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Will your upcoming virtual event be mediocre - or memorable?

Jon Reed Profile picture for user jreed March 27, 2020
Turning webinars into cant-miss events is one thing. But what about more elaborate virtual events - can it be done?


Last week, I revived an old stump speech: Your virtual events are legacy - and so are your webinars. If we don't save virtual events from themselves, we'll bore a new generation of attendees into home quarantine naps and email checks.

Since then, I've attended more stale virtual events. Too many vendors are posting canned presentations in a failed attempt to generate faux hashtag excitement. But: an email-harvesting library of branded recordings is not a virtual event.

This online event failure is nothing new - it's just that the stakes are suddenly so much higher. There's always been a business case for bold, interactive online events. But you must inject them with live immediacy. As I concluded:

Doing a better webinar is a cultural evolution, typically with marketing kicking and screaming until the light bulb goes off, but it can absolutely be done.

Virtual event tech is good enough - the problem is us

No more tech excuses. The tech is (mostly) good enough now. It's not always perfect, but it's plenty good for interactive learning. It's good enough to spark that connection from your home bunker. As I wrote after an online Zoom gathering of the Enterprise Irregulars:

To be fair, my last piece was really about webinars. A large-scale virtual event is a different animal. Once you consider multiple breakout tracks, online network sessions, and maybe even an online exhibit hall, now you're a long way from a webinar. So is the tech good enough for an effective virtual event? I believe it is, but since I've never been to a highly effective virtual event at scale, I'm ready to test it out.

There is intriguing middle ground as well. On the one side, you have the classic (stale) webinar, where 50 - 300 people sign up to listen to a speaker blast through branded slides, perhaps fielding token questions as time expires. On the other end of the continuum is a full-scale virtual event, using virtual event software. This would probably take the place of your major yearly on-the-ground event. Even the virtual replacement might take months in the planning.

Interactivity at scale - a Zoom example

Most organizations aren't ready to dive into that full-scale approach yet. And: I'd advise you don't - not until you get more comfortable with live online formats. Turning webinars into jugular events is a good start. Lately, I've seen middle ground between the two - both utilized Zoom (with video and interactive chat) to great effect.

My diginomica compadre Derek du Preez got some great content out of TICTec 2020 this way (see his piece: Coronavirus is a wake-up call that humanity's needs are not actually at the centre of global systems). When Derek couldn't stop raving about the event, I asked him why having several hundred folks on a Zoom session worked so well. He wrote:

TICTeC worked well as a virtual conference because you felt like everyone involved was 'in the room' and participating. It was the closest I've come to having an online event 'feel' like a real life event. I find pre-recorded sessions stale and too passive.

Bingo. He added:

Whereas, TICTeC had around 300 people all on the same Zoom call, an active discussion happening whilst people were presenting (using the chat features), as well as the ability for people to ask questions using (and vote for their favourite questions in real time).

Granted, your content still has to rock:

Zoom calls are also pre-recorded and shareable afterwards, which is helpful. The hosts also managed 'fireside chats' with guests on the call, which worked surprisingly well. However, the main thing to remember is that there is one rule for events - both IRL and online - and that's good content. No fancy virtual or physical event will fix bad content.

Derek told me everyone on the Zoom call was muted but the presenters. But there was a big win here that so many vendors are terrified of. They let the chat rip, and be an entity of engagement unto itself - without any ego if those in the text chat "talked" over the presenters.

You could do a whole event with multiple tracks, using different Zoom channels for topical breakouts, and probably even free-for-all "happy hours," perhaps organized around topics of interest. So that gets you pretty far - albeit with some guts, and a genuine grasp of why building community around your product is powerful, and trumps your need to issue branded messages on pre-approved slides. And no, Zoom isn't the only product that would work here. Anything with easy video and chat streams would do.

Full-scale virtual events - is the software ready for prime time?

