Facilitating an online participation-rich workshop in Gatherly

online workshop in Gatherly

Earlier this month, the folks at Gatherly kindly invited me to host an event of my choosing for their clients and potential users. I decided to facilitate an online workshop in Gatherly that took full advantage of the platform. This coming June will mark my 30th year of designing and facilitating participant-driven and participation-rich meetings. So I designed the workshop as an “Ask Adrian Anything” about meeting design and facilitation.

I’ve shared the why? and the details of how I typically run this format here. In this post, I cover the additions I made, issues that arose, my impressions, and the feedback the workshop received.

An experiment: I try something I’ve never done before!

I like the Gatherly platform and have reviewed it a couple of times (1, 2). Gatherly’s best feature, in my opinion, is its user interface for online social interaction. The platform uses a birds-eye view of rooms (there can be more than one of them on different “floors”) with each participant shown as an icon with their name. Deciding to talk with someone is as easy as clicking on their icon, which moves you to their position in the room and puts you in video chat. The two of you then form a “huddle”, shown as a circle with the number of people talking at its center.

Moving your mouse cursor over a huddle shows you the names of the people there. Others can join a huddle by clicking on it; you can leave a huddle at any time by clicking on the floor outside it. Gatherly currently supports huddles of up to fifteen people.

Because Gatherly allows you to see where people are in a room, it can support a fundamental technique I use at almost all in-person events I design and facilitate: body voting, aka human spectrograms.

So I was excited to see whether I could implement body voting online, something I’d never tried before.

I ended up incorporating four body voting experiences into the workshop:

  • “How did I get here?” (run in trios)
  • If this workshop was really great for you, what one thing would you want to learn about/discuss/happen?” (run in pairs)
  • Where do you live?” (See the map we used below.)
  • “What industry/job role fits you best?” (See the floor plan we used below.)
online workshop in Gatherly
Body voting map for “Where do you live?”
online workshop in Gatherly
Body voting map for “What industry/job role fits you best?”

Read on to find out how I implemented these exercises in Gatherly and how they worked out.

Designing an online workshop in Gatherly

The first decision we had to make was how long the workshop should run. Since the event was participant-driven, the Gatherly staff and I agreed to let it run as long as it seemed people wanted, with a 2½ hour limit.

Up until now, I have used Gatherly as a pure platform for online socials. For this workshop — indeed for any workshop — I needed to provide separate whole-group-together and small-group-work environments. Just like every other meeting platform, Gatherly has developed a broadcast/stage mode (see the first image in this post), where one or more speakers can broadcast to everyone else. When you start a Gatherly broadcast, the room map is still visible but huddles are disabled.

So in this workshop, we frequently switched between broadcast and map (huddle) mode. In broadcast mode, I provided short segments of content and instructions for upcoming group work. We also used broadcast mode for fishbowl discussions and the core “Ask Adrian Anything” session.

All meeting platforms that have a small-group/breakout mode pose a communications problem for the meeting host or facilitator. Small groups meet via video chat, so messages from the meeting host to everyone can’t be sent through audio — the standard communication mode when in broadcast.

In Gatherly, the tool I had to address this issue was text chat. I asked everyone to select the Event chat option (the red Event button in the first image in this post) and to monitor text chat for exercise instructions during their huddle small group work. I also asked participants to also use text chat for important issues, so this communications channel wouldn’t be filled with distracting messages.

Leading folks through small group work in Gatherly

Before the workshop, I prepared a text document with step-by-step instructions needed to lead participants through all the exercises I’d planned.

Here’s a sample:

For each small group exercise, I did the following:

  • In broadcast mode, verbally explain and go through the exercise steps.
  • Switch to map mode. Cut and paste each prepared prompt into the Event text chat at the appropriate time.
  • Provide a final prompt that we’d be returning to broadcast mode.
  • Switch back to broadcast mode.

Once I’d practiced this flow beforehand for a while, it was easy to run.

Using raise hands during the workshop

I chose to use Gatherly’s raise hands tool in a couple of ways during the workshop.

  1. During the geographical map and industry/role body voting exercises, I asked people who lived outside the United States, or who placed themselves in the “Other” area of the industry/role floor map to raise their hands. When you do this in Gatherly, your name rises to the top of the participant list, so you’re easy to spot. In broadcast mode, we brought these folks briefly onto the stage and asked them to share their name and where they lived/their role. This is analogous to walking around and interviewing such individuals at in-person meetings. Recognizing people who are a little outside the main group geographical focus/job descriptions is interesting and helps to bring them into the group.
  2. During fishbowl-based group discussions, including the Ask Adrian Anything segment, we asked people to raise their hand if they had a question or wanted to add their voice to a current conversation. Only Gatherly admins can remove people from the stage, so we asked people to lower their hands when they wanted to leave the current discussion.

A major issue that arose during the workshop

While facilitating this online workshop in Gatherly, I made heavy use of Gatherly’s broadcast mode for the first time. Unfortunately, broadcast mode did not work reliably for some people. At times, the video stream for some participants on stage (including me) was blank. When this happened to me, I wasn’t aware of it since my screen showed my own camera-direct video, and I was only made aware of the problem through text chat.

I’d seen this problem while testing the workshop platform beforehand, using two computers in my office on different ISPs and networks to join the session. At the time I assumed it was a temporary glitch or technical issue involving the OS/Chrome version used by one of my machines. This turned out not to be the case. Most people showed up fine, but functionality like this — a basic feature of pretty much every meeting platform these days — should be rock solid. (I’ve never seen this happen on Zoom, for example.)

