• Helen Pritchett

Events Go Virtual in our New Normal

Will events go virtual in our new normal scenario? COVID-19 has taught us many things. We’ve reconnected with our families (realising the ease of video calling our extended family to keep in touch), recognised that we value our health, had the opportunity to slow down and smell the roses, reconnected with nature and the environment and have begun the journey to understanding our supply chain and food provenance. We’ve proven that remote working is achievable and commuting, work travel and face-to-face meetings might be a thing of the past. We are entering a new normal, and we’re embracing it.

Whilst there are many winners in this ‘new normal’ scenario, there are also losers. The coffee shops, the sandwich bars, the transport companies, the commercial buildings operators (including all those ancillary suppliers that support office and commercial environments), and – perhaps one of the hardest hit – the hospitality and events industry.

COVID-19 has decimated the hospitality and events industry. Immediate cancellation of events and exhibitions resulted in redundancies and company closures. Companies involved in providing catering, venues, ticketing, audio-visual and production, event staff, exhibition stand design and build, and many other small suppliers, suddenly found order books and diaries empty as the nation stayed at home to protect the NHS and save lives. Physical events have been an absolute casualty of the coronavirus. But there is an alternative as events go virtual in our new normal. Virtual events are taking off at a rapid pace as an exciting solution to fill that void until we can meet again.

For example, Salesforce has announced the cancellation of all in-person events for the rest of 2020, moving most of them to the virtual format. Last year, Dreamforce brought 170,000 attendees to San Francisco’s Moscone Center. This year, participants will attend from their home offices, logging in via browsers and apps. Microsoft has announced that most of its internal and external in-person events will move to digital. The announcement applies throughout their 2021 fiscal year, which runs from July 2020 to June 2021. This week Digital Marketing World Forum launched its fully online event #DMWF Virtual. The worldwide conference will take place online on 16-17 September 2020 when thousands of senior marketers from global brands will take part in a virtual ‘tour’ of the latest trends and strategies.

The big guns are changing their approach. Isn’t it time you also consider embracing the future as events go virtual in our new normal?

Making the Shift to Virtual Events

Businesses that rely on in-person networking events and conferences for revenue or brand exposure have no choice but to adopt different ways to reach customers. One solution is to go online. But there are many complications to duplicating the human to human event experiences virtually. Primarily, what will the costs and revenue be and how can brands raise awareness effectively? Virtual events are currently a short-term requirement, but they need not just be a replacement for temporarily cancelled events; they could become part of a company’s long-term strategy.

In a recent article in Financial Management, event industry experts shared their tips on making the shift to virtual events during COVID-19:

  1. Allocate enough time and resources: Successful virtual events require the same level of planning and resource as physical events. To deliver ROI, companies need to commit enough budget and resources.

  2. Choose the right event format for your objectives: There are numerous virtual event formats: webinars, webcasts, video-conferences, 3D conferences and virtual trade shows. Have clear objectives and choose the format which meets your objectives and comes within budget.

  3. Plan your content: With a virtual event your content takes centre stage; ensure your content comes alive online.

  4. Don’t underestimate technical barriers: To host successful, accessible virtual events you must reduce potential technical obstacles. Invest in tried-and-tested technology and don’t overlook the importance and relevance of great speakers.

  5. Have a strong marketing plan: Virtual events need a strong marketing and promotional plan. Costs saved from venues and logistics can be invested in online marketing. Event promotion and marketing should focus on the value of the event for attendees: the quality of content, calibre of speakers, and key learnings. Pre-event communication to maximise attendance. is even more important with virtual events. Create strong e-marketing campaigns to generate excitement. First impressions count; make your communications clear and concise.

  6. Monetise the event by leveraging unique online strengths: Monetisation for virtual events works similarly to in-person events and there are more opportunities for enhanced visibility throughout every stage of an online event. Create sponsorship packages including paid for elements such as virtual exhibit halls, sponsor spaces, premium directories, rotating ad banners, sponsored networking lounges, live chat lobbies, product demos, and one-on-one video conversations with suppliers.

  7. Arm yourself with the right online tools: Many companies specialise in online events providing services such as all-in-one live events platforms, event management technology, and end-to-end software for hosting events and managing virtual event data. Software products can help planners and CFOs gain visibility into spend, savings, and overall ROI for virtual and face-to-face events.

  8. Leverage the increased access to online data: Work undertaken after your virtual event is key to monetisation; make use of data analytics and business intelligence to engage and nurture your audience post-event.

Live vs Virtual; Where will the Balance of Power Lie?

Recently, Marketing Tech published a blog written by Callum Gill of DRPG Group entitled “Has it taken a crisis for us to embrace the power of broadcast communications?“ For many years, the benefits of virtual events through broadcast technology have been known and comms professionals have been hugely receptive to and actively engaged with the power of virtual technologies. Some of the key factors are:

  • Budgets work harder: no venue costs and once your platform is built, you own it and can deploy it again and again

  • The environment wins: virtual events hugely reduce your live strategy’s carbon footprint

  • Your audience is already invested in the technology: modern audiences expect and embrace broadcast content as part of live strategy

Despite the obvious benefits, and the readiness of audiences, prior to COVID-19, adoption and integration of live experience strategies and deployment has, according to Gill, been “patchy, largely devoid of strategy and plagued by constantly repeated myths and fears around broadcast as a viable communications medium”. The challenges of cost and digital transformation as being nigh-on impossible to overcome have oft been cited alongside repeated calls for explanations of the validity of the channel to deliver meaningful engagement. Let’s not forget the ‘people buy people, human to human contact’ argument. However, since the COVID-19 pandemic struck, perception has changed, and the apparently “insurmountable” challenges have been overcome. This revolution will have a huge impact on the way live experiences are delivered in the years to come.

Small Steps to Virtual Events

For those that have never ventured into virtual events, it’s a brave new world. Take small steps by starting with a webinar or perhaps a video-conference product demo. Invite key clients who are already invested in your brand and products and provide content that is beneficial. Make it worth their while to attend.

If you usually take a stand at exhibitions but are unsure of spending budget on a virtual exhibition, attend a few as a virtual visitor. Get a feel for how it works and understand whether your brand or products would stand out. If you decide to take the leap, make the most of your participation. Think about whether to sponsor or speak at the event. Consider creating compelling videos to promote products and services than can be downloaded from your virtual stand.

Ensure you promote your events effectively using demand generation to help drive the pipeline and attendance to your online activities. Use data that gives you the best opportunity to find the right audience to target and consider working with an agency that delivers event promotion services on your behalf, getting virtual bums on seats to achieve the best possible attendance figures.

An experienced agency will use a combination of outreach channels from digital to social and telemarketing to promote your event or webinar, raising awareness and driving attendance.

Specific aspects you partner agency should be able to support you with include:

  • Data and identifying potential delegates, companies and individuals

  • Audience acquisition

  • Pre-event comms and management of registrations

  • Promotion of your event, speakers, exhibitors, sponsors etc.

  • Nurturing of registrations until the day of the event

  • Attendance confirmation and verification of turnout

  • Post-event follow-up comms and evaluation (including an attendee survey)

Virtual Events Will Play a Big Part in Our New Normal

But this doesn’t mean live events won’t be back. Live interaction and experiential events are key to a holistic marketing approach. However, it seems the future of the events industry lies in a fabulous and future-proofed combination of live interaction and virtual, broadcast events. Both have a place.