January 19, 2021
Virtual events aren’t new; they didn’t begin in 2020 but were certainly accelerated by the events of that year. When meeting in person became impossible due to the spread of coronavirus and nationwide lockdown measures, we were, in a way, forced to embrace virtual events; and what we discovered is that there are many benefits to the medium.
Some have described virtual as the event industry’s Airbnb; it’s an apt analogy. We’ve learned to conduct business and make connections without face-to-face events, and that possibility alone guarantees that virtual/hybrid events will remain popular post-pandemic. But it’s the virtues of virtual that ensure its disruptive staying power. What are those virtues?
Greater accessibility and reach
Less expensive + don’t have to travel = more accessible: Virtual removes certain barriers – economic, geographic, etc. – to attend, allowing event organizers to expand their audience reach. This is great for planners but also for young professionals, those in developing countries, and really anyone at any stage in their career previously unable to benefit from events due to factors like time and childcare.
Indeed, virtual events have been seeing higher numbers overall. Many organizers saw a 3x increase in 2020 and sponsors, exhibitors and other commercial partners took notice. What this means is that planners can finally 'get' the people who couldn't attend in years past, better serve their international audiences and expand into new markets. It's also easier to attract highly sough-after speakers if they don't have to schedule travel, book a hotel, etc. Without the usual logistics of in-person events, virtual is simply easier to commit to for attendees and speakers alike. (For some speakers, pre-recording content can also reduce the pressure to perform.)
A larger, more global audience and a broader speaker pool…organizers are attracting people with whom they might never have connected and freeing up budget to book headline speakers. Finally, anyone can gain access to the content and networking provided by professional events.
Greater accessibility leads to more diversity. Virtual events, by virtue of their lower ticket prices and the ability to meet attendees where they are, are more inclusive, allowing working parents, minorities and other underserved communities like the hearing-and vision-impaired, LGBTQ professionals, and more to take advantage of career-building events.
Virtual mitigates a number of pain points of in-person events, helping to level the playing field and serve populations who could really benefit from the learning and networking. Travel constraints like cost and childcare considerations may be obvious, but what about ground transportation (those without access to a vehicle) or attire? Not being able to afford a suit or other professional attire prevents many people from attending business events, just as it prevents them from interviewing for jobs; this becomes less of a factor for virtual events, as attendees are only seen from the chest up.
Virtual event attendees can also choose not to be seen at all by turning off their webcams and participating to whatever degree they feel comfortable. This makes discrimination less likely for LGBTQ, POC and disabled professionals. The safety and privacy provided by virtual is a gamechanger for these groups, and for women who experience anxiety or altogether avoid events in fields dominated by men.
Despite legislation, in-person events can be problematic for disabled persons. Venues don’t always have wheelchair-accessible bathrooms and most planners don’t think about having an American Sign Language interpreter to accommodate hearing-impaired attendees. Physical barriers aren’t an issue, however, when you can attend the event from home; and with technology virtual event organizers can provide real-time captions and translations. In short, the nature of virtual is more feasible and welcoming than face-to-face for often overlooked event audiences.
Data is a key advantage of virtual events. You can learn so much more than simply who was at your event and how many badges are left; we’re talking rich data spanning engagement, networking and more, allowing planners to understand attendees’ behavior and demonstrate ROI to sponsors.
Who connected, who engaged with sponsors, who attended specific sessions…the ability to capture information about attendees’ actions at scale—this is what virtual brings to the table. The data signals engagement and intent, helping you determine what content is most effective, identify sales leads and drive outcomes for sponsors, boost attendee retention and tailor future event experiences.
Of course, not all virtual event platforms offer analytics and reporting. Organizers should look for one like ConnectworX that has deep analytics for both the organizer and exhibitors, especially if they hope to make a profit on online events in 2021. Offering virtual events for free as many did in 2020 simply isn’t sustainable. While attendees may be willing to pay a small fee for content, sponsors need to see data to justify spending on virtual events.
