Bringing Virtual Events into the Mainstream

It seems like more and more marketers are looking into virtual and hybrid events. With tight event budgets and opportunity to scale reach online, virtual events can look attractive. Craig Rosenberg from the Focus Expert Network posted a question last week, “What are/will be the biggest impediments to the Virtual Event market reaching its potential?”

I thought I’d flip the question and ponder what we would need to do to bring virtual and hybrid events into the mainstream.

Simplify the user experience

With so many distractions online and offline pulling for your audience’s attention we need to make it easy for users to navigate the user experience.

  • Understand your customer. What are their engagement styles online? Would they prefer immersive 3-D experiences or more simplified interfaces? Are they likely to sit at their PC to consume the content or would they prefer to download it and consume it on the go?
  • Design for digital. The optimal digital user experience is very different than what you’d have at an in-person event. See my previous post “Why must virtual events look like in-person events.”
  • Minimize the number of clicks the user needs to get to the core value from the site. See this response from Cece Salomon-Lee from the impediments question.
  • Simplify user registration – ask the least amount of information you can get away with. The more questions you ask the higher the barrier to entry becomes. Consider providing some resources for “free” to give users value before they register for higher valued resources.

Digital marketing skills are critical in virtual event space

Many of the people I meet in the virtual event space come from in-person event marketing. The model they bring to this digital channel still has many of the in-person metaphors – terminology I hear: conference room, booths, backpacks, theaters, etc. How well do these metaphors relate to our digital customers and how they want to engage online?
  • For an event organizer, virtual events are a major paradigm shift. Engagement in the digital world is very different – user experiences are different, ROI is different, understanding the nuances and complexity of social media versus attendee interactions are worlds apart, etc.
  • For many digital marketers, virtual events are an evolution of what they’ve been doing. They’ve been doing webcasts, digital video, online forums and online chats for years.
  • Combine these together and scale it up for a virtual event and you’re not too far from where you want to be. Add someone with social media expertise and you help enhance the user interactions within and outside the event.Of course this is an exaggeration but if we’re going to put event organizers in the lead they need to make that leap to understand digital. Digital marketers will need to learn new ways to integrate in-person experiences with digital experiences and break down the silos. Ideally, you’ll have a team of in-person, digital and social marketing experts creating your virtual event.

Make it simple to create virtual and hybrid events

I see virtual events as a spectrum – from very simple, to moderately complex to highly complex.
  • A webcast with a chat could be considered a virtual event. What if you used that same webcast software with a video camera at your in-person event – now you have a simple hybrid event. With a little time and thought you can easily create a low-cost in-house solution.
  • As you build out bigger events with multiple tracks and sponsors, then you’ll need to consider the virtual event vendors. When you’re dealing with multiple of video streams the complexity increases significantly and having a good vendor to help you manage the infrastructure is key. The vendors need to provide greater flexibility of services up and down the virtual event spectrum.
  • The digital space is constantly evolving and will require the virtual event manager to stay on top of those changes – Flash, HTML5, video compression & formats, social media, mobile apps vs. web, location based services, augmented reality, telepresence, etc.

Add value to the company

I think virtual and hybrid events are in a unique position to bring together the various marketing channels into a single resource. Integration can include: in-person events, digital marketing, traditional marketing, social media, community building, customer satisfaction, PR, sales, partner channel, etc. Think of the potential when we bring these capabilities together in one place and the kind of synergies that are created by this convergence.
  • You’ll need to define what the ROI is for virtual events. It’s not the same as it is for our traditional channels and can be complex, much like the struggle to define the ROI for social media. Dennis Shiao provides a good explanation for defining virtual event ROI.
  • Do we need a new model? ROI is a financial model based on what you get for your investment. For social media and virtual events there’s greater value generated through engagement that is difficult to quantify using traditional financial models. What is the potential lifetime value for the customer that you’re nurturing through a more sustained engagement model. Perpetual virtual events can help develop a community that can transcend traditional sales models.

Capture and hold your online audience’s attention

Virtual events are bucking a trend for shorter content. Lengths for online videos have gone from 60-minute webcasts 10-yrs ago to 2-5 minute videos in this world filled with distractions.
  • Content is still king. Users will stay tuned in as long as the content is valuable to them. As soon as it’s not relevant you’ll lose them.
  • Find ways to interact with the online audiences. One of the reasons I like using webcast software on low-end solutions is they have built-in tools to engage your online audience that you have to add separately if you’re streaming video – polling, collaborative whiteboards, remote panel discussions, chats, etc. If the attendee is going to be distracted during an online event, why not distract them with what I want them to be distracted with.
  • It’s a skill for a presenter to integrate and engage the online audience during a hybrid event. Acknowledging both audiences is important. Make sure proctors are running online questions to the front of the room and identifying the source. It’s so cool to read a tweet and then see it mentioned by the presenter – it’s a victory for all of us online.
  • We’ll evolve the tools we use to engage our audiences during virtual events. Tools like augmented reality and location based services may be fun to play with now but we may find ways that it can provide real value for our digital interaction. Right now, most of our events still tend to be one-way broadcasts with chats but with webcams and mobile devices the event can become more collaborative by empowering the voice of the community.

    I don’t think we’re too far away, but we still need some foundational shifts in the virtual event industry before it becomes a regular marketing channel for most companies. What else do you think will need to happen before virtual events become mainstream? Thoughts?

    scott.lum@hypergridbusiness.com'

    Scott Lum

    Scott Lum is a disruptive digital marketer and new media junkie. He manages the digital event program for Microsoft, creating and promoting webcasts, audio podcasts, videos and hands-on virtual labs for technical audiences. He's also working with the convergence of in-person and digital events with social media. The views presented are mine alone and do not necessarily reflect those of my employer.

    • Scott —

      I totally agree. Even one extra click can make people decide that it's not worth the effort of bothering with something. We all want to think that our content is compelling enough for people to jump through all the hoops, but realistically, there's a lot of other demands on their time.

      — Maria