Retrospective on Virtual 2021 Data.SQL.Saturday.LA event

It’s been over 2 months now after our second virtual event and it’s time to talk about how it all happened. This LinkedIn article is going to talk about our original plan, the demise of PASS and replacement tools, some 2021 stats, and what worked well.

Our goal was to “rinse and repeat” our first 2020 virtual event:

  • 300-400 remote attendees
  • 30 speakers/sessions (5 rooms x 6 session)
  • 5-10 sponsors
  • Rely on our battle-proven experience from 2020 event to deliver the 2021 event
  • Use PASS/SQL Saturday infrastructure

Running a PASS-free virtual event

Back in 2020, we had to adjust from in-person to delivering a virtual event. To deliver our 1st virtual event, we were using GoToWebinar software licenses (provided by PASS) to deliver virtual event as well as sqlsaturday.com to market event for attendees, speakers, and sponsors. As early as November 2020, we started to see the likelihood of PASS eventual demise. Needless to say, we started to explore alternatives. Luckily, as a non-profit we already had most of the tools. We had enough available licenses for MS Teams via Microsoft for Non-profit program as well as our own WordPress web site.

Here are the tools that we used to replace tools previously provided by PASS:

  • Event delivery platform – replaced 5 x GoToWebinar licenses that we were provided by PASS in 2020 with 5 x MS Teams licenses (we created 5 new generic users in our Office tenant with proper licensing)
  • Attendee registration – replaced sqlsaturday.com event page with Eventbrite
  • Sponsor registration – replaced sqlsaturday.com sponsor web page with a combination of blog post on datadriventechnologies.org web site to list all available sponsorship tiers, Microsoft Form to enable sponsor sign up, and PayPal invoicing to collect fees (we are working on automating it with Power Automate)
  • Speaker registration/schedule/session management – replaced sqlsaturday.com schedule section with sessionize.com
  • Event listing – initially replaced sqlsaturday.com with datasaturdays.com that was eventually replaced with a new sqlsaturday.com (fully owned now by SQL Saturday Incorporated)
  • Event/session feedback – replaced sqlsaturday.com feedback section with a custom Microsoft Form + QR code
  • Event raffle – replaced sqlsaturday.com SpeedPASS with a custom Microsoft Form + QR code and Microsoft Office Excel
  • Volunteer registration – replaced sqlsaturday.com volunteer section with a custom Microsoft Form
  • Email marketing – replaced sqlsaturday.com message system (it was quite awful to begin with) with Sender.net Email Marketing Platform
  • Evaluated different MS Teams offering – Meeting, Webinar, and Live Event

Event stats:

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  • 300-400 actual attendees

What worked great

  • 5 MS Teams meetings (8 hours long) to cover 5 tracks/virtual rooms
  • Dedicated 1 host per 1 virtual room
  • Scheduled meetings for all hosts to test-drive MS Teams Meeting functionality
  • Scheduled meetings with speakers 2 days prior to the event to practice transferring control and sharing the screen using MS Teams
  • Created tinyurl.com links for each virtual room to hide MS Teams long URLs to provide convenience for attendees to switch between rooms (example: https://tinyurl.com/2021datasqlsatla-vmware)
  • Ran a Virtual raffle via Microsoft Forms + QR code (less than 200 attendees signed up for that) – we will definitely use it once we go back to an in-person event
  • Administered prize distribution after the event – we had 5 e-gift cards to deliver as well as 5-10 hard-paper books and other swag to USPS
  • Speaker gifts – still working on it
  • Scheduled reminders for all the speakers about exact timing of their sessions
  • Kept constant communication vie email with speakers to prevent no-show
  • Utilized a free-tier (all the features with a 15,000 emails a month limit) Sender.net Email Marketing Platform to send 8 email campaigns (welcome, raffle, schedule, to attend or not to attend, how to connect, message from sponsor, thank you for attending, recorded session)
  • Created and utilized a WhatsApp Messenger group for a internal communication between team members
  • Provided double opt-in for speaker content recording – we asked before and after recording (all the speakers agreed to be recorded)
  • Each host sent an email to all his/her room speakers to introduce himself/herself as well as to share an event playbook that included all the nitty-gritty details
  • Setup a 5-pages long PPT template to present event information by each host before each session (additionally, we used MS Teams Power Point Live feature to allow attendees to navigate to sessions/sponsors using hyperlinks)
  • Introduced LinkTree to maintain all links in one place – https://linktr.ee/sqlsatla 
  • Produced promotional (3) and recorded (20+) videos for our YouTube channel

