October 2, 2020
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We Need to Reimagine the Virtual Event Experience

It goes without saying, but the events industry has been forced to rethink everything about their businesses. Trying to predict when things might return to normal is a fool’s errand, but I would be surprised if the industry can recover for much of 2021.

Although virtual events have become the go-to approach for everyone, I find many events are looking at their live strategy and taking the exact same structure, but making it virtual.

After this many months, event organizers need to start getting more creative. To do that, I think we need to come to terms with a few realities and think about what our audiences are going through.

First things first…

People are home virtually nonstop. While this is going on, there are more subscription video content than there has ever been before. I’ve given up trying to figure out what I am missing because there just seems to be so much.

At the same time, people are working more than they ever have before. I was having a conversation with a colleague recently and said, “does it feel like we just work a whole lot more than we used to?” The answer was yes.

We’re dealing with more competition for people’s attention at the same time people are feeling more burnt out.

Compare that to what going to an event was like. People made a decision to remove themselves from all distraction, travel somewhere, stay in a hotel and attend your event. The event was the center of attention.

That might explain why the event industry felt so underwhelming. Average convention centers, average food, average content… it was all just very average.

If we want a healthy virtual events business, when people are already burnt out and we are competing with more content than ever before, we need to get creative. More importantly, we need to recognize that the events business as we know it—at least until Covid is over—is not going to work.

Panels are dead; bring the entertainment

First things first…

Getting four people on camera to talk about something is not exciting anymore. Maybe when people had nothing to distract them it was fine, but now, it’s just not an acceptable format.

It’s boring. It’s slow. But when it’s easy to open up your email or watch something else entirely, we need to find ways to keep people more engaged with the content.

That’s why we need to shift the type of content we create to punchier segments where the moderator is more involved in guiding the conversation.

Think about good broadcast television you’ve watched… The anchor has a personality and is able to get a good dialogue going with the the speaker. They’re also a little pushy.

The key here is that we’re not only trying to deliver high quality information, but also entertain people. Therefore, we want there to be a good back and forth between the anchor and the speaker. That’s fun to watch.

Ultimately, what you should be asking yourself is: will this content inform people and entertain them? Additionally, will it hold people’s attention long enough to keep them from doing something else?

If the answer is yes, you’re onto something. If it’s no, rethink it.

[As an aside: if you want to hear how FreightWaves did their virtual event, listen to my interview with Craig Fuller, founder and CEO. It was a great discussion.]

Quality now matters

When everything is live, we can get away with mediocre. So long as we have a clean convention center or hotel, decent food and space for people to talk, attendees will put up with a lot.

With a virtual event, I don’t think people are as forgiving. If the video cuts or the audio is not synced, I believe people are going to get frustrated. This is a change in narrative from when I wrote about events last spring.

One of the wonderful benefits of the virtual event is that very little actually needs to be live, which should make it easier to create a great product. Doing video is hard. Doing live video is so much harder for a marginal gain. And yet, many of the virtual events I’ve seen still try to make everything live.

There’s no reason to.

Instead, tape all of your content ahead of time. The viewer won’t really know the difference other than to know that the quality is higher. Here’s what you gain…

First, when you’re not broadcasting over the internet, you don’t have to worry about the speaker’s WiFi cutting in and out. Instead, they can record their video locally and send it to you afterward. This ensures that the video doesn’t go blurry or cut out.

I do this with my podcast using a program called Zencastr. Essentially, the interview takes place over the internet so that we can each hear each other, but Zencastr records the audio locally. I had one guest whose audio cut out for 15 seconds three separate times. I panicked. But when I went into post production, it sounded perfect. Zencastr is beta testing a similar feature for video, but I imagine there are other services out there.

Second, you have time to edit the footage and create a better quality product with it. Whether that’s lower thirds and cool chyrons or zooming in on one person over the other, this gives you the chance to produce a better experience.

If I had to rank the order of quality importance, audio would come before video. Some people won’t even watch the video; they’ll just listen to it. So, it’s important to push the audio quality. I think too many people are still relying on low quality microphones or, even worse, just using their built-in laptop microphones.

Depending on your budget, you could go so far as to send a kit to each of your speakers (this could be a sponsor opportunity). The kit would include an external webcam, an external headset and microphone, and a ring light. My guess is each kit would cost $250-$300, but it would make a world of difference to the quality of the video and audio. I’ve never used this product, but this all-in-one looks interesting.

