If Netflix, YouTube, video games and dating apps are any indication, online engagement has massive potential. Why are virtual events struggling to achieve it, and what lessons can virtual events glean from these successful models of digital engagement?
The so-called virtual event revolution over the past year has taken place in a time during which we have never been more digitally connected and engaged as a society. Netflix has to ask its viewers if they’re still watching, and online dating platforms have become mainstream.
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The pandemic has only heightened the success of the everyday online platforms we spend our time on, with video games and streaming services both experiencing massive surges.
However, virtual events as a whole have not yet been able to tap into this existing potential. While tech providers colloquially cite increased engagement on their platforms, over half of planners still cite engagement as their main frustration with virtual event tech. Virtual is undeniably unfamiliar to many in the event industry, but it's not new, and it's been succeeding in other areas.
What is being missed, and what can virtual events learn from existing formats that have been captivating online audiences for years? EventMB sat down with several visionaries from leading event tech firms to find out.
What Makes Other Streaming Content Bingeable?
When it comes to virtual event engagement, part of the onus is on tech platforms to provide the necessary features, while the other part is on meeting planners and producers to create compelling content. While most events don't have Netflix's budget to produce bingeable content, there is still an opportunity — and a need — for virtual events to create relatable experiences.
Nick Borelli, director of marketing growth at AllSeated, notes that most virtual events lack a compelling narrative and the relatability required to motivate engagement: “[Attendees] don't have a stake in the characters [at virtual events]. It shows that people binge watch, there's always a relatable element. It's not someone talking at people, it's storytelling that pulls people in with some kind of empathetic connection to their humanity."
According to Borelli, this is part of the appeal of online streamers on platforms like YouTube, which replace high production budgets with “a level of authenticity, relatability, and honesty that lets you in." It's all about understanding human behavior and creating an emotional connection.
Building Content for the Right Platform
Video is at the core of most engaging online content, and virtual events are, above all, a visual experience.
Bob Vaez, CEO of EventMobi, emphasizes the importance of keeping this in mind when designing digital events. "Make it cinematic," he said. "You have to mix in a little bit of surprise, a little bit of storytelling, and a little bit of entertainment to make sure you can keep people engaged with what's happening on screen."
Patrick Smith, chief marketing officer of Cvent, explains how Cvent did exactly that at the company's user conference, CONNECT, which was held virtually in 2020. “To make it as visually compelling as possible,” he says, “we changed up the camera angles and how we displayed content. We filmed in various studio locations that offered dynamic lighting and backgrounds to add visual interest. In short, we approached each session like we were filming a TV show — rather than just a speaker with a PowerPoint presentation — and that made all the difference.”
Leveraging the Online Audience to Fill Out a Niche
Jim Sharpe, CEO of Aventri, notes that "right now, you see a real inability on the part of virtual events to get conversations going." Platforms like YouTube and Twitch, however, have figured out how to foster their own interest-based micro-communities that allow their audience to engage with like-minded people.
For Vaez, the lesson here is to drive up value through specificity and focus on niche audiences. He explains that, historically, events use more general themes to try to bring as many people as possible together because turnout is a primary metric for success. However, there is a different way of creating success online that emphasizes engagement. Going virtual, you can afford to focus on a narrow niche with hyper relevant content without undermining ROI-generating turnout because the low-to-nonexistent barriers to attending online give you a much deeper pool of attendees from all over the world to draw from.
One way to use this strategy, according to Vaez, would be to run separate, smaller, but more frequent events for different segments of your audience, such as your customers, prospects, partners, etc.
Catering content to a specific audience not only puts you in a better position to combat Zoom fatigue within an increasingly competitive event marketplace, but also allows you to be more creative in the experiences you offer. Joe Schwinger, founder of MeetingPlay, emphasizes the value of creating tailor-made experiences for virtual audiences. For example, a hackathon-style event was a hit with tech audiences, but a cosmetic company will be better-served by an Instagram-like environment to increase engagement around recognition.
Giving Attendees More Control
Another key to virtual event engagement is giving attendees the ability to control more of their event experience the way many other platforms do.
"Online engagement is driven by the audience. You need to be able to give control to the attendees so that they can drive the experience. And they need to have choices. On tools like YouTube and TikTok, I have the choice to watch the content that I want, on my time, the way I want it. These are very significant shifts in the way we think about engagement."
- Bob Vaez, CEO, EventMobi
In EventMB’s Future of the Event Industry Report, Pierre Metrailler of SpotMe indicated that he expects 80 percent of virtual engagement to take place on-demand in 2021, so making content available after the event — or even year-round — will be crucial.
Smith seconds this strategy: "The idea of a menu of options, of being able to navigate through sessions based on attendee interests, is something that we really like — and because this is a standard functionality of any streaming service out there, attendees will likely expect this for their virtual events. One way that we’re exploring this is through our webinars. For example, we're doing a webinar series where we're continuing to build more content as live sessions are made available on demand. So that's a little bit of that Netflix model—building a library of content that keeps people coming back for more."
A big part of this is also user-generated content, where people can post their own content to complement existing sessions, which others can then engage with.
Facilitating Networking Through Recommendations
When it comes to digital matchmaking and networking, many virtual events still struggle, and leading platforms are still experimenting with innovative ways to bring people together at hybrid events while respecting the priorities of each audience.
When it comes to connecting people, online dating services like Tinder and eharmony can be considered the Holy Grail. Borelli remarks that "we can get people to get married" with a matchmaking app, but somehow "we can't get people together who need to buy and sell something" through virtual events.
According to Borelli, "this isn't hard. It just requires some empathy and understanding of human behavior, and taking advantage of algorithmic matchmaking possibilities."
These types of recommendation engines — which are currently being implemented by several virtual event platforms — are an essential component of online networking and will likely continue to become more sophisticated and mainstream.
Sharpe notes that "AI-driven matchmaking and recommendations of people that should interact with one another will be a key part of the virtual event going forward." Virtual events, Sharpe continues, offer a wealth of data from both registration and engagement with the event.
“Session selection, question submissions, clicks on exhibitor booths, content downloads, digital networking and more,” Sharpe elaborates. “The key is to create an environment where people can make meaningful connections. Using AI matchmaking and recommendation engines, you can bring participants together in networking sessions and birds-of-a-feather breakouts, so they connect naturally over common interests.”
Borelli explains that exVo, AllSeated's new 3D virtual event platform, was built by video game designers and leverages AI matchmaking while also leaving room for human connection. Attendees can move around the environment and have conversations with others, "but there's an algorithmic opportunity for who you'll actually meet."
"You don't want to bump into thousands of people in a virtual room, so there's all kinds of design criteria that we can use and change for every event," he says. "By understanding who should meet whom using psychographics, biographical information, etc., there are so many opportunities to put the right people in the room to cause human collision and still let there be some serendipity."
Virtual events have certainly gotten better on the whole since the beginning of the pandemic, but online engagement remains a major pain point despite having been successfully leveraged by numerous other platforms.
As Borelli puts it: "This is the best time to get your inspiration outside events, because everyone is confused in events right now. Find the isolated areas where this evolution has been happening without [the standard] rules [of event engagement], and get your inspiration from those places."