Many organizations had plans to host physical events in 2020, but most of them had to ask people to stay home and tune in virtually. The good news is that there are plenty of options to choose from when selecting a platform to host an online event. The bad news is, most of us aren’t really good at it yet, according to experts.

But virtual events have become the go-to alternative to connect with customers, do business development, and meet with people. So how do we improve that experience? At least one expert says it starts with the understanding that whatever you’re hosting online cannot replicate whatever you were going to do physically.

“What you have to do is reinvent inside the medium that we’re now working in, which is a very different one than the world of the live experience and that seems very simple to say,” Bob Bejan, chief vice-president of global events at Microsoft, told us in an interview. But it’s a concept that’s easy to understand, he adds.

Companies lack imagination when it comes to engaging audiences

Beyond a simple poll or call to action, most companies have shown a lack of imagination when it comes to engaging audiences during virtual events, according to Chris Carter, principal at consulting firm Orgshift Solutions. 

Organizations that held events or sessions with some form of interactivity built-in were generally more successful than those that were just a presentation,”  Carter said. “Because expectations were low to begin with, next year, expectations will start to go up.  Virtual events need to be more creatively made interactive.”

Dayoan Daumont, consulting partner of innovation and digital transformation at Ogilvy Consulting, agrees.

“If you intend to impress clients, customers and influence people, it’s time to get (virtually) real when it comes to booths, presentations, meet-and-greets or entertainment,” he said.

Grabbing people’s attention isn’t enough

According to global touring keynote speaker and author of the book Break the Wheel, Jay Acunzo, most virtual events are bad because most presenters are bad. It has nothing to do with tech, he says. He suggested anyone struggling to engage people virtually to focus on at least one golden rule.

“When it comes to virtual events, we as experienced creators must hold attention, not just grab it,” said Acunzo. “When the medium changes, the psychology changes. The failure to grapple with that is what causes so many brands producing content to ring hollow. The problem is the lack of customization to each unique delivery vehicle for the value, each unique channel. This lack of customization thus reveals a lack of empathy for the audience. Their experience is radically different in each place, so the content must be too.”

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This implies that it is essential for speakers to craft end to end experiences. Everything that a speaker does within a virtual experience must match the virtual delivery, while understanding just how much harder it is to convince audiences to actually pay attention.

Presenters are key to any successful virtual event in addition to the tech being used, agrees Carter. “I think whoever’s presenting needs to make lemonade out of lemons, and understand that they are delivering us on a virtual platform and that it isn’t just a matter of taking what they might do at a conference in a room and just zooming it. They must understand and use techniques to engage with the audience in a more participatory fashion. 

Virtual replacing the physical? Not so fast

Virtual events can never replace physical events. Instead, they will complement physical events in the future, says Adam Froman, chief executive officer of the global digital innovation company Delvinia. 

“The smart event companies will integrate virtual elements into their physical events,” said Froman. He suggested that in a “year or two,” businesses will successfully create strong hybrid experiences that take the best of both worlds.

Luiz Martins, chief marketing officer for global virtual environments provider 6Connex, anticipates the same trend.

“Right now, there is no indication that someone would do a physical event without matching it with a virtual one. And we believe that the secret for a successful hybrid event is what we call ‘attendance paired parity’ – meaning, the experience that someone has to visit a physical event has to be matched with the one visiting a virtual event. And that has to do with enabling some functionalities that we already have for virtual, but we want to transpose that for the physical,” Martins explained.

Chasing the humanized experience

Virtual events can easily lose one of the best benefits of live events: a human connection, indicated Emily Raleigh, HubSpot’s marketing manager of brand and strategic partnerships. 

Raleigh suggests companies shifting from a live event to a virtual event should focus on adding extra value to the viewers who are now tuning in online. “Do an extra session. Offer more Q&A time. Give an extra special offer. Find creative ways to add extra delight moments.”

Caroline Forsey, the manager of HubSpot’s marketing blog, recently wrote that people are already getting used to abandoning historic mindsets around conferences: Buying plane tickets, packing business cards, flashy booths on the show floor.

All of this suggests that technology is not going to drive the user experience when it comes to these virtual experiences. “The virtual experience needs to be relevant to the user technology enablement. And as long as companies focus on that, there are a plethora of tools available to them to create the customer experience, but unfortunately, what we hear is all the functions and features of the technology, but not the experience for the user that they want to create,” Froman said in an interview with us. 

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