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The problem isn't event technology - events were already broken. We need creative event design

Jon Reed Profile picture for user jreed February 11, 2021
Event startups want to throw technology at the virtual event problem. But enterprise events were already broken. Better virtual events don't start with technology - they start with creative event design.


Whenever I'm at a virtual event, I always hear, "Can't wait to see you in person!" We can all relate. The pandemic's enforced isolation has stifled relationships, making us nostalgic for cities like Vegas, places we never thought we'd miss.

But I'm also wary - because on-the-ground events were also broken. The reason virtual events have been such a collective yawn is not because event technology is immature.

It's because we tried to take a broken event model online.

The weaknesses of enterprise events got exposed

I can already hear the objection: "Jon, if you're right, then why were in-person enterprise events so much better?" Because we made them better. We survived the three-hour keynotes; we put up with boring sessions in order to extract details our team needed. We chased down account reps in hallways; we made fortuitous new contacts at lunch - if we sat at the right table. We hustled.

  • But did we ever get to sit with our peers in a room with a white board, and talk project realities?
  • Did we get honest roadmap sessions with product leads where customers were able to air their frustrations openly?
  • Were we able to get introduced to those who shared our geography/role/industry?

I know these things were broken because I spent eight years putting on a more creative enterprise event - one that borrowed heavily from unconference components. The results were dramatic.

Why didn't compelling on-the-ground events happen more often? Because events were primarily designed around vendor marketing and lead gen. And for that, they were effective. Attendees put up with the tedious stuff and the badge scanning, because the joy of seeing old friends and making new connections transcended the limitations. But when events went online, the weaknesses of the enterprise event template got exposed.

Now, I'm told this will all get solved - when virtual event platforms mature. It's certainly an exploding area from a venture capital standpoint (mixed reality will now save virtual events from mediocrity, evidently). But now I'm pushing back hard on that narrative. That storyline lets event producers off the hook:

putting on great virtual events is a culture, creativity and training problem - not a tech problem.

In my virtual events series, I've pointed out how underutilized the Zoom breakout room feature is, despite its potent ability to get smaller birds-of-feather groups interacting. Yet so many firms hosting analyst events on Zoom avoided this feature like it was kryptonite. And that's just one example of an under-utilized feature.

Better virtual events - a solvable problem

Why aren't the features that drive engagement and live immediacy being used? I believe there are three reasons:

  • A lack of risk-taking in creative event design
  • A lack of experience putting on imaginative events
  • A lack of training of executives and speakers on the art of more engaging presentations

These are solvable problems. You don't have to get a PhD to figure out how to make an unmissable live event. But I'll concede this: I don't believe the marketing teams that wind up owning event design necessarily have the skills, resources, or sheer guts to pull this off. But they can get there. I've worked with a handful of marketing teams this year that decided to open up their event plans to me. Together, we worked through challenges like:

  • Training the executives to do a quick slide overview instead of the usual slide dump-and-drone, and shift quickly to audience questions
  • Prepping customers for a free-for-all Q/A with industry analysts, in a less structured and more jugular format.
  • How to shift gears from pushing information to sparking relationship-building - the lost ingredient from on-the-ground events.

These things can be accomplished. The result is better events - and better relationships with analysts and customers. I always say: if you have a strong relationship, it will hold a lot of new information. If you obsess over pouring information ("product updates!") into someone's head for an hour, you imparted some information (if they were listening), but you may not see them again for a year online. You didn't deepen the relationship. You didn't collectively share project problems and come up with fresh solutions. You didn't give them a reason to care - or to reach out again.

The other pushback I get? These ideas don't scale. I have two major problems with that:

  1. Putting on fantastic/smaller interactive events for key constituents (analysts, VIP customers, industry leads) is a achievement in itself.
  2. These interactive features can be layered over larger events.

Web Summit - a surprising example of interactivity at scale

My virtual event series gets into how this is done. I think about last November's Web Summit. I almost didn't bother attending - talk about a monster show that doesn't seem like it would be very much fun online. I thought it would be like watching a YouTube channel. And yes, you could watch streaming keynotes with the masses.

But the organizers also booked terrific roundtables. The roundtables I had the chance to participate in for media and journalists were amongst the most incredible hours of my year. They might have exceeded what I would have gotten in person, given how geographically dispersed we were. The sessions covered ethics, shifting business models, attracting audiences. Each was facilitated by a media member.

