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A Conference on Microsoft Teams Series – Part 1 – The Concept

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Welcome to this series on our experience running our Online Conference using nothing but Microsoft Teams.

We never set out to be an Online Conference and like most in-person events of 2020 we were somewhat forced to look at other ways to bring our experience to our attendees. This probably sounds like we did this kicking and screaming. To some degree this is true. We didn’t want to be an Online Conference, we never set out to be one and we believed our zing could only really be felt in-person.

However, by April we realised that trying to run an in-person event in 2020 was just not going to happen, so we postponed our inaugural event until March 2021. This left us with a duty to our Sponsors, Speakers and Attendees to do something in the meantime and we didn’t want to disappoint.

We chatted and we decided we are only going to do online if we can somehow bring similar energy and excitement and try and bridge the gap between Online and In-Person, so that an online event can feel like a Conference and not just a bunch of pre-recorded Youtube Premieres style with live speaker chat.

When it came to choosing the platform, well for us there was never any other option other than to use Microsoft Teams. After all we are a pure play Teams conference and using any other platform is simply not an option. What better way to promote the technology your conference is about is there other than using the same technology to run your conference? Can you imagine the field day the press would have if a Microsoft Teams conference used Zoom for their online event?

But before you think, hang on, they had to use Teams, this wasn’t a choice. Well, to be honest it was a choice. We made that choice way back in July 2019 when we decided we are going all-in with Teams as an event. Simply, we really didn’t look anywhere else because we knew that Teams could do everything we needed and more.

We wanted to bring the FOMO and we wanted to make sure the conference was live. There are pluses and minuses for live vs semi-live or pre-recorded. (if you want to go into that detail, please read our series on the anatomy of an online event). We believed bringing everyone together at a single point of time gave opportunities for natural networking. We also believed having Speakers deliver their sessions live brought out the best in them. The adrenaline and knowing they have one shot at getting it right brings a different kind of energy to an event vs recorded as they can sometimes feel a little too well produced / sanitized.

Commsverse though, is not just about content. There is a corporate side that must be catered for. We have Sponsors who would like to engage with the Attendees for a chance to demonstrate their capabilities and create new connections that could ultimately lead to business.

Trying to integrate Sponsors with Attendees in an in-person conference is a whole lot easier due to the physicality of the event and everyone being all-in than an online event. With online, Attendees can avoid virtual sponsor halls and other interactions easily.

Not all Attendees appreciate that even Online events cost money and invariably it is the Sponsors that pay for the event and their opportunity to connect with the Attendee. Just because they joined for free, doesn’t mean that everyone is there just for the fun and love of Teams.

We believed Teams has the built in features we needed to encourage these opposing forces to connect freely and without barriers. Given the proper application and design it could work quite well.

We were handicapped somewhat because we had to churn out an Online conference from thin air in two months. All our planning and materials up to that point where geared for an in-person event. We had nothing for Online. No website, no digital tooling and we didn’t exactly know if our plan was going to work because we just didn’t have time to test before announcing and onboarding. Everything was being built in parallel to onboarding activities like registration, creating support documentation, announcements, arranging staff and other personnel. The true test of the solution came on the first day of the conference.

We knew that we wanted to bring everyone together. Running public meetings or Teams Live Events and allowing people to single click join would be a winner for joining content experience, but impossible to deliver our extended vision for bringing people together.

With public events, everyone is an island. When it is time for a session, everyone tunes in from their island unaware that their neighbour is just over the horizon. It’s a faux sensation of togetherness. You’re not together, you’re just experiencing your own moment alone but tricking yourself into thinking you are sharing that moment with others.

We thought about Public Teams meetings instead of Live Events to bring more of a sensation of togetherness, but these only offered part of the experience we wanted to offer and also creates more problems for us as a conference than they solve. More on that later in the series.

The only true way of bringing people together was to use Teams for what it was made for, a space for people to come together and collaborate. To us it was clear, we needed to create a conference Team and add everyone to that team. From there, we could direct the conference and also it is a single space that everyone can centre around.

