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2020 - the year in virtual events...from the mediocre to the exceptional

Jon Reed Profile picture for user jreed December 22, 2020
It was a rough year for virtual events, but not without its bright spots. Throughout 2020, we documented the best events we took part in - and skewered a few of the worst. What emerged was an opinionated guide to better virtual events.

virtual events
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We talk about how the pandemic exposed weak spots in supply chains and workflows. Well, it also exposed weaknesses in virtual events.

When on-the-ground events went by the wayside in 2020, an online opportunity was created. Alas, few enterprise software vendors were able to seize it. Why not? Therein lies a tale.

The good news: by the end of 2020, event organizers were getting better at virtual events. We went from abysmal online events to mixed bags. Yes, we vented spleen on diginomica about the low points, but in my virtual events series, I documented the standout moments as well.

Some event organizers seem to think that in 2021, we can just fast-forward over problematic virtual events and get back to the real thing. That's the wrong way to think about it. No one really knows when large-scale, on-the-ground events will be back. But there will always be a place for online event savvy - the future of events is hybrid.

Those who push their creative boundaries will put on live events that matter. The rest will learn the hard way: we're not looking for another one-way broadcast.

Virtual events and the flawed obsession with entertainment over interactivity

Vendors have confused entertainment with overspending on awkward studio talk show imitations, and over-produced brand identity videos that are forgotten as soon as they air. It's a missed opportunity - and now is the time to change that.

For online B2B events, entertainment is just a happy byproduct of including people in a live format, rather than relegating them to passive content consumers. And you know what? There's still time.

Why? As the year progressed, vendors put considerable energy into making their events better. But hold up - most of that energy was driven by a flawed desire to entertain by upping the production values. That's the wrong goal. So I wrote this wake-up call to illustrate why the proper goal for B2B events is not entertainment, but relevance. I also provided a standout example from the Sage Intacct analyst program - a disarmingly simple approach for community-building most vendors overlooked.

Putting large-scale virtual events to the interactivity test

There are weak links in my series. One is the elusive search for the "serendipitous encounter." You know, the kind of encounter that takes an on-the-ground event from decent to special. A hallway conversation turns into a crucial client. An old friend with a new name tag comes out of nowhere. Can you experience that online? Yes - much more than event planners would have you believe, but it takes creativity. Ah, but can you do interactive events at scale? I've talked to several vendors that insist the answer is yes.

Why? When I urge event organizers to push the envelope on the possible, I hear two big objections:

  • Virtual events can never capture the serendipity of on-the-ground events
  • Interactive events sound lovely, but can't be done at our scale

This piece seeks to prove both assertions wrong, by providing two examples from Hopin events. Each event gave me the opportunity to interact in ways I hadn't in months, while making immediate connections I continued to foster, via LinkedIn. Too bad more vendors didn't give this a shot.

Can we find a business model for virtual events? Presence Summit provided some big clues

Recently an event jolted my thinking. The Presence Summit, an interactive day for digital broadcasting enthusiasts, included premium event features that struck me as the beginnings of a truly imaginative virtual event - maybe even an "experience." The kind of experience attendees might love enough to pay for.

Why? When I'm told "You can never charge for virtual events," my response is: "Not if your event is mediocre." True, most of the virtual events I attended this year couldn't have charged anything. Not that they didn't have good content - but they weren't indispensable. They weren't "can't miss" live experiences.

But The Presence Summit was different. After the event, I interviewed virtual event expert Paul Richards about how they put on such a compelling event. I also shared why the dual-track model, including a paid professional/VIP track, is a compelling way forward.

The perils of a virtual analyst event - worst practices and winning ideas

Virtual analyst days pose an event design challenge. Solve it, and we can apply those lessons to other events. For now, we're stuck in the land of slide dumps and stale formats. Let's fix that.

What is the true goal of the event? Too often, vendors view their analyst days from the guise of a brain dump: "How can we impart all of the relevant/new info during this half-day/day?" That leads to Powerpoint abuse, and information overload.

