It’s fair to say that COVID-19 has fueled a boom for the virtual events space. Unable to connect with customers and prospects in-person, businesses across the U.S. have instead turned to the power of virtual events to spread brand awareness and form meaningful relationships at a time when health concerns have made it almost impossible to do so.
It’s been a benchmark year for the industry, and the likelihood is that in 2021, companies in the space will see revenues grow even further. In fact brands like Bizzabo and Hopin, both platforms that help organizers plan and run virtual conferences, already raised more than $260 million between them this year, with Hopin increasing its valuation to more than $2 billion.
However, ten months into this pandemic, it’s safe to say that we’ve hit peak virtual events fatigue. Perhaps compounded by the ‘Zoom fatigue’ that has left many yearning for the day when they return to the office, marketers have struggled to virtually engage audiences that already spend the majority of their day in front of their screens.
It has been a pain point for an industry that has offered tremendous benefits, and one that needs to be swiftly addressed as brands continue to place virtual events at the top of their marketing stack. With that said, here are three ways we expect businesses will get the most out of their virtual events in 2021.
Creating Communities to Address the Engagement Puzzle
Figuring out how to engage a remote audience has been a significant challenge and one that has required a different set of knowledge and skills than organizing an in-person event. Recent research published in The Virtual Event Tech Guide, for instance, uncovered that 31% of event professionals cite engagement as their biggest challenge as they pivot to virtual, more than any other challenge. Meanwhile, the same survey also found that 50% of event planners say that their biggest frustration when sourcing virtual event tech is its inability to match live engagement.
But as brands and marketers continue to familiarize themselves with the logistics of virtual event planning, they’re deploying more innovative solutions that aim to seize their audience’s full attention. For example, while we’ve seen many successfully launch applications that allow participants to ask questions and give feedback, other brands like Pinterest have tested the effectiveness of dedicated ‘communities’ at driving engagement.
Dublin Tech Summit, for instance, who’ve attracted thousands to the Irish capital since its launch in 2017, announced that its 2021 conference would go virtual under the domain name dublintechsummit.tech. They too are offering attendees multiple engagement options that allow them to meet C-Suite executives and investors in more community-based settings.
There’s no denying that marketers in every industry are fighting through the noise to attract attention to their virtual events. But without the physical constraints of having to attend in-person, how they promise to use digital channels to build communities, drive participation, and elicit engagement is quickly becoming the key to success. Therefore in 2021, we expect organizers to double down on these avenues and leverage more event-specific online communities that work within existing virtual event platforms to take the online experience to the next level.
Producing Content That’s Valuable — Not Just Convenient
All content has a common goal: to educate its consumer and enhance their overall customer experience. But according to Craig Borowski, former Gartner analyst and current managing editor at Motley Fool’s The Blueprint, many companies clumsily add digital components to customer journeys that don’t directly benefit the customer or are superfluous to the company’s value proposition. “‘Digital’ and ‘online’ are not synonymous with convenient”, he wrote in a 2015 edition of the Harvard Business Review.
Although written five years ago, the piece could not be more relevant today. It’s fair to say that every industry has undergone a significant digital transformation. But as Borowski goes on to say, the digital experiences we create should be consistent with people’s offline experiences and make their lives better, not just more convenient for the brand.
So amidst the stresses of transitioning from in-person to virtual events, how do marketers ensure they’re delivering valuable content that informs and delights? The Content Marketing Institute’s Robert Rose says it’s about asking the right questions. Notably, how digital content can be reused, repackaged, or aggregated throughout the course of the event to create a distinct digital experience.
With the renowned CES event moving to a virtual event in early 2021, how it has executed its content delivery will set a precedent for brands and marketers planning online offerings in the next year. Typically attracting upwards of 170K people to tight Las Vegas convention halls, its organizers have expanded its global audience with a new and highly personalized immersive experience that included live streamed content and virtual experiences.
Delivering Experiences That Hold Up Post-Pandemic
While most brands have promised to bring back in-person events when the time allows, it’s likely that going forward, all conferences will incorporate at least some virtual elements. As the preference to avoid large gatherings becomes a permanent side-effect of COVID-19 for many, it’s possible that in-person events will become smaller by design to allow for more intimate and social distancing-friendly experiences.
But, this hybrid approach also enables brands to reach larger audiences overall. And of course, there’s the fact that budgets for in-person marketing events of this size might be tight for the foreseeable future as businesses rebound from the pandemic, and companies become more stringent on which conferences they send their employees to. (Interestingly, in understanding the impact that this pandemic has had on startups in particular, Startup Grind’s (startupgrind.tech) global conference has moved online with a ‘choose-what-you-pay’ model that makes it more accessible for startups worldwide than ever before.) All these factors have led to 51% of marketing professionals saying that they expect virtual events to stick around post-pandemic.
The good news is that there’s lessons to be learned from another booming period in time for digitization — the early 2000s. As digital media bloomed, companies were forced into new digital business models, a transition similar to the one brands are undergoing today. However, this move came without a meaningful digital strategy for many corporations, resulting in a sentiment that digital real estate was cheap and subpar.
While it’s highly unlikely that this will happen in the virtual events space, it’s a lesson for marketers to have a tested strategy in place that prioritizes value. Value stems from multiple sources including the caliber of speakers, the ability to connect with peers, and of course the quality of the content being presented. But it’s fair to say that no matter the format, whether it be in-person or online, these are key for brands aiming to deliver virtual experiences with long-lasting values.
Upleveling Virtual Events To Match In-Person Experiences
The truth is, virtually attending an event or a conference is not the same as virtually engaging with it. The same goes for today’s students, for instance, who may have makeshift workspaces set up in their bedrooms to attend virtual school. But are they virtually learning?
These are significant questions that need to be asked by every brand before they decide to spend money on hosting a virtual event, and every attendee before they invest not only the cost of a ticket but their time, too. Because as we’ve already discussed, many changes brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic are set to be long-lasting, and that includes virtual events as a key marketing tool. For them to achieve their goals, however, they must also achieve high levels of immersion through community-based engagement, valuable content, and durable experiences.
Also Read: Top Skills that Marketers Need in 2021