The Concept

The concept was simple. We wanted to create a collaborative space for people to come and experience a closer togetherness and the sensation of sharing their experiences with others at a time where the entire world was behind locked doors.

We wanted to create a space that offered people the opportunity to create their own networking opportunities and in turn really showcase what Teams has to offer in the process.

Content

Our sessions would be delivered by Teams Live Events. But we wanted to offer the ability for Attendees to connect with the Speaker, so offered “Breakout Rooms” as we called them (not Teams Breakout Rooms as coming out) where attendees and speakers could join post session for free discussions.

Sponsor Engagement

We wanted to let our Sponsors show case their products and services. One way we did this is using WordPress, Microsoft Bookings and Teams channels to create a dedicated space for vendors to demo their wares and engage with attendees.

Conference Experience

We also wanted everyone to come and share their experiences and ask questions. We had a captive audience of the best Teams professionals in the business and a unique opportunity for people to have their questions about Teams answered in real time.

Furthermore we wanted to allow everyone to create their own spaces to connect and network bu giving them the freedom to use Teams Calling and Meetings for whatever their needs.

We hoped that by creating these opportunities and encouraging everyone to be an active part of the team would really bring that conference feel that so many had been feeling was missing from online events.

The next bit was figuring it all out and we started with how we expect people to join the conference.

Guest Access or Licensed Users

The first challenge we had was to decide how we are going to invite all our attendees, speakers and sponsors to the same team. Just looking at our numbers from in-person we had over 500 people between all three categories. Licensing those people at the minimum level to enable Teams just didn’t make financial sense. We calculated on a month to month commitment that would cost us around £2,500 for one month’s subscription to Microsoft 365 Business Basic.

Going Online as well gave us the ability to expand our audience further than in-person and we reached a total of 2,500 registered which brought our realistic cost for licensing everyone to £11,250 for one month subscription. So Licensing users just wasn’t a starter for us, especially in this conference as we were doing this at no additional costs to Sponsors or Attendees.

We realised that the only way we were going to achieve our objective was to adopt Guest Access for Teams. This fixed the licensing requirement, but set us up with a couple of challenges we had to overcome.

B2B AzureAD Licensing Limitations

AzureAD B2B License limitations say that there is a 1:5 ratio between licensed users for AzureAD and Guest users. You can quickly jump to a conclusion that your guests for Teams is limited by this number and for us to support 2,500 guests, we would need to purchase 500 qualifying licenses. 

But this is not entirely an accurate conclusion. In fact, if you dig a little deeper you realise that this 1:5 ratio only applies in cases where your organisation is using licensed features of AzureAD, such as conditional access etc. Looking at the pricing for AzureAD we understood that if we ensured we only used Free features of AzureAD, then we could have unlimited guests. 

Problem solved.

Privacy Issues

A lot of our feedback was “why didn’t you just invite my corporate account to the team?” This section will explain all.

In the enterprise collaboration world inviting guests into your team from another organisation is usually fine as long as due process has occurred. This usually involves partner agreements, NDAs and other such agreements and the guest can be somewhat trusted. 

In the conference world, this is actually very bad for people, especially Attendees. As a conference, we don’t have the time or staff to validate that every person who registers for our event is legitimately there as an attendee. Similarly, attendees are not going to want to sign any form of declaration of appropriate behaviour. 

Why is it bad? Well, if we invited an Attendee’s corporate account to the conference tenant, every person in the team would be able to see each other’s corporate Teams / E-mail address. Our concern was that anyone could harvest people’s contact information and use that to send unsolicited emails and direct messages to them long after the conference. 

Unwanted Footprints

It would also mean that we would leave a footprint in the Attendee’s Teams client as a Guest tenant in their corporate Teams, that can be removed, but takes a little more effort and is not as straightforward for normal users.

Furthermore and potentially more challenging for us is dealing with a myriad of corporate tenant security processes that may impact people’s ability to join as a guest using their corporate account, especially if B2B authentication is nailed down on the attendee’s side. 

We needed a guest solution that solved these problems. Privacy and joining consistency was a key element.

In Part 2 we look at the registration and auth setup

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