Why? Smaller online events provide more opportunities to stir the pot, including the chance to take advantage of small group breakout rooms. Alas, we (mostly) wound up with Powerpoint overdose. Analyst events are one example of a virtual event that can be expanded into others, such as customer VIP events, or industry networking. Get it right, and new possibilities for interaction emerge.

Your virtual events are legacy - and so are your webinars. Let's get crackin'.

I expect some readers will perceive the notion of interactive webinars as either avant-garde, or unproven. I can only say between Finnern and myself, we probably have a few hundred such events under our belts. Sure, this type of webinar is a lot harder. But it's a heck of a lot more fun. And it sure beats webinar business-as-usual, while people out there are struggling with the current normal, eager to build community and do their remote jobs better.

Why? Event organizers blamed event tooling for stale event structures. There is a grain of truth - online event software is still in an awkward adolescent stage, with venture capital dollars just now sinking in. This piece draws on years of terrific online events from a master of the genre.

Don't blame clunky tech for stale webinars - interactive events can overcome bad tooling

The characteristics of a must-see webinar include:

  • No death by Powerpoint - short content segments peppered by constant audience questions/interactions.
  • All speakers on webcam whenever possible. Ideally, selected participants can "cam up" too when then get involved in the discussion.
  • Constant flow of Q/A throughout the webinar, including responses to the Q/A panel throughout the event, interrupting the speakers' talking points when necessary.
  • Continual interaction between participants and presenters via a vibrant, streaming chat.

Why? One weakness in my virtual events series: I didn't do a good enough job of showing how you progress from the mediocre to the exceptional. This article seeks to rectify that, by breaking out each element of a great webinar. That becomes the building block for larger-scale pursuits.

Virtual event honesty - an interactive virtual event won't work unless we solve the participation paradox

I haven't reckoned with a fundamental truth: most event planners - and participants - aren't ready. They're too accustomed to the passive rituals of brandcasting and (half-heartedly) consuming. To pull off a better live event, we need to change event culture - on both sides. There is a better result - but both sides have to earn it.

Why? Live interactive events may be superior, but they ask more of the organizer - and the participants. In this article, I finally put the focus on the culture shift needed on both sides, and how to pull it off.

Digital events - it’s about the right experience, and getting the right data

Data is probably the most significant advantage of holding a digital event over a physical event. If you have the right technology, you can capture your audience's behavior and interactions in ways you could never do at a physical event. And you can use that information to create relevant conversations with the right people when the event is over.

Why? Our digital marketing lead writer Barb Mosher Zinck hits on a key point I hadn't explored: how virtual events can excel from an opt-in data perspective. 

The desire to excessively control your virtual event will kill any real value

That's not to say that there's one way of running a virtual event. Different platforms, tools and approaches will be needed for varying companies that have different needs and desired outcomes. But if I could impart one key piece of advice, it would be to get used to feeling uncomfortable, reduce your desire to control everything and let attendees have an experience that's real.

Why? Not much more to add to my colleague Derek du Preez's pull quote. Derek wrote this post after reaching the breaking point many of us did with canned virtual events.

Can virtual events deliver the same results as on the ground? Yes, says Ben Chodor - if you avoid these mistakes.

While Chodor agrees with me on pushing the limits of interactivity, he sees virtual differently:

  • Don't try to replicate physical events. Create entirely new event models from the strengths of virtual platforms.
  • Anticipate a "hybrid" event future where the lines between physical and virtual events will blur.

Why? I chose to end on this one, as it lays the groundwork for the next question I need to tackle: What would a terrific hybrid event look like? I can tell you this much: a great hybrid virtual event is much more than a streaming keynote. But how can we make virtual attendees feel included, while justifying differences in cost and access? That's a topic I'll tackle in the new year.

Image credit - Happy young man wears santa hat, by @insta_photos, from

Disclosure - Sage Intacct is a diginomica premier partner.

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