Suffice it to say, by distributing pre-recorded content, you’re ensuring that you’re not giving your audience an inferior product.

Networking needs a reimagining

If the content needs to be different, so does the networking. This is particularly hard to achieve because the event platforms are just not that great yet.

We need to come up with a way for people to meet other people. More importantly, we need to take a hands on approach to this because it could be the difference between your attendees finding value from the event and not.

The idea I’ve been working with is as follows…

When an attendee registers for the event, prompt them to select whether they want to meet other people or not. In that prompt, give them a few predefined options to describe what topics they are looking to discuss, and have them select some times.

Once you’ve reached a certain threshold of registered attendees, start organizing the groups of people by discussion topics.

From here, you can take a lo-fi or hi-fi approach. The lo-fi approach would be to simply email the two participants and say, “hey, you two have been matched to meet, here’s a Zoom link to do so.” The hi-fi approach would be to create a simple site where attendees can log in, see their matched attendees and then schedule when they want to meet.

Unlike at a real event where networking is serendipitous, at virtual events, the organizer needs to take a more hands on approach. This can get tricky, of course, when you’re talking about tens of thousands of attendees. That’s why I am curious to see what sorts of products come out from the likes of the virtual event platforms.

The business model has to change

I can remember having to get manager approval to fork over $1,499 on a ticket to attend an event. But since it was one of the few ways a professional could gain knowledge and/or meet other people in the industry, it was perceived to be a must.

That perception no longer exists. Therefore, we need to reinvent the business model. I believe that starts by accepting that virtual events are no longer paid ticket events. There are, of course, exceptions to this rule—if you’re incredibly niche, for example—but by and large, I see many of the events we host as free events.

That doesn’t mean you can’t earn money from the attendees. It should just be done in an indirect way.

We’re starting to see publishers make their events exclusive to members and subscribers. This offers two benefits. First, if someone wants to attend, they are subscribing to a more holistic relationship with your brand. Getting people to pay for a ticket every time adds resistance. Second, it’s a great way to reduce churn. People may have signed up for one thing, but by adding events on top of it, it could keep them hooked to the subscription.

You can quantify the event’s impact on churn by analyzing two cohorts of subscriber: those that did attend an event and those that didn’t. If the churn is lower for that attended an event, you can indirectly attribute the saved revenue to the event.

In other words, events become a marketing and retention tool for your subscription product rather than a direct driver of new revenue.

That doesn’t mean, of course, that there is no new money coming into the virtual event. The focus just needs to be on generating sponsor revenue.

At this point, sponsors are getting more comfortable with the notion of virtual events. They understand that virtual booths are really not a thing. Instead, these events need to be treated as an opportunity to introduce your brand to far more people than would see you at a real event. That means one thing: commercials.

This goes back to TV once again. Between segments, there are always a few commercials that take place—anywhere from 30-60 seconds. This should be no different. When a series of talks are over, cut to commercial break, run a few ads and then return to the show.

There’s also an opportunity here for the publisher to become even more consultative and helpful to the sponsor. As part of their spend, create the advertisement for them. Obviously you’d need to figure out what the right price point is for this, but it’d be a good opportunity to ensure a certain quality to the advertisement.

Sum it up…

Events have changed. Even when we’re allowed to do in-person ones, I think we’re going to see more of these virtual events sticking around.

But it’s important to understand that the style of event has to change. Long, boring panels won’t cut it anymore. We need to both inform and entertain and punchier, TV-like content can help do that.

Additionally, we need to provide some opportunity for networking. I believe it requires a more hands on approach from the event organizer, but operationally, that can start to get tricky.

Finally, the business model needs to evolve. Organizers should think about events as a way to retain subscribers rather than generating new ticket revenue. However, we should be trying to get sponsors to run commercials during the show.

To make it even better for the sponsor, when the show is all done, you’ve got a ton of content you can distribute on your site. Run those same commercials as pre-roll to this video and your sponsors will get even more value.

All in all, I think we need to accept that the way we’re used to doing events is no longer an acceptable format. We need to compete for people’s attention. That means creating a better product.

Thanks for reading. If you have thoughts, leave it in the comments below. And as always, thank you so much for being a premium member. Have a great weekend!

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