Given that I’ve found the video chat provided in huddles (map mode) by Gatherly to be more reliable than any other platform I’ve tried, this deficiency is puzzling. I hope it’s eliminated soon.

My thoughts and impressions of the workshop

Almost everyone stayed for the whole workshop!

I had no idea who would show up for the workshop or how long it would run. When we did the geographical map exercise, a substantial proportion of participants were from outside the US, which I did not expect. But what really surprised me was that almost everyone stayed for two hours, until after the Ask Adrian Session was over. (And a few people shared at the start that they weren’t going to be able to stay the whole time.)

Perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised. I’ve found that when you create meetings that allow and support engagement at any time on participants’ terms, people stick around.

A small group remained for informal discussion and feedback, and we reluctantly wound up when we reached our 2½ hour hard limit.

Guiding participants through small group activities

Before the workshop, I wondered how well using text chat to prompt small group activities would work. Would participants, busily engaged with each other, follow the prompts? (This can be a problem when in person too, but it’s easier to see when it’s happening.)

I needn’t have worried. Participants responded to my directions to form groups of various sizes much more quickly than I expected. In fact, they divided into groups of the right size faster than in an in-person workshop! The Gatherly birds-eye view of everyone in the room, plus the displayed count of each huddle size makes it easy to see who’s not yet in a group, and which groups are too large or too small.

Feedback on the workshop

The Gatherly staff were impressed that so many people stayed so long, (and I was pleased)!

Several people commented that although they could not see me during portions of the broadcast segments, my audio feed was all they needed to stay engaged. Yes, it’s nice to see people at online meetings, but it’s worth remembering that for those who aren’t hearing impaired, audio beats video every time.

The small group exercises were popular. And people thanked me for showing the value of what we did, not only by experiencing it but also by learning how to facilitate the formats for their own communities.

Conclusions

I learned that I can successfully run body voting online, at least on Gatherly. (Wonder will probably work too.) Body voting is perhaps the best way for a group to quickly learn important information about who’s present, and to have this capability online is valuable. (See my book The Power of Participation to learn more about body voting.)

One suggestion I have for Gatherly to improve their product is to provide a better way for meeting hosts to broadcast instructions when participants are in huddles. This could be done with text messages that are displayed more prominently than at present to all huddle members.

Would I facilitate an online workshop in Gatherly again? Absolutely! (As long as the broadcast video problem is fixed.)

Ask Adrian Anything — a free online participant-driven workshop on the future of events

Here’s a rare opportunity to ask me anything about meeting design and facilitation at a unique, free, online workshop. Join me next Thursday, March 10th, 2022 at 12:00 pm EST for Ask Adrian Anything (AAA): an online participant-driven workshop on the future of events.

Though the central core is the AAA session, this is an active learning workshop. During it, you’ll experience some of the practices I use to support and build participant learning, connection, engagement, and community.

How long will the workshop last? That’s up to you! I’m willing to keep it going as long as you have questions and concerns to share. When it’s over, you’re welcome to stay and socialize online, and I’ll stick around for informal chats.

If you want to join us, it’s important you’re ready to begin at 12:00 pm EST. We’ll open the workshop platform at 11:45 am EST so you’ll have time to do the usual camera/microphone online setup boogie for a prompt start at noon EST.

Register for free
We’ll meet online, using Gatherly [1, 2], a platform designed for online social interaction and learning. [Apart from being a fan, I have no affiliation with Gatherly, and am donating my services.] The Gatherly platform will allow us to learn about each other and about top-of-mind issues, concerns, and questions through small group work, human spectrograms, and fishbowl discussion.

Ask Adrian Anything

This is an opportunity for you to experience one of my participant-driven workshops. You’ll learn through doing, both about other participants and how to implement what you experience into your own events.

  • Experience a participant-driven online event.
  • Learn by doing participant-driven methods that increase event engagement, connection, and community.
  • Meet, workshop with, and learn from other event professionals.
  • Take this opportunity to ask Adrian anything about meeting design and facilitation.
  • Enjoy time after the session in an online social environment that closely mimics meeting in-person socials. You’ll be able to find folks you’d like to talk with and hang out one-on-one or in small groups for public or private conversations.

Register for free

Gatherly, Rally, and Wonder comparative review

Gatherly Rally WonderEarlier this year I reviewed (1, 2) three online conference social platforms: Gatherly, Rally, and Wonder ( the new name for Yotribe since September). Since then, the Gatherly and Rally developers have been hard at work! So here’s a review of the updated versions of these platforms, including comparisons with the relatively unchanged Wonder service.

If this is your first exposure to online social platforms, the “First, some context…” section of the Gatherly/Yotribe review explains what they’re all about, and why they are important new additions to any serious online meeting. (For another, surprisingly neutral, perspective check out this Rally blog post.)

Also, read the above earlier reviews in full, so you understand the basic features and scope of these online social platforms.

As in my earlier reviews, I’ll focus on different aspects of the platforms, and provide information and commentary on each.

Requirements

Not much has changed here, since Gatherly, Rally, and Wonder rely on the same underlying WebRTC technology. All three vendors recommend attendees use Chrome on a laptop/PC, not a mobile device. The platforms all work to some extent in Firefox, but Safari is not recommended.

