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Virtual events and the flawed obsession with entertainment over interactivity - will fall events get it right?

Jon Reed Profile picture for user jreed September 4, 2020
The fall virtual event season is almost upon us. I don't know about you, but I'm bracing myself. Can we have better events this fall? Only if we get entertainment versus interactivity sorted.

Sage Intacct - June analyst gathering
(Sage Intacct - June analyst gathering)

Back in March, I asked Will your upcoming virtual event be mediocre - or memorable?. Alas, aside from a few standouts, most enterprise software events wound up firmly on the mediocre side. Now the fall virtual event season is cluttering up - but have we learned anything?

Based on the fall invites I'm getting so far, it looks like we can brace ourselves for another round of mediocre offerings. The big question is: why? There isn't one reason. Contenders include:

  • A failure of imagination
  • Lack of creative event planning experience
  • Fear of the unscripted live moment that enterprise viewers crave. Excessive format control.
  • Over-estimation of love-of-your-brand as a reason for attending. Consequently:
  • A lack of clarity on why attendees are here. What attendees crave right now is connection, community, and interactive learning in that context.

But there is another problem:

An obsession with entertainment over interactivity. This is a carry-over from on-the-ground events. Vendors are actually pretty good at entertaining people on the ground. Yes, sometimes they go overboard, overplaying their hipster hand with obnoxious, self-infatuated DJs blaring discs when attendees just want to talk to each other. But: on the ground, entertainment is not an unreasonable goal for event planners.

Avoiding virtual event mediocrity =  interactivity > entertainment

That has not translated well online. Vendors have confused entertainment with overspending on awkward studio talk show imitations, and over-produced brand identity videos that are forgotten as soon as they air. It's a missed opportunity - and now it the time to change that.

If vendors want to put on better virtual events, they need to redefine what "entertainment" means in a virtual event context.

I've given event planners the satirical treatment for blaming event platforms for disappointing events. But I will concede this: the larger the virtual event, the tougher it is to deliver for participants - especially on interactivity (It can be done, though: see Putting large scale events to the interactivity test).

One thing that really surprised me: even though it's easier for vendors to pull off smaller events, few have taken advantage. Platforms like Zoom are ideal for VIP customer events, or even the analyst events the diginomica crew gets invited to. Most vendors held off on online analyst events because they weren't ready to engage with analysts on a COVID-19 economy message.

But that hesitation is over - there will be plenty of virtual analyst events this fall. That's a bit concerning when you consider most are not ready to confront the perils of a virtual analyst day format. However, some had surprising success - including creative analyst events I attended from Sage Intacct (more on those shortly).

Earning virtual event attention - evaluating three components

B2B events are competing for attention with everything else on our plate. From answering your kids' online school questions, to the temptations of Netflix, to the bloated email inbox, the one thing that Coronavirus can't seem to slow down. So how do B2B events compete for attention?

  1. entertainment
  2. relevance
  3. interactivity

Let's break them out:

Entertainment - I've warned about the danger of confusing entertainment with spending money on high production values. One of the reasons I used sheets of paper as props in my DisruptTV rant on virtual events is to demonstrate: once you establish decent video and audio (not even great, but stable/decent), then entertainment is not about budget.

Brands don't want to accept this, but entertainment is not about storytelling either. Even in the B2C space, the most memorable commercials ever made didn't necessarily boost the brand. Leave storytelling to Breaking Bad and Game of Thrones, or you'll wind up with Ishtar. (see my full deconstruction of B2B storytelling here).

But if great storytelling is difficult and expensive, other forms of entertainment are not. Humor is entertaining, though no one is looking for a stand-up comic at their next virtual event. When it comes to "entertainment" in a B2B context, live/unscripted programs, with guests who are open and perhaps humorous, or at least light on their feet - that's an entertainment value waiting to be had. Vendors that can joke about their AI or RPA obsessions - that's a disarming humor waiting to be claimed. Interactivity is also a form of entertainment. A boring webinar where the speakers engage your question in real-time is suddenly not boring at all.

