In the “Before Times” – way before the start of the COVID-19 pandemic – virtual events were often seen as lesser-than to in-person, bigger-budget events. They were viewed as less compelling, less useful and, certainly, less fun.
It turns out that in an always-digital, pandemicked world, that’s no longer true. Since last March, when most of the world pulled the parking brake on travel and live professional events, marketing meetings, conferences and tradeshows have taken place virtually. Organizers and speakers are reinventing virtual events.
That’s been by necessity: In a world where 73% of attendees are still pining for in-person events (only 4% of respondents to a recent survey feel that virtual events are more valuable than in-person), some event organizers and speakers are taking on the challenge. Freeman Event Research reports that some are pushing boundaries and reimagining virtual events in useful, unusual, and offbeat ways.
No longer are virtual events lesser-than: In many cases they’re actually more: More compelling. More useful. And a whole lot more fun.
Here to Stay
The move to make online events more engaging is a critical and necessary shift, because most virtual is here to stay. Most event planners and businesses expect to continue to incorporate virtual components to their live events even in a post-pandemic world. More than three-quarters of event planners (78%) believe that moving forward, in-person events will pivot to hybrid models.
Businesses will have more ways to connect with their audiences, in other words. Even when (if?) things get back to normal. Here are four key ways event organizers and speakers are reinventing virtual events.
1. Adding Lights, Cameras and Action!
Some events are flipping the script on the at-home component of virtual events by hosting virtual events from a professional studio setting.
UBA Trends Day planned to host its in-person event in Brussels in March 2020. But when the COVID outbreak curtailed all large gatherings in Belgium, organizers switched to an online event in September. Rather than produce it from home offices, UBA Trends Day was broadcast from a studio in Brussels, complete with live and prerecorded components. The event MC teed up recorded sessions and hosted live Q&A chats with speakers from the studio space.
The effect was more like an awards show, complete with multiple camera angles and special guests, and less like a simple virtual meeting.
“Delivering a virtual event from a studio or production setting can make a virtual event feel like it’s more of an occasion than a purely online event broadcast from bedrooms and home offices around the country,” said Joshua Bryce, manager of technology sales, at the Melbourne Convention & Exhibition Centre. “The production quality of the virtual event are greatly enhanced and content can be dynamically mixed to make it more engaging.”
Some professional speakers are adapting studio production components to their own at-home keynotes. Vinh Giang, a business speaker who uses magic as a metaphor, has set up a home studio in his Los Angeles home that incorporates a two-camera setup controlled by a switcher to the front of his “stage.” Giang doesn’t use graphics or slides, but he uses props to explain different concepts as well as perform table-top magic tricks.
Other speakers are using technology to replicate a more polished appearance that fully immerses them in the talk, without the use of a physical studio. Gerd Leonhard uses a mix of photos, graphics and videos and via Zoom. The images change frequently even if the Leonhard is static.
Speaker Brian Fanzo uses Prezi Video to create customized overlays on his talks that similarly “immerses” him in the presentation.
2. Reimagining… With a Twist
If 2020 has taught up anything, it’s that this is a good time to take a step back and rethink how we can best serve audiences. Some organizers are rethinking the value of an event completely, bundling in perks and extras like consulting services, one-on-one coaching, and year-round opportunities for education and networking.
For example, think about the moment when you return to the day-to-day at your office – all the good vibes and inspiration fades away in the grind. (The pile of emails you need to answer. The to-do list that grew longer during your time away.) MarketingProfs sought to solve that disconnect by taking the opportunity to rethink its approach to its flagship event, the MarketingProfs B2B Forum. It reimaged what was a two-day event into a year-long membership program that offers expanded opportunities for marketing education and networking.
3. Once More… With FEELING.
Some events are supplementing the production of their virtual events by incorporating analog add-ons. And some speakers are flipping the script on in-studio, slickly produced events by introducing analog components to their speeches.
Downloadable swag like customized Zoom background or freebies like an ebook is easy and even obvious. But some conferences like HubSpot’s Inbound 2020 are going the extra step and sending out the swag-bags to attendees.
“We’ve also seen other innovative ideas such as catering services delivered direct to attendees’ households,” Joshua Bryce added. For example, a lunch arrives during a mid-day business meeting, or dinner from a local restaurant is delivered in time for an evening event.
From a speaking angle, MarketingProfs Chief Content Officer Ann Handley draws her slides with Sharpies. And speaker Drew Davis shoots his presentations through a glass lightboard on which he draws his concepts for the audience.
4. Dance. Meditate. Make Merry.
It can be numbing to park yourself in front of a computer all day, passively attending an online event. Virtual event organizers are incorporating frequent opportunities to get attendees more engaged. Some ideas, from the common to the outlandish:
- Polls and surveys allow you to solicit audience feedback at regular intervals.
- Online chat is standard with many platforms but can be a free-for-all. Some events are incorporating a dedicated Slack channel to make the conversation more manageable and meaningful.
- Gamification, such as posting trivia questions throughout a presentation or event and award prizes for correct answers. James Dodkins, a business speaker and ex-rock musician, incorporates virtual quizzes into his keynotes that invite the audience to participate via their smartphones.
- Include one-on-one or roundtable video interactions between presenters and attendees.
- Incorporate chair yoga, mindfulness or an impromptu dance party to re-engage the body/mind
- Include sessions that offer a little offbeat fun, like a mixologist that walks attendees through the event’s signature drink, or a session on how to make cold brew at home.
Face to Face?
Virtual events are here to stay, both short-term and long-term. Research shows that almost 50% of respondents believe that it will take six to 12 months before they will start hosting in-person events again. Roughly 27% are a bit more optimistic, thinking it will be three to six months. While less than 2% said they will never host in-person events again.
Regardless of what events look like, innovations in virtual programs and creativity from presenters mean that virtual events are being reimagined for a new age, now and into the future. Who knows, maybe the innovations in virtual events this year will mean we will all see the clear advantages of virtual events after all.
Jen Smith is vice president of marketing at MarketingProfs. She has over 20 years of B2B experience leading brand, creative, digital and demand generation teams for organizations such as SunGard, Thomas Jefferson University Hospital, USI Insurance, Corporate Visions and Sapient (now Publicis.Sapient).