The virtual event industry exploded during the pandemic. Like grocery delivery and home exercise equipment, sudden global lockdowns drove unprecedented need, and innovation, for pushing once in-person events online. But as lockdowns and restrictions eased, venues and businesses gradually returned to being able to meet together face to face. So the question is, are virtual events still a good investment for businesses? What’s the future of virtual events?
This is an important question due to the significant investment virtual events represent for businesses, both in time and money. To spend thousands of dollars and weeks, perhaps months, of work, only to achieve lackluster results, would be extremely disappointing.
As a virtual event strategist, of course I might be expected to paint a rosy picture and suggest that virtual events are the best possible investment for any business, so I decided to shake things up and approach friends and experts for their opinions. In a moment, you’ll hear from CMOs, entrepreneurs, PR professionals, and other event industry experts, all helping us to see the future of virtual events from their perspective.
That’s what we’re covering in today’s episode of The Virtual Event Strategist Podcast.
Virtual Events Are Here To Stay
Certainly, virtual events weren’t a new phenomena as a result of the pandemic, it was simply convenient to lean into the format for meetings, webinars, meetups and virtual events since travel and congregations of people become restricted. I’ve been hosting and participating in virtual events of one kind or another since 2012 and the days of Google+ Hangouts on Air!
And yet, when I’m working with SaaS brands who are thinking about hosting a virtual event of their own, they’re looking at investing significant amounts of budget and manpower to pull them off, so they’re justified in wondering about the future of the medium. The thing is, even after all concerns over COVID have passed, attendees are still going to want virtual options. In fact, a survey from Kaltura found that 84% of attendees want that safety net of a virtual option in case the event, their chosen travel means, or any other issues come to the fore and require a change in plans.
Plus, for many attendees, particularly those looking at events which would be out of the country for them, virtual events will remain the most effective option.
Phil Mershon, Director of Experience at Social Media Examiner (@Phil_Merson) agrees. He says, “Virtual events are here to stay. The pandemic taught us that certain types of education can happen much more cost-effectively using virtual technology. So when the education is information heavy and/or very individualized, a virtual experience saves lots of time and money. Virtual events have a lot to improve in terms of engagement and networking will never be the same as in-person events.” Phil added, “I don’t think all events should automatically be a hybrid as that can dilute one experience or the other.”
Engagement is certainly the key to the future of virtual events. Gone are the days when brands could deliver a boring, static webinar and expect to achieve positive results. The good news is, virtual events offer brands all kinds of fun session options, both in how they present themselves, and what they’re presenting!
“Virtual events are a great way to show off your product and services in a unique and interactive way. You can give attendees an immersive experience that allows them to explore everything you have to offer,” says Stephanie Liu, Director of Communications at Agorapulse (@HeyStephanie). And she goes on to mention, “Plus, virtual events can include interactive features like polls and surveys that let people engage with the content and learn more about your brand. And if you want to go the extra mile, you can also have live chats with experts who can answer attendee questions and give them more information about what you’re selling. The only time a brand shouldn’t invest in a virtual event is when they’re not able to provide an experience that is engaging and informative. If you’re not sure you can pull it off, then it’s probably best to steer clear. Otherwise, virtual events are a great way to reach new audiences and promote your product or service,” she said.
While I would agree with Phil that not all events should automatically be hybrid – a mix of both in-person and virtual – the implication is that some events should be hybrid. But which events? Should brands be considering hybrid, not just virtual, for their events?
Are Hybrid Events The New Normal?
Like most marketing questions, the answer is, it depends.
Certainly, many events where the organizers are currently building an in-person experience should be exploring and adding a virtual element. Particularly while there are still concerns stemming from the pandemic, on top of rising travel costs around the globe. It makes tremendous sense to cater to a wider audience, as well as have a built-in backup plan in the event there are local issues that require closure of a venue and a cancellation of in-person activities.
And thanks to the necessity of innovation these past two years, virtual event platforms today are incredibly more sophisticated and capable of replicating and empowering highly engaging, interactive, virtual experiences that augment and in some cases even surpass their in-person counterparts.
