2020 will be remembered for a lot of things, but among event professionals, it’s undoubtedly going to be remembered as the year of virtual events.
Although virtual events weren’t invented in 2020 it was probably the year many of us experienced them for the first time. If you’re a marketing or events professional, chances are you got your first experience of organizing, running or speaking at them, too.
As it looks like there is little chance of a return to normality for the events industry for at least the first part of 2021, we can safely assume they will be a part of our lives for the foreseeable future. But one thing we’ve learned this year is that, as a tech-driven trend, they are something that is evolving and changing very rapidly.
2020 was the year that businesses and brands moved into virtual events because they had no other choice. My experience this year tells me that that 2021 will be the year they start to really think about this exciting and dynamic new channel of audience engagement, and create events that really reflect what makes them unique, surprising or valuable to their customers and clients.
What are virtual events in 2020?
Virtual events come in many shapes and sizes, but most people would agree that in marketing terms today it currently covers online conferences, exhibitions, performances, product launches, social events, company presentations, trade shows and internal team sessions.
In short, “virtual event” is, generally speaking, an attempt to lift an event that in a pre-covid world would have been a live event, and recreate it through a virtual platform, usually either a specialised virtual events technology or a webinar tool like Zoom or Facebook Live.
Specialized virtual event platforms – and there are around 70 of them according to our estimates – simulate the “live” experience using templates anyone familiar with corporate events will be at home with.
You generally have a lobby screen, an auditorium screen, a screen for exhibitors and sponsors, and some networking – video or text chat – facilities. The audience can hop between them just as they would at a live event, but with a click of their mouse or tap of their screen, rather than having to traipse on foot through a cavernous exhibition complex.
A common assessment of this format is often that while you hugely increase accessibility and convenience by moving an event online, you inevitably lose some of the sense of occasion, engagement and interaction.
The benefits, though – which include being able to welcome guests from anywhere in the world without them having to do any more work than tapping a link and filling in a form – mean virtual events will still be recognized as a valuable marketing tool once Covid is a thankfully-distant memory.
How will virtual events change in 2021
As we move into the second year of the still fresh decade, I think organizers will begin to think less about making visitors who are used to the live event format comfortable in the virtual world. And more about how to really take advantage of what the virtual format offers.
This will mean that the questions we’re asking will be less “how can we recreate real events” and more “How can we create amazing online experiences?”
Some things about events won’t ever change. They will always be about bringing a group of people together at a place (real or virtual) and time, to experience something together. Everything else, however, is up in the air.
Will a virtual event always require an auditorium? Will it always require a networking area? Or an exhibitor hall where visitors can wander around booths and stalls?
If you’re organising a real-world conference event you wouldn’t dream of leaving those out. And the premise of most of the virtual platforms available today is to recreate them – in many cases, they do this very successfully.
But are they the right tools to best achieve the strategic requirements of your events? Does the virtual world – where the size of events aren’t limited by the dimensions of venues, attendees can fit schedules around their daily lives, and speakers can take part from anywhere in the world – offer new opportunities that can better fit your objectives?
This is one of the most important questions that event organisers will have to answer in 2021. While (fingers crossed) the availability of vaccines may mean real-world events slowly reappear on the agenda, in some limited form, for most of us events will remain remote for most of the year. So organisations that aren’t asking these questions risk losing the vital connections and channels of engagement that events offer.
The second big change we will see is a shift towards higher production values. There’s now an established and mature services industry built up around virtual events, meaning highly polished and professional productions are within reach of anyone. Studios have repurposed themselves to offer broadcast and streaming setups for virtual events, while artists, entertainers and performers have developed new show formats that fit the virtual event template. Virtual events, presentations, demos and town-hall type setups next year will look less fluffed-up Zoom calls and more like professionally managed, planned and executed broadcast experiences.
The third big change will come later, with the eventual loosening of restrictions around live events, as hybrid events become a crucial part of wider events and marketing strategies.
If you’re running large conferences or exhibitions, once it’s safe to do so, it now makes more sense than ever to include a virtual track alongside it. 2020 has firmly established the value and benefits of virtual events, and they certainly won’t evaporate when live events are once again on the table. Why should potential attendees that can’t practically get to your location at the time your event takes place be lost to you entirely?
Hybrid tracks can provide access to the same content and many of the same experiences that your real-world attendees get, at no or very little cost to you or them. This can potentially provide a large increase in the level of engagement and exposure your event gets, for only a little additional expenditure, when compared to the overall cost of your real-world event.
So, the key message here is that virtual events are changing. There’s no reason at all that they should be thought of as the “poor relation” of live, in-person events, and this will become even more true throughout the next year as organisers learn to tailor experiences to virtual audiences, leverage higher production values and, hopefully, roll out hybrid events alongside a tentative return to meeting in the real world!
Merry Christmas and happy new year from everyone at Buzznation!