Button conference takeaways
The first Button conference for product content just ended and it was a smashing success. Out of breath from all of the thoughts and feels wrestling their way into words at once, I babbled at my husband over dinner Friday night, waves of half sentences containing double thoughts. There was just so much going on.
The main thing was community. The exceptional warmth of the community at Button was unexpected, I think , even by the people who planned it. So much thought and creativity was put into creating community against the many odds that include, of course, the conference begin virtual, and yet I bet even the great minds and hearts behind it could not have anticipated what a success it would be. Here is what I think worked — if you’re organizing a virtual* conference, this is your playbook:
*I am sure there are applications for physical conferences as well.
The Button team set the tone for the conference from the very first communications they put out. The actual people behind the communications are positive, authentic people, and that shined through everything — through the tweets, the emails, through every promotional channel and through the communications to the speakers behind the scenes. These people genuinely LOVE what they’re doing. They CARE about the industry and the people in it and believe in the effect we all have on…not to be dramatic…humanity. Because we do. Words affect humanity. Language is what differentiates us as a species and our words are what will shape global tolerance or division and every other dichotomy that shapes history. Button people are positive people and it trickled down.
Being surrounded by hundreds of people can be the loneliest place to be, even more so when you’re online. It can be so overwhelming that in what should be the networking opportunity of a lifetime, you meet no one. Button solved this with two types of small forums.
The first was breakout rooms. Speakers, myself included, hosted discussion groups where we would get a bunch of people together, present a topic and discussion questions, and then break everyone into rooms. My people broke out into 7 rooms and I bounced from one to the next for about an hour. There were enough people and specific topic prompts to avoid the awkward, while also having few enough people and enough time to make meaningful connections. One of the things I encouraged in my group was sharing real, concrete, timely content design challenges and seeking advice/brainstorming. A lot of us are a team of one and this was a unique and valuable opportunity to tap the hive mind. Even though I only had a few minutes in each room, the connection was real, to the point where the next day at my watch party, I recognized friendly faces from the breakouts the day before and felt it was easy to pick up conversations where they’d left off.
The second was watch parties. Speakers hosted screenings of their pre-recorded talks and then hung out in the Zoom room afterward for a live Q&A. I said a short hello before we “ran the tape” and answered questions in the chat throughout the talk. At the end, I took questions live. When you have only tens of people in the room, it’s less intimidating to raise your hand. People felt comfortable asking and sharing and expressing themselves like that. I hope that more of the hundreds of Button attendees who would have heard my talk if it had been on a stage will still hear it in the library they have a year’s access to, but I’m glad they didn’t all listen at the same time because I think having far fewer people there with me live made the whole experience more communal and impactful.
Time zone Slack channels
In addition to Slack channels by topic, there were Slack channels by timezone. Not only does finding local participants instantly make for a community feeling, just to know there are people near you there, but it also helped having people to interact with in real time. I happened to be in a time zone that made participating in most of the conference live, impossible or at least uncomfortable. But through my Slack channel I knew that for whatever bits did make sense to attend, I could find people also tuned in then.
Someone mentioned to me the lack of pretentiousness and the high level of access to the “celebrities”. Basically, no snobs. She said that in another industry she’d been in, the keynote speakers, for example, were unlikely to be found in the breakout groups or interacting with “the common folk” on Slack. That was so not the case at Button.
Unfortunately, I couldn’t attend most of the fun stuff like the Trivia Extravaganza and International Tour of Libations, but from what I’m reading on Slack and Twitter and whatnot, I get the impression that these greatly enhanced the communal feel of the conference and that makes a lot of sense. If we were at a physical conference, people would be going out for drinks, right?
One “fun stuff” I was able to join was the tacos Slack channel. There was a whole channel dedicated to sharing people’s favorite taco joints. The thing is, in the Middle East, we don’t have a taco ecosystem. The closest I could think of was shawarma in a lafa. I didn’t want to feel left out and in this community I knew it was impossible; anyone who wanted to be included was in. So I shared in the taco channel that I wanted to be a part of it and in lieu of a local taco recommendation, I offer HaShamen, the best shawarma in lafa I’ve had, and Torrey Podmajersky put it on the map (yes, there’s now a Google map of the recommended joints). But that’s not the best part, this is: It turns out that the connection between shawarma and tacos isn’t actually a stretch at all.
I’ve sometimes thought about whether there’s a downside to inclusivity. I’m serious. Whether broadening definitions to include everyone may blur the original definition until it’s meaningless. Even in this case it crossed my mind that if I throw shawarma into a taco channel, what will the far easterners throw in next? How diverse will the group get until it’s not even about tacos anymore? And what’s the point of a taco channel that’s not about tacos? I’m not talking about the inherent merit of a channel about tacos, I’m just talking about the merit of not diluting a thing — anything — to the point of having nothing.
The thread in the image above cured me of that concern. I worried that stretching tacos to shawarma would mean blurring the topic into meaninglessness when it turns out that shawarma and tacos were connected all along. We are all connected all along and if we broaden whatever framework we’re in to included everyone, we don’t dilute it, we expand it, because everyone has a connected perspective to contribute. (Who knew tacos were so meta. I bet the Button people knew.)
So there you have it: 5 ways Button created a community feeling at a virtual conference that even physical conferences should aspire to. Beyond the community, I of course took away many nuggets of wisdom from the actual talks. Read them in Part 2 of this post.