But what if you want to take it further - and do a closer approximation of a real trade show? Diginomica contributor Kurt Marko took that topic up in Will Coronavirus mark a tipping point for virtual events? Marko shared screens from a couple of products, though his conclusion wasn't optimistic:

The few vendors addressing the diverse requirements of virtual events and conferences show that the market and available products are quite immature, with clunky UIs, muddled use cases and marketing messages and opaque pricing models.

However, Marko thinks that could change quickly now:

Should the coronavirus turmoil stoke customer demand, the product situation would rapidly improve as customer and VC money pours into the market, thereby attracting innovative developers and eventually, the larger firms that dominate video conference services as they look for technology and talent via acquisition.

I can't speak to personal experience with these tools yet, but I can say with certainty that Hopin founder Johnny Boufarhat would take issue with Marko's view (Marko did not review Hopin in his piece). Hopin, which bills itself as an "online event platform," contacted me with bold talk on what they can do:

Using Hopin, event organisers can organise events for as many as 100,000 participants and can set up or move their events online with minimal effort. Hopin can manage as much or as little as the customer needs them to, from delegate lists to registrations, ticket sales and more.

As for a diverse feature set resembling a physical show, Hopin says that have all that:

Companies, organisations and charities are using Hopin to take physical events online and arrange all the same features attendees would get from a physical event – face-to-face, one-on-one networking, group breakout sessions, main stages, backstage, expos, ticket registrations, recordings, multi-level chat, analytics, and more.

My take

I can't validate how effective Hopin's events are, but I'm eager to attend one and report back. Although: Derek du Preez's warning about content quality always looms. As does my concern that the tools - no matter how good - are an enabler. They aren't a substitute for the culture change most event/marketing teams must go through. Otherwise they'll just populate a virtual event space with a bunch of yawn-inducing webinars, and brand-preening "theaters."

I had back-and-forth with Boufarhat on what makes a memorable virtual event. I'll share that another time, but he nailed it with this comment:

For an online event to replicate an offline event, there needs to be a way to meet new people serendipitously, like discussions in the hallway.

That "serendipitous encounter" is the hardest thing to replicate online. And it might be the biggest difference between a true virtual event and a single-track webinar. No matter how great that Zoom session is, it's not going to facilitate one-on-one trade show serendipity. I'll never forget in 2007, running into a new client at a time when I would not have survived another year in business without one. And it all started with a hallway conversation. If we can approximate those, surrounded by interactive sessions, then we blow the roof off any virtual event I've attended.

Hubspot published a piece called How to run a successful virtual event. If you can put up with Hubspot's interruption sign up annoyances, it's a good article with real-world examples, including Hopin. Hubspot's piece also mentioned a mobile event app I have used, and seen at some scale: Whova. It hadn't occurred to me to use Whova for a virtual event, but Hubspot says it's effective: 

Event organizers can use Whova to help make virtual events highly interactive, fun, and productive before, during, and after the event. The tool directly integrates with live streaming and video hosting tools such as Zoom, Google Hangout, YouTube, Vimeo, etc. It also provides live Q&A, attendee networking, a discussion board, meeting-matches, a virtual exhibitor hall, and even virtual meet-ups.

If I were planning a virtual event, I might seriously look into a Zoom-Whova combo, as Whova seems to bring most of the missing event elements from Zoom into the mix. More from Hubspot:

Many organizers provide access to the Whova app prior to their events to let attendees virtually socialize and discuss various topics, one-on-one or in virtual groups, making everyone feel more connected by the time the event comes around.

I have no financial ties to Whova, but I happen to think their mobile event app is vastly superior, so this is intriguing (see: Most event apps are stuck in legacy mode, but Whova isn't ).

When diginomica talks to vendors about their virtual events, I encourage them to test options widely; I'm not at a point where I would shortlist a few. It all starts with your event goals. But - if you want to build community momentum around buyers and subject matter experts, even in these corona-conditions, it absolutely can be done. It just requires us to leave our online content comfort zone, in favor of bolder ventures.

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