One tip is to access Gatherly, Rally, and Wonder in an incognito/private window. This minimizes conflicts with any installed browser extensions/add-ons.

In addition, using these platforms on corporate LANs may require asking a sysadmin to allow the platform streams through a corporate firewall. Test before your event!

Bandwidth requirements are typically higher than those needed by, say, a Zoom meeting, since the fluid video-chat connections involve multiple video streams to each device on the platform, rather than the single consolidated feed used in platforms like Zoom and Teams. However, I’m in a rural location with only DSL and cellular connectivity, and have only had a few transitory problems using these platforms.

Setting up and customizing meetings

When I last reviewed Gatherly, the platform required Gatherly staff to set up and customize each event. Rally and Yotribe, on the other hand, were usable as soon as you had a venue.

Gatherly

Gatherly has since added extensive capabilities to build and customize your meetings, via their VESTA tool. This is welcome news, since the lack of “plug-and-play” online meeting setup was a barrier to holding meetings on the platform. The following screenshots illustrate many of VESTA’s useful new features.

Gatherly Rally Wonder

Gatherly hosts can now create multiple events with open/close times, and use PowerPoint to customize an event’s floor backgrounds from a variety of templates. The VESTA portal also provides convenient links to the latest Gatherly guide, tutorial videos, a customizable event brochure template, and a speed test. Later in this post, I’ll describe the pricing model and event analytics included in VESTA.

Soon after my June revue, Gatherly added unlimited “floors”, akin to Rally’s rooms, with “elevators” to move between them.

Rally

Rally has added multiple new customization features since my June review. You can now change the background of your Rally venue and each of your rooms. Rally now allows multiple venue hosts, so it’s easier to collaborate when setting up rooms and features. A convenient drop down makes it simple to transfer between rooms. In addition, rooms and venues can be edited on the fly, making it easy to add/remove/close/open rooms, while an event is going on.

Formerly, Rally’s “improve connection” feature removed the attendee from the meeting so they had to rejoin, answering the same sign on questions as before. This no longer occurs.

Rally can now “archive” a room, so its customizations can now be recalled when needed.

Wonder

Yotribe gave you a room instantly on signing up. Currently, this is no longer true for Wonder. At the time of writing this review, I am still waiting for a Wonder room I requested a week ago. So I haven’t been able to check out Wonder firsthand.

All guests are now in one room, rather than adding more “areas” when the number of people in any area exceeds 36. The home page says: “Wonder rooms can host up to 1,500 guests.” Wonder’s Support FAQ says: “There is no technical limitation to how many guests may fit into one room. If you have more than 2,000 guests it might make sense to run two rooms in parallel.” Either limit is probably ample for most events; the more pertinent issue is how well Wonder works with many attendees.

Wonder now includes room areas, which can be set up by the host. Examples are the Business Tech, Education & Training, and Grant Programs areas shown below. They can be added on the fly, either before or during the meeting.

Gatherly Rally Wonder

 

In addition, you can add a background image to your Wonder room.

Broadcast capabilities

Gatherly

Gatherly can’t broadcast to more than one floor. The company says that the platform handles ~150 people/floor, so broadcasting to a single floor will be fine for many events. Gatherly recommends providing a floor for every hundred attendees. You can, of course add more floors if you want to devote each one to a specific meeting function.

Gatherly hopes to introduce broadcasting to multiple floors in early 2021.

When running a recent event in Gatherly, we noticed that the list of attendees, a very useful feature, showed only the first 60 names. Apparently this limitation is still in place. I hope they fix this soon, since it’s impossible to see and contact every attendee at an event with more than 60 people.

Rally

Like Gatherly, Rally still doesn’t provide a single stage for multiple rooms. This is more of a limitation for Rally, though, as the maximum room size is 35 people. So you can’t currently create a presenter or panel session for more than 35 people. A Rally spokesperson told me that the platform can be set up to support up to 50 people per room, but this requires turning off the background chatter feature. Rally says that people on stage need less bandwidth now, allowing eight people simultaneously.

Wonder

Wonder has added video broadcasting, where all participants see the host’s video stream. While broadcasting is taking place, individual video chats are halted. Up to six people can broadcast simultaneously, and all of them must be authenticated as a host.

Pricing

Gatherly

Gatherly is using two pricing plans, One-Off and Annual, both based on a ticket system, administered in VESTA, that determines the cost of each event you set up. The company is finalizing ticket and annual plan pricing and expects to make this information public shortly.

Rally

Rally has published the following pricing.

Like Gatherly, if you’re planning large events, you’ll need to contact Rally for custom pricing.

Wonder

Wonder pricing is easy; it’s still free! I don’t know how the company can afford to keep providing this service for free, as the bandwidth and server costs for running multiple video stream meetings are higher than services like Skype, FaceTime, and Zoom, and someone’s got to pay them. Feel free to use Wonder for now (assuming you can get a room) but don’t rely on it being free forever.

Limits

Gatherly

Up to 1,000 people per event, ~150 per floor (not a hard limit, but recommended); 5 or unlimited floors, depending on plan; up to 15 people per huddle (group chat); 7-8 on stage; currently, people tab shows a maximum of 60 people.

Rally

“2000+” people per event; 9 people per table; a maximum of 35 people per room (50 people per room is available in beta); up to ~8 per room panel; number of rooms depends on plan.

