moving on. But because I think that speaks to a broader theme of the importance of events,” said Simmons.
“Especially when there’s change coming with a project. Whether that’s a change in the leadership or change in how it’s organized, or a big new release. There are communities that have formed organically around these projects and everybody has their own stake and sense of ownership. So when a project hits a point where there’s something big happening, that raises a lot of questions for other participants. Events can be an extremely useful forum for helping people address the fear of the uncertainty and organize around what’s coming next,” Simmons added.
4) Pivot whenever and wherever you need to: It’s ok to pivot. Especially now when everyone is focused on adapting to a new reality. Don’t hesitate. Pivot and move on is the new fail fast.
“If you’re not getting traction, or you’re not getting support from the organization, or the content is off or you can’t find good speakers, or whatever the case may be that points to a likely fail for the event you had in mind, then pivot. If you’re not getting support it doesn’t mean it’s not an important event, or that it doesn’t need to happen. It just means it isn’t working right now,” said Arvin.
“It’s okay if the end result doesn’t look like the original event you had in mind. It can evolve throughout the process. And even with successful events that we’ve done in the past, the second one is going to look different and so is the third and fourth. We’re always going to be changing and adapting. And that’s okay,” Arvin added.
5) Curate documentation to encourage event spread:. For example, Salesforce curates documentation on how to guides and other material on events so that smaller groups can run events on their own. Salesforce is also looking at open sourcing some of these documents to the larger community as well. But event organizers still are standing by to give advice and otherwise assist as needed.
“I’m both a web developer and a community organizer and one of the things that I have come to learn, and I wish I had realized this earlier, was how hungry communities are for this kind of support,” said Simmons.
“Communities may not even know that they need support from event planners and organizers. But when we show up and we offer our support, I think they quickly realize that events are just as complicated in software but in very different ways. Then they are eager to be here to work with us,” said Simmons.
6) Blended events will be the new virtual: Virtual events were forced to scale on the heels of a pandemic. But they are likely with us forever now, either in their pure state or as part of new, blended events.
One of the biggest advantages to virtual events is scale: organizers can reach much larger audiences located anywhere with an internet connection. That’s great because one of the biggest goals in open source is to grow communities and projects.
“We need to get more people trained to be the next generation of developers. Frankly we’re in need of more developers now. And it’s not just developers, right? It’s community leaders, it’s program office managers, as every company is now going to open-source as the norm, we all know that there are a ton of things that go along with that. Legal and compliance and governance and all of these things,” said Brown.
Virtual events are a great growth facilitator. They also enable organizers to produce an event for less money and attendees to spend less money to attend. But that’s not to say that virtual events can out deliver physical events on every important touchstone.
“When we look forward, now, we’re seeing a strong opportunity for something hybrid. Where we can use the virtual side to bring something to a much larger group of people. That’s going to provide a huge impact and benefit for attendees and hopefully help them through their careers and into the open-source community,” Brown said.
So, what might a hybrid event look like?
“We’ll start with the virtual event and move over to our physical event, which is great, because we don’t want our physical events to be an echo chamber. We’ve seen value come out of virtual and physical events, which is the silver lining of how we can use the virtual events to expand the region of the physical one in a hybrid model,” said Brown.
At the end of the day, events are living things, growing and dying, adapting and evolving through the years. Technologies change, audiences change, circumstances change, the needs of the event change, economics or pandemic changes, lots of things will always be shaping and reshaping how open source events are done. Accordingly, this document is also a living thing. Please check back regularly for updates.
Contributors to this guide: