My semi-constructive howl into the wind, otherwise known as the Art of Virtual Events series, was borne out of years of frustration.
An overdose of tepid webinars and obsessively-scripted panels will do that to you.
The case for more imaginative and interactive virtual events goes like this:
- Real events aren't coming back anytime soon, get over that fantasy - time to up the virtual ante.
- People are eager for new connections to far-flung colleagues, and chances to meaningfully participate.
- There is a superior business case here - if you can give virtual attendees must-see live events, aka so-called "experiences."
- What most event organizers call "interactive" is really faux interactivity, a slight loosening of the command-and-control broadcast. Must-see live events allow for unpredictability, off-script possibilities - even spontaneous, attendee-driven sessions.
- "Virtual event technology isn't ready" is a wet noodle excuse used by legacy event staff to prop up tired, unimaginative formats.
But: 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 nametag 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. One of the most vocal is Hopin, so I issued my standard dare: give me unfettered access to a couple of your events. I'll put your software to the test, and write what I think. They took me up on it.
A crash course in Hopin speed networking with Industry 4.0
My first stop? Virtual Industry Fair - Industry 4.0. This was a largely EMEA-based event. When I logged in, I saw a pretty simple HopIn event screen:
There's nothing fancy or sexy in this layout - but you get where you need to. On the right, you can take polls, or see a streaming event chat (I can't show you the chat, as the chat isn't public). You can also browse all the people at the event, and initiate interactions with them (more on that shortly).
But check the left-hand side: a couple of options you don't usually see. One is the Expo option, which isn't live, as this event has structured hours for the Expo hall, not unlike an on-the-ground show. Then there is a "networking" option, now live! That's rare to see - and exactly where I'm headed.
Hopin's networking setup is a speed networking option. You are randomly connected to others on video who have opted in. You have a timed 5:00 session to get to know each other. Spin the business networking roulette wheel:
I had some pretty funny video glitches; they were all my fault. That messed up my first couple of chats. But, using Hopin's video feature, I invited those people to 1:1 chats:
Van Holderbeke had questions about diginomica; I had questions about the Industry 4.0 trends in Europe he is following, and his experiences at the show so far. After a ten minute chat (no time limits when you initiate your own 1:1), we moved on - but not before I clicked on LinkedIn - and sent Van Holderbeke a connection request.
Random speed networking has obvious perils, but you can quickly opt-out of a chat if it's not what you are looking for. In a matter of 90 minutes or so, I had a boatload of productive conversations with Industry 4.0 types like this one:
That "Connect" button is perhaps redundant; I'd prefer the LinkedIn connect, but you can exchange contact info within Hopin also. I don't have space to get deep into the content I learned from fellow attendees, but I do think we learn best in these interactive formats (I know I do). De Saeger, who calls himself a Transition Architect for the Factory of the Customer, was also a speaker at the show. When I asked De Saeger about the theme of his presentation, instead of indulging in Industry 4.0 propaganda, he shared this timely nugget:
You need to think twice before you invest in a technology. You need to understand your own processes. And if you don't understand them, then you shouldn't invest. Don't invest blindfolded. Understand your own processes. Understand how much money you think you're going to gain and then invest. That's my basic message in all the presentations I gave so far.
I've since connected to all those folks on LinkedIn. These chats - and ongoing connections - far exceeded the value of the content-driven virtual events I attended this spring. At those events, I listened to (mostly pre-recorded) information in a passive way - and met no one. How much of that information did I usefully retain, as one event blurred to the next?
This time around, I got much more impact - for just about two hours of my time. The only cost? A few awkward moments on video which quickly passed.
SaaStock Remote 2020 - hitting the Expo hall in search of live demos
Though I talked to a couple of exhibitors at the Virtual Industry Fair, I didn't really get to experience Hopin's Expo hall format. But at the next event, SaaStock Remote 2020, I corrected that, while mingling amidst 3,000+ attendees. When you enter the Hopin Expo, you can see which exhibitors are "live" and which are not (you can visit exhibitors that aren't live, and typically watch their demo video).
One peril of the "live" button: the exhibitors in question weren't always sitting there, ready for my query. That's not great - turning the Expo Hall into an appealing online format isn't a simple thing. But I did catch up with a few exhibitors. One of my first? Jennifer Morton, Customer Success Lead with Leadfeeder. She quickly fired up an informal live demo:
I find the topic of lead gen fascinating, perhaps because of that perilous line between ethical-earning-of-trust and crossing that line in pursuit of data (and sales). Morton and I had a worthwhile chat about how Leadfeeder approaches this. Leadfeeder helps companies make more sense of the visitors that show up in Google Analytics, which can be something of a black box. As per this description:
Leadfeeder is a B2B lead generation tool that uses Google Analytics to show companies that visit your website. It enriches your CRM data with visit detail and allows your teams to use the same data everywhere.