Wonder

1 room per venue; maximum room size 1,500 attendees? (see above); up to 15 people per circle; a maximum of 15 room areas; up to 6 people can broadcast simultaneously.

Security

Gatherly, Rally, and Wonder make similar privacy and data security claims, regarding the underlying data services.

Gatherly events can have a unique, event-specific URL and password, which provides decent security. An attendee will need to know the correct URL, password, and open times for a specific event.

Access to a Rally venue simply involves providing attendees an unchanging URL tied to the venue. You don’t need a password. (Password protected rooms are “in the works”.) Once someone has this URL, they will have access to the venue at any time it is open. Like Gatherly, Rally allows hosts to chose when rooms are open, so someone with the URL cannot use a venue, as long as you close the venue room(s) when an event is over. If you are using a Rally venue frequently, you could be visited by someone who has been given the venue URL for an earlier event and decided to “pop in” and see if anything is going on. Rally corporate users can request Single Sign-On, which limits attendees to those with the same company domain.

Access to a Wonder room simply involves providing attendees an unchanging URL to the room. You can password-protect a Wonder room. Once someone has the URL and password, they will have access to the venue at any time until you change the password. Frankly, this is like giving people a key to your home that they can use when you’re not there, and I consider it poor security.

Analytics

Gatherly’s VESTA portal includes an intriguing feature: event analytics. Here’s a screenshot of a typical event.

Rally says they can track “time in room per person, what room they visited, how long they were on stage for, how many people were in the room at once, how many uniques, and more”, and provide this information on request.

Conclusion — and an annoyance

Both Gatherly and Rally are fine platforms that are already useful. I continue to be impressed by the fast pace of development from both of these companies. Wonder’s biggest advantage is that, for now, it’s free. I’m not sure that I would pay a significant amount to use it, though.

Gatherly, Rally, and Wonder have one annoying limitation, which, in my understanding, is unlikely to be removed soon. Many online event conveners would like to use a platform like Zoom for their “main” conference, switching to an online social platform for program breaks and socials. Unfortunately, it’s not possible to run two platforms simultaneously on one computer, because each needs exclusive access to camera, microphone, and output sound. Attendees must, therefore, close one platform before opening the other. This is awkward and requires careful pre-event attendee education.

I’m sure Gatherly, Rally, and Wonder have some concern that a major online event platform will build a good-enough online social capability into their product. Right now, I strongly recommend anyone who wants to provide experiences close to those of an in-person social at their online events seriously investigate these platforms.

 

Review of online social platform Rally

Review online social platform RallyAdding to my reports on new platforms providing online incarnations of traditional conference socials, here’s a review of online social platform Rally.

[Added November 23, 2020: after reading this review, see this post for an update on Rally and two other online social platforms: Gatherly & Wonder (formerly Yotribe).]

Two points before we start

First, if you don’t know about online social platforms, check out the introduction included in my earlier reviews of Gatherly and Yotribe.

And second, bear in mind that these platforms are continually improving, making reviews like this one a moving target. For example, Gatherly has significantly increased their platform functionality since I reviewed them two months ago, so be cautious making direct comparisons between my reviews. Be sure to visit the platform websites to get the latest updates. Better yet, get a free time-limited account and check them out yourself.

OK, on with the review.

Platform metaphor

Unlike the birdseye view map metaphor of Gatherly and Yotribe, Rally does something a little different. Rally provides a venue with multiple rooms, and each room can have a variable number of tables.

Currently, each room can hold up to 35 participants, and each table up to 9. The company says they are exploring increasing room size to 50.

Rooms can be named, opened, and closed by the Rally host (indicated with a ☆ next to their name). Venue owners can make other attendees co-hosts. You can set the duration for a room to be open — a nice feature. Rally can provide hosts with a custom URL for their venue.

Rally’s fixed maximum room size approach differs from Gatherly’s (where the typical maximum room size is larger, and can be increased by prior arrangement), and Yotribe’s (people are automatically split into new rooms when a room size of 36 is reached). Here’s a screenshot of a Rally online social.

We are currently in the Upstairs Patio. The room dropdown menu allows us to pick another open room to visit, as shown in the animated image at the bottom of this section.

My current table, where I’m video chatting with Jake and Steve, is shown below Aimey’s video (she’s on stage — more on this later). Three other tables are shown on the right.

Hovering over the picture of any occupant brings up a menu of potential interactions with that person. I can leave my table and join any of the others, and people can join my table too. Or I can invite anyone to sit with me at a new table (you can see me inviting Aimey to join me at a new table).

Since this screenshot was taken, Rally has added an option to make tables private, so no one can join the table or listen in to the conversation there until it’s set to public again.

Finally, Rally is planning to add room background images and color selection, and music background in rooms in the near future.

Sound

Rally has an interesting twist on the sound you hear during an online social. The speaker icon next to the “All Tables” caption allows you to choose the “background chatter volume”. Like an in-person social, you can set this so you can hear some of the conversation at other tables. There are three settings: medium, louder, and off. Some people probably like this. As an older, hearing-impaired guy who is quite auditorily distractible, I want this setting off. Your choice!

Chat and broadcast

Rally has recently added text chat and broadcast to the platform. Chat with the room is currently available, and Rally plans to add single person and table chat soon. The host can broadcast a text announcement to all attendees in all rooms.

Presentation & panel capability

Rally includes “on stage” functionality for each room, which can be useful for small gatherings. But it doesn’t provide a single stage for multiple rooms. So you can’t use Rally to create a presenter or panel session for more than (currently) 36 people.

