Thanks to vaccine rollouts, in-person events grow more viable every day. At the same time, virtual event tech adoption rates have never been higher, and providers are beginning to look towards year-round engagement. How will these different formats factor into a larger marketing and event strategy?
Not all events are created equally — a reality that has been compounded by new decisions about which event format is best suited to any given event’s goals. But deciphering the best course of action relies on a nuanced understanding of what each format offers.
In-person events will always hold the appeal of a more personable environment for networking, not to mention offering greater opportunity for multi-sensory experiences. That said, they also entail bigger investments and commitments from everyone involved. Furthermore, virtual formats have their own advantages: They have the potential to reach wider audiences, and from the attendee perspective, they demand a much lower level of commitment. For someone reluctant to incur the expense of attending in person, virtual might seem like a welcome alternative.
As such, some maintain that virtual events are better suited to short durations and top-of-funnel engagement, while longer durations and bottom-of-the-funnel lead generation should be reserved for in-person events.
However, not everyone agrees that this tidy framework really represents attendee preferences. Some see the potential of virtual events to serve as the perfect testing ground for all types of content that will help to shape the direction of in-person agendas.
In-Person Events Must Provide High Value
For Joe Schwinger, CEO of MeetingPlay, the higher level of commitment required by in-person events is precisely what makes them valuable for inbound marketing: Only those who are already highly invested in the brand will attend. By the same token, there is an implicit expectation for the event to deliver a high-value in-person experience. Event organizers need to show that they are putting out the red carpet to entice new business and maintain existing relationships.
“If you look across the verticals that we work in — pharma, medical, tech — a lot of it is a two-way partnership. When a company is investing millions of dollars into that business relationship, they want to see what they’re getting out of it, and that message may be better delivered in person.”
- Joe Schwinger, CEO, MeetingPlay
Pierre Metrailler, CEO of SpotMe, has a slightly different take on the same phenomenon. He believes that longer events are a thing of the past, even for in-person formats. If event organizers want to draw attendees to a three-day in-person event, they will have to “bribe” them: “Maybe if they include an all-inclusive trip to Bali as part of the package, people will come.”
Metrailler thinks that shorter in-person events still hold appeal, but he is not convinced that existing clients will prefer them to virtual alternatives. Because of the higher stakes involved for both the attendee and the event organizer, in-person events will have to make sure that they deliver the best experience possible. Organizers cannot take for granted that attendees will automatically prefer live events simply because of the higher-touch experience.
Virtual As Market Expansion vs. Virtual as Market Research
The flipside of the coin is that virtual events require a lower level of commitment from attendees. They are often accessible at a much lower cost — sometimes even for free — and participants can drop off at any time if they start to lose interest.
On the one hand, this presents the promise of attracting new audiences who may be willing to give a low-stakes commitment a try. But how will this different level of commitment influence event content?
Schwinger believes that virtual events will need to keep their messaging as broadly applicable as possible. Brands have the potential to reach much wider audiences, but their focus should be on big-picture brand awareness rather than specialized content. Event organizers need to be realistic about the potential for lead generation. “Just because you went from 8,000 to 70,000 participants doesn’t mean that you’re going to have 70,000 people buying your product,” he explains. “But if there’s no significant financial risk, now you have eyeballs on your content.” To match the viewing preferences of the online audience, Schwinger suggests keeping the user experience as simple as possible by offering a limited selection of short, accessible content.
When it comes to on-property event activities, Schwinger recommends providing much more specialized session topics — with content that verges on training material. Organizers should assume that in-person attendees have already done their research on the brand, and they’re looking for a more in-depth conversation.
Although Metrailler agrees that event planners need to design their virtual events around the expectation of low commitment levels from attendees, he has a different perspective on what that means for event design.
Metrailler believes that virtual engagement should be structured around what he calls ‘microcommitments.’ He gives the example of an NPS survey delivered via email — if attendees can respond by clicking on an interactive number scale within the email itself, response rates will jump. “You should only expect one click from the attendee,” he says.
If the virtual attendee experience needs to be as frictionless as possible, does that mean the content also needs to be different? Metrailler doesn’t think so. Instead, he thinks that virtual participants will function like a focus group for in-person events, which generally involve a much higher level of investment. There is more leeway to test the waters with virtual attendees, and the virtual environment may be uniquely suited for this kind of market research.
For example, while virtual events may make it easier for attendees to drop off, this makes them all that much more valuable in terms of identifying the most engaging content. Further, all of their actions can be tracked through data analytics. Event organizers will be able to identify not only which sessions were most popular, but which segments of the session had the highest engagement. Did attendees leave the screen? Conversely, did they respond to a poll or make a comment in the chat section? The virtual platform can give you all of this information.
According to Metrailler, these engagement metrics will not only help event organizers to identify which content to include at in-person events, but also who to invite. Only the most qualified leads and the most captivating speakers will be carried forward.
What About Year-Round Engagement?
Metrailler believes that an event organizer’s virtual and in-person events should all contribute to a continual, ongoing brand engagement strategy. It is less about the duration of any single event, and more about retaining the audience’s attention year-round through a series of different touch points.
“Turn your event into a content machine,” Metrailler urges. He believes that in-person events can also be a vehicle for content creation, but that virtual formats will make it easier to automate the editing process. Analytics will help organizers to identify which clips to include in highlight reels.
Similarly, some platforms may eventually provide markers that allow viewers to skip forward to the most high-engagement section (what Schwinger calls a 'hotspot') of a longer video. Even content produced from in-person events will eventually make it to an online audience, which will in turn facilitate a similar kind of automated curation.
Repeat attendees will also be able to see their viewing history at a glance, with the added option to integrate recommendations based on their past behaviors. The platform will then act as a de facto content library.
Virtual platforms may eventually serve a similar role to trade shows, where brands compete side-by-side for audience attention. Under this model, platforms could recommend content across brands based on attendance and engagement history. For the time being, event content is still siloed into branded event spaces. “We want to create an experience that is channelled toward a specific brand,” explains Metrailler.
What About Hybrid Events?
Despite all the buzz around hybrid events, they may not be as popular as some were initially predicting. According to Schwinger, most of his clients have been asking for in-person only or virtual only formats, with Schwinger emphasizing that the two formats can both be leveraged independently.
“Don’t force the buzzword into your planning. Hybrid events can work, but a combination of in-person only and virtual only events can also work. You should be offering the format that best caters to the attendee category that you want to reach.”
- Joe Schwinger, CEO, MeetingPlay
Ultimately, both tech providers and event organizers are still working in an experimental stage. There are no right or wrong answers, and the field is ripe for innovation.
Virtual and in-person events may function more like parallel universes rather than as two different ends of the customer journey. With that said, the low level of commitment required from virtual attendees will inevitably influence an event’s marketing strategy. Will virtual events be geared primarily towards top-of-the-funnel content, or will they help to identify the most effective bottom-of-the-funnel tactics?
In the end, varying approaches to event formats will ultimately mean more data for making informed decisions in the future. And there is no reason to believe that different schools of thought cannot eventually be combined into the most well-rounded best practices possible.