Morton says integrations with CRM systems like Zoho and Salesforce have proven powerful to their customers, giving them a better view of prospect activity. We talked about Leadfeeder's competitors, how sales teams use the data, and why it can backfire when you contact prospects and reveal how much you might know about them - even if that data was gathered appropriately. But after a vigorous day of SaaStock Remote networking, what really made my day was the unexpected appearance of Morton's cat. Like most cats, Morton's feline had very mixed feelings about online events.
Final pit stop: in one of the session areas, I dropped in on a SaaStock event organizer.
Pizer is pretty new to SaaStock. He wasn't expecting an on-the-record interview out of nowhere, so I won't quote him here. But he did tell me that the SaaStock team was very pleased with their first virtual conference. They were particularly glad Hopin allowed them to replicate some aspects of on-the-ground events like the Expo Hall and networking - distancing themselves from that traditional webinar format that I relish like stale bread.
At diginomica, we're not in the business of recommending one platform over another; we want buyers to rigorously evaluate, with as much informed data as they can get. Hopin is not the only virtual events platform with these features. They are just the first to take me up on the "large-scale event demo challenge." I welcome others to do the same.
The point of this article - and series - is that the excuses have run out. It's time to put on better events. So I won't belabor my granular critiques of the current Hopin platform here. I see room for improvement in speed networking, for example by employing some "AI" or preference engines to match people by interest.
Hopin has plenty of room for improvements like these - and money to invest. Just three weeks ago, they announced a $40 million Series A funding round. As Kurt Marko already noted on diginomica, this entire space is primed for venture investments.
But: what we have today is good enough for better than we get. Mediocre online events are a marketing culture problem and a business goals problem, not a features problem. It's quite revealing I didn't bother to check out the keynotes, or even the sessions, at either event. As someone in a terrific event (Presence Summit) I went to yesterday told me:
I can catch the replays anytime. What I can't miss is these live discussions.
Why so few vendors have figured this out is one of the big mysteries - and missed opportunities - of a bizarre 2020.
From the diginomica backchannel, we heard from a trusted source their firm had reached out to Hopin about a virtual event, and hadn't heard back. I put that question to Hopin directly, asking them if the demand for their platform has exceeded their bandwidth. Hopin marketer Dave Schools sent me an email response, acknowledging their demand crunch:
As you can imagine, our team has been stretched to address the flood of questions and emails as fast as possible. Despite scaling from six people in January to 75 people in early July, we are still striving to answer everyone in a timely matter. We are hiring aggressively and are actively implementing the tools and processes that will enable us to shorten wait times, and help more of our users host their Hopin events at scale.
This goes back to what I advise software buyers: part of how you judge a vendor is by their responsiveness. I would not judge Hopin as an event partner based on their exceptional spike in demand this spring. But I would judge them based on their responsiveness - if you reach out to them now.
I made more than fifteen LinkedIn connects from these two events, all based on substantive conversations - and could have made more. In today's "continuous learning" world, is there a more valuable thing I can say about an event than that? If anything, the virtual event setting made those instant connections easier - once we were given the opportunity. Finish the chat, click the button, and you're connected.
Most event organizers would happily trade in my glowing testimonial in exchange for compelling me (and you) to watch their stilted, overscripted, news-deficient keynotes. Events were already broken. The unimaginative move to virtual events just amplified those shortcomings.
I have since attended other events, albeit at a smaller scale, that showed the potential of impromptu breakout rooms, and paid "pro" tracks with special access to speakers. I've also heard compelling testimonials from disabled individuals who always felt excluded from in-person events - and now get their voices heard.
Open questions in my virtual events series include:
- Expo Halls - I liked the demos I saw, but can this online model put enough butts in seats for exhibitors? Based on the lukewarm feedback I got from exhibitors at these two shows, the jury is still out.
- Business models - What business models will prove viable for virtual events? I'm starting to see some emerging models that could make sense.
- Fluidity - How will we combine on-the-ground with virtual events simultaneously in a more fluid, remote future?
- The rules of participation - How can we keep the flexibility of virtual events while getting folks interacting in a more committed way? Interactive events do require better facilitation skills, different designs, and more from the attendees.
That should keep me busy for a while.
This piece is part of my ongoing diginomica series, The art of virtual events - from mediocrity to excellence.