Virtual Events Need To Step Up Their Game

This guest post was contributed by Pathable.

Up until a month ago, “Virtual Events” were a sleepy backwater in the overall event industry. A virtual event offered a less expensive alternative to gathering people physically, but if a planner wanted to produce a truly impactful, meaningful and engaging conference, they would gather the means and budget to produce a traditional, in-person event.

The COVID-19 pandemic and the ensuing travel lockdowns, quarantines and “Stay At Home” directives have changed that, probably forever. Planners don’t have the choice to produce in-person events at the moment, and we don’t know how long that will last. Experts say several months at the bare minimum, with restrictions likely to continue into the fall and perhaps beyond.

Virtual events have been getting by, hitting singles and doubles in the minors, but their moment is here right now. They’re getting called up to the big leagues: the star slugger has a broken arm.

Previously, if someone held a two-hour webinar with attendee chat, they could get away with calling that a “virtual event”. But if virtual events are going to replace in-person events in the way they’re being called on and be heard above the noise of competition, they’re going to have to deliver the full set of value those in-person events once did.

When I think about that value, I tend to break it into three buckets: education, networking and tradeshows. If virtual events are going to rise to the occasion and deliver comparable value to in-person events, they have to create analogs in these modalities, and then bind them together into a cohesive whole.

Education: Seminars Become Webinars

This is the meat and potatoes of a typical conference: seminars, workshops, panels, and plenaries, the model is common and straightforward. One or more speakers are up on a stage, often with a screen behind them to project their deck, and the audience is sitting in rows of seats watching and listening.

For many conference delegates, educational sessions represent at least the nominal reason for attending an event. In justifying the expense, “improve my professional knowledge and skills” ranks high as a reason for attendance, and for association members, earning continuing education credits is a requirement for continued certification in their field.

Creating an educational solution for a virtual event is fairly straightforward, as most webinar platforms solve this in a well-tested and mature way. Speakers can share their presentations right from a personal laptop or home computer, and the webcams that come standard with virtually all computers these days allow the speaker to be seen while they talk. Multiple speakers can participate in a single talk each from their own location, or if co-locating and formal A/V equipment is available, the webinar can be broadcast from a central location.

For event planners that want more control over the production value of the presentation and don’t require audience interactivity, educational sessions can also be pre-recorded and “released” during the time boundaries of the virtual event. This still creates a sense of shared experience and meets the educational (and certification) needs of attendees while reducing the risk associated with live broadcasts.

Networking: Replicating the Hallway Track

While education represents the nominal reason many people attend events, the “real” reason for many, if not most, attendees is networking. At an in-person event, that networking happens in formal settings (e.g., networking receptions, pre-scheduled appointment blocks) and informal settings (the hallway outside of session rooms, lunch tables and even ill-advised evenings at the hotel bar).

So how can virtual events replicate this profoundly human-to-human experience? It’s not easy, and as a virtual event platform producer, I will be the first to say that there is no true substitute for face-to-face, but there are some great opportunities.

First, of course, there are discussion forums and chat channels. These can be conversation areas attached to specific educational sessions or they can be free-standing areas, like a private, branded Facebook group, where the closed set of “attendees” at the event can engage around the topics relevant to the event audience. Good discussion forums will go beyond just displaying names of participants, but also allow people to build out profiles with photos, allowing people to “put a name with a face”, a critical step in building social engagement.

Virtual events with discussion forums can even offer a lasting advantage over in-person events in that those discussion forums can begin weeks before the event itself and continue long after it’s over, turning a three-day virtual event website into a 365-day community site.

But I am a strong believer in being able to see someone when you talk to them. Anyone who has participated in a video call, be it Skype, Facetime or Zoom, can attest to the improved level of connection and empathy felt when you can see someone’s face. A wrinkle of a brow can hint at confusion that might be missed in a phone conversation, and a wry smile can communicate the tone of a sentence that might otherwise be misconstrued were it typed.

This is one area where great virtual event platforms are expanding their horizons to great impact. Pathable’s virtual event platform, for example, has introduced “Birds of a Feather” small group meetings, akin to the “Lunch Table Topics” many conferences offer. The event owner can put various options on the agenda, allow attendees to sign up in advance, and at the appointed time, they can join a small group discussion with their colleagues, with everyone participating able to see and hear everyone else. Each person’s video channel is tiled “Brady Bunch”-style.

Pathable also offers one-on-one or small group private meetings, where attendees can book times within the boundaries of the virtual event to meet on camera, in just the same way as they might have booked a meeting table or a spot in a networking lounge at an in-person event.

Tradeshows: Don’t Forget Who Butters Your Bread

While most events of any significant size charge attendee admission, the difference between break-even and profitable often comes from the revenue that sponsors and exhibitors represent. The virtual event world neglects this at its peril.

Many virtual event platforms offer a “virtual tradeshow”. Some try to take a “virtual reality” type approach and replicate the experience of walking the aisle of an exhibit hall, while others use the familiar interfaces of websites that attendees may find easier to navigate with their mouse and keyboard. Either way, “exhibitors” are given the opportunity to present a branded “booth”, complete with logo, description, and downloadable collateral for attendees to browse.

But this is another opportunity for virtual event platforms to “step up their game”. Presenting information from sponsors and exhibitors online isn’t enough, nor is allowing attendees to “request information” through a website. That’s the equivalent of arriving at an empty booth at a tradeshow and being told to leave a card if you want someone to get in touch with you.

At Pathable, for example, attendees can “walk into” an exhibitor’s booth and have an instant video conversation, replicating the interactivity and quick answers that a tradeshow floor would offer, without the sore feet.

Virtual Event: More Than A Sum Of Its Parts

Ideally, a virtual event offers more than a catalog of its features. The education alone, the networking alone, the tradeshow alone, each can meet a need for an attendee. But to call it more than just a website with links to videos, a chat room and sponsor listings, they should knit these together into a cohesive whole, something that gathers people at a specific time (albeit not a specific place) and allows them to have a shared experience together.

The event technology industry has received this call to arms loud and clear, and there is a scramble to meet the need. We will no doubt see new offerings from new and established players pop up quickly to respond to the crisis our industry faces.

Hopefully, this change will offer a lasting benefit to the event industry. The coronavirus epidemic will eventually subside, whether due to herd immunity or a vaccine, and we will be allowed to return to the convention centers and meeting halls we’re used to.

When that happens, though, I believe this experience with virtual events will have a permanent impact on how events are held. The economy is likely to depress business travel for some time, and global recognition of the airline industry’s impact on climate change was already beginning to build resistance to frequent flights in some quarters.

Now that people have had the experience of remote work, Zoom parties and virtual events, I expect that we will see some of those patterns continue after they become, strictly speaking, unnecessary. Events will offer “hybrid” experiences, where remote attendees can participate via these same virtual event platforms, at perhaps reduced prices, while others continue to attend in person. And perhaps some event planners will be pleased enough with the results of their virtual event that they will turn a sharper eye to costs associated with holding an in-person event and consider whether to go back.

What the future holds for events is uncertain. What is certain is that humans will survive, and event platforms that can address and nurture our humanity will thrive. That’s what we’re working on, anyway.

Jordan Schwartz is President and co-Founder of Pathable, a platform specializing in social virtual events, mobile event apps and online communities. Pathable is a 100% remote office, with employees distributed around the globe. Jordan works from his home in Seattle, Washington, and tends his community of bees in his spare time.

Written by Gabrielle Perham, MBA