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How are 2020's virtual experiences shaping the future of events?

Recent advances in Covid vaccines are giving the world cause for cautious optimism. But with innovation unfolding at breakneck pace throughout 2020, events and meetings are unlikely to revert to the ‘old normal’ once we emerge from the shadows of COVID. To more accurately predict where our industry is headed, it’s helpful to first reflect on how far we’ve come to date. Dominic Bemrose looks at how virtual experiences have evolved over the course of the year and how this is likely to shape the future of events.

Lockdown triggers a frantic scramble online

When the world first went into lockdown, businesses scrambled to pivot from live events and meetings to virtual experiences out of sheer necessity. The imperative to react swiftly and maintain some form of momentum in the face of disruption meant there wasn’t always enough forethought put into adapting the format and content for online delivery. Trying to replicate a one and a half-day programme of hour-long sessions simply doesn’t work when participants are in front of a screen instead of in the room.

I personally sat through some long – and dare I say it, rather flat – webinars that made few if any concessions to audience engagement, with speakers delivering lengthy presentations of densely-populated slides ill-suited to the attention spans or distractibility of remote audiences. Engagement suffered, and without sufficient breaks, participants’ ability to retain information was impaired, eroding the value of many of these hastily staged events.

Businesses have started to hit their virtual stride

As we collectively settled into the new rhythm of the pandemic, event marketers learned lessons from these early efforts and we’ve seen notable improvements over the last few months. Programmes have been abridged and session lengths shortened to better sustain the typical human concentration span of twenty to thirty minutes, and both the number and detail of slides has been reduced. These events are becoming much more discussion-oriented – even where there isn’t a panel session, many have a moderator to pose questions and get more out of the speakers. We’ve also seen better use being made of the engagement features of online event platforms such as polls, Q&A and chat. With the rich insights coming from data analytics, it should be possible to fine-tune future events to optimise these interactions.

Virtual events give marketers the potential to expand their reach to thousands, if not tens of thousands of prospects, without linearly increasing their costs, and generate value over a longer period by enabling sessions to be made available on demand. Audiences have embraced (or been won over by) the convenience and sustainability of participating in virtual experiences that don’t require the disruption and downtime of travel, as long as those programmes meet their wants, needs and expectations.

Virtual will continue to be in the mix

As 2020 draws to a close, virtual events are no longer a temporary stopgap but part of the ‘new normal’ (as much as I loathe that phrase) of multi-channel marketing and as such, need to be thought about and designed from the ground up. Of course, many of the fundamental questions that apply to in-person events are just as important to virtual. What is the purpose of the event? What business outcomes is it expected to deliver and how do we measure success? What format will work best for our target audience and how do we tailor the content accordingly?

There are also a few additional considerations that go with the virtual territory. Does the entire programme need to be live, or can we introduce pre-recorded elements to minimise the risk of technical hitches caused by bandwidth constraints? Are speakers familiar with the technology and comfortable presenting into a camera instead of connecting with a sea of faces in the room and if not, what training or support do they need? The choice of platform is also important – it is a reflection on the brand, so choosing the right one can be as crucial as selecting the right venue for a real-world event. How can we turn a virtual environment, such as an exhibition, into an interesting space to explore? Through repeatedly asking and answering these questions, we can expect to see further innovation and improvement in virtual experiences.

Networking is the missing link

Digital technology is not a panacea, though. Conspicuously absent from online meetings, conferences and congresses are the ice-breakers and networking opportunities that bring cohesion and purpose to the delegation. The renewal or deepening of old acquaintanceships and, even more importantly, the new connections that are forged and the serendipitous conversations that are only sparked when people mingle. The old adage that “coffee breaks are where the magic happens” is as valid as ever. The challenge for event professionals and our clients is to find ways to recreate that social context in the digital environment and replicate the organic nature of these interactions.

The ambidextrous challenges of hybrid

As the world starts to open up once more, and hybrid events become feasible, we will also need to consider how we manage the simultaneous yet markedly different experiences of the audience in the room and those participating remotely. It will be vital to ensure that the online contingent isn’t made to feel like second class citizens.

Some have shone a light on the sporting world for ideas – after all, spectators with a ringside seat (or standing on the terraces) have a qualitatively different experience to those watching at home. Yet the fans yelling at their televisions get the benefit of extreme close-ups, action replays, expert punditry and post-match interviews with players and managers, all of which actively enhance their enjoyment of the game.

In the world of corporate events, there are no doubt analogous opportunities to prevent FOMO among remote participants before, during and after the event. Can we heighten the anticipation with trailers, sneak previews or a package of branded artisanal snacks or teas sent out in advance for participants to enjoy on the day? What tools or mechanisms can we use to allow audience members to tap into experts’ knowledge during session breaks? How do we gamify online interactions? What premium content can we give remote participants exclusive access to post event, to keep and share with their colleagues?

Where are events heading next?

Thanks to the exceptional measures demanded by the pandemic, we’re living in tomorrow’s world sooner than expected. The technology is there, but businesses’ collective learning and problem-solving is still catching up to a point. Even when face-to-face gatherings are back in play, we’ll all be busy finding ever more creative ways to blur the boundaries between the convenience of digital and the transformative power of live to give clients the best of both worlds.

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