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Virtual event highs and lows - with hybrid events on deck, enterprise events remain a baffling failure of imagination

Jon Reed Profile picture for user jreed March 12, 2021
Virtual events remain a grim tour of duty, not to mention a passive exercise in brandcasting. But we've also seen vendors apply creative event design, and get a payoff - ZohoDay being a winning example. There's still time to get this right, and seed our hybrid event future.

(ZohoDay '21 - a virtual event high point )

Friends, I am tasting the vinegar of creative disappointment. Despite my howls and jowls tips and proof points, one year into the pandemic, virtual events remain a bland failure of imagination - an indulgence in vendor brandcasts rather than the personal connections we all crave right about now.

Yes, there have been high points - I'll get to one of them later - but for the most part, we are stuck.

Why? Event planners are licking their chops at the prospect of on-the-ground events returning. They're willing to let virtual events run their imperfect course. That's a flagrant disappointment, for two reasons:

1. On-the-ground events were already broken, except perhaps for bulk-badge scanning and frenzied attempts at lead generation. When we get on planes again, we'll return to an event model that was already promotional and stale.
2. Events that excel will have a hybrid event model, which requires virtual interactivity as yet unachieved.

Why has the virtual event opportunity been squandered?

  • VCs have poured cash into virtual event platforms, but most of these platforms focus on being the shiniest mobile broadcasting toy, not a vibrant community.
  • Even the best virtual event platforms are underutilized. Event producers aren't being creative enough with the platforms, and they are undermining the possible by turning off interactive features, in an unwise attempt to control attendee behavior.
  • Event producers confuse priorities, opting for flashy displays of brandcasting rather than getting their customers/partners/prospects/influencers interacting.

Want more proof points? Start with this enterprise virtual event darling: I was told this particular vendor put on really good virtual events. But when PR sent me the program, I saw a broadcasting lineup. My response? "Book me for any interactive sessions." There was only one - an interactive analyst spot. I was told, "Next year, we should be back in person - so things will get a lot more fun."

Full credit for acknowledging that a few hours of online brandcasting isn't much fun, but hold up:

Why can't virtual events be fun?

Besides, on-the-ground events were only fun because we made it so. We had to overcome the bloated, captive-audience keynotes, the stale/disappointing sessions a half-mile walk from each other, and the over-moderated panels. Collectively, we rallied. We made these events fun.

But at their core, they weren't particularly fun - nor were they groundbreaking. Yes, you could hear DJs spinning discs everywhere (drowning out your chance to network), but could you gather with your peers around white boards, sharing/solving collective problems?

Could you organize your own birds of a feather session on the fly? Nope. The only app I know that has this capability for on-the-ground events is the Whova event app. Attendees can't organize their own sessions on any virtual platform I've seen yet either - aside from some social gathering apps that can be shoehorned into this purpose. And, even if you could, most organizers wouldn't allow that feature to be activated.

Whatever is happening on the main stage is what they want you to focus on. But there is a considerable risk to this mentality. For on-the-ground events, you can blow off the keynote, but you can't leave. At a virtual event, if you leave the keynote, you might leave the event platform altogether - and you might not come back. But would you leave the event platform if you were truly engaged? One of the rarest quotes I received all year:

I can catch the replays anytime. What I can't miss is these live discussions.

Alas, we didn't see comments like this very often.

Taking a spin on the latest virtual event platform - "Welcome"

When I air these issues out, I hear a similar refrain: the event platforms themselves are the culprits - and better platforms are on the way. That was certainly the enthusiastic view of the PR team for the new event platform, Welcome. Their (very excited) PR team didn't hold back:

What they've built enables anyone to produce high-quality virtual events that feel like an Apple product launch.

"Makes other platforms looks like the 1990s" — Nate Skinner, SVP at Oracle
"Completely changed the way I think about virtual events" — Ryan Carlson, CMO at Okta
"The level of interaction is unbelievable" — Keegan Forte, VP at Flybridge

Welcome is NASA Mission Control for event organizers with features like green rooms, HD streaming, breakout areas, video mixing, overlays and networking, all rolled up into one place.

But can "Welcome" fly me to Mars? Maybe by release 2.0. Welcome PR urged me to take a demo. I said I'd prefer to be an attendee, and see what's possible. But I warned:

I don't believe a platform, however shiny, is all you need. Putting on great virtual events is more of a culture and goals problem than a platform problem. Companies put on stale virtual events because they are afraid of the live unscripted moment. Just giving organizers a more polished look doesn't solve anything important.

I've already shared how Web Summit shook my world in a jugular, pared-down way: with incredibly honest roundtables with my peers. Nothing shiny about it - the video worked, and the live discussions were riveting. When was the last time you heard someone say, "I wish there was an Apple launch event today"?

A week later, I checked out the Welcome platform as an attendee - via Sendoso's "Connected" event. Now, I don't know Sendoso well, but I've always liked their angle on direct marketing. As soon as I logged in, I was in a keynote room listening to Seth Godin. I like Seth Godin. His book We Are All Weird had a fundamental impact on my business thinking. But Godin is all over YouTube; I can hear from him anytime. The Welcome platform looked spiffy enough - but as you know by now, spiffy isn't my top criteria. I wanted to go into the networking areas, but Sendoso locked them down. No networking while Godin is speaking!

