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How to Stand Out in a Suddenly Crowded Field of Virtual Tech Conferences

2020 is the year of the virtual conference. Sure, there had been online conferences before, but 2020 will be remembered as the year that everyone who had merely toyed with the idea of going virtual were pushed to actually do it. What’s more, they had to do it quickly. 

Paper Sword has proudly coordinated GroupBy online conferences for the last two years. Our team is part of the volunteer organizing committee with Daniel Hutmacher, Aaron Nelson and Eugene Meidinger. 

We have learned a lot about what works and what doesn’twhich put us at an advantage for GroupBy 2020. With so many other conferences aimed at SQL Server data professionals cancelled due to COVID-19, interest in GroupBy swelled. We decided to expand the event to meet the demand of attendees. Here is a breakdown of the event and our learnings.  

GroupBy 2020 

Registrations: 2000 

Attendees: 500 

Session Recording Views: 7000 

Moderators: 9 

Speaker Submissions: 130 

Tracks: 4 

Sessions: 20 

Volunteer Organizers: 7 

GroupBy is a free virtual event that welcomes the data professional community to speak and learn, about any topic, twice a year. Hopeful speakers submit their topic and attendees vote for their top choices. Other members of the community support GroupBy as organizers and moderators.  

There was a 500% increase in submitted sessions as well as a 450% increase in attendees for the May 12-13 GroupBy event. Due to this demand – and the near-tie in voting for the top 20 topics – the organizing committee decided to double the number of sessions offered, and created two tracks.  


Emails from March-May: 

Emails Sent: 29,499 

Emails opened:12,009 

Emails clicked:6,469 

Open % (AVG):40.7% 

Click % (AVG):16.5% 


Social Media from March-May: 


Impressions: 77,000 

Engagements: 1,350 

Engagement Rate: 1.75% 



As mentioned, it was the enthusiasm of registrants that drove the expansion of GroupByThere were more sessions submitted than ever before, and neaequal votes among the top two dozen sessions. We had to act fast to create the themed tracksemail marketing, and social assets to communicate the change before voting closed. Eugene used his program committee experience to create the final content tracks: Performance and Automation/Analytics hosted in the European time zones, and Database Administration and Development for the Americas.  


We could not be more pleased that all our attendees said they would recommend GroupBy to others. Below is a selection of their comments about the event. 

What Attendees Loved  

 A key tenet of GroupBy is that its events are ‘for the community [and] by the community.’ By clearly positioning it as a community to join, which then hosts events, GroupBy sets itself apart from other events in the industry. Many of the attendees cite this community spirit as a defining positive feature in their feedback. 


I didn’t have to drive anywhere. I was so glad to be in the comfort of my home office. Thank you so very much for this! It’s a huge life-line to me. :D 


I love that it is virtual, the recordings are made available (I only was able to attend two sessions, but there are others that I want to go back and watch and will likely watch multiple times), and that it follows a familiar structure. There are multiple tracks, which is like how SQL Saturday’s are and the SQL PASS summit. 


I liked the way we were able to interact with the community and I didn’t feel like it’s a session or something, I felt like I am sitting with my colleague and discussing something that is interesting! 


I am continually amazed by the goodwill of this community. The information sharing and free resources you guys have made available, especially at this time, is invaluable and unbelievable. I come from a sysadmin role, and have found that some DBA’s I have worked with are very guarded about sharing info. Turns out it’s because they are not very good at their jobs, and are in fear. Thankfully, people who are good at their jobs are not fearful, and they share what they know. Data work is hard enough without others sharing. And this community is great promotion for that. Thanks again, I still have presentations to watch and the ones I watched I will watch again. 


Definitely seeing the multiple tracks. I have seen so many good presentation topics submitted in the past that the limit of 5 or 6 just seemed to leave so much untouched.” 


How GroupBy Could Improve Future Online Conferences

Critical feedback for our most recent event included some confusion over the listed time zone of the events (UTC is used as session times are only able to be loosely grouped by ‘European’ and ‘The Americas’). Unfortunately, this cannot be changed, however we do plan to increase the range of calendar links on the invitation for future GroupBy events. 

One of GroupBy’s aims is to offer an opportunity for new speakers to build their skills and experience as presenters. The organizing committee decided to maintain an expanded session schedule in future, which means further opportunity for novice speakers to participate, as well a chance to develop more specialised content. 



Great selection of speakers with interesting topics! I particularly liked the fact that we had a say in what will be presented. Would also like to see more advanced topics in future, as most of GroupBy 2020’s seems to have been geared towards beginners / junior level specialists.” 


“Julie Koesmarno’s presentation was the best part. I also liked the variety in the subjects covered by the different presenters. One opportunity for improvement, Have a single web page where presenters can put slides or scripts from their presentation or at least links to the resources. “ 



Key Learnings 


GroupBy has already hosted successful smaller online conferences, but 2020 provided a unique opportunity to expand. Here are the key learnings from the May 2020 event:  

1. Community Creation Should be Priority #1 


Online brand communities that take on a life of their own are a holy grail. Having volunteer community members on the organizing committee already proved to be invaluable. We had experts mobilized to help organize the extra sessions into four tracks based on central content themes, and plenty of volunteers to moderate the new sessions.  

If community members are engaged and knowledgeable enough to field questions from newcomers and willing to advocate for the brand, then fewer resources from the organizational committee are needed. As a free event organised by volunteers, it behooves us to make community building an ongoing priority.  

To deepen the connection with newly added members of the GroupBy community, we decided to create an incentivised post-event feedback survey. As reflected above) the sense of community surrounding GroupBy is highly valued by participants.  

Therefore, we will schedule more brand activity between events to maintain a sense of community and encourage engagement between community members 

2. No Excuse for Lack of Accessibility


Physical and financial accessibility should not be underestimated as motivators for participants. A few other online conferences have dropped or eliminated ticket pricing during COVID-19; it will be interesting to see how this trend continues into 2021.  

Shifts in brand positioning from competitor events should be monitored closely in terms of accessibility and value. 


3. Stay Agile & Commit to Improvement 


The ability to pivot in unexpected situations, both negative and positive, is crucialWe are proud of our team’s ability to meet the increase in registrants by adding new tracks, but that’s not the only such instance of our agility 

We successfully integrated streaming over a new platform (YouTube) during the live event, and this familiarity ensures we bring GroupBy to even more attendees. We similarly prioritized improvements to the GroupBy website to modernize visual identity and clarify our message 

Commitment to constant assessment for growth and improvement during and between online conferences will solidify GroupBy as something bigger than just its twice-yearly events.  


Want to Get Involved? 


GroupBy wouldn’t be possible without the enthusiastic support of volunteers. (That’s how we keep our promise to be ‘For the community, by the community.’) If you’d like to help out with future GroupBy online conferences possible, get in touch with the organizing committee at