A host can bring themself and others on and off stage. Folks on stage appear in larger video windows on the upper left of the screen. Anyone speaking on stage will be heard by everyone in the room, and presenters can hear audience response at a reduced level, rather like as if they were speaking at a live event. Rally includes functional presenter screen sharing. An unlimited number of people can be on stage at one time, though there can be bandwidth issues with more than four. If there are more than three people on stage, their video windows are reduced in size

A nice feature is that it’s possible to converse with other people at your table while listening to those on stage. Another feature that could be useful when in stage presentation mode is that Rally allows the meeting host to randomly shuffle table occupants into tables of 2, 3, or 4 people. This can be useful if you are using Rally in a stage plus discussion mode. Presenters can deliver a chunk of content, and then small groups, randomized as necessary, can then discuss what they heard or saw.

However, the room size limit to the number of people who can listen to folks on stage currently limits Rally to a presentation tool for small audiences. They say they’re working to include video broadcasting between rooms.

Experience quality and interface

Like the other platforms I’ve reviewed, Rally works best with Chrome on a laptop or PC. Hosts can login with Facebook, LinkedIn, or Google. A Rally attendee just needs a link to the venue, and only needs to provide their name. If you have multiple input and output sound and video sources, you can choose between them.

I have used Rally a few times, and occasionally experienced glitches. There is an “Improve connection” button, which seems to take you out of the room and bring you in again, losing your place where you left in the process. In general I judge the quality of the video chat as good, but based on my limited experience, not as reliable as Zoom.

One annoying aspect of the interface is that anyone can invite you to a new table at any time without you being able to decline the request. This can be somewhat jarring. I was able to remove someone who was speaking on the stage by inviting them to a new table. A yes/no acceptance option when invited to join a table would solve the problem.

Rally needs to improve its onboarding process for first-time users. Though the interface is pretty easy to understand and use, the current one-page introduction document is barely adequate. Right now, it’s good to have a dedicated host who notices when new attendees appear and helps them acclimatize.

Pricing

Like other online social platforms, Rally is in beta and still firming up pricing. Currently they plan to offer two pricing models, one for repeated events, such as regular team happy hours, and another for one-time events. They expect repeated event monthly costs to be comparable to Zoom pricing. Custom events will be “competitive” and use a per user, per hour model.

Currently you can try a one-room version of Rally for free.

Platform focus

Rally describes its current platform focus as follows:

“Rally’s focus is on networking events. Our ideal markets are internal networking events or small to medium size events (10 to 1000 people); however we have been effective with 1000+ events as well. Our goal is to focus less on one time events and more on monthly recurring events. For us it’s better to sell to associations, businesses, corporate marketers, and student clubs instead of large tradeshows, conferences etc. So I’d position us on the more frequent smaller events scale vs. Gatherly or Yotribe.”

Understandably, most online services today prefer the steady revenues from subscriptions to one-time purchases, and, based on this statement, Rally is no exception. I’m sympathetic, though purchasing a subscription for an independent meeting designer and facilitator like me is probably not a great fit. However, I’m not Rally’s target market! As usual, my behavior will depend on the pricing model Rally chooses.

Conclusions

I like Rally a lot, and I’m enjoying the company’s continual improvement of their feature set and platform. I still slightly prefer Gatherly’s room map interface, but that’s a personal preference that many may not share. Both platforms offer a highly credible and enjoyable online social experience that is sure to be a permanent game-changer for meetings. (Until such platforms become the new normal.) I expect to use and/or recommend both Rally and Gatherly in future. Yotribe’s development seems to have stalled since I reviewed it — right now, in my opinion, it’s not a serious competitor.

There is always more to say, but I hope you’ve found this review of online social platform Rally useful. Please share your experience with Rally, new features, and things I’ve missed in the comments below!

How to entwine content and connection during an online conference

content and connection during an online conferenceHow can we entwine content and connection during an online conference?

During a MeetingsCommunity (MeCo) discussion thread “Networking at conferences” last week, Sharon Fisher posted this.

Sharon’s post

Hi all,

I am coming in very late to this conversation, but figured it’s never too late to share. For the last two years, I have been pondering “why is there such a big separation between content and networking?” Why do we look at those things as two distinctly different offerings? Why are we not blending the two together and looking at holistic ways to accomplish both goals with the same solutions?

And at the same time we being tasked with making our meetings more engaging, so why are so few of us asking ‘how do we make content/learning more engaging’ – as opposed to looking at those two concepts as different things. We seem to look at engagement as entertainment, décor, seating, venues, etc. (ie: more environmental) but rarely consider other alternatives to making our learning engaging.

Now that we are in the virtual world, I think it’s even more critical to stop looking at networking & engagement as something that happens outside of the sessions, and more as participation and conversation within the sessions. And exploring ways to blend education/learning/content with participation/networking/idea sharing/games so as to make our online learning more engaging.

Would love to hear from planners about how we might better integrate the ‘content designers/speakers’ into the engagement conversation. And to hear what you are doing in this online world to make your meetings more engaging.

Playing on…

Sharon Fisher

As it happened, I’d just completed facilitating an online conference that I think did entwine content and connection. This was my reply to Sharon:

My response

“Hey Sharon,

As you may know, you broach a topic dear to my heart. Why so many continue to relegate content and networking (though I prefer the term connection) to separate activities is related to the human inclination to do things the way we’ve always done them at meetings. Since I just finished running and facilitating a three-day European/Asian online finance conference for senior executives that I designed (and I didn’t have to travel further than the green screen studio in my attic!) I thought it might be helpful to share an outline of how we blended content and connection throughout the event.

