Virtual Events: What We’ve Learned

Virtual events are different; may not be “events” at all

Author’s note: This is the first of a series of articles for producers of virtual events and those considering participating as an exhibitor/sponsor in a media company’s virtual event.

The number of organizations producing virtual events exploded as COVID-19 spread. Innovation has been rapid. Results have been mixed.

After producing two large virtual events for the martech and search marketing communities, with another martech event planned for this fall, we’re beginning to answer some questions about the characteristics and capabilities of the medium and its ability to satisfy the needs of attendees and exhibitors/sponsors.

What IS a “virtual event”?

Long before COVID, marketing professionals attended live and recorded presentations online for professional development. Third Door Media has produced more than 400 online presentations, often called webinars or webcasts, since 2007. In that time, more than 100,000 individuals, all of them marketers, viewed those presentations in exchange for allowing sponsors to contact them about solutions and services.

The definition of “virtual events” is evolving rapidly. For our purposes, we’ve defined them as collections of live and/or recorded presentations, typically organized by topic or subject. Content may be available only live, but more often is available for live viewing and later for viewing on-demand. Virtual events are typically gated, requiring attendees to either pay for access or provide their personal information in lieu of payment.

COVID accelerates virtual event development

No vaccine.
 69%: Not going in person.COVID accelerated the pace of virtual event development as prospective attendees sought alternative professional development opportunities and ways to stay connected with their professional community. Solutions providers, precluded from participating in live events, sought alternative ways to identify prospects.

Interest in virtual events is likely to remain high, as the timeline for a return to in-person events remains uncertain. Marketers are reluctant to attend large gatherings. Nearly 70% said they won’t attend an in-person event through the first half of 2021, according to MarTech Today’s Event Participation Index, which measures marketers’ attitudes toward attending in-person and virtual events.

MarTech vendors are equally disinclined. Many have imposed travel bans on their employees and cancelled their own events, most notably SalesForce.com, which cancelled its 2020 edition of Dreamforce.

Meanwhile, virtual event participation — and satisfaction with them — is high. Eighty-one percent of marketers responding to the Event Participation Index survey said they attended a virtual event in the last three months, and three-quarters said they were satisfied with the experience.

Most attended virtual events, with 3/4 satisfied with the experience.

It is encouraging that 3-in-4 marketers are satisfied with the virtual event experience. Factors contributing to the high degree of satisfaction include:

  • Risk of infection is not a concern
  • Most virtual events are free or relatively inexpensive, compared to in-person events, to attend
  • Travel — and the associated expense and investment in time — is not required
  • For the most part, participants can engage with virtual event content at their own pace, provided live sessions are available on-demand (in our experience,approximately 70% of sessions are viewed live)

While 100% satisfaction will remain an aspiration, there’s room for improvement rooted in the disconnect between what the medium is able to deliver and what attendees expect.

Virtual events are NOT physical events

Virtual events provide an experience that’s different from physical events — for attendees and exhibitors/sponsors alike. The experience is so different, it’s unfortunate the “event” analogy and terminology was adopted to describe virtual events at all.

For attendees, perhaps no online experience can replicate the anticipation of a packed ballroom anticipating an inspirational keynote, the electricity of an expo hall humming with engagement, or a chance meeting with a like-minded peer, or reconnecting with colleagues or friends.

For exhibitors/sponsors and speakers, the tactile satisfaction of being face-to-face with customers has not translated well.

Attempts to replicate the expo hall experience for exhibitors have fallen particularly flat. The Second Life-like representations of virtual booths don’t effectively connect buyers and sellers. Meaningful engagements haven’t occurred in volume adequate to justify creating and staffing a virtual booth.

Virtual events excel at identifying prospects and bestowing thought leadership

Virtual events are highly effective for driving large numbers of leads and enabling exhibitors/sponsors to demonstrate authority and thought leadership. If you’re a disciple of the marketing funnel analogy, virtual events are more top-of-funnel activities than in-person events.

Based on our experience, virtual events are capable of attracting many more registrants and participants than their physical counterparts. The virtual editions of MarTech (Discover MarTech, held in April) and Search Marketing Expo – SMX (SMX Next, held in June) attracted approximately 9,000 and 13,500 registrants, respectively; more than two times the number of participants attended compared to their real-world counterparts. These levels of participation enabled delivery of guaranteed lead goals within the first week of the event and in numbers equivalent to the most aggressive booth teams at physical events.

The composition of the audiences — company size, purchase authority and percentage of participants who are in-market — were similar.

Thought leadership opportunities are unlimited, since the time and space limitations of physical events don’t apply; the amount of inventory and the time available to present it depend on the amount of content there is to present. The attention of the audience is the only aspect of a virtual event that is finite.

We’re just getting started…

In future installments of this series, we’ll discuss what “networking” means in the context of virtual events, share thoughts on virtual event platforms and “stacks”, and discuss what the future might hold for this rapidly-evolving medium.

In the meantime, share your comments on this piece or anything virtual-event related with me at chris[at]thirddoormedia.com. I look forward to continuing this journey together.

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