The first conference season of this year has been wildly different to what anyone could have imagined in 2019. As everyone is aware by this point, the impact of COVID-19 and nationwide lockdowns forced companies to think about how they could use digital technologies to bring their physical events online, in a bid to reach customers, partners and observers.
We at diginomica have been chronicling our experiences of attending these new world virtual events, attempting to provide somewhat of a playbook for companies - showcasing what works and what doesn't. The team has sat in on dozens of these virtual events over the past few months - and even helped organise a few - which I think gives us some level of expertise on what's going to help you put together a stellar experience. My colleague Jon Reed has done a particularly good job of putting together some practical guidance.
I will preface this by saying that up until the novel Coronavirus hit, virtual events were generally seen as an add-on or somewhat fringe activity. For years the idea has been experimented with, but not really with any serious conviction. As such, teams have been under serious pressure to pull together the technology and content, at speed, in an attempt to replicate their in person offering.
In other words, we are all in the learning phase of this and not one company has executed it perfectly. And it's likely that different companies will have different needs, in terms of what looks like a ‘good event'.
That being said, I think there's one theme that has run through almost all of the virtual events I've sat in on this season - a theme that will damage any usefulness or value that attendees will get out of the online experience. And that's the desire to control.
Control sacrifices quality
When listening to a podcast this morning on how to derive value from everyday experiences, the speaker said that you have two choices in life - to try and control a lived experience and therefore limit the experience itself, or to reduce your desire to control outcomes and just get value out of the reality of what is happening.
Whilst it is a bit of an off-topic comparison, it struck me that companies are seeing virtual events as an opportunity to exercise control over these events in a way that they've never had the opportunity to do previously. That control can be seen in everything from content, to branding, to access, to engagement.
Physical in-person events are obviously also controlled to some degree. Speakers are chosen, content is approved and access to rooms can be denied. However, the value I've been missing from virtual events, I've realised, is in those moments where control from the top of a company fades into the background.
That could be a Q&A session with a customer in a room full of other customers, where they are put on the spot about a thorny issue and the dialogue that ensues is natural and off the cuff. It could be bumping into a CEO in the hallway of a hotel and having a frank discussion about what is being seen and heard at the event. Or it could even be conversations with peers about something that seems exciting but you don't quite understand, or something that doesn't quite ring true.
Marketing, communications, PR and executive teams need to realise that by exercising excessive control and editing down content and collaboration to a point where you feel like you're participating in a sound bite exercise, any trust you had hoped to build up with a participant is quickly whittled away.
Authenticity is key
I'll give you an example. I recently attended a virtual event for a leading cloud company that has a variety of areas of expertise, but with a particular focus on data use and collaboration. I won't name names because I feel like the mistakes made were common across other virtual events I've attended, but this one in particular did strikingly miss the mark and didn't meet expectations.
The company in question promised a series of discussions between senior executives and high profile customers across a variety of industries. Which they did deliver, but where it was clear that control and a predetermined agenda took priority.
Almost every session I sat in on was virtually worthless, as the 20 minute pre-recorded videos were taken up mostly by the executives running through slides of corporate messaging and product details. Only five to seven minutes was made available for the conversation with the customer, of which there was little depth or anything of value.
If you're flying tens of thousands of people across the world to sit in a crowded Moscone centre in San Francisco for days on end, this would not be acceptable. The value wouldn't be there. But for some reason companies think that if they're providing a free online event they can get away with just putting across what *they* think is really valuable (nine times out of ten it isn't).
To truly build trust and respect from buyers, companies need to remain authentic - letting customers and spokespeople speak freely about their experiences, warts and all. This is uncomfortable, but it genuinely is the only way to build a worthwhile relationship with prospects and stakeholders.
Editing down content and experiences to the point where they consist of only ‘gloss' and positive messaging leaves attendees with a feeling that the experience isn't truthful and that they are being manipulated. Those on the receiving end of controlled experiences very rarely enjoy it or find value and more often than not turn their backs.
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.
A good comparison would be corporate social media. The brands that build the best relationship with other social media users (and customers), and ultimately build a good reputation, are the ones that are able to have an open and honest dialogue...publicly. Sending out corporate messages 24/7 isn't going to get you very far. You need to engage and meet people where they are, how they want to be served.
So, to all the groups and teams out there organising virtual events for the Autumn conference season - please, please, please think about whether or not you are succumbing to the desire to be a control nut. I promise you it won't work in your favour.