November 10, 2020
We were conference organizers. Now, we have a virtual events platform with which we successfully pivoted to online events. Here's our story:
As an event planner - whether conferences, trade shows or corporate meetings, or trainings and customer gatherings - you've likely experienced the challenges that come along with transitioning in-person events to online in 2020. One of the greatest challenges? Choosing the right virtual event technology. My company BrainXchange was able to successfully pivot our yearly event when the pandemic upended our industry. How did we do it?
Our big annual conference EWTS was scheduled for October in San Diego, CA. In March 2020, when it was becoming clear that we would not be able to host the show in person due to Covid-19, our team began evaluating as many digital/virtual events platforms as possible. None of the 75+ (!) we demoed seemed capable of providing the value our attendees, speakers and sponsors had come to expect from our face-to-face conferences, and so we took on the ambitious project of building our own in a matter of months.
We didn't start out intending to create a piece of software. Our goal, like yours, was to find the right platform to take our event digital. There were many options so we created a spreadsheet, began demoing and noting what we liked and didn't like about dozens of events, streaming and community platforms, and narrowed down our criteria.
A big fear of ours was becoming a victim of time, cost and technology restraints. We were seeing many events "go virtual" but really event professionals seemed to be scrambling to salvage sunk costs in an online format, whatever that looked like and whatever the price. We wanted the online version of EWTS not to attempt to replicate or mirror the in-person event experience - that's impossible - but to be something novel and special in its own right.
Initially, we knew we wanted to offer a program with live or simulive session streaming and Q&A, the ability to upload and share content, customizable networking tools and user profiles, effective business development including a digital exhibition with virtual booths and exhibitor networking, and gamification. It was also important that whatever platform we chose look good (aesthetics), be reliable, and 'play nice' with our existing solutions like Salesforce, Hubspot, Google Analytics, etc.
We looked especially at how easy it would be to set up our event and how many participants each platform could support. After trying out a bunch of solutions, we realized even more criteria, including dynamic exhibition spaces and plenty of monetization opportunities, a high level of control around user access, content/widgets and integrations, and group chat.
Here are some of the most common shortcomings we identified:
- Concurrent user capacity: Many platforms couldn't handle a large number of users and were seemingly aimed at smaller gatherings or meeting rooms (we expected around 1,500 attendees for our event)
- Complex user experience, including poor navigation and demanding set-up or attendees, exhibitors and/or presenters
- Minimal support and a low level of customization
- Clunky on mobile
- High cost
When it came to virtual reality-enabled solutions, many seemed geared more towards world creation and impractical for watching sessions. We found that avatars could be off-putting, as well. To be perfectly honest - and keep in mind that our event is an enterprise AR/VR and wearable technology event - true virtual event platforms have not yet matured into the solutions they promise to be. We knew we wanted a VR component to the show, but it became clear that a VR-optional networking tool in addition to a variety of other tools for connecting would suffice.
The Bigger Picture
I can tell you now that when evaluating available solutions, we struggled to find one with the following four things (I'll go more in-depth about each in future articles):
- Fully integrated video calling, content management and streaming: We needed a platform that didn't require us to pay for integrations. It's already difficult to make online events profitable, so on top of paying for a platform we didn't want to pay separately for video calling (ex. Zoom), video distribution (ex. Vimeo), or anything else.
- Quality engagement: We needed a platform that offered more than basic Q&A, polls and chat to truly engage an online audience. Engagement is one of the top three challenges for digital events. A variety of tools are required to appeal to users of all comfort levels.
- Easy connections: We needed a platform effective at facilitating idea sharing, collaboration and relationship building online. The problem is most platform creators aren't event organizers; they know software but they don't know conferences like we do.
- Sponsor/exhibitor value: We needed a platform capable of driving clear ROI for our partners and bringing in revenue near pre-coronavirus levels. Few platforms offered analytics for demonstrating ROI and monetization options were seriously lacking.
At the end of the day, we couldn't find a single solution that did any or all of the above at a high level, which led us to create our own platform in under six months. Many event organizers struggling to transition from in-person to online cite platform limitations as a major issue, the consensus being that available solutions don't allow them to create engaging audience experiences. We did our own research and came to the same conclusion. If it didn't exist, we'd have to build it ourselves. The result was ConnectworX.
ConnectworX was created by conference organizers for conference organizers, to help transition our own events from in-person to digital, but the potential is greater. Merging all the features needed to create, manage, run and experience a successful online event or community at scale, ConnectworX is setting the standard for virtual events. We saw fantastic results and you can, too, with ConnectworX. Learn more.