Communicate using freemium tools

The Communication Team at the Data Driven Technologies is using the following freemium services to keep LA Data Platform User Group and SQL Saturday in Los Angeles relevant on social media. We choose those tools primarily due to their price and ease of use.

sender

To send all our email campaigns, we use a combination of Moosend and Sender.

Moosend.com is a freemium service (completely free under a 1000 email contacts) to schedule and compose email newsletters. We use it to communicate with 1,000 Los Angeles Data Platform User Group members. It’s more important for us to constantly engage our core User Group members, so we stay under 1,000 subscribers while sending as much volume of emails as possible. We send over 10+ scheduled email campaigns every month which translates into close to 15,000 emails monthly, so with MooSend.com we can achieve email volume for free. Sender.net is a freemium service (free with 15,000 emails monthly limit) to schedule and compose email newsletters. We use it to communicate with 1.5K+ SQL Saturday in Los Angeles members. We send about 5-6 scheduled email campaigns for 3-4 months prior to an event in June and 2-3 campaigns after the event, so we want limitless contact list while we can compromise on a total monthly volume of emails.

To manage social media posts, we use a combination of Buffer (free with 3 social media channels and 10 scheduled posts) and Planoly (free with 2 social media channels and photos only). Buffer.com is a freemium service to schedule posts to Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and more while Planoly.com is a freemium service to schedule posts to Instagram and Pinterest. We have 2 separate accounts (one for LA Data Platform User Group and one for SQL Saturday in Los Angeles) to avoid hitting the free account limits too early.

Image result for linktree logo
linktree

Another great freemium service (free account is more than enough) that we are using is Linktree.com. Linktree.com manages all our digital touchpoints in one single place as well as collect views/clicks statistics. We keep all the essential links for both LA Data Platform User Group and SQL Saturday in Los Angeles members and use 2 separates accounts for each.

Image result for databox logo
databox

Many sponsors are asking us for the audience numbers to make decisions, so we need an easy way to communicate those trends and numbers. This is where we found a handy Databox.com freemium service (free with 3 social media sources limit). Databox.com makes dashboards to highlight different social media KPIs. We have one account for each: LA Data Platform and SQL Saturday in LA.

Image result for tweetdeck.twitter.com logo
tweetdeck

Tweetdeck.twitter.com is a completely free solution (TweetDeck is owned by Twitter) to manage and organize multiple twitter accounts. We occasionally use it to like, retweet, mention, and participate in interesting topics from @LASQLBootCamp, @LADataPlatform, and @SQLSatLA Twitter accounts.

mxtoolbox.com

mxtoolbox.com is a freemium monitoring service for your MX records to check on your email deliverability. We use it to check on our LA Data Platform and SQL Sat LA email campaigns.

uptimerobot

https://uptimerobot.com is a freemium monitoring service for your HTTPS, web site. We use it to check on our web site up-time.

Just Do It! Keep your local community vibrant and relevant! Virtual event is better than no event at all!

Introduction

What keeps your local tech community gatherings (User Group, SQL Saturday, and others) is you, your team, and your events. What might be obvious to some, might not obvious to all – having no events, no activities in your tech community will erode the foundation of your community and will lead to its demise.

Yes, we all agree that 2020 and 2021 have completely changed the game of running community events with many mature in-person events downsizing or completely closing its doors due to COVID and the local regulations that came with it. At the same time, is not to say that you can’t run events. If your local regulations are preventing you from running an in-person event, just run a virtual event, at least for the time being. And while virtual events are not a full replacement for in-person (primarily due to completely missing out on the networking aspect), it’s still way better than no event at all.

Problem

While the cost of virtual event is close to none and it requires less preparation, it’s does require new skills. Running a virtual event is very different than in-person, but it also much easier than in-person event. So, what do you to go from organizing in-person event to a virtual event?