Efficient & Environmentally friendly
Theoretically, virtual events should be more efficient – cost and otherwise – to produce than their in-person counterparts, yet less than 40% of event professionals were able to pivot profitably to virtual in 2020 (EventMB). You could chalk this up to the learning curve, as many organizers had never put on a virtual event and likely overspent to do so, not to mention the irrecuperable costs from in-motion physical events.
With the first wave of virtual events now behind us, it is possible to make money from virtual events. Virtual events deliver high (measurable!) ROI at a fraction of the cost it takes to produce physical events. Think about it: No venue costs, no catering or cocktails, no travel or hotel fees, lower overall production costs, and less staff required.
This trend will continue with hybrid events, with more attendees overall (higher ticket revenue) yet still lower overhead as the bulk of the audience will likely be virtual (at least at first). The shift is already impacting budgets: Without the cost of setting up a physical venue, some organizers have chosen to lower ticket fees and thereby grow their audience while others are allocating freed-up funds to speakers or still other avenues. And spending on production as opposed to a venue has long-lasting value, as you’re really spending on content you can reuse and leverage long after the event.
Virtual events are also more efficient for attendees, who get the same information along with digital networking tools. Compare this to traveling for two or three days to track down a handful of people and sit in a chilly presentation room—the effort-to-payoff ratio is better with virtual. Now that professionals realize they can make business connections online, they’ll think twice before attending physical events. That is not to say that digital networking is superior to in-person; meeting over Zoom still doesn’t hold a candle to meeting someone F2F, but virtual event platforms like ConnectworX are working on it!
It’s no surprise, too, that virtual events are better for the environment. Without the logistics of getting people to the venue or the waste produced by physical events, organizers and corporations alike dramatically reduced their carbon footprint in 2020. Sustainability was already an increasingly important business factor pre-pandemic; the last ten months drov the point home. According to a study from Birmingham University, a one-day in-person event can produce up to 170kg Co2 and create over five tons of waste; another source calculated the carbon emissions savings of virtual events at over 1 million kg, while still another figured the carbon footprint of a single live attendee at 10,000 kg compared to single digits for virtual.
Flexibility and choice
And here we are at the fifth virtue of virtual: The flexibility unleashed by not having your event grounded to a physical space and the choice created by virtual formats. The planning of virtual events has led to novel programming, from shorter sessions over more days to meditation breaks and cooking classes. A live DJ at a physical event (during the cocktail hour, for example), sure…but a yoga session in the middle of a conference—this kind of flexible programming and experimentation is new.
It’s more than helping attendees stretch their legs during what can feel like an epic webinar; it’s the potential for events to become year-round communities, for the content and networking to last longer than the two or three days of an event. One source likened virtual events to multi-use, branded spaces accessible at any time from anywhere in the world. This longer shelf life is ideal for content-heavy events and for trade shows: Imagine virtual events becoming evergreen salesrooms in between shows, providing sponsor ROI all year long.
Virtual broadens participation, forcing organizers to break the tired pattern of ‘keynote-panel-breakout-repeat.’ The medium is naturally more interactive, enabling features like gamification that are hard to implement in person and allowing anyone (not just speakers) to answer questions in a chat, where the ‘life’ of the event is in the comments. Viewers can take polls, ‘clap’ and upvote questions during sessions, which is easier than asking your question into a microphone in a room full of people (especially for introverts). Moreover, virtual events can be produced in shorter time frames: Unlimited by venue availability or capacity, planners can have more content with more speakers and more sponsors.
And finally, virtual provides choice: Today, people can choose to attend events online in real time or binge watch sessions on-demand à la Netflix. In the future, they’ll be able to choose to travel and participate in-person or join online from the comfort of their home or office. No matter when in-person events return, the virtues of virtual guarantee not only that events will have both physical and virtual options in the future but also that new virtual events will be created and the industry will continue on its current path of pandemic-induced transformation.