Day 1

We ran the event mainly in Zoom, with a couple of other tools that I’ll mention. On the first day we used a process I call The Three Questions, which I’ve used at in-person events for many years. It allows the participants to learn about each other, current content interests, and expertise and experience in the group. The session provides a mix of content and networking, simultaneously uncovering the content people want to cover and the people in the room who are resources for doing so. We split the participants into three breakout rooms for a more intimate session. We scribed the content choices publicly in a single Google doc, viewable by all three groups. Each session also had a scribe to record the expertise and experience of individual participants. From this data we built an inventory of the learning resources at the event.

When this session was over, we immediately introduced the attendees to another tool, Gatherly, which simulates an in-person social online in a simple but effective way.

When you enter the Gatherly “room” you see yourself as a named dot on a room map. Other participants appear as named dots. Click on the map to move next to someone and you join each other in video chat. Your dots become a circle on the map, with the number in the circle showing how many people are in the video chat group. Placing your cursor over the circle shows who’s in the chat. Move next to the circle to join the group chat. (You can temporarily “lock” the chat to have a private conversation.)

Gatherly allowed people to meet people they’d heard share in the previous sessions and deepen their connection. We made it available at every break in the conference program.

We took the information gleaned from the opening session and a small group of us used an online whiteboard tool, Miro, to build a conference program for the following day, matching the content wants and needs with the appropriate expert leadership available.

Here’s the initial Miro board containing the topics uncovered by The Three Questions and imported into Miro.
content and connection during an online conference
And here’s the “working” Miro board after the small group had determined the peer sessions to hold.
Day 2

The second day’s sessions were not lectures but interactive discussions and explorations, focused on the actual needs of the participants. At the start of each session, we used a simple design to discover what people wanted to learn. The results shaped the session in the ways participants requested. During the sessions, people discovered peers who had relevant knowledge to share, further increasing relevant connection. Gatherly was again available during the breaks and after the day’s last session.

Day 3

On the final day, I facilitated a session that started with a trio-share.

People were moved into breakout rooms in three’s, where they briefly shared:

  • their takeaways;
  • the aspects of the conference they liked; and
  • those aspects they would change to make it better.

Then I brought them back into the main Zoom room. There they first shared their positive responses to the event, and then their suggestions for improvements. The latter gave us some great ideas for future meetings. The overall sharing during this session creates a public evaluation of the event and increases group social bonding. This makes future meetings more “can’t miss”.

After the usual closing remarks and thanks, we ended with a Gatherly social.

Post event, the main conference sponsor wrote. “Better than ordinary conferences – we have made more connections with senior people in the industry. When is the next one?”

I hope this example gives a taste of how content and networking can be organically combined throughout an event in ways that improve the meeting for all: participants and sponsors alike.

—Adrian Segar—”

Entwining content and connection during an online conference isn’t hard, and the results are well worth the effort. If you have other suggestions for integrating these two core components of a successful event, please share them in the comment below!

Two tools for online conference socials: Gatherly versus Yotribe review

Gatherly versus YoTribe review If you can’t hang out with people in person, how can you best meet up with your tribe online? That’s the selling proposition for a host of new platforms that have sprung up over the last few months: creating a compelling online incarnation of the traditional conference socials we all know and love (or hate). Last week I got to try out a couple of these new platforms, so I thought I’d write a Gatherly versus Yotribe review.

[Added November 23, 2020: after reading this review, see this post for an update on these two platforms and Rally.]

A maximum of around thirty people were present at any one time at the Gatherly test event, which I set up. I estimate there were around a hundred folks at the Yotribe event, which was organized by Anh Nguyen.

First, some context…

In-person conference socials

Imagine an in-person conference social. <sings>”It isn’t hard to do.”</sings> You enter the room and look around to see who’s there.

Perhaps you see people present whom you know. So you go over to them and say hi, or perhaps join a conversation they’re having with others. Perhaps you don’t recognize anyone. So you have to bravely sidle up to someone or a group and introduce yourself. Or insinuate yourself into a conversation. Perhaps you know there are people present who you’ve met online, but short of sneaking a look at everyone’s badge, there’s no easy way to find them.

During the social, you usually have multiple conversations with different individuals and groups. You move from one conversation to the next, as you and others desire. You may meet folks with whom you want to have a private conversation, so you go somewhere you’re unlikely to be interrupted.

These are the processes we take for granted at an in-person meeting social.

The inadequate networking functionality of most online meeting platforms

These days, we can network online via group messaging/text chat, audio chat, or video chat. (OK, yes, virtual reality has been available for a while too, but it hasn’t really taken off.) Just about all online meeting platforms now include traditional webinar style video conferencing, and many offer Zoom-style main room and breakout room meetings.

Many online meeting platforms tout their “networking” capabilities. When you look at the specifications, however, the majority offer only text chat! Some provide one-to-one networking via private video chat. And some describe their capability to support multiple video breakout rooms as “networking” — but this is disingenuous.

As anyone who’s tried to use Zoom breakouts for networking knows, the big barrier is that once someone’s entered a room, they can leave it to return to the main Zoom meeting but they can’t then move themselves to another breakout room. (Unless you make everyone a co-host, which is not a good idea for a meeting of any size, since a careless or malevolent co-host can cause havoc.)

