How Social hour seeks to solve the virtual event networking challenge
“No-one could have been ready for the pandemic, but in a sense we’d been building a company for eight or nine years that positioned us nicely, and it’s been an amazing opportunity to be able to help so many organizations address their challenges this year,” said Nick Martin. He’s the founder and CEO of online education and events company TechChange and an adjunct professor at Columbia and Georgetown universities where he teaches topics related to international crisis response.
“So much of our work has been public health-related and COVID-specific, which has been fascinating,” he continued. “We work a lot with the W.H.O. and the U.N., helping to power conversations around vaccination campaigns, treatment protocols and recovery efforts.”
Providing effective training for social change
TechChange, the Institute for Technology and Social Change, is a little over 10 years old. Martin describes it as an online events and course provider for the social sector. “We define social sector broadly; we’re working for government agencies (we’re based in D.C., so a lot of U.S. government), a lot of large NGOs, U.N. outfits, the World Bank, academic institutions, and then some companies too – the ‘for good’ side of companies like Facebook and Microsoft. We have a platform that we deliver our courses on, and a stack of services we provide alongside the technology to ensure that the courses are really effective. And then we reiterate with third-party tools we love, and that’s really where Social hour comes in.”
Social hour [sic] is a comprehensive virtual events platform created by Frameable, a company that offers a range of remote solutions for business and leisure, including virtual offices and collaborative whiteboards. Since TechChange itself designs and manages virtual events, the need for Social hour is not immediately obvious.
Social hour moved backwards from networking to presentations
“Social hour started off with just a piece of what we now offer,” explained Adam Riggs, CEO of Frameable. “It was focused on small group discussions and interactions in a flexible space that gave the attendees a level of transparency and a level of choice that they did not enjoy when in meeting software. In meeting software, it’s much more about control, much more about a one-way vector of information. Meetings can be participatory, but the software is no generally leaning in that direction.”
Over the course of the last year, people tried to use meeting software for a variety of use cases. “What everyone discovered is that virtual events are much more complicated than just meetings. They are not one type of interaction. We built the first version of Social hour to allow people to move around inside a space, and control the conversations they are having with a small group of people, which is the only group size you can actually have a conversation with.”
Over time, Frameable added a webinar-style presentation mode to Social hour. In other words, rather than adding supplementary networking-type features to a meeting platform (as so many meeting platforms have tried to do), Social hour was concerned from the get-go with making networking work. The user experience is simple and compelling. Laid out across the screen are all the available meeting rooms; the user can see at a glance who is in the rooms and whether any of the limited number of seats are free; the user can then choose where to go. It’s like looking at a real-time floor plan of a restaurant. Indeed, Social hour refers to the rooms as “tables.”
“Anywhere you see an empty seat,” said Riggs, “you can move to that empty seat just by clicking. In the first version, you did not need to ask permission. As we started to work with professional event planners, they helped us to understand that there are events where there’s a certain level of control they would like to have over where people can move. But the posture of the software was leaning into choice and transparency.”
What followed was customers asking to be able to use Social hour for the whole event, not just for networking. “So we built the stage view. You can have one, five or even 10 people on the stage, you can show videos, show slides, and give presentations and keynote addresses.” Finally, Social hour has a hybrid layout which combines the stage view with the table view. “You have a small group interaction, and you also have someone on the stage.”
Riggs describes these elements as modular; they can be combined as appropriate, or used as standalone products — which explains how a client like TechChange might choose to add the table view to its own virtual events platform. Initially, with so many businesses having some kind of presentation solution already in place, it didn’t make sense to compete at the presentation level. “We decided to take the video technology we were very familiar with from developing other products we sell and try to apply it to an unsolved problem — the networking, socializing pieces — because that’s what people came to miss the most during the forced remote experience we’re on the tail end of, hopefully.”
Frameable today announced full self-serve access to Social hour, allowing all tiers of users to build and customize events, including multi-room and multi-track events, on their own.
Networking is key for TechChange events
“It’s been a really neat model, especially in pandemic times when he demand for our services is through the roof,” said Martin. “We’re a small team (25) but we’ve been trying to keep up. We’ve tripled revenue in the past year and are looking to double again this year. The demand is there for this type of tech, but we couldn’t do it without partners.” Martin explained that TechChange events are very networking-driven: “People are going to expo halls and networking lounges, partly powered by our stuff, but a lot of that is driven by Social hour. We use Social hour alongside a product called Mozilla Hubs, which is a 3D-world builder. So for clients that really want an immersive connection to physical spaces, we’ll build a Hubs environment; but Social hour is our intermediary solution for folks not quite ready for that, but who really want to do the networking and expo halls well.”
Scale is important to TechChange. “The past year, we’ve scaled up our virtual event product offering,” said Martin, “so we’ve done 20 or 30 large scale events – I consider large-scale to multi-day or 1,000-plus people. It’s often high-level production. We’ve had over 25 heads of states, as well as high-level Fortune 500 CEOs, in plenary sessions for our audiences.”
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Social hour is used by Techchange in a few ways, said Martin. “We use it for networking lounges. For instance, we’re running a 10,000 person event this week called RightsCon, the largest conference on tech and human rights in the world. They have something like 100 Social hour sessions across a five day agenda, and they’re using it for small networking rooms; they have representatives from NGOs or tech staff tables and people will come and talk to them.”
For the recent Society for International Development’s annual conference, on the other hand, TechChange leveraged Social hour to create something more like an expo hall with logos for different organizations at the tables. Martin also cites the hybrid view as something that differentiates Social hour from some better-known events platforms. “I call it the ‘wine-tasting’ view. You can have a presenter speaking and doing a demo, and then other people at their tables, talking on video with each other.”
Are there plans to continue to incorporate virtual elements once in-person events return? “That’s certainly what our clients are pushing us for. If you look back pre-pandemic, hybrid was horrible — a shaky camcorder in the corner of the room trying to capture a stage talk. I think there are now lots of cool ideas about how to do hybrid, like a hub-and-spoke model — people gathering in multiple locations around the world, feeding into a central virtual experience. I think there’s also a world in which we just keep building really beautiful virtual conferences, and if someone wants to do an in-person alongside it, great. That’s my latest thinking, but I’m sure it will evolve.”
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