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Is coronavirus the turning point for virtual events?

In this long-read article Frazer Chesterman, director at FM Future, takes an in-depth look at the exponential growth of virtual events as a result of the COVID-19 lockdown.

It’s the end of March 2020, and the events industry is still reeling from the rapid destruction of any semblance of “business as usual” due to the coronavirus pandemic. The UK is on lockdown and everyone, from freelancers to global brands, are seeking out ways to continue innovating and providing value to their clients and customers.

For many, this has meant finding ways to work effectively as a remote team and discovering mysterious working tools such as ‘Slack’ and ‘Zoom’ which were hitherto unexplored. And, for organisers, this has meant seriously looking into the possibilities of virtual events, in some cases for the first time. At FM Future we’re in the process of creating the Future Print Virtual Summit, with the aim of keeping the print industry connected and informed.

Frazer Chesterman

Frazer Chesterman

The events industry has historically had a turbulent relationship with video content – recognising its value but perhaps not taking time to consider the myriad ways that online audiences could and should be specifically catered to – but this period of isolation may well be heralding a shift in the importance of digital.

Streaming an entire live event directly onto a digital platform fails to take into account the fundamental differences in how audiences consume online video content compared to content at physical events.

“The reality is that if virtual technology is just a replication of the live event then you’re going to fail,” says Callum Gill, head of insight and innovation at DRPG. “The opportunity to ask questions at the end of a session isn’t enough.

“If you look at Glastonbury, they don’t just stick cameras in front of the stage. They have backstage stages, special guests, cutaways and prepared VTs.

“There are fundamental differences between what works in person and online, and one of the main ones is attention span,” adds Matt Turner, editor-in-chief at Sleeper Media, whose event The AHEAD Awards Asia was held virtually early in 2020. “It’s an interesting learning curve.”

Bring communities together

Each year the Charity Film Awards brings together the charity community to celebrate its most effective and inspiring video content. Usually a physical event, this year the awards will take place online due to the restrictions around coronavirus.

“Our big advantage is that we’re celebrating video content, so it’s already a digital and social media-driven campaign,” explains founder Simon Burton. “We believe there’s a way of turning this adversity into an opportunity; the trick is to tweak the format slightly and to show our community that there is a big upside to them in this new format. They can all galvanise their supporters who can then share in the event.”

What was an exclusive event, which only those gathered at the venue could attend, will now be broadcast online and open to all – meaning the charities can involve their communities and take advantage of the momentum of the event for their own promotional campaigns.

Burton adds that the focus in the lead-up to the online event will be on building excitement and ensuring an entertaining and high-quality final product, with plenty of opportunities for viewers to get involved and share their thoughts.

“Once it’s on a screen people’s expectations get very high,” he continues. “If you’re used to Netflix, Amazon Prime and other endless brilliant content then why would you settle?

“Events are about two things, community and emotion. And when you make the switch to digital those elements have to still be present.”

Change what success means

As organisers make the switch to virtual events, it’s important to be flexible in terms of measuring success and return on investment. Directly transposing the aims you had for a live event can cause you to miss the many potential benefits of video and broadcast content.

The coronavirus outbreak has led to unprecedented interest in virtual events

Get Employed was intended to be a conference aimed at international students looking for employment in the UK. As a physical, London-based event it would’ve welcomed around 250 student delegates and presented sessions on topics such as visa advice and CV workshops.

As a virtual event, Get Employed will be split into smaller sessions according to industry, allowing for more specific, tailored content relevant to its target audience.

“Now we can target international students outside of London,” says Mehram Sumray Roots, founder of YADA Events. “We can market to a much wider audience and it’s helped us widen our reach, which is an unforeseen benefit.”

Reaching a larger and more diverse audience is a clear benefit of virtual events, not to mention a way to reach international delegates without the environmental impact that would come from gathering the same community in a physical location.
For organisers who’ve managed to cancel an event without incurring significant costs relating to venue cancellation and having creative content made, that unused budget could be put to use installing a permanent broadcast infrastructure which could reap benefits for years to come, argues Callum Gill.

“You have a massively decreased infrastructure cost and massively increased budget,” he says. “Keep that money ring-fenced, invest in the platform properly and do something really great. It’s business-critical to change these systems now. This is a watershed moment.”

As a counterpoint, Orson Francescone, MD of FT Live, argues that avoiding the costs of live events also means that organisers are often losing out on significant sponsorship and delegate revenue, which digital events simply can’t commend.

Embrace the bespoke

The possibilities of virtual events, says Gill, include making truly relevant and bespoke content for your audience.

“It’s personalising the attendee journey, but virtually and at a granular level,” he continues. “You can push content to different regions at different times. You can ask for audience feedback constantly and consistently. You can see drop-offs in engagement and segment that data in various ways, seeing in real-time what topics put people off. You can do the main session in one language while other global locations can have tailored content with regional presenters.”

With so many possibilities, it’s understandable that more and more organisers are looking to the virtual event world to maintain their presence in the market in the absence of a physical event.

With so much uncertainty about the future of the industry and of individual companies and events – putting on a virtual event sends the signal that you’re still active and engaged and, even more importantly, providing much-needed clarity and information to your target audience.

Brodie Smith, project manager at Silverdot, whose global health and safety initiative forum launch has transitioned to virtual, concludes: “It reminds people that there is a world still spinning out there and, in our case, that the safety world is still looking out for people.”

Whatever the industry looks like when it emerges at the other side of the coronavirus lockdown, it’s clear that the place of digital will have fundamentally shifted. The question is, will its impact last beyond the confines of insolation and truly integrate into face-to-face events?