Even if an online platform allows users to move between multiple breakout sessions, you still won’t experience something close to an in-person social. That’s because breakouts are fixed platform units that have to be set up in advance. There’s no easy way for three people, say, to decide they want to video chat about something amongst themselves for a few minutes, and then spontaneously split up and meet others.

Online conference socials using platforms like Gatherly and Yotribe

Online social platforms like Gatherly and Yotribe provide an experience much closer to that of an in-person social. They do this using a map interface that shows individuals or groups of people scattered around a room or rooms. Gatherly versus YoTribe review When you join a social on one of these platforms, you find yourself as an name or photo on the map. You move around the map by simply clicking where you want to go.

If you move near another person’s name or picture, you’re automatically connected to them by video chat. If you move into one of the circles on the map — colored in the Yotribe screen shot above, or numbered (so-called “huddles”) in the Gatherly image below, you’ll automatically join a video chat with everyone in the circle/huddle. Gatherly versus YoTribe review Finished chatting? Click on the map to move somewhere else to join someone else or another conversation! Or click on the map away from everyone else so you can answer that phone call you just got.

That’s the basic interface. All such platforms provide this birds eye view of the positions of everyone in the social and the same mechanism to move around and meet others. Of course, each platform does this a little differently, and they include additional functions, like text chat, which I’ll cover below.

Requirements

Setup on both platforms couldn’t be much simpler. Both are browser based, so there’s no app to download or software to install. Attendees are given a link and an (optional) password to join the social room.

Gatherly requires you talk with their sales staff to set up the meeting. This ensures they size your server correctly. They will give you a link to your room that you can distribute to attendees. Gatherly requires you to use the Chrome browser.

Yotribe can be set up without any input from a Yotribe human. Get your own room from the button on their home page! Once you have your room, you can set up a room background (see below), set a room password for attendees. You can also set up an “icebreaker question”, though I’m not a big fan of these.

Meeting size and conversation group size

How many people can be in a single meeting while supporting multiple on-the-fly group conversations? And how many people can be in a single on-the-fly video chat?

These are key questions!

Just eight years ago, public platforms that provided a stable video chat with a mere ten people (think Google Hangouts) were state of the art. Today, we take this kind of technology for granted. But supporting multiple constantly-reconfiguring video chats for hundreds of people is hard, and costs money.

Most platforms today use open source WebRTC technology, the availability of which allows small companies like Gatherly (a handful of computer science students in Atlanta, Georgia) and Yotribe (a few techies in Berlin, Germany) to create a pretty impressive fluid video chat infrastructure.

In my opinion, the one-to-one private video chat provided in several other online meeting platforms is not sufficient to offer an intimate and fluid social experience. This is a key differentiator for platforms like Gatherly and Yotribe.

Gatherly size issues

Gatherly asks meeting owners to provide the maximum number of people who will be in the room and the largest group video chat size desired. They then host your meeting on a server that can handle the required load. In a test meeting last week, Gatherly comfortably handled spontaneous video chats with ~15 people. This seems more than enough capability to me.

Yotribe size issues

Currently, Yotribe has a different approach. One of the Yotribe founders, Leonard Witteler, explains: “As thousands of participants join a room, we split the room into many areas and serve the smaller areas from a properly load-balanced backend.” In our test last week, Yotribe ran into problems with groups larger than about ten people. Since there’s no limit that can be set on a conversation group’s size, this could cause a problem any time a large number of people try to video chat with each other.

Yotribe’s effort to create a platform that automatically scales to handle varying loads is impressive. The automatic addition of “areas” — each restricted to a maximum of 36 participants in our test last week — as the number of participants grows is an ingenious approach to mitigating the increased demand on the video chat servers they employ. However, such a system needs to fail gracefully when its limits are met. Given that we were able to stress Yotribe with about 100 participants in our test event, currently I’d prefer a platform like Gatherly with known, preset limits that will handle a predetermined load for a production event.

Gatherly versus Yotribe features

There is one minor nomenclature difference between Gatherly and Yotribe. Gatherly calls video chat groups “huddles”, while Yotribe calls them “circles”. Both platforms allow attendees to mute their microphones and turn off their cameras as needed.

Neither platform has much in the way of documentation. That’s probably because the developers are constantly adding new features. Luckily, both interfaces are simple enough that it’s not hard to figure out how they work, though it took me a few minutes, which could disorient and discourage some first-time users. Adding a short, skippable tutorial for attendees to view before entering the room would be a nice addition.

Interface

There are numerous small but sometimes significant differences between the interfaces of the two products. I will concentrate on what I noticed that’s important to me.

Map interface

Gatherly shows individual attendees on the map by name. It displays current huddles as circles with numbers inside, the number representing the count of people in that video chat. Moving your cursor over a huddle shows a list of the names of everyone in it. This is an intuitive interface that makes it quite easy to find specific people in the room: they are either shown by name outside the huddles or one can “search” the huddles by moving your cursor over them.

Yotribe shows individual attendees as pictures, selfies that are taken by the attendee’s webcam before they enter the room. This is great if you recognize most of the people present. If you don’t — my experience at most events — you’ll need to hover your cursor over each image to see their name. This is time consuming if there are many people present. In addition, I didn’t find any way to discover who was in a circle other than joining it and scanning through the participants.

