Virtual event networking: overcoming the limitations of an intermediated experience

50% of producers surveyed said their top frustration with virtual events was matching the level of engagement provided by in-person events.

Creating rewarding and scalable networking opportunities that serve all constituencies is the trickiest aspect of executing events online. It’s also been the least satisfying aspect for attendees, exhibitors and other event participants.

That doesn’t excuse event producers, whether for-profit trade show organizers or companies running virtual events to generate business or retain customers, from cracking the code of successful virtual networking.

The “event” analogy fails… again

Part one of this series concludes that the “experience (of in-person and virtual events) is so different, it’s unfortunate the ‘event’ analogy and terminology was adopted to describe virtual events at all.” Networking is another example of that #fail.

“Networking” in the physical world means different things to different event participants: attendee to attendee, exhibitor to attendee, speaker to attendee, exhibitor to exhibitor, press to exhibitor, etc.

For exhibitors, networking typically means meeting potential prospects, business partners, press/analysts and investors. Exhibitors often use “engagement”, “interaction” and “networking” interchangeably to describe these activities. We’ll use “networking” as a blanket term for activities that connect exhibitors with potential buyers.

Meanwhile, attendee expectations of “networking” may be vastly different, depending on the type of event they are attending. The motivation for attending trade shows may be principally commercial, i.e. attendees go to buy things for their stores and businesses. The commercial opportunities are front and center, while training and networking play supporting roles.

Conferences, on the other hand, are dominated by educational sessions and keynotes. Commercial activities are often limited to cocktail hours, coffee breaks, and meals. Conference attendees may define networking as meeting like-minded professionals during meals or after-hours activities, being able to ask questions of presenters during/after sessions or arranged meetings via birds of a feather tables, speed networking or meeting apps like Braindate or Brella.

With the diversity and potential mismatch of exhibitor/attendee expectations, it is not surprising that producers of online events have struggled to fulfill the expectations of networking. Fifty percent of producers surveyed said their top frustration with virtual events was matching the level of engagement provided by in-person events.

In sourcing virtual event tech for your event, what are your biggest frustrations?

It’s just not like being there

The rewards of attending an in-person event have kept participation high because physically being with others with similar interests and sharing a common experience, when properly orchestrated by the event producer, is satisfying. (Interested in learning more about the psychology of events? I suggest The Power of Moments: Why Certain Experiences Have Extraordinary Impact by Chip and Dan Heath.)

Unfortunately, the tactile pleasures of in-person gatherings are absent in virtual environments. For each person, the experience is mediated by the device they’re accessing the event on, the software they’re using and the bandwidth they have.

In addition, the environments they chose for viewing — coffee shops, living rooms, offices or conference rooms — influence the experience greatly and are beyond the control of the organizer.

Overcoming the mediated nature of virtual events is not possible, at least today. Organizers have no choice but to work within the capabilities of the medium and do their best to overcome the limitations.

Making the Exhibitor-Attendee Connection

Like other lead generation tactics, connecting with virtual event attendees is often based on an exchange of value. Exhibitors offer something of value to attendees in exchange for their attention and agreement to share their personal information.

Valuable content is the most commonly used tactic to get attention. Compelling and successfully promoted sessions are the typical drivers of attendance.

Once an attendee accesses a presentation, the opportunities to engage begin to unfold: real-time chat and Q&A, book a demo, ask a question and polling are just a few of the in-screen presentation connections that can be accomplished.

Supplemental experiences can be promoted while you have the attendee’s attention, for example: small-group video chats, one-on-one meetings with speakers and invitations to visit a virtual booth.

Offering incentives (a version of gamification) is another way to encourage attendee engagement and maintain attention.  Gift cards, goodie packages and food/drink/swag giveaways are all tactics exhibitors are using to achieve these goals. Registration data, whether provided pre-event or used post-event to invite attendees to a supplemental activity, is key to ensuring success of these incentives.

Allocating resources to making connections

Exhibitors need to be mindful of whether these opportunities to network are “live” or asynchronous and plan resources accordingly.

If the activity is truly live, as is the case with Q&A, group chat and virtual booths, those apps can’t be left unattended during “show hours”;  staff must be present and able to respond to requests from all attendees who might want to engage. Asynchronous alternatives must be available when staff isn’t available to respond.

Asynchronous engagement applications don’t require 24/7 staffing but are integral to the virtual event experience. Since space and time don’t apply to virtual events (at least not to on-demand presentations), exhibitors need to be able to communicate with prospects whenever they choose to engage.

Enabling access to applications typically available on the exhibitor’s web site — “request a demo”, contact us or even chatbots — are effective ways to be responsive in an on-demand environment.

Regardless of how you connect, be mindful of attendees’ willingness to engage: Just because someone has given permission to be contacted, participated in a virtual session, attended a networking event or visited a virtual booth does not mean that they are a buyer. As in the physical world, they should be qualified before they are sold to.

Up next: the great platform-vs.-stack debate

Making connections in the virtual world is clearly going to be the issue that producers and exhibitors struggle to overcome in the coming months and years. Have anything to add to the  thoughts I’ve shared above? Give me a piece of your mind at chris[at]thirddoormedia.com.

In the next installment of this series, I’ll be discussing the pros and cons of renting a platform versus assembling your own stack for virtual events, together my colleague Marc Sirkin who’s taken on that task here at Third Door Media. I look forward to continuing this journey together.

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