I recently caught up with Ekaterina Walter, Senior Director of Marketing at ZincFive (@Ekaterina) and she reported, “I just came back from the Cvent Connect event and hybrid events were a huge topic of discussion. People are starved for the face-to-face interaction; however, a hybrid model draws a lot bigger and more diverse audience and creates a richer discussion. Virtual events will become more and more interactive. As I spoke at the event last week which was also live-streamed, I witnessed the virtual audience being more engaged than the audience in the room. Attendees who were physically present told me they’d be watching sessions they missed on demand after the event and recommending those they enjoyed the most to their colleagues who were able to purchase a virtual-only pass. The technology had become more sophisticated to allow for engaging and meaningful virtual events due to COVID-19 as well over the past 2 years.”
“And we are not going back,” she added. “Hybrid events are the new normal.”
“Hybrid events are the new normal.”
In fact, the rise in virtual reality and augmented reality is leading to immersive experiences which, initially, one might assume are exclusively for virtual events. But Goldie Chan (@GoldieChan) argues that’s not the case. She said, “Brands should invest in the hybrid future of events with both online and offline components. As technology matures, we’ll see more interesting VR and AR applications to events as well but there’s no solid replacements for brands to build their audience engagement quite like in person communication and networking.”
So there’s a case to be made for in-person events to add a virtual component, and for brands interested in creating engaging virtual events to add in-person components, which means, either way, the hybrid model should be strongly considered by every event organizer.
The Future Of Virtual Events Lies In A New Value
But what’s the value in virtual medium other than convenience for attendees? Why would a brand, who perhaps isn’t targeting a global audience, consider virtual primarily?
First, as Dennis Yu, CEO of Blitzmetrics (@dennisyu) points out, “everything is a virtual event. Whether a full scale hybrid conference down to two people in a Twitter chat, it’s people getting together— building connections at scale or one on one. Anything outside of building relationships is just advertising.”
Yet while that’s doubtless true, the future of virtual events, and the value, goes far beyond the fact that everything is inherently virtual.
Brands today that put together a solid virtual event plan and utilize a sophisticated platform are able to leverage online events for marketing, lead generation, and customer discovery like never before.
As Sarah Evans, CEO of Sevans PR (@PRSarahEvans) points out, “Brands should absolutely invest in virtual events, but the caveat here, is the future of virtual events. Event industry 3.0 is here. Brands are no longer beholden to IRL only or virtual only, but a fluid and hybrid evolution. Virtual has evolved with new tools, platforms and resources (and more thorough data points that can greatly impact CX).”
She also mentioned, “It takes an entirely different strategy, execution and offering, but missing a virtual opportunity means missing out an entire piece of the marketing pie. The key is in identifying the value, where it lives and how content is delivered. Virtual events can benefit nuanced calls-to-action and also deliver more traction to hybrid events. Even as the world opens up and more in person events take place, a new value lies in the power of virtual.”
Thanks to today’s platforms and virtual event structure options, brands can learn detailed qualification information, as well as key interests and buying behavior. As Sarah mentioned, nuanced calls-to-action can be utilized which can empower sales teams!
A brand hosting a virtual event today can have a series of sessions on a variety of topics for attendees to choose from, and note which attendees attended and engaged with which sessions, speakers, sponsors, and other aspects of the event. They can tag which materials were downloaded and which on demand videos were viewed, and push all of that data into a CRM that automatically flows contacts and leads to SDRs based on user behavior.
Where once a virtual event might have simply provided a sales team with a CSV of names and email addresses, they can now funnel highly targeted and qualified prospects that have self-identified as facing specific challenges and being interested in specific solutions and information.
Yes, brands should investigate whether or not a hybrid approach with an in-person element to their event might be of value to their audience, but ultimately, it’s clear that virtual events will continue to be a strong strategy for brands to employ.
This is our tenth and final episode of season one of The Virtual Event Strategist Podcast. We’ve covered a tremendous amount of foundational concepts this season when it comes to thinking about your event strategically. If this was your first time tuning in, definitely go back to episodes one through four, in particular.
As we kick off season two in our next episode, the entire season will be devoted to marketing your next virtual event to create a truly Sold Out Summit. We’ll start by talking through how to build out your virtual event marketing plan and structure it so that it’s an effective tool for project management, and not just multiple pages of confused to do lists. And then throughout the season we’re going to do deep dives into video marketing, social media, email, influencer marketing, partnerships, content marketing, earned and paid media, audience marketing and UGC. And we’ll wrap the season with a full episode just on measurements and reporting so that you can identify which channels and tactics performed the best.
This is going to be a master class in how to market a virtual event and drive thousands of registrants into your online summit, so be sure to subscribe and tune in.
Talk to you soon.