You know what else qualifies as entertainment? Seeing old friends and colleagues you haven't seen on cam since the pandemic started, and talking shop. Super easy entertainment from software vendors: bring portions of your community together, and let them loose - yet so few have done it. Instead, tiresome/fancy online productions have eaten the budget.

Relevance - This is the easiest quality for B2B event planners to achieve - as long as they do the legwork to get customers sharing project stories on camera, with the right sprinkling of product experts and, perhaps, a relevant guest speaker or two (no, not a mountain climber or some other variety of 'overcoming adversity' entertainer).

In a B2B context, attention-through-relevance is elusive, but simple: help me do my job better, and improve my projects. Yes, a view of workplace trends and tech evolution can be relevant also, though vendors tend to overestimate how interested attendees are in their (moist) AI dreams. Peer-based sharing that matches your role or industry is the height of B2B relevance.

Interactivity - the element attendees crave during pandemic times. This is what turns your event from an already-forgotten recording to a must-see live event. Once you have the relevance part sorted, then interactivity takes center stage. Meeting experts and peers tackling the same problems? Bring it on.

Even the vendors that put on smaller Zoom sessions - almost none of them took advantage of tech like Zoom breakout rooms, a perfect functionality to get like-minded folks talking. Instead, they keep 40-50 people captive in the same room, as we all slip into a stupor or start planning our next grocery delivery.

If you have relevance and interactivity sorted, entertainment takes care of itself. Ergo, most event planners spend money on the wrong things, e.g. writing a big check to Rick Astley to sing a live song (which sounds horrible anyhow on webcam mics/speakers) instead of investing in facilitation training so that their team is confident handling open/intense discussions in smaller group settings. 

Sage Intacct's summer online analyst gatherings

Let the community you've already built works its magic. A creative example: Sage Intacct's summer analyst gatherings. While most vendors postponed any group analyst gatherings, Sage Intacct decided to pull familiar faces together - even though they had no formal briefing agenda. They structured the events around on-site visits to wineries (properly socially distanced, of course). The attendees were sent wine samples to enjoy virtually while Sage Intacct analyst event ringleader, aka VP Corporate Marketing and Events Stefanie Maragna, brought the on-site footage via the winery owner and host.

I don't think the name Sage Intacct came up once during these chats; Powerpoint slides were harder to find than Sasquatch. But for the analysts, who are used to joking, snipping, and hobnobbing with each other on almost a weekly basis during conference season, this was a welcome chance to reconnect. Now, I will never be a wine connoisseur, good wine is pretty much wasted on me. But any talk with an expert about their profession is going to be interesting, and that includes vineyard owners:

Christine Hanna of Hanna Winery
(Christine Hanna of Hanna Winery fielding questions)

The charm of a vendor gathering without an agenda is hard to resist. Sage Intacct is having a real virtual analyst day soon; they've laid the groundwork for a nice day with plenty of goodwill and fun times from the summer.

This is definitely not about sending expensive gifts to attendees. If anything, that creates disclosure issues. But the use of physical props during online events is picking up, and it can be effective.

I could see adapting what Sage Intacct has done here. A vendor could pick an interesting customer, send out samples, and just have a gathering where that customer talks shop.

A vendor could do the same with a customer advisory board gathering. Or, they could do what Plex has done before on the ground, and mix analysts and customers together in the same session. So many interesting variations of interactive events have not been tried.

Look, virtual events are hard. I've put on my share of flawed online events myself. But why not take some chances? An imperfect event with aspirations for community is how we learn.

Virtual events have advantages as well as drawbacks. One huge advantage: the easy creation of online real estate. Breakout rooms don't have to be reserved days in advance. No one is fighting over one cramped cubicle on the show floor. So why not empower people to gather around interests as they see fit? Let's see if vendors get more creative this fall. For online B2B events, entertainment is just a happy byproduct of including people in a live format, rather than relegating them to passive content consumers. And you know what? There's still time - these fall events aren't set in stone yet. Let's breath some life into them.

This piece is part of my ongoing diginomica series on the art and pitfalls of virtual events. Updated Sat Sept. 5 with a few clarifications, and a bit of motivation.

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