Solution

For your user group monthly meeting, all you need is you (and maybe a backup person just in case), catch all tech support email account, tools to organize the event (Eventbrite.com), some marketing campaigns to promote the meeting, and some experience (and patience for few hours) with Zoom/MS Teams/other remote meeting software of your choice. If you want to go fancy, some familiarity with TechSmith Camtasia and YouTube would be needed to record and share recorded session.

If this is going to be a full day event with multiple rooms like a SQL Saturday event, you would need a great team of volunteers, catch all tech support email account, tools to organize the event (Eventbrite.com/SQLSaturday.com/Sessionize.com/and few custom Microsoft Forms), well thought through marketing campaign to promote the event and decent familiarity with software to run a long remote meeting. If you want to go fancy, some familiarity with TechSmith Camtasia and YouTube would be needed to record and share recorded sessions.

Great Team

You would need a team of really dedicated volunteers to moderate virtual rooms, preferably one volunteer dedicated per each virtual room for 8 hours.

Marketing

You need to involve email marketing, social media, but more importantly you need to reach out to organizers of similar events to help you out reaching out wider audience.

Consider adding Meetup to your marketing toolbelt. Please reach out to ms-data at microsoft.com to join Azure Data Tech Groups and get your Meetup cost comped by Microsoft.

Remote meeting software

Here you need to decide on Zoom, MS Teams or something else, get comfortable with it, have few dry runs with volunteers and speakers, setup 8 hours long meeting per each virtual room, and pray for it to work flawlessly.

To conclude

The Data Driven Technologies Team is running Los Angeles Data Platform User Group virtually for 2-3 years now. We have also organized and delivered 2 Virtual SQL Saturday in Los Angeles events (2020 and 2021).

If you need help, I am here for you. Let’s me help you with running your virtual event with handholding and guidance. I can help you out with everything your need – technology tools, marketing, speakers, attendees, sponsors, etc…

I want your User Group, SQL Saturday event and more importantly SQL Saturday brand to stay relevant.

Retrospective on LA Data Platform User Group performance in 2021

As we are approaching 2022, it’s time to review 2021, see what we have accomplished, what worked well and what could be improved.

Despite 2021 being out of an ordinary year for tech community as a whole with many community events being forced to adapt to a new norm of running remote meeting, it’s being really great for us so far. Part of the reason was our prior experience with running virtual community meetings. LA Data Platform User Group almost exclusively went virtual at the beginning of 2019 (see Fig #1) as we couldn’t secure a venue and got very comfortable with it.

Fig #1 – January 2019

While that might not be true for other cities, states, countries, Los Angeles is known for a very bad commute (I-405 is considered to be the worst in the nation). The city is very poorly planned and very spread-out making commuting from home to work and back a very unpleasant experience. Commuting to and from tech events for attendees, speakers, and volunteers is even less pleasant. Add to that difficulty with finding a somewhat central and affordable location to host your tech event with somewhat easy parking, and you are virtually having nothing to choose from.

Prior to going all virtual, we had a very low registrations (see Fig #2) and attendance numbers (between 5-15 people).

Fig #2 – 2018 EventBrite registration

Compare that to running a virtual event and suddenly there are plenty of options: more attendees can attend, more speakers can present, no time/money wasted in commuting and parking. Needless to mention it, virtual event cost is close to zero as there is no need to buy food and beverages.

Accomplishments and what worked really well

If prior to going all virtual we have struggled to run monthly meetings due to speaker shortage and venue availability while watching the number of attendees shrinking, this all changed, and we have fully embraced virtual meetings. In 2021, we got running remote meetings down to a science. Within just few weeks in December 2020, we booked an entire 2021 leaving room for just marketing the upcoming meetings. No longer need to worry about if meeting is going to happen or not, just focus on promoting the meeting and increasing registration and attendance.

