Brands have spent years figuring out what ingredients they need to create a successful event. Now what?
Companies that host at least one large-scale event a year – a product innovation summit, an industry trade show, a corporate sales conference – have gotten their ideal recipe down to a science. They start planning and gathering resources 10 months ahead. They go through their checklist: impressive setting, huge screens, amazing food and drink, respected speakers, famous bands for the grand finale. They may have to make small tweaks and modifications from year to year, but the basic formula remains the same.
Now our world is changing rapidly, and this tried-and-true recipe for events is already outdated. Who knows when we will be able to organize in-person events with thousands of people again? But more importantly, when we emerge from this period of transformation, will it still make sense to go to these types of events? We will have changed our habits permanently – and we must also update our understanding of what makes a great event.
COVID-19 has accelerated a trend that was already in progress. We are living online more than ever, and our mindset and habits will continue to shift in that direction. Brands are finding new ways to interact with customers, potential customers and other stakeholders. In a year or two, will we be eager to hop on a plane and fly across the country to attend an event in a packed hotel conference center?
At the end of April 2020, Vertic conducted a study asking people if they have participated in any digital events in the past 40 days and, if so, what they found most valuable and convenient about the experience.
It’s important to note that we didn’t ask: Should brands host digital events, yes or no? It’s clear that digital events will continue to grow in importance in the future. We wanted to know: What are the components that contribute to a value-adding event? What is not working? What would you like to see more of?
Based on the responses of more than 500 people who have attended a digital event in the last 40 days, we can already start to see several important trends developing. Here are our three primary conclusions from the survey:
Almost 45% of respondents say that participation (asking questions) and chat create the most valuable functionality in a digital event.
We are seeing a demand for one-on-one interactivity, rather than one-to-many functionalities. People are eager to be involved, be active participants in an event, instead of just passive attendees – and the digital medium provides that opportunity.
Participation is the biggest difference between large in-person events and digital events. If you are one of 15,000 attendees in a conference hall, there is a slim chance that you’ll be able to ask a question during a presentation. And even if you do have the opportunity, you may be too intimidated to raise your hand in such a big crowd. A digital event encourages a much higher degree of participation from all attendees. In an online setting, you can easily ask a question in a live chat or respond to a poll.
Nearly 50% of respondents say that the reason they would join a digital event revolves around ease of participation: the convenience of joining on their own time, and the ease of asking questions in the event.
Marketers need to fundamentally change how they think about events. Restricting people to a time and place that works for the brand is yesterday's news; people are expecting a higher degree of flexibility from brands so they can attend when it works for them. Why would you force your audience to watch a presentation on a Tuesday morning when it is easier for them to watch on a Saturday afternoon? Unless you are announcing groundbreaking news, it doesn’t have to be viewed live.
Attending a digital event is fundamentally different than going to a physical event. You can’t just take whatever you used to do at an in-person event and put that online. People aren’t going to sit in front of a screen to watch six hours of video like they would listen to a full day of live presentations.
They may give you 20 minutes of focused time before they become distracted or bored. Their online attention span is much shorter, and you need to plan for that and build in as much interactivity as possible. How can you shift your mindset and digital program to match your audience’s expectations?
42% of respondents that have attended a digital event in the last 40 days say that the value of the experience was lower than an offline one.
Marketers are still treating digital events as a temporary bridge, waiting to go back to traditional in-person events, rather than looking at it as an opportunity to break free from the boundaries of a physical gathering.
Consider how your brand and your audience can benefit from the unique setting of a digital event. How can you create an unforgettable event by combining interactivity and convenience? How can you cultivate personalized experiences and unlimited networking opportunities, while collecting behavioral insights on attendees that will help you strengthen future events?
The powerful interconnection between your brand and your customer is what we call Share of Life. You know you have achieved it when your brand is woven into the fabric of your customer’s day. They can’t imagine life without you, and each interaction you have enriches and fortifies your relationship.
The Share of Life C.R.E.E.D. is a simple but effective framework designed to help your brand put this philosophy into action, and it is a valuable tool as you plan digital events going forward.
Think carefully about the role participation will play in an online event. What makes sense for your event? What creates the most value for your audience? If people are participating more, they also have higher expectations for the content and feedback they receive. If they ask a question, they expect an answer. If they participate in a poll, they want to see results and insights.
Attendees don’t want to simply sit in front of a screen and consume information. They want to do something meaningful with your brand. Use a one-with-one – not a one-to-one – strategy to make your audience an integral part of your digital events.
A digital event isn’t just a specific moment in time. At a physical event, attendees are present for a fixed period of time, then it’s over. But a digital event can be beneficial for participants long after the initial event has finished.
Look for ongoing opportunities to reinforce the commitment you made to foster participation. Solicit comments and questions during live presentations so speakers can incorporate them in real time – but also host continuous Q&A sessions that aren’t time-sensitive. Someone may ask a question that is answered by a keynote speaker or subject matter expert from your company, but others in the community also have the chance to add their responses. A poll published during your event will offer immediate reactions, but it will also provide deeper long-term insights two weeks or two months after the event.
It is extremely important to build excitement and create a “wow” effect during your digital event. At an in-person event, you can do this through scene, setting and swag, but you have to be more creative in a digital event.
You can’t rely on the energy of the crowd or the free drinks to spark your audience’s enthusiasm. What can you do to keep their attention? How can you continue providing value? Give them a reason to keep coming back, both during the initial event and in the days and weeks afterward. Pay attention to the questions they are asking and the content they are consuming. If you notice a lot of interest around a certain subject area, develop new content around it that drives more participation.
A reason people may attend digital events is that they feel it’s easier to network and socialize than it is in person. At an industry event with thousands of attendees, it’s difficult to network beyond the people you happen to cross paths with. But in a virtual environment, interaction becomes limitless.
Empower participants to identify and group segments of people they want to communicate with – whether they want to network with all digital marketers or all people who live in New York City. Make it easy for them to get answers to their burning questions and connect with people who share their interests and goals.
Digital events are not static. What makes them exciting is that they are constantly evolving and introducing new functionality. Accept that whatever makes sense for your brand’s events now may be old news in six months.
Embrace this challenge as an opportunity to stand out among your competitors and gain more Share of Life among your customers. Invest in constant learning and development, and you will keep discovering new ingredients to make your digital events shine.
Smart marketers recognize that there will be a distinct “before” and “after” in consumer behavior as a result of the pandemic. You must start now to create the digital tools needed to embed your brand in the customer’s post-COVID life.
Take the time now to identify and understand the new expectations of your customers, and how have their habits and priorities shifted during this time