Even as we all attend events regularly that simply wouldn’t happen were it not for the virtual world, virtual events are not loved. Tolerated, yes, but loved? Definitely not. Over the last few months, it has become obvious that the love affair with virtual events, for the events industry as a whole, has never really blossomed. Virtual events may be the bridesmaid, but never the bride. failing
To a great extent, the situation has unfolded as expected. There are only a few event planners who have thrived in the world of virtual and conversely, many events have simply failed. Failure in the virtual world comes in many forms. Maybe some events attracted a lot of attendees, but little revenue. Or, perhaps a lot of people booked but not many actually showed up. Perhaps a lot of people logged on but clicked away soon after.
Virtual events are easy to set up, but very hard to do well.
Becoming Digital Natives
Few planners expected that it would be so painful. A virtual event is still an event after all. As someone who has been trying to persuade the events industry for several years, to be more open to virtual events, I knew the struggle would be a grand one.
Change is hard. Transformation is harder. Throw the uncertainties of digital into the mix and we are all at sea. This year’s need to go virtual has highlighted a harsh truth for the events industry: years of avoiding technology have meant that many planners are very far behind the technological and digital curve.
Planners and our organizations must become true digital natives. We have to invest in technology, not just in purely financial terms, but in the time and the space we give our planners to master those technologies.
There is also an issue with expectations. Many organizers are running their first virtual event and are frustrated that they haven’t mastered a very complicated, fast-moving, multi-discipline project in a matter of weeks. They are used to being on top of and in charge of a physical event, and the shift to remote control has been tough. This frustration is showing at their events.
We must appreciate that very few industries undergo digital transformation in a matter of months. In addition to our lack of engagement with technology and our misaligned expectations, the problems stem from one other area: the belief that you can replicate the physical event in a virtual environment. The events which take this approach are failing.
Here is the key. Planners have to replicate the value proposition for their stakeholders, not the actual event. Attendees want content and connections. Commercial partners demand attention and leads. All of those are easily deliverable virtually. But try to recreate the random bumping into someone, or the same booth experience, in a virtual environment, and the value proposition is likely to lessen for our stakeholders.
Replicating how we deliver content in the physical world is a sure-fire way to fail online. Take this approach and you find virtual conferences that still have hour-long panel sessions, one after another, after another. They have speakers presenting PowerPoint slides, spending their time on-screen exclusively taking to the audience. Treating your attendees as an audience and not as participants leads to failure, in any event, but especially online.
Concentrate on Connections
Planner are realizing that their “loyal” customers won’t be loyal when they see how easy it is to attend someone else’s well executed virtual event. It is the same for sponsors. Initially many “pivoted” events didn’t have too much trouble bringing their sponsors with them, but now, it is a different story. It has hit both meeting professionals and sponsors that commercial partners want more value than can be delivered from simply placing logos on a virtual event platform.
Of course, events aren’t all about content and coverage for sponsors. They are about connections, but many organizers can’t work out how to do it in a virtual environment.
To avoid making mistakes, we have to truly fall in love with virtual events. We have to realize that virtual events are different and as such we must design them differently. Our industry has to support and invest in digital and not expect success overnight.
Because in 2021, failure is not an option.
William Thomson has been running virtual events for over a decade. Over the last four years, he has built Europe’s largest online events and training business for executive assistants. William is a well-known event consultant and founder of the Virtual Event Campus.