It’s hard to put to words what Microsoft 365 Virtual Marathon as an experience was for me and many others. I’m sure everyone had a different experience, but what started not this year but last year at the beginning of the pandemic brought a great need to find a way to help the community find connection through technology. Last year it was pushing Microsoft Teams Live events to host an event that brought so many of us together. This year, a year later it was the evolution of Teams Meetings leveraging the community tenant, using Presenter mode, videos on Together Mode, attendee, Microsoft Teams.
I’m happy to share a number of statistics in the spirit of transparency. Only just a few short weeks ago there was a plea for less virtual events. I know and realize many are exhausted of virtual events. So many of these events and there’s already fatigue. How and why would we possibly run a 60 hour event? We had 5150 wonderful attendees register for event with over 20,000 express interest. When we started this was to meet a need and we’ve evolved the event to focus on the purpose of “By the Community For the Community.” Last year we were able to help out sponsors who were looking for help with the transition to virtual from a number of failed events. This year we decided we wouldn’t focus on money and instead focus on any sponsor money would go toward marketing the event and getting the word out. None of the Executive Producers pocketed a dime from this event.
My proudest moment of the event was seeing just how far the reach went. As a traveler I was super excited to see in our attendee reports that we had over 115 countries represented across our attendees. Japan really took on the vision of the event as the #2 position with Mexico, Canada, Germany and India all with over 200 attendees. It was the fact we had participants joining from Myanmar, Iraq, Afghanistan, Mozambique, Ghana, Nigeria, Ivory Coast, Maldives and Faroe Islands helped us realize we truly are a global community.
We learned a number of things running an event of this size… here are a few of my key takeaways:
Teams “bombing” comment spam is real – We had a spammer who started the comments somewhat benign saying things like “I have a question,” but before long the meeting was spammed by hundreds of comment spam adult themes including ascii art. Blocking the user didn’t stop the comments as they’d pop in with another account within seconds. Turning off comments in the meeting was the only way to stop it, which we did for the duration of that meeting. We ended up turning comments off across all rooms for 1 hour. The spammer didn’t come back for the duration of the event, and we were able to turn comments back on in all rooms.
Even though a room may seem persistent they only last 24 hours – We wanted the rooms in our event to last 60 hours which ultimately we were able to do, but at least once every 24 hours we needed to fully end and close down a room and start it back up (which only the organizer can do). The impact of a room reaching 24 hours any guest presenters will be kicked out of the room as the room is reset.
Recording requires the Moderator or Presenter to be Logged in the Tenant – We delivered the event from the Microsoft Community Tenant. We had 75 moderators, but only a few of them were using their community accounts so many were unable to start and stop the recordings. With recordings now going to OneDrive, it can be a bit more complex to manage the more than 200 recordings vs. Live events where all the recordings are saved and managed in a single place. Live Meetings allowed us to automatically record all sessions with no babysitting. Meetings required someone in the tenant start and stop recording for every session.
You CAN moderate Teams Meetings and present from Teams Mobile App – It was really with meeting options to configure the tiered roles in Teams meetings, and not only from the desktop but from mobile… it was very nice being able to elevate users from attendee to presenter. We setup a structure where the executive producers (organizers) were able to elevate moderators, and elevate speakers making it very simple with a single link for all users and presenters then only elevate those we want. This was a big improvement over mobile for Teams Live events which had an attendee only experience on mobile. Desktop allows you to be connected to 4 meetings simultaneously, but only one on mobile. We were able to see chat and activity across all the meetings in the tenant.
Attendee getting started video and “How to attend” – You’d be surprised how many virtual events are not clear for attendees on how to attend. Making sure you have a good plan for handling support tickets and helping people who are attending. Communication can be a real challenge even for Teams Meetings. We ultimately had 145 support tickets over the 60 hours even though we had videos, and a big button on how to attend.
