The Virtual Event Pivot Looking Back at 2020 and Ahead to 2021
I’ve often equated our move to virtual events in 2020 to the time right after 9/11. When the planes hit the Twin Towers, airplanes were grounded, travel came to a halt and everyone became power users of conference calls. Slowly but surely, we got back on the road again, but the benefit of holding remote meetings and sales calls was permanent and business adopted conferencing into the way they communicated.
The move to virtual events in 2020 came on slowly as people believed we’d be back on the tradeshow floor in the summer. But the harsh reality of the virus caused trade shows, annual meetings, conferences and summits to all go virtual. Unlike simple conferencing, virtual events proved to be much more of a challenge because people were unfamiliar with technology, struggled to translate their live event into a new medium, and faced criticism for attendees who were bored and exhibitors that didn’t get a return on their investment.
Our company may have been one of the first to launch a virtual tradeshow in May with Cloud Conventions 2020 for the telecommunications and cloud industry, attracting 4,000 attendees, delivering 78 sessions and adding 30 sponsors. By all counts, it was a huge success and launched the Cloud Conventions virtual event program that has seen Convey deliver large trade shows, association and non-profit conferences, annual summits, and continuing education conferences. We not only provided technology but partnered with our customers to help create the program design and help exhibitors learn how to manage themselves on a virtual platform.
And I have to say that reviews were mixed. Some of our events engaged attendees, provided great content and had “wow” moments, but others fell flat failing to convert registrants into attendees, having people login only not to come back after the first day, and having little booth traffic. We’ve been learning right along with our customers, adjusted our strategy and improved our technology, and think those lessons will serve us well as we position for another strong year of virtual events, even when live events come back late in 2021.
Here are some takeaways from delivering Cloud Conventions programs for a diverse and significant number of customers in only 6 months in 2020:
You must work harder to attract your audience. It is true that you can have a much bigger audience in a virtual world without the expense and logistics of travel. It is not true that you don’t have to work to get that audience to pay attention, register and actually login. People are being inundated with invitations to come to a virtual event, so your marketing, your partnership with sponsor marketing and an understanding of what motivates people to show up is more critical than ever.
You must eat a balanced diet when it comes to event design. If you think that a series of educational sessions is enough to hold people’s interest, think again. You have to add a balance of education, social networking, planned breaks, and other activities in the design.
That brings me to the fact that attendees must not be treated as passive listeners. If all attendees have to do is listen to a webinar speaker, they will check out, big time! Attendees want to be part of the action, by sharing their experiences in a roundtable, participating in a discussion forum, being part of the panel discussion, networking with each other in breakout rooms, and the list goes on.
Exhibitors need 3 basic things to get the right ROI. I have seen very complex exhibitor packages for virtual events, but it really boils down to only three things exhibitors care about: Will attendees find my booth? Can I interact with them? Will they take a call to action I find valuable? And at the end of the day, will all of that produce a lead? Program design should find ways to get people into the booth and create a booth that is designed for interaction and calls to action.
Exhibitors can enhance the event program. Exhibitors often represent large companies with lots of resources. Let them be part of the program by creating sponsorship packages that allow them to showcase their talents in sessions, be part of a pavilion, design and lead the coffee break or host the roundtable. With the right direction, these elements don’t need to be a giant commercial, but rather offer industry insight and expertise.
Data and sales lead delivery is critical to exhibit success. The event host needs to know if the audience is logging in and engaged and make game time decisions to improve. Exhibitors need to know people are in the booth, what they are interacting with, and how they will get their lead reports in either real time or very close to the event close.
Exhibitors must be committed. If an exhibitor fails to set up their booth, does a bad job, doesn’t learn how they can be part of the program, then their ROI will be exactly what they put into the event. They have to commit to the program, not just look at the event as a necessary evil. I’ve talked to committed exhibitors that got double the sales leads from a virtual event and others that had disappointing results because they didn’t take that event seriously and learn how to maximize their opportunity.
Event hosts must be organized, follow a timeline, and get the details right. You can’t set a good virtual event up overnight. There is a need to plan the content strategy, get a plan together to attract and secure sponsors, time to plan social and engagement sessions, and time needed to set up the technology platform. Last-minute decisions without thinking them through create chaos, poor event execution and a bad experience for attendees and exhibitors.
We all had to make a hard pivot in 2020, so we should congratulate ourselves in launching virtual events that connected buyers to sellers, allowed people to get their continuing education credits, keep an association and non-profit financially viable, and providing education and strategies the audience craved.
Having said that, we need to step up our game for 2021. It’s time to take the lessons we learned, change our thoughts on event design, use technology strategically, partner with our sponsors and exhibitors and keep the attendee experience at the forefront of our strategy. Virtual events will dominate 2021, but when live events return, they will enhance the live event by widening the audience, offering extended education and content, and keep attendees engaged past the 3 days at the tradeshow.
This is the first in a podcast series designed to take the lessons we have learned and offer ideas on how to operationalize them as we plan our virtual events for 2021. 2020 was the year of the “pivot”, but let’s all commit to having 2021 be the year we get it right.