• September 30, 2020
  • By R "Ray" Wang, founder, chairman, and principal analyst, Constellation Research

Virtual Events Stink. Here’s How to Improve Them

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THE BRUTAL experience of back-to-back video calls and the adjustments of work from anywhere have manifested over the past year. Video calls have brought us closer in some ways, as colleagues and strangers have gotten a peek into each other’s work and living environments. Calls have been taken from cars, parks, bedrooms, and backyards. Meetings in some ways have improved (though collaboration and ideation have taken a hit).

Meanwhile, live events—a staple of community building, product launches, training and education, and new sales—have not improved but, in fact, have worsened. They’ve proved hard to replicate in the digital world for these reasons:

1. Broadcast-mode hell. Most event producers have opted to push information to audiences, but few have allowed attendees to engage with each other or speakers. Chat boxes and Q&A submission systems just don’t cut it.

2. Hostage video presentations. Bad lighting, visible reading, and crappy sound quality make nearly every presenter look like they’re reciting a list of demands.

3. Fake live presentations. Prerecordings bring some benefits; the risk of live broadcast failure dramatically reduces when the only risk is forgetting to press play. But the lack of authenticity comes through and the energy level falls.

4. Forced and awkward engagement. Moving into sub-rooms and trying to facilitate a meeting with an audience on predetermined topics just doesn’t work well. Attendees need to meet and network without the pesky sales reps and sponsors in the same room. The lack of private one-on-one conversations kills networking at all levels.

5. Canned Q&A. Nothing reeks more than fake softball questions at a virtual event. Attendees want to see authentic questions, live reactions, and honest answers. The intent of a Q&A makes sense, but when poorly executed, attendees will be turned off.

6. Marathon multi-week events. Part of the allure of an event is its one and done. While attendees are happy to watch relevant content after the event, attendees don’t have time to devote weeks to a conference spread out four hours a day for four weeks.

7. Time zone tone deafness. Events that span multiple time zones often do not make sense for those in North America participating in a European event or any combination beyond four time zones. Some event organizers have forgotten this and attempt to plan one global event or try to run an event 24 hours in a row.

While digital events often boast high registration numbers, they have seen a drop-off, and the level of engagement has dropped as much as 33 percent in the first half-hour and over 71 percent in the first hour, based on recent Constellation Research surveys of chief experience officers. To combat these failings and improve the virtual event, here are five strategies:

1. Start with a live TV mentality. Event producers need to treat the event like a live broadcast. The pacing of the event needs to reflect the growing ADD nature of attendees who are zoomed out. Keep sessions in 15- to 20-minute blocks. Short five minute interviews break up the monotony of droning hourlong keynotes. Live Q&A sessions with the audience add engagement and authenticity.

2. Design for serendipity. Live events succeed because they facilitate the joy of discovery, the ability to naturally meet attendees and network, and the freedom to choose your own adventure. Attendees want to replicate the experience of bumping into someone in a hallway and starting a conversation or turning to someone sitting next to you to share an experience. Tools such as Wonder.me, Remo.com, and Gatherly.io re-create this.

3. Create shared immersive experiences. Incorporate the physical with digital. Innovative event producers build shared experiences into the agenda, from wine tastings to food prep with celebrity chefs. Coffee tastings, chocolate tastings, and tea tastings also work well. Building kits for charity is another fun activity with a purpose.

4. Ensure a good value exchange for time and attention. Make big announcements. Unveil products and services. Don’t be shy about partnerships and customer wins. Tell the story and keep embargoes. Don’t treat this as a chance to put out 100 pieces of digital content for content marketing. That’s just boring.

5. Foster a long-term digital community. A successful live virtual event can be the foundation for creating an engaged community that serves as a virtual water cooler or meeting place well beyond the event. Consider which assets live after the live event and make sure the budget to invest is planned for in advance. 

R “Ray” Wang is founder, chairman, and principal analyst of Constellation Research. He is the author of the business strategy and technology blog A Software Insider’s Point of View. His latest best-selling book is Disrupting Digital Business, published by Harvard Business Review Press.

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