An image representing virtual conferences.

I’m incredibly fortunate to be included on a weekly Zoom call with a group of smart bold-minded women who have experienced many of the same trials and tribulations that our readers have gone through in 2020. We share problems and solutions related to virtual conferences, on topics like:

  • Do I move my annual event to an online platform? If so, what platform?
  • How do I replicate that “reunion” feeling that my attendees come for?
  • How do I replace the revenue that my events generate?

It’s a cross between a high-level brainstorming session and an advanced “Future of Marketing” class, all crammed into ninety minutes.

As we resign ourselves to a likely second year of remote and Zoom everything, I thought I’d pass along a few of our learnings:

1. Take a lesson from Amazon: One click.

At many large industry events, the online environment is designed to look and feel like walking into a real-life conference. This is at first reassuringly familiar. But soon you realize that you are spending more time navigating the platform than you are listening to the speakers.

So, here’s some advice to event planners and vendors scrambling to develop their virtual conferences: Deciding to access content should be as easy the one-click button on Amazon. If you record all the presentations in advance, then attendees should be able to search for the topics or speakers they want to attend and navigate to that presentation in one click.

2. Pay attention to how humans pay attention.

We’ve all been to virtual conferences where attendees are multi-tasking. They’re on Twitter, checking their email, skipping a session to go for a walk. Out of an eight-hour event day, people are actually sitting and listening to the speakers for about half that time.

Now imagine staring at your screen for four hours non-stop. It’s not something anyone would look forward to, especially these days.

So, don’t just move your IRL conference agenda online. Break up the day into smaller segments, and build in breaks. Give people time to stand up and walk around between your virtual sessions. Here at Paine Publishing, rather than trying to cram the Summit on the Future of Communications Measurement into one day of presentations, we stretched it out over three days — and got kudos for doing it. (See this page for recaps of the three days of this year’s Summit.)

But what about the live Q & A sessions afterwards? Those should be live Zoom sessions where you can see the speakers and the attendees and have a conversation. Restricting the questions to typed answers in the chat area, rather than having a conversation with the presenter, is incredibly bad for engagement. It leaves attendees unsatisfied and the speaker deciding to never ever do this again. I speak from experience.

3. Don’t replicate, reinvent: You can’t replace hugs or a cocktail party at virtual conferences.

And speaking of our recent Summit, we learned a thing or two about virtual conferences. We spent a lot of effort trying to simulate the experience of being here at Shankhassick Farm — perhaps more than we did making sure that the actual event ran smoothly.  In an attempt to replicate the fun and camaraderie of our traditional lobster dinner we sent attendees a “Shankhassick Farm-in-a-Box” virtual cocktail party, complete with a bottle (or can) of a locally made alcoholic beverage. (Read and see more about it here.) The problem was that we failed to consider the time difference among attendees. Turns out, for West-coasters and my Aussie friend and Measurement Maven Michael Ziviani, five o’clock pm Eastern time (4 AM Sydney time) is not the appropriate time to start drinking.

But I’m not alone in my mistakes. Far too many marketers and event vendors have spent (or wasted) time and effort trying to “replicate” the experience of a live event. The conference hall, the lunch tables, the breakout presentations are all being (sort of) replicated in a virtual format.

But it’s not that easy. A virtual hotel ballroom is frequently filled with friendly faces, not buttons. Not everyone knows what to do at a “virtual table,” and in real life you can see who’s at the table,  that’s not always the case at a virtual table. Then, by the time you’ve discovered that the table you are at has nothing that interests you, it’s too late to find another one, and besides even if it’s just an icon, you feel like a schmuck abandoning it when you’re the only one in that circle. 

Consider PRSA’s ICON conference, which was supposed to be in Nashville this year. The opening night social event was replaced by a “virtual tour” of Nashville, including a video, a whiskey tasting hosted by Jack Daniels, and a lecture on Nashville music. It was a valiant effort to replace a truly fun evening in Nashville, but mostly it just reminded me of what I was missing.

Here’s an idea for you, PRSA: “ICON” stands for “International Conference,” so why anchor it to one city? People attend from all over the world, and the conference lives in the cloud and on our computer screens. Take a page from the Democratic National Convention and introduce us to members and cultures from around the world. If you want to highlight local culture then stream a live concert, don’t give us a lecture about it.

4. Measure, adjust, do better.

Back when most of us scheduled our events for this fall, we assumed they could and would be in-person. So when it became clear that going virtual was the rule of the day, there were lots of elements that were already set in stone. Most of us could have or would have have done things better if we’d known what was going to happen. So, let’s give everyone a mulligan, measure the heck out of what we did accomplish, and make sure we don’t make the same mistakes twice.

The good news is that virtual coinferences have much better metrics than live events ever did. You can measure the engagement in chat rooms or breakout sessions. You can count the shares and the likes and the clicks and the abandonment rates. So, grab that data, analyze it, and come up with a better plan for next year

The virtual event buzzword-of-the-day is “hybrid,” i.e., an in-person event with an option to attend virtually. It’s a tempting notion at first glance, but really the worst of both worlds. The people who are there in person will forget about your on-line audience and talk among themselves. The people online will then be disappointed that they are missing out on the hugs and private conversations. And from the promoter’s point of view, to do it both ways you essentially double your costs and your efforts.

So how to decide? Go back to your objectives:

  • If the purpose of an event is to generate sales leads, compare this year’s online event(s) to last year’s in-person ones, and see which produced the most leads for the lowest cost.
  • If the purpose of an event is to generate revenue for your organization, compare this year’s online event(s) to last year’s in-person ones,  and see which generated the most net profit (and don’t forget to factor in staff time).
  • If the purpose of an event is to have a reunion with friends, by all means do it in person when it is safe to so.
  • But if your goal is to generate ideas and get a conversation going about an issue, you’ll get a lot bigger and more diverse audience if you do it virtually.

Here at Paine Publishing we asked our 2020 Summit stakeholders — speakers, sponsors, and attendees — what they’d prefer we do in 2021. They too favor a hybrid scenario: in-person with an option to attend virtually. So, stay tuned. We’ll let you know in a few months what we decide. ∞

Photo by maxymedia on / CC BY-NC-ND

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