The other part of science of running remote meetings is communication. When you are running in-person meetings, you have plenty of natural opportunities to interact and communicate with attendees. Virtual setup makes is harder. We were essentially forced to learn new tricks. We started to heavily overcommunicate using email newsletter and social media to compensate on missing an in-person interaction. Prior to 2021, we were usually sending few emails a month and used social media sporadically. In 2021, we excelled at using Moosend.com (freemium email marketing platform) and buffer.com (freemium social media scheduler) to create a constant flow of communication between monthly meetings.

Our attendance grew to a steady 20-50 remote attendees (see Fig #3). Our members now instinctively looking forward to an interesting data topic every 3rd Wednesday @ 7PM PST of every month. Attendees also know that all sessions are getting recorded and with speaker’s approval will make it to YouTube.com (we also recently added Rumble.com).

Fig #3 – 2021 EventBrite registration

Due to a PASS sunset (a community organization that provided us with a free web site hosting) that happened In January 2021, we received a free access to Meetup via Azure Data Tech Group (funded by Microsoft). We now have a presence on Meetup and quickly approaching 200 member’s mark.

We have added a new member to our team to help out with digital marketing – Maria Lopez. Maria has helped us to transform a very chaotic digital marketing effort into a very streamlined, well-oiled marketing plan. We now have a well-planned and scheduled communication cadence, one single place to maintain all our digital touchpoints via linktree.com (see Fig #4), a growing YouTube channel, as well as a Spring Store for fans to buy merch.

Fig #4 – Linktree

To spark some interest in 2021 from existing and new members, we have introduced a t-shirt raffle. We are raffling a custom LA Data Platform User Group t-shirt (see Fig #5) every monthly meeting and making some members happier. Although, we didn’t notice any significant increase in attendance yet, we think it’s worth the try.

Fig #5 – LA Data Platform UG custom t-shirt

To double down on our successful 2021 effort of planning ahead, we have booked an entire 2022 (and even some 2023) monthly meetings (see Fig #6) in advance. That allow us to focus on communication and promotion.

Fig #6 – 2022 EventBrite registrations

What could be improved?

We need to schedule at least few in-person meetings, we need a social get together. While virtual meetings are much easy to arrange and run, it’s missing a human touch and it’s missing much needed networking opportunities.

Multiple site streaming is another item on the list to consider. Currently, our remote meeting can be only attended via MS Teams. If we use something like StreamYard.com or ReStream.io, we can get more exposure (and hopefully more attendance) from social media platforms, such as Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Twitch, and LinkedIn.

Keeping Your Virtual User Group Members engaged

Introduction

The year is 2021 and almost everything runs remotely. People attend meetings without leaving the couch. The amount of available online content is exploding while there are still only 24 hours in a day. Competing digitally is getting harder, and it’s time to learn new tricks, tricks to retain your members when in-person human interaction + pizza is no longer an option. The main goal here is to keep the number of members attending, or at least registering, to attend as high as possible.

This blog post is going to showcase specifically what LA Data Platform User Group is doing to engage and entertain it’s members between monthly meetings. We are going to assume that you are familiar with Zoom/Teams to run the meeting and you are proficient with EventBrite/LinkedIn/Facebook events/Meetup.

Problem

With so much digital content available everywhere, it’s hard to compete for attention and captivate members. Our LA Data Platform User Group has been running remote meetings for 2-3 years now. The challenge has always been how to keep it interactive, but beyond that, how to keep members engaged between meetings. Obviously, it got much harder in 2020-2021 where almost all other meetups went virtual/online. How does our User Group is keeping our members engaged? What is our secret sauce?

Solution

The solution is to communicate, communicate, and communicate. Especially communicate with members between meetings to keep them engaged and entertained. While great monthly meeting content (speaker + session) is important, it’s only 10% of the success. Communication is the other 90% that makes it worthwhile for new members to join and existing members to come back for more content.

We use https://www.moosend.com to send email newsletters and https:///www.buffer.com to schedule social media posts. Both tools are freemium products. We communicate with members more than 10 times between monthly meetings.

We meet on the third Wednesday of each month. Here is the cadence of our email marketing campaigns and social media posts.