I found Gatherly far easier to use to find specific people, or browse who’s present, than Yotribe.

Yotribe does have one extremely useful feature. The room host can upload an image that replaces the blank room map (see example below).

By creating an appropriate image, you could designate portions of the room as numbered or named breakout rooms, exhibit booths, etc. Gatherly provides this functionality as a service on request. In my opinion, Gatherly should follow Yotribe’s lead and make map customization completely under host control.

Video chat

Gatherly has a Zoom-gallery-style video chat display. As the number of people in the huddle increases, the video windows get smaller, keeping everyone visible. This worked well during our test event.

In addition, Gatherly has what I’d argue is an essential feature that Yotribe lacks: the ability to lock a video chat at any time so no one else can enter. This allows two or more people to have a private conversation. Private conversations like this are impossible in Yotribe, which allows anyone to suddenly join a video chat circle at any time

Yotribe shows circle chatters in a strip at the top of the screen, like Zoom’s webinar view. In practice this means that circles with more than five people can’t display everyone on screen simultaneously. As a result it’s hard to tell who’s speaking in a large circle, and because people can arrive and depart at any time, you’re never quite sure who’s present.

Yotribe does offer an option to share your screen with others in your current circle, which could be useful though there doesn’t seem to be a way to zoom the image to full screen.

Text chat/messaging

Gatherly includes a simple text chat interface that allows you to see the names of everyone present, message another person, or message everyone in your current huddle.
Yotribe text chat includes the above functions, plus a broadcast chat mode that allows attendees to send a message to everyone. Gatherly needs to implement this! Message notifications in Yotribe are easily overlooked though; the only indication is a small yellow circle in the chat window and chat icon.

Pricing

Currently Yotribe is free! (I suspect this won’t last, so enjoy it while you can.)

Gatherly is currently using a $x/head pricing model, where x depends on the size of the event. Right now, I suspect they might be flexible. They were kind enough to offer me a free test event last week.

Quick comparison with Remo

Remo is another platform that offers multi-person, map-based video chat (and a lot more besides). I’ve only seen a brief demo of the product so I don’t feel qualified to provide a review here. The map is much prettier than Gatherly’s and Yotribe’s, and uses a set of various table sizes as a metaphor for conversations. It’s noteworthy that the pricing for Remo is based on the maximum number of attendees, meeting duration, and seats available at a table (currently 4 {$50 – $150/month} or 6 {$400 or $900/month}). This highlights the significant costs for providing the kind of server power needed to support fluid on-the-fly video conferencing.

Security

Gatherly says they use Amazon Web Services servers and end-to end encryption. They do not have access to any audio or video data; it’s briefly held to transmit it, but they do not store it, and employees do not have access. They offer password protection of rooms, and can include a waiting room (I did not see this) for you to vet attendees before they join. Finally, they provide “Kick and Ban features to ensure troublemakers stay out of your event”, which I didn’t see either.

YoTribe also allows a room password. Only guests who are in your circle can participate in your conversation; no one in the room can be invisible to you. Like Gatherly, Yotribe says it does not have access to any audio or video data; it’s briefly held to transmit it, but they do not store it, and employees do not have access.

Conclusions

On balance, I prefer the Gatherly experience to Yotribe, though both platforms are useful and solid enough for small events. Yotribe has a more party-like feel, which could be a good fit for a group that mostly knows each other. Gatherly does a better job, in my opinion, of creating an experience closer to that of a friendly conference social.

However, your needs are likely different from mine, so I’ve summarized what I see as the advantages of each platform below.

Gatherly advantages

  • Being able to lock a Gatherly huddle, so you can be sure of a private conversation is a big plus.
  • Gatherly’s Zoom-like video gallery view inside a huddle works well, allowing you to see everyone present. Yotribe’s scrolling strip of video windows only shows a fraction of the people in a large circle, and it’s difficult to figure out who’s there and who’s speaking.
  • Given Yotribe’s unpredictable loss of video chat functionality, I prefer to have Gatherly’s predetermined limits on event and chat size, allowing the platform to provide adequate power to reliably support the meeting.
  • I prefer Gatherly’s map interface to that of Yotribe. Yotribe’s attendee photo icons are great if you recognize most people. But seeing names moving around the map is more helpful in general. In addition, Gatherly’s ability to show you the names of the people in a huddle just by hovering your cursor over it is much more informative.

Yotribe’s advantages

  • For now Yotribe is free, and Gatherly costs $!
  • A Yotribe room can be set up and used without any communication with Yotribe, while Gatherly requires you talk to their sales staff first.
  • Yotribe has broadcast text chat, which Gatherly did not, though I’m told it will be added any day now.
  • Yotribe creates new rooms automatically when the number of attendees in any room exceeds 36. Gatherly says they will soon have a fixed room feature too, with “elevators” that allow you to move to a different floor (see the image below). I think this will likely provide an easier to navigate social meeting than YoTribe’s extra-room-on-the-fly approach.
  • Unlike Gatherly, Yotribe allows the host to upload an image file to replace the blank map where attendees roam. This is a very useful feature. I hope that Gatherly implements it soon.

Final words…

I hope you’ve found this Gatherly versus Yotribe review useful. I know that Gatherly is being constantly updated. It wouldn’t surprise me to learn that Yotribe developers are hard at work as well. So reviews like this are a moving target. Please share your experience with these platforms, new features, and things I’ve missed in the comments below!