Have a Communication Plan – We also were running the event when a global Teams outage occurred. Lesson learned, we will be integrating a website based alert for communicating issues out of our control where the platform fails to perform. By the way I’m sure it’s very rare, and 90% of network and infrastructure issues are NOT related to Microsoft, but it’s important to have a good backup plan or a good plan to communicate in the case where you need to communicate to all speakers, moderators and attendees. Email is a half way acceptable plan, but how much better if you have a big banner in the schedule…
Start Recruiting Early for Moderators and Volunteers – If you’re running a large event you want to get really good volunteers who are willing to make themselves available for blocks of time. We had very few who took the day off, those were our super heroes! It was easier to find people willing to handle a single track for 1 or 2 hours, but this requires even more coordination. We had over 100 volunteers with 75 specifically named Moderators. When coordinating this with 250+ speakers who also making changes really encouraged us to have room checks being done by the exec producers to ensure the moderators were in the rooms really early. We were saying at least 25 min early with speakers at least 15 min early. A solid schedule that’s communicated and is a living document. Sessionize makes it easy to organize speakers, but gathering volunteers and moderators is a lot harder. We started with MS Forms used multi user spreadsheets. It’s easy for speakers and moderators both to be frustrated if they get scheduled for a time that doesn’t fit their schedule.
Time Zones are your Friend or Your Enemy – We doubled down on dividing up the world into 3 areas. Americas, APAC (Asia Pacific & Australia and Greater Oceania), and EMEA (Europe, Middle East and Africa). Most speakers chose a preferred Area of the 8 hour zone, but many chose 2 or even all 3. This allowed us to simply put a given speaker into an area zone and not have to worry about individual time zones. This single preferred area reduced the amount of changes. When we first published the schedule there was some confusion, and sessionize does NOT make it easy to know who made what changes and if they were committed. All it takes is for 2 exec producers to be making changes and it will overwrite any changes that were not committed. If two have the schedule builder open it will only commit the last save. If both are making changes and click save, the last one wins and it won’t refresh the other person’s screen. We are sure this bit us a couple of times. There’s no multi user editing in schedule builder. In addition, users who view the schedule see it in their own time zone. We had an amazing schedule and finder interface built by Yugi, but most attendees and even speakers don’t know how to change to their own time zones in UTC or GMT (which is even more confusing with Daylight Savings Time), so relying on the sessionize schedule was our best bet despite the lack of search finder features. Anything that might mean an inconsistency in timing was very concerning for the speakers.
Teams Meetings and Scale – One of the organizers of a previous event was worried about our strategy of elevating speakers from attendee. Despite the concern of 300 attendees interactive, we never ran into any debilitating issues even when we scaled into close to the 400+ range. We are looking forward to the Teams webinar and registration features for next year including the announced 1000+ attendees with interactivity. We were a little annoyed we couldn’t disable video on attendees when we were playing video, but more of these features have already been announced. We successfully were able to use Teams Meetings at scale for every session. No need to fall back on Teams Live events for this event.
One of the more interesting things about an event like this where you have hundreds of MVPs and community leaders providing sessions is the variety of sessions. Getting over 100 power user, end user, business level sessions as the largest topic is very powerful. Often the Microsoft focused events focus exclusively on Admins or Developers. Finding sessions focused on the users and power users are harder to find.
I was also pleased to see from an attendee perspective that the technologies they were most interested in were all of them. Right at around half of all attendees checked all the boxes when given a choice between individual technology focus. There’s a lot of interest in Teams right now and that’s totally understandable. I was also excited to see the panels and diversity and inclusion topics have gained a lot of momentum in the past few months. We have encouraged more panels and think those can reduce the online exhaustion. Our AltSpaceVR community sessions still have a long way to go, but one session on mixed reality was conducted in VR and while we had a dozen or so attendees, it was a great start at doing more community events in mixed reality with an even more immersive experience.
The session recordings that were allowed will be posted to the Virtual Marathon Youtube account at http://bit.ly/M365VMVideos the best way to get info on the recording availability is to subscribe.
Thanks so much for attending. We couldn’t have done this without you! We hope you will plan to join us next year… Will there be a next one? Yes, this event is not like other virtual events that are simply virtual due to COVID. We plan to keep up the tradition of getting the global community together once a year and we hope the interest continues… see you next year on May 4, 2022!