  • 4-5 emails a month (every Friday morning) – Favorite content/links
  • 1 email a month (Thursday/Friday following 3rd Wednesday meeting) – Thank you for attending
  • 3-5 emails a month (preceding the monthly 3rd Wednesday meeting) – Monthly Meeting reminders
  • 1 email a month (Thursday/Friday following 3rd Wednesday meeting) – Recorded session is available on YouTube

Examples of MooSend and Buffer scheduling:

Email Marketing newsletter sent by MooSend.com
Social Media (LinkedIn, Facebook, and Twitter) posts sent by buffer.com

Examples of each email are shown below:

Favorite content/links email
Thank you for attending email
Meeting reminders email
Recorded session is available on YouTube email

Conclusion

Now that we shared our communication strategy, let’s see some data – newsletter opens/clicks and meeting registrations.

For the email newsletter (see image below), we are hovering over 20% opens (200 members opening emails) with 2% clicks (20 members are actively clicking on links inside the email).

Moosend.com Email campaign activity

For meeting registration (see in the image below), we are averaging 100 people per meeting.

2021 EventBrite.com Monthly meeting registration

Welcome aboard

Introducing our new member. Welcome Maria.

We would like to welcome a new member to the Data Driven Technologies, Inc Team – Maria Lopez. Maria volunteered and helped us to successfully deliver 2 SQL Saturday in Los Angeles events (2019 and 2021).

Maria will assume a Director of Digital Marketing position and will lead us to new heights.

Maria (Mima) Lopez, a.k.a. Mima is a Systems Administrator & Founder of Mimz Techritory

LinkedIn – https://www.linkedin.com/in/mariaglopez12/

Twitter – https://twitter.com/Mimz_Techritory

About Maria

I am a Systems Administrator and a technology enthusiast from LA. I am one of the leaders of Long Beach Women in Tech, a Tech Instructor for Brown Girls Code and the founder of Mimz Techritory.

Mimz Techritory is my way of broadcasting my IT portfolio and tech interests to the world! Here I publish technical projects I am working on, applications and gadgets I am building and tech events I attend throughout the year. I have a passion for learning and I create content to share my knowledge and tech excitement!

LA Data Platform Speakers wanted!

Want to become an LA Data Platform speaker? Have in interesting subject about SQL Server / Data that you want to share with the community? Please use the form message below and provide the following information:

Official message about our move to sqlsaturday.com

It has been brought to our attention that there might be some confusion about the status of the 2021 Data.SQL.Saturday.LA event and our decision to deactivate our listing on the https://datasaturdays.com/ platform and move it to https://sqlsaturday.com/2021-06-12-sqlsaturday1020/

Originally the 2021 Data.SQL.Saturday.LA event was listed on https://datasaturdays.com/, but about a month or so ago we were asked to remove our branding and our logo.  Our branding and our logo are very important to us for sentimental reasons and we decided to list the event on sqlsaturday.com instead.  Everything else stays the same.  The event is still scheduled for June 12th and we will be sending out more details soon. 

If you have any other questions about our move to the sqlsaturday.com platform or its affiliation with Redgate, please reach out to us directly and we will be happy to discuss. 

You are cordially invited to attend 2021 Virtual Data.SQL.Saturday.LA event!

Virtual 2021 Data.SQL.Saturday.LA
 Logo by Janella Payumo and Robert Mizikovsky

You are cordially invited! 😎

We are reaching out to all people that enjoyed SQL Saturday in LA 2017, 2018, 2019, and 2020 events to let you know that the 2021 event is fast approaching. Only 30+ days remain until the June 12 Virtual Data.SQL.Saturday.LA event.

Please register soon to reserve your spot by using http:// 2021sqlsatla.eventbrite.com http://sqlsatla2021.eventbrite.com/ hyperlink, register using a form below or just use a QR code.

https://linktr.ee/sqlsatla

Eventbrite QR code

Our sponsors

Event Flyer

Choosing a FREE Email marketing service platform to engage your community event members

Introduction

Running community events occasionally is not enough to engage your attendees/members. Unless you are running daily events, you are advised to communicate with your members between the events, as much more as possible. Using Email Marketing Service (EMS) platform is one way to make it happen. This blog post is going to take you on a leaving the MailChimp journey and exploring few of the alternative Email Marketing Service (“EMS”) platforms that we (organizers of Los Angeles Data Platform User Group and SQL Saturday in Los Angeles event) chose to use as well as few DNS settings to setup to avoid the spam filter.