I wish I could share a screen shot with you, but these were private discussions. They did wonders for building connections; several of those folks have checked in with me on LinkedIn since. Hearing them open up about the adversity they were facing, and where they were finding success - it was special.

That wasn't all Web Summit did at scale. Their own event platform included a version of that online speed networking I've become a big fan of. This should be perfected to match folks up based on industry and interest, but it's still an immediate way of meeting people across time zones.

The Web Summit platform should have done a better job of integrating LinkedIn; there was too much emphasis on connecting within the Web Summit platform. Event organizers need to accept that building a new LinkedIn isn't needed or necessary. But: it's not hard to go over to LinkedIn and make the connections yourself either.

My take - can better virtual events close the lead gen gap?

I'll be the first to admit: virtual events haven't filled the lead gen void. I've heard a lot about that lately from software vendors. That's one reason they are so eager to see you again, booking on-the-ground events this year, even when it's not clear it will be safe to do so. I don't have an immediate solution to the lead gen problem with online events. But I'll point out three things:

  1. Virtual events do generate data via sign ups and log ins
  2. That data should have value if it is used properly
  3. Make a difference in people's lives, and that data should "warm up" into a deeper community. That's the stuff that upsells and cross-sells are made of.

I'm not going to claim that better event platforms won't help. I hear from excited PR reps just about every day, extolling their game-changing event platform. I'm certainly open to functionality that gives participants the chance to create their own breakout rooms, and so on. I'll check out these shiny new platforms and report back.

But I can tell you already: a shiny event platform is NOT going to fix these problems. Some interactive functionality is needed, but the real problem is skills and culture. This will take some serious effort to overcome, but the good news is that putting on creative events is fun - and so are the results. And: it will translate to in-person events in the future. Yes, it is nerve-wracking at times too - but events are always hard work.

What do we need most? First, we need to get humble and acknowledge we aren't very good at events. We need to get input early on, before lousy planning decisions are made. We need to get our desire to control our corporate message in check. Then, we can go about cultivating:

  • event design skills
  • session facilitation skills (facilitating interactive sessions requires sharp skills, making sure everyone gets airtime, surfacing key issues from the chat, etc)
  • train-the-presenter skills, to help presenters put their slides on a diet and up their audience interaction game
  • educating the participants - I've written about this one also, but participants need to understand they'll have a chance to step up and get questions answered. Participants are so used to passive formats; they'll need prepping as well (that's the event participation paradox). But once they get the hang of it, most will embrace the chance to have a voice and get project questions answered.

Yes, I miss on the ground events. Last week, I even used a Vegas hotel lobby as a screen saver. But if we don't offer a better event on the other side of all this, it will be hugely disappointing. The way to do that is to press on with creative virtual events. Then, plan on applying those lessons to hybrid events, because virtual ain't going away. Those who excel in the current environment, and get the most out of today's event platforms, are going to emerge the better. Those who roll out stale webinars and cross-fingers for on-the-ground events to return are going to find that their future events are legacy artifacts.

Addendum: A few days after publishing this, I realized I had not been explicitly clear that the reason virtual events struggle is precisely because virtual event attendees can't improvise and create-their-own-moments the way they can on the ground. So, virtual attendees are much more dependent on the creativity of the event designer. And yes, to some extent, event platforms get exposed here. I might not be able to create my own session on the ground, but I can at least find a few like minds over lunch.

At a virtual event, it's very hard to wrest enough control of the platform to create your own discussion or veer off the standard/passive path. This is where modern event platforms can help. Example: does your platform have a "white board' section where attendees can create their own discussions or chats? Whova, for example, has this in their mobile event app, which can be used for either on-the-ground or virtual events (however, Whova isn't a full virtual event platform yet, so it would have to be used in conjuction with say, Zoom for video sessions).

But even if platforms offer more creativity for attendees, the organizers will still have to activate and publicize those features. So we're back to that issue of control - and event culture. In the meantime, a more interactive event makes it easier for attendees to get what they need, without having to go rogue. And going rogue isn't easy on today's event platforms.

This piece is part of my ongoing diginomica series on the art and pitfalls of virtual events.

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