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

Profile picture for user jreed By Jon Reed June 12, 2020
Vendors claim that interactive virtual events are beyond the scope of today's platforms. Or they give us faux interactivity, falling far short of what's possible. I'm not buying it. Neither is Intrado Digital Media.

virtual events - Intrado
(Virtual event via INXPO from Intrado)

My diginomica virtual events series is a grouchy-but-optimistic wake-up for event producers:

  • Don't use technology as an excuse for passive event formats.
  • Don't give us the faux interactivity of a couple of questions at the end of Powerpoint dumps long sessions.
  • Push the envelope on interactivity. Emphasize the community-building that solidifies customers and lures in prospects.

Just in the last week, I've attended imaginative virtual events that put the stale formats we've endured all spring to shame. But let's be fair, there are two questions I haven't adequately reckoned with:

  • Can virtual event technology support interactive features - at large audience scale?
  • To what extent can we simulate the best of on-the-ground events - including fruitful hallway chats?

Why virtual events are here to stay

My next pieces will rectify that - starting with my talk with Ben Chodor, President of Intrado Digital Media. Why Intrado? Because their platform supports 50,000+ virtual events annually - and they can handle monster big events. Exhibitor booths, live-streaming speaker pavilions, and networking areas are all part of their offerings.

Intrado is one of those complicated corporate structures. For our purposes, Chodor is President of Intrado Digital Media, a part of Intrado corporate. Their virtual event offering is called INXPO. Okay, good enough. So, Mr. Chodor, how can we fix virtual events? As Chodor said to me:

I'm a big believer that come 2021, even when physical events come back, the catalyst has finally happened. I don't think physical events come back without a hybrid virtual component to it - whether you're using the virtual event as an insurance policy, or just another way to reach your audience.

Another reason for virtual? Pulling in those can't make the physical events (no, I'm not talking about a keynote stream, but a genuine chance to interact). For those who think large scale physical events are on the way back, Chodor has a wake-up call. He can imagine participants saying:

Guess what, I don't think I'm ever going to another CES again, because I'm not going to be at a place with 100,000 other people. I don't see that happening in the next few years. But I still really want to participate.

So is the technology and bandwidth there to support 100K+ events? Short answer: yes, as long as your kids aren't squeezing your home wifi network with streaming activities. Intrado has been putting on virtual events since 2000; Chodor's experience with virtual events goes back to 2004. So where are we now?

We've learned a lot, especially from the bigger events. The first organizations that made the leap here were really big associations and enterprises, determined to reach a global audience despite whatever was happening. 

"I'm one click away from leaving your event, and never coming back"

But attendees' expectations are high. At home, distractions are everywhere. You can't leave a physical event; you can change the channel at home anytime. Then there are the demanding expectations of sponsors. Ergo: virtual events need to get better - and fast. Chodor: 

What if your event is canceled? What if you pull most of your revenue or engagement during these conferences? You are saying: "I still need to do something for my sponsors; I still need to do something for my exhibitors." I need to make sure that we have compelling content.

Thrive - or be ignored.

I'm one click away from leaving your event and never coming back.

Seize the opportunity:

I'm also one or two clicks away from Tweeting about it, Instagramming about it, Facebooking about it, or putting it out on LinkedIn. Now I can drive more people to your program instantly. You can't drive more people instantly to a physical event.

For those who claim you can't do deal-making at a virtual event, Chodor differs. "In some ways, virtual events enable me even more," he says. And yes, that includes the so-called "serendipitous encounters" - chats hard to come by at most virtual events I've attended.

At a physical event, you must plan your day meticulously. Even so, you're probably walking miles across the event, scrambling from one talk to the next. Now, with one click, you can move from one session to another. "Time is more manageable at a virtual event," says Chodor. Event organizers can offer up personalized session recommendations as well, a la Netflix or YouTube. We just need more ambitious event goals. Chodor:

Instead of making it a flat journey, we need to make it an interactive journey.

Another advantage to virtual-done-right? Connect similar interests and roles:

The power of a big event is we can do that. If I know that Jon is at a conference, I can see you on a list; I can click on your name; we can go into a video chat. I have to enable you to interact with the audience. And I have to enable my sponsors to engage also.

Where should virtual events go next?

So what's possible now, and what is Chodor's team still pushing for?

Everything we were just talking about is possible on our platform now. On the roadmap is more of the ability for any user to both go into their own little private breakout room with anyone they want. In other words, your video is always on. You're not an avatar; you're Jon. You're not going into a room. It's like you said about that random encounter. If I want to talk to you, let's start doing it. Let me hear your voice, and let's continue to engage.

Also on the roadmap: seeing a different event display, personalized to your interests and pricing tier. The same for exhibitors and sponsors. Chodor says they've made progress there, but Intrado Digital Media wants to do more:

Where it's really going is: you should be able to ask a few questions as an attendee, and it will automatically go ah, "This is the journey that Jon wants to go on."... Allow me to customize my journey.

My take - make your virtual event interactive, or have a yawn festival

I hope this piece has put to rest any remaining excuses: make your virtual events interactive, or have a yawnfest.

However, I'm not sure my article title really captures Chodor's message. 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.

Chodor acknowledges nothing will ever take the place of "pressing the flesh," though as he quickly added, few of us want to shake hands these days. That now-archaic phrase underscores the massive change we are going through.

I should also point out: virtual event UIs don't have to mimic physical events. While the INXPO screenshot above riffs on an in-person event, the UI could also look different, perhaps tailored to mobile screens, or popular menu options.

I've been hellbent on interactivity. I believe you won't keep butts in virtual seats without it. Imperfect live immediacy is gripping; canned presentations are now a dime a dozen.

But while hammering away, I've neglected an area Chodor broached: the power of virtual event data. Not just for personalization, but for all kinds of future engagement, from lead gen to industry newsletters to direct 1:1. Example: I was at an event this week where it was super easy to move directly from chatting with an attendee to connecting on LinkedIn. Event organizers could track which exhibitors were getting interest in real-time. Granted, organizers must use that data in an opt-in way - or repeat the dreaded show floor scan-and-spam mistakes.

Now that I've experienced the power of meeting new contacts on video chat, I'm even more irritated with vendors dragging their heels on these stale event formats. I've done some terrific impromptu live demos as well. That makes me far less interested in enduring any more pre-recorded sessions - with the possible exception of customer use cases.

More on that soon; it's fair to ask INXPO to prove its interactive merits also. I plan on doing just that - potentially at InfoSec World, coming in late June. INXPO also powered a massive Red Hat conference earlier this spring, with 82,000 registrants and 56,000 attendees. That's impressive scale, but I was at part of that event. From the parts I saw, it wasn't very interactive.

The takeaway is not to criticize that particular show, but to point out: a virtual event platform can boast all kinds of interactive features, but the event organizer still has to support them.

Next up: a deeper dive into my experiences with enterprise speed dating, online turbo-networking and exhibit hall adventures, crashing multiple events.

This piece is part of my ongoing diginomica series, The art of virtual events and webinars - from mediocrity to excellence.