After years of using MailChimp to keep our members engaged for both LA Data Platform/SQL Malibu user group (started on 2013) and SQL Saturday events (started on 2017), we’ve finally decided to draw a line and choose something else.

While MailChimp has a great product, the company that became the staple in the world of emails got overly confident and decided to squeeze every dollar. Some of the features that made MailChimp the king for SOHO market are ability to schedule posts to Facebook and Twitter, superb email deliverability reports, and overall great interface. At the same time, some of those features became paid plan only features. We were enojying a FREE plan, but over the years MailChimp decided to make it less attractive by pushing some of the previously included features behind the paywall.

It’s started with something minor like making it difficult to BYOH (bring your own HTML code), continued with reduction of the contact list, and finally ended up with making campaign scheduling capabilities only available in paid plans.

Problem

We are a non-profit and trying to enjoy a champagne on a beer budget where we can. We prefer to enjoy free services as much as we can. With Mailchimp taking away campaign scheduling, we decided to seriously consider alternatives. We briefly migrated to MailerLite to only discover that sending 12,000 emails a month is not enough for us. If initially, our user group emails were mostly about inviting members to attend user group meetings, in a last couple of months we have added weekly links Friday campaigns which caused us to run out of 12,000 monthly emails quicker and making MailerLite not that attractive any longer. Hitting the 12,000 monthly emails limit for a free plan too soon, effectively brought us back to look further and consider much more forward-looking alternatives that would work for us today and a year from now.

Solution

What are we using today? We reviewed and analyzed all different alternatives here and chose 2 platforms. As of May 2, 2021, we are using Sender.net for SQL Saturday in LA event and Moosend.com for LA Data Platform.

What are we getting for free from each platform?

Sender – 15,000 monthly emails for a contact list under 2,500 subscribers with all features included.

Moosend – unlimited emails for a contact list under 1,000 subscribers. We can schedule campaigns and we can see open/clicks/problems reporting. We will be moving from Moosend in less than 30 days (unfortunately, Moosend is no longer offering free account).

How did we migrate from MailChimp/MailerLite/Moosend?

Migration is a fairly simple process of exporting/importing your contact list and exporting/importing your regular campaigns. What might take you more time is matching every EMS platform dictionary (see Fig 2). What might be also a bit confusing is how to recreate Signup form, so people can easily subscribe to your mailing list.

Fig #2 – MailChimp’s Audience is MailerLite’s Subscribers is Moosend Mailing lists is Senders subscribers

Like with any EMS platform, you would want to invest some time in setting things up to improve email deliverability beyond the content of your email. You would want to make sure that your DNS is aware of your EMS. Luckily, all major EMS platforms can you help with that and would even provide you with instructions on how to fix it.

SPF, DKIM

In a nutshell, you would need to add the following records to improve your email deliverability and avoid the spam filter:

Sender Policy Framework (SPF) is an email authentication method designed to detect forging sender addresses during the delivery of the email.[1] SPF alone, though, is limited to detecting a forged sender claim in the envelope of the email, which is used when the mail gets bounced.[1] Only in combination with DMARC can it be used to detect the forging of the visible sender in emails (email spoofing[2]), a technique often used in phishing and email spam.

DomainKeys / DKIM is an email authentication method designed to detect forged sender addresses in email (email spoofing), a technique often used in phishing and email spam.

DMARC (Domain-based Message Authentication, Reporting and Conformance) is an email authentication protocol. It is designed to give email domain owners the ability to protect their domain from unauthorized use, commonly known as email spoofing. The purpose and primary outcome of implementing DMARC is to protect a domain from being used in business email compromise attacksphishing emails, email scams and other cyber threat activities.

While the 3 settings mentioned above are a great way to ensure your emails are reaching your member’s mailboxes, you would be strongly advised to get a free account with mxtoolbox that would constantly scan your domain records for problems.

Disclaimer

This blog post is partially based on the following resources:

https://tutorialdeep.com/blog/free-mailchimp-alternatives