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Innovation Media & Marketing

Golden Gate Bridge Fatigue, and Other Tales From the Brave New World of Online Events

It’s only been 6 weeks since most large gatherings and events were canceled. Yet they seem so quaint now, even viscerally unnerving, when I look at images of large groups of handshaking people.

Of course live events aren’t going away permanently. But the last few weeks have been a crash course for all of us, especially those in the events business, on how to quickly move from on site to online for everything from conferences to trade shows, exercise classes and theatrical events.

Many of us are quickly finding out that, when done right, online events and conferences can be a lot less expensive and remain effective in surprising ways. The trick is not to try to replicate the real world, but rather to find a way to create a unique online experience. Andrew Morris, CEO and Founder of The Fintech Agenda, put it this way: “Think about it as more like producing for TV than a physical conference or event”.

Morris launched The Quarantine Summit earlier this month. In less than three weeks he managed to wrangle 70 speakers, mostly CEOs and founders, along with 1,000 worldwide attendees, to talk about the future of fintech. The objective was to build a community for The Treasury, a new fintech platform whose founders include the past founders of  Betterment and  Acorn. A veteran events producer, he laughed about the new challenges he faced: “Instead of speaker missing a flight, you’ve got a bad Wi-fi connection.”

Mary Ann Pierce, CEO and Founder of Map Digital: Meta Meetings concurs with the TV director metaphor. Pierce says it’s all about the script. “If it is not on the page, it will not get staged”, she quips. When directing an online conference, prchestrated maneuvers like “calling for a swap to Video Conference Room (VCR) A, or hitting the play- pre-record video, or tossing up a poll” are all a part of it, she added. “We also insist on having rehearsals with all participants to test their light, sound and their ability to operate the software.”

Alfred Poor, a Digital Health Tech Futurist who’s got a side hustle helping people make the transition from on site to online, says it means rethinking everything you do. You need to do a deep dive into what the attendees’ expectations are. “What makes people want to pay to be at a live event, to travel there and to eat (mostly crummy) conference food?”, he asks. “It’s the networking, the connectivity, the serendipity. You need to start your online event thinking about how to build that in.

Star-Studded Line Ups, But Not Too Long

Observations like these are quickly adding to a bible of best practices for holding online events.  All these practitioners agree that one of the brightest spots in the virtual event world is the relative ease of nabbing stars for speakers. You’re asking someone for 45 minutes or so (and hopefully a bit of prep) but not to get in a plane and fly across the country. With no travel or additional costs it’s not terribly hard to convince a busy CEO or thought leader to make an appearance from bedroom or home library. (Getting them to prep or prepare materials is a different story.) That’s why, says Poor, “having a good master of ceremonies is critical. Think Dick Cavett,” he says,“or the narrator of Our Town.” You want someone on camera to take control when things mess up, act as an “everyman” for the audience, and add continuity and branding.

Logistics like the diversity of time zones in your audience require some thought. “ The location of your event doesn’t matter, but the timing…can be tricky”, said Morris, especially when your audience is global. He chose to run the Asian market component of his last conference as a very late night session for US audiences.

Sessions typically need to be shorter, too. You don’t want to be sitting in front of a screen for hours hearing iterations of the same message. In moving from “stage to screen,” you need to speed up the cuts.

Most events that are cropping up to fill the void fall into the webinar category. But some online empresarios are getting savvy about replicating the proverbial booth visit. I talked to Tim Gill, CEO of BoothCentral, which recreates booth experience at online events like art shows and street fairs. Attendees can saunter into virtual rooms that offer anything from video, to promotional materials to live chats and special presentations. BoothCentral prepares its exhibitors with a detailed best practices guide. Gill stresses the need for “authenticity and an organic feel” along with the best Wi-fi possible as the best weapons for an engaging booth experience: “Eye contact and body language won’t work on screen.” Gill says replicating the personal experience may involve everything from cool videos to great copy, graphics, backgrounds and music. “The learning curve was steep for exhibitors but they’re catching on quickly.”

Poor feels strongly that we’re just starting to experiment with online conferences and events as an art form. He believes gamification is going to play a bigger part in engagement. Think loyalty programs, ten-questions games, virtual swag, scores for participation, exit polls, and more.

For Morris, who relied on the new British event software package HopIn because of its one-stop-shop approach to events, the big takeaway is that the time it takes to put together big and impactful conferences is compressed. And the costs are way reduced. He estimates an online event costs 1/10th as much to produce as a live event, especially one with physical booths that requires build outs and setups. He believes you can make online events profitable even if you lose half of your traditional sponsors.

Sponsors and event planners can walk away from virtual conferences with analytics that are more granular than anything they could have gathered during world events. Who has engaged? When did they drop out? How actively did they participate? Are they willing to follow up with more information? These things are much more measurable in an online setting. Sponsors will want to collect data from their most engaged participants. Whether that came from a private one-on-one meeting room, a chat in a virtual booth, or a copy of text from a chat room or polling, these quantifiable numbers can serve as a kickoff for future interactions.

Mastery involves sweating details. Morris says they include things like whether and when to take a bio break. Will you lose your audience? Should you just let them come and go as they please? And those backgrounds! I call it “Golden Gate Bridge” fatigue. My preference is to see speakers in their natural habitats as long as they are not too distracting.

How do you make revenue from online events ? Attendee revenue isn’t something you can easily count on at this juncture, but some we’ve seen offer some form of tiered participation. For free you can watch; and for a fee you can interact as a VIP, attend an afterparty, have one-on-ones, or some variation. Morris says you need to think about what the sponsors’ needs are and ultimately (once the pandemic subsides) figure outs the perfect hybrid of online and on site event.

As for the pitfalls, many are technical. One might be not having a strong master of ceremonies who is able to “go with the flow.” And sometimes an overloaded speaker is forced to field questions, read chats, and deal with other attendee needs while they’re trying to present. Pierce says that just as at physical events, the biggest issue is poor content and moderators who just ask questions, but do not orchestrate discussion flow. “The winners at the virtual game will curate compelling content, and audience engagement will make their events vital.”

Now, for the tough part. The tools you choose should be directly related to the desired outcomes. Do you want more attendees? More social networking? To emphasize community building? Sales leads? Audience segmentation? Next week I’ll look at the pros and cons of some of the video conferencing platforms that are springing up faster than garden weeds. 

Editors Note: Interested in virtual events? Techonomy hosts weekly virtual roundtable discussions. Learn more and register HERE.

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