Lessons from cartoon-blogging at the Real-time Web Summit

October’s cartoon-blogging at the Real-Time Web Summit was a well-received experiment in innovative event coverage. The response was overwhelmingly positive, the Twitter stream showed people appreciated the added dimension to the event, and the organizers were more than pleased.

Now, two things:

First, the ReadWriteWeb report, The Real-Time Web and its Future, is now on sale. Edited by Marshall Kirkpatrick – one of the smartest guys I know – the report sells for $300, and distills interviews with more than 50 real-time web honchos along with insights from the over 300 folks who attended the summit. Plus there are 10 case studies, 20 profiles of leaders in the field… and a package deal on the report plus RWW’s guide to online community management. Details (and a free sample chapter) here.

And second, I just came across some notes I took on the experience, and I thought they’d be worth sharing.¬†As with most experiments, this one held a few surprises for me – and some useful lessons. Since I want to offer cartoon-blogging as one of our Social Signal offerings, those lessons take on a special significance.

Here’s how it unfolded, and how I’ll fine-tune my approach next time:

  • I arrived with my MacBook Pro and Cintiq, and settled in at a table. Handy tip: bring a power bar. Conferences usually max out their electrical outlets, and being able to turn one outlet into many is a valued skill (and a not-bad way to make friends). I have a nice little Belkin that also happens to have USB ports, which can be handy if you want to charge, say, an iPhone. As it turned out, I needed to.
  • I had hoped to live-stream my cartooning on Justin.tv (one of the event sponsors). It worked fine on both the Vancouver International Airport and Holiday Inn wireless networks, neither of which was especially fast. But conference WiFi is notoriously unreliable, and bottlenecks and signal dropouts made live-streaming impossible. If live-streaming is anything other than a nice-to-have for you, make absolutely sure there’s a rock-solid Internet connection.
  • If WiFi fails, you’ll want to have a Plan B ready to go so you can at least upload your cartoons – or email them to comeone who can. In my case, it was tethering: connecting my computer to the net via my iPhone. (Given the cost of data roaming for this itinerant Canadian, my Plan B would also have involved a second mortgage and possibly a night job.) As it turned out, the wireless connection was reliable enough that I stuck with it.

Now, what I’ll do differently:

  • While the main room for the event had plenty of electrical outlets, the same wasn’t true for the breakout sessions. And for that matter, the Cintiq isn’t exactly a mobile device; picking up, moving and setting back up was a time-consuming effort. Next time I’ll take my sketchbook into breakout sessions.
  • My digital SLR broke down right before the conference, which meant that when I did use my sketchbook, I was shooting with my iPhone camera. That required a lot of Photoshop work… which I ended up abandoning: the quality just wasn’t good enough. Instead, I wound up redoing the sketchbook in the Cintiq, which doesn’t take as long as you might think but took longer than I’d have liked. Next time, if this comes up, I’ll do bigger, simpler drawings, and shoot them under bright, even light.
  • This was a day that relied largely on breakout groups rather than keynotes or panels. Since most of the ones I attended were facilitated rather than led, they were certainly interesting… but they lacked the narrative coherence that can make for good cartoons. Next time I’ll choose more carefully (admittedly, a little harder with the spontaneity of unconferences.) And when a session has me completely out of my technical depth (a debate over whether a particular app has a RESTful API is a solid clue), next time I’ll have the humility to smile and leave.
  • There were several sponsors there, and a few made it into one of the cartoons… but most didn’t. I wasn’t playing favourites, but I wouldn’t want to inadvertently put the conference convenors into an awkward position. Next time I’ll clarify with the organizers in advance how to handle sponsors.
  • I learned a lot about my own workflow in cranking out cartoons and getting them web-ready. I discovered, for example, that it’s a lot more efficient for me to work in batches: do several sketches, then polish them, and then fire them off. But I’d made some assumptions about how things would go on ReadWriteWeb’s end (through no fault of their’s) and when those proved to be mistaken, I had some scrambling to do. It all turned out fine, but next time I’ll make sure I understand clearly how the workflow will go, establish the organizers’ expectations for the pace and volume of cartoons, and make a personal plan for the day.
  • We could have done more to think about presentation: whether the cartoons would have a stream of their own, and where they’d live. As it turned out, they did perfectly well as part of the ReadWriteWeb blog flow, but if I’d cranked up my pace, the day’s blog posts might have been lost in a cartoon sea. (We could have done more to feature them on the Social Signal site too, but as it happened we had a little competing news that day.) Next time, I’ll work with the organizers to suggest ways of presenting the cartoons in a way that enriches the conference experience without detracting from other communications.

The fact I took away some important lessons doesn’t mean I didn’t have fun, of course – I had a great time, learned a lot and, I think, contributed something of real value. And I can’t wait for a chance to do this again.

Thanks to everyone who suggested their favourite cartoons!

A week ago, I asked if you’d lend me a hand choosing which cartoons I should start with as I begin offering limited-edition prints… and you responded with dozens of suggestions.

Thanks so much – it isn’t going to be easy to choose! But what was easy was picking a name at random… and lakes, of the Chilean tech blog raton.cl, will be getting his pick as a snazzy print. (Kind of cool to send the very first one off the continent!)

I’ll let you know as soon as I’ve chosen the first three cartoons to get the limited-edition treatment. In the meantime, thank you all again… and feel free to keep offering suggestions!