Will 2020 See the Rise of the Virtual Conference? 

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By Jessica Houston – Founding 50 Member of the School of Marketing

A few weeks ago, I was sitting down with a cup of coffee and a bowl of granola, ready to attend my first virtual conference: Get Stacked. Initially penned in the diary for March, as a face to face event, the team had to quickly pivot and make an important decision: cancel, postpone or go virtual. 

This is a decision many organisations have had to tackle in light of COVID-19. Some of the world's largest brands are moving their flagship conferences online, while others have chosen to move the date to later in the year. For the marketing industry, this means September is becoming an increasingly busy month with the likes of Advertising Week Europe and Hypergrowth falling within the same week. 

With a divide between those choosing to go virtual vs cancel or postpone, I am intrigued as to whether 2020 really will be the rise of the virtual conference on a mass scale, or whether this is just a short-term solution?

Event Planning for the Virtual World 

The good news is that the concept of a virtual event isn't new. I'm sure we've all logged into a webinar or webcast, have tuned into an Instagram Live or streamed some sort of sporting or music event. With the likes of social media platforms such as Facebook, Instagram and LinkedIn offering live streaming capability, content creators and consumers expect to be able to tune into a certain level of live content, on the go. However, turning a large conference into an online experience that adds value to its attendees is a new challenge. With an audience primed for online content experiences, how can organisations learn from the existing models and adapt this for the large-scale conference as we know it?

 

B2B Marketing chose to dive in at the deep end and take their conference online, which I applaud them for. It's not easy going first, and they organised this at record speed with excellent feedback from the attendees. But as you can imagine, moving a full 2-day conference online brings its challenges. 

Get Stacked was hosted on Hopin, an all-in-one live online event platform. I was surprised at the capabilities within the platform, and they were able to replicate the main features of a face to face conference: the main stage, various other 'online' stages for breakout talks, an exhibition and a networking room. You could create your profile, message other attendees to build new relationships and interact with the speakers by submitting your questions and comments during each live talk. 

All in all, I thought this made for a great experience, and it was much closer to the real thing than I was expecting. I walked away with plenty of insights, one or two new connections and a new opinion of how virtual conferences can work. The best part was that I didn't even have to leave my house to attend. However, there were a few technical glitches both at an attendee and speaker level, which I expected based on some of the video conference calls I’ve experienced, but it was still a little frustrating. I had to refresh my browser more times than I can remember over two days, so much so, I had to leave one of the sessions early because I couldn't listen to the fragmented talking - sorry! 

Fostering an environment where we can share learnings and quickly make improvements to the online experience will help the industry go a long way. The question is, will we see demand for virtual conferences surpass this initial spike in 2020? 

The Verdict is Out

Given how much I love a face to face conference for the benefits of immersing myself into a new environment for the day and being able to network with other like-minded individuals, I was pleasantly surprised by the online experience. However, I don't think this will be the rise of the virtual conference as we might think. 

Yes, there is an immediate need as a result of COVID-19 to take content and events online, and this is a great alternative to do so. But in my opinion, there is no substitute for attending a conference in person and meeting people face to face. You just aren't going to be able to replicate that same level of experience and interaction, unless we see the rise of 5G power virtual reality experiences that can place you in the room at the event? Maybe sometime in the future.  

I think organisations are becoming more conscious of the decisions they are making around hosting significant conference-style events and there will be more consideration around what the best approach is. There are the added benefits of going virtual - lower costs, broader reach, greater accessibility for attendees and reduced carbon footprint. If you think a speaker may travel from the US to London to deliver a 1-hour talk at a conference but that's at least three days out of their working week if you include the travel time. It seems like quite a significant trade-off when that could be reduced to a matter of hours if they delivered their session online. But, I do think we will still see those big flagship conferences stick around for a bit longer. 

I relate it to any good marketing plan. Start with your objectives and understand 'why' you're planning a  onference in the first place. What are you looking to achieve? Whom are you looking to attract and therefore, what is the best format, platform, and route to achieve those outcomes? If that means hosting a virtual conference, then so be it - and you can start to think more creatively about how you engage your audience and design a bespoke online experience for them. If it's the latter, then wait for the timing to be right and deliver, deliver, deliver. 

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