I find these event decisions baffling. What's wrong with me getting to know Sendoso and its partners - while Godin speaks to those who haven't heard him at fifty other keynotes? I unplugged and went on with my day. Things got crazy, and I forgot the Sendoso event was even happening. Later, I checked in with a friend to find out if she enjoyed the event. She sent me a doozie of a quote - one for event organizers to ponder.

I listened to some of the opening, but it was incredibly scripted and boring. Then I jumped in and out of the three tracks and it was all just people talking and wasn't very interesting. I  didn't go into the lobby when it was opened because you had to enable your camera, and I wasn't somewhere I could do that.

And did she try the networking section?

It was shut down most of the time.

As for the missed opportunity to actually talk with Sendoso's partners, we got a crash course in that via email spam:

Also, I have received over half a dozen vendor emails since then from the conference.

But that just resulted in unsubscribes, not meaningful exchanges.

Now, to be fair, neither one of us attended the full event, so it's possible that the networking section was open more than we thought. And yes, "Welcome" was annoying in terms of requiring video even to enter the lobby. That's a fail for those who aren't ready or able to turn their cam on. But I can't say much about the Welcome platform when some of its core features were disabled. I'll check out Welcome again before saying anything definitive.

ZohoDay - an analyst event shows the art of the possible

There seems to be a huge disconnect between what vendors want to do with virtual platforms and what makes participants fire up their webcams.

But that doesn't have to be the case. Recently, Zoho put on a very effective two-day virtual program for analysts, called ZohoDay 2021 (see my colleague Phil Wainewright's first cut assessment, ZohoDay 2021 - post-pandemic business success depends on transnational localism, says Zoho CEO). Most analyst events this year have been death-by-Powerpoint variations. Even the better ones didn't take advantage of breakout rooms for smaller group discussions.

ZohoDay, however, had a delightfully interactive spirit:

None of this happened by accident. ZohoDay's organizer (and Head of Global Corporate Communications) Sandy Lo invested loads of time in advance, getting externals and internals on the same page. She pursued a creative event design - and worked through the issues. Example: making slides and overviews available ahead of time, so that each interactive session only required a short five minute summary, before diving right into the Q/A.

The ZohoDay event had a genuine spirit, including an emotionally moving video of Zoho employees in their dance group, filmed remotely:

ZohoDay - dance group from Zoho
(ZohoDay 2021 dance performance video)

The event wasn't perfect, but it worked because:

  • Virtual was treated opportunistically, not as a stopgap for something better.
  • The goal was on furthering relationships and interactive Q/A, not on information dumps.
  • Customers were integrated into the discussions as well! (Even more can be done there in the future).
  • Smaller group breakouts (often under-utilized) kept the format fresh, allowing like minds to assemble based on interest, and get the contacts/answers they needed
  • Creative event design was embraced, including the hard work of prepping everyone for a different format - one that demands more of participants and presenters.

Zoho used their own platforms for these gatherings. They used both Zoho Meeting and Zoho BackStage (event management software). There are still features to be added, but these are good event platforms, with engaging Q/A, cam operations and so on. But you know how I feel about event platforms. Without the creative event grit of Lo and team, the platform wouldn't have been put to the test.

Was every analyst satisfied? No, that's not in our nature. There is an inherent dilemma here. Some analysts need deep product dives in a specialized area. The only way to do that - and meet everyone's needs - is with full-day, brain-dump sessions. Those are rough in person, and almost impossible virtually. As I talked about with Lo, analysts who need it can fill in those gaps 1:1 after the event. I did a follow-up myself, re: Zoho's latest on privacy in the workplace (article pending).

But as I'm fond of saying:

Information via brain dump is quickly filed and forgotten. Relationships are a deep container for knowledge that can be shared (and updated) over time.

The ZohoDay event sparked those relationships via Q/A, and small group discussions. And by the way, there was terrific attention paid to an active chat, as well as to the simultaneous video Q/A. Numerous questions were answered in the chat stream, via a team of on-their-game Zoho staff members.

Email follow ups were immediate and rigorous. Believe it or not, this live chat engagement is still not the norm. Many vendors who have chat as part of their event platform actually turn it off, in another attempt to control the conversation. Or, the chat is not actively staffed by experts who can field questions in real-time. As a result, event producers lose a massive opportunity to extract intelligence and build relationships, via the exponential power of a free-flowing chat. This kind of live chat adds something you can't get from an on-the-ground event.

I know that Lo is looking forward to on-the-ground events and interactions. The warmth of such events will be most welcome, especially for Zoho's inclusive culture and accessible executive team. But Lo acknowledged that virtual allows something special. You can bring together an international audience in a way that in-person events struggle with. That's struggle won't go away in the Vaccine Economy.

Give me that ZohoDay format anytime. A day of canned product updates on the other hand... That's a special form of purgatory.

ZohoDay - via Zoho
(screen shot by Jon Reed. )

Virtual events can't be fun?

The analyst day format is specialized, but can absolutely be applied to VIP customer events and other small group settings, like industry meetups.

The best part? All the participatory event skills learned via creative virtual events can transfer to hybrid and on-the-ground events down the road.

I hope more event organizers will embrace a creative event model; there is still time. It sure beats watching the clock until you can book the Venetian again.

Updated - 8am PT, March 13, with a few tweaks and two big adds to the ZohoDay section on managing the event chat, and international accessibility.

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

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