Virtual events have become more popular in recent years due to improving tech as well as their cost-effectiveness and environmental merit. Now, with the coronavirus prompting event cancellations and travel bans worldwide, virtual events have never been more timely.
Last year, the trend towards event sustainability put the events industry under scrutiny, with many citing air travel as the primary culprit responsible for the industry’s CO2 emissions. The resulting trend of flight shaming moved many planners to consider the benefits of hybrid events and online engagement.
Now, the recent outbreak of novel coronavirus (COVID-19) has many pulling out of events altogether. Even when events aren’t being cancelled outright, many are simply unable to travel to them due to travel bans and restrictions. And as the cancellation of MWC in Barcelona and the surges in infections in South Korea, Iran and now Italy have proven, the impact is not isolated to China and the surrounding areas.
In short, it's becoming more and more difficult to justify convening large groups of people at an onsite event — and in some cases, it's simply logistically impossible.
In this post, we'll discuss some potential benefits of online events given the current climate, as well as how to implement them to capitalize on online engagement.
What Are Online, Hybrid and Virtual Events?
Simply put, online events are those that take place online. The content, networking and activities are all delivered through live streams and other collaborative tools.
Hybrid events are those that use technology to deliver a live event, whole or in part, to an online audience experiencing the content remotely — again through predominantly live streams. This online engagement serves essentially to expand the event’s reach and to allow for participation from afar.
Online and hybrid events are not new, but they have yet to become widespread in the events industry — only 33% of marketers surveyed in recent EventMB research say their company has hosted a virtual event. However, 70% of marketers who had already hosted virtual events said they plan to host more.
Clearly, there is still a long way to go in the adoption of virtual events in the industry, but they have a lot of potential. Now is the time to start considering them more seriously, and some industry leaders have got the ball rolling.
Taking heed of the global health concern, Salesforce has announced that they’re reformatting the upcoming Salesforce World Tour Sydney Reimagined on March 4, 2020 as a totally digital experience.
Similarly, amidst an outbreak in the north of Italy, Giorgio Armani has decided to opt out of the crowds of fashionistas and models at Milan Fashion Week by live streaming his 2020 Fall/Winter line.
The Women’s FW20-21 fashion show will be held behind closed doors. This is a preventative measure decided by Mr Armani to support national efforts in safeguarding public health.
— Armani (@armani) February 23, 2020
Benefits of Online or Hybrid Events
Although many of the advantages of events lie in face-to-face networking and discovery opportunities, there are also many benefits to including online participation options.
Here are just a few:
- keyboard_arrow_right Cost effectiveness: Hosting a smaller number of attendees and including a live stream for a wider online audience can be more cost-effective. The same principle also applies to live streaming only the speakers to an exclusively online audience.
- keyboard_arrow_right Inclusivity: Live events often exclude segments of potential attendees, whether that's due to travel restrictions, lack of childcare, or any other number of reasons. Providing options to connect online allows you to reach people who wouldn't otherwise be able to attend and gives you access to a wider overall event audience.
- keyboard_arrow_right Sustainability: Fewer people traveling means fewer carbon emissions from flights and a smaller carbon footprint for the event overall.
- keyboard_arrow_right Reach: 74% of planners consider social media the most effective tool for event marketing, meaning there are valuable engagement opportunities online. Effective pre-event engagement online will give you an already captive audience that is more likely to be receptive to content (paid or otherwise).
- keyboard_arrow_right Health and safety: As long as the coronavirus poses a threat, limiting in-person attendance reduces the risk of infection and spreading the virus, both through travel to and from the event and onsite.
With the #coronavirus having a massive impact on the meetings industry your live streaming offering should be a priority if your event happens within the next 4 months.
— Julius Solaris (@tojulius) February 11, 2020
How Do You Incorporate Online Engagement at Your Event?
With these advantages in mind, let's take a look at how you can implement online tools at your event. The good news is that there are many options available if you're thinking of hosting a hybrid event and including a wider online audience.
One of the most common and effective methods is through a live stream. Live streaming your event allows you to share your speakers, sessions, and other event activities with your online audience. It also enables remote viewers to share the stream (or recording) with their friends and followers.
You may choose to live stream on any number of apps, including Facebook Live, which is the most popular, YouTube Live, Livestream, or Periscope. Depending on the size and budget of your event, you can determine the type of live stream set-up it makes sense to implement as well as the quality of the video you'll be streaming.
In general, try to incorporate elements that attendees look for at live events, such as networking opportunities, using a mobile event app with in-app chat functionality, dedicated WhatsApp groups, and tools like Slack or Yammer. This way, your online audience doesn't feel left out. This is particularly important when there is a mix of in-person and online attendees.
MOBILE EVENT APPS
Another way to encourage participation is through an event app. If you were planning to implement one anyway (and even if you weren't), granting everyone access to the app helps ensure that all attendees are aware of the event schedule and speakers and have an opportunity to connect with each other, regardless of whether they're in the room.
SESSION COLLABORATION AND LIVE POLLING
Mobile apps are also an important way to deliver live polls throughout the event. This is a useful tactic even without an online audience, but when many of your attendees are joining from a computer screen or mobile device, it's especially effective. You may also consider encouraging collaborative note-taking during event sessions.
For smaller events, especially internal ones, it may make sense to host an entirely virtual meeting. If you're careful to manage certain pitfalls, like participant distractions and technical difficulties, a virtual meeting can be a great way to achieve your goals in a less disruptive and more cost-effective manner.
Regardless of the route you decide to take, plan to spend time testing out different tools to find those that will work best for your event. In addition, make sure you keep the focus on engagement — it's important for attendees to feel like they're not missing out by not physically being there, and engagement is the key to minimizing distraction.
Online engagement is going to become an inseparable part of successful events, and if done right, a hybrid or online event can be quite successful.
Moreover, there are external circumstances at play. When events present a risk to public health or the environment, the resourcefulness and innovation of event planners will be tested. We have to start finding ways to continue to host our meetings while minimizing their potentially adverse effects.
Virtual events offer this possibility to planners, along with several additional benefits to boot. Events aren't going anywhere — but at least until travel bans are lifted and COVID-19 concerns subside, bringing events online offers options and invaluable learning opportunities.