If 2020 was to be renamed as the 'year of virtual events', it won't be inappropriate at all. With the Covid-19 pandemic threat still looming heavily, the number of online events has more than doubled - with organisers giving participants access to live sessions as well as on-demand content. The prime focus is on creating and maintaining a "connected experience" for everyone in these troubled times.It's not smooth sailing with everything related to virtual events, however. A recent survey found that nearly one-third of all event planners did not try hosting online conferences because they felt that a virtual environment cannot deliver the value that event attendees typically look for. Availability of the right technological infrastructure is also a factor, as is the task of keeping attendees uniformly engaged with the event. In what follows, we will look at the main challenges that event organisers face while planning a virtual event:
On average, 1 out of every 5 event planners avoid organising virtual events simply because they do not have the infrastructure and the technical knowhow required for the job. A fully online or a hybrid event has several components to take care of - right from creating an optimum content flow and planning an effective attendee engagement strategy, to selecting the best event tech platform/streaming tool and quick troubleshooting. Organisers who try to plan virtual events for the first time ever are likely to face even more problems - with the lack of experience being a serious bottleneck. Ideally, an event planner should participate in a few online conferences to understand how things are handled, learn from them, and then start planning his/her own event.
There is no dearth of event management platforms currently available. However, not all of them are equally adaptable for virtual events. The problems escalate when not much tech support is forthcoming either. An organiser who is working on his/her very first remote conference is not likely to find everything intuitive - and what’s more, (s)he might not be the best person to answer technological queries from participants. With little or no support coming from the event tech vendor, it does not take long for the overall attendee experience to go southwards - which automatically leads to bad publicity.
In the pandemic-ravaged world, virtual events are gaining precedence. But, the fact remains that these online conferences do not deliver the sort of exposure and networking value that an in-person event can give. Features like live polls, surveys and Q&A only work up to an extent for virtual events - without offering the required peer-to-peer networking to participants. In fact, the absence of live engagement options is an important point of concern for nearly half of all event planners worldwide. In order to tackle this challenge, organisers should go for virtual event platforms with built-in live chat and, preferably, with a social community building feature. In addition, exhibitors, sponsors and partners should also have the opportunity to seamlessly connect with the participants.
Replicating the content strategy and flow of a live event for a virtual edition never works. Even if an attendee just logs on to a livestream and wanders away (while the stream is going on), the organiser has no way of tracking that. Creating too many sessions, and/or staggering the event over several days are among the things that are likely to cause breaks in the attention span of the participants. Many virtual events are single-day affairs precisely for this reason. The organiser has to understand that people will be “attending” from their homes - and keeping these people invested is a challenge. The focus should be on creating and maintaining a proper narrative flow - somewhat similar to television programs. The agenda should be divided into the right number of tracks/sessions - so that participants can easily ‘take in’ all the information.
Some people are happy to use mobile event apps to participate in a virtual conference. Others might want to join from their web browsers. Among the mobile users, there will be iPhone users and Android users - using a wide variety of smartphones and tablets. The onus is on the organisers to make sure that the event app and the event web portal should work smoothly on all devices and all browsers. If there are any restrictions, that should be clearly mentioned beforehand. Not everyone is likely to be equally technically savvy - so the entire onboarding process has to be made as simple as possible. The point to remember here is that, there are no physical check-ins and guidance available in a virtual setting, everything is in a DIY mode - and if people face difficulties, they will get flustered and angry.
Breakout sessions, coffee breaks, scheduled meetings, Q&A sessions - there are many ways in which the audience can actually participate in an in-person event. These opportunities are absent when the same event goes virtual. Many online event platforms host events that have typically one-way communication - with the live/recorded videos playing, and the viewers having precious little to do. In order to avoid such boring scenarios, it is imperative to “make people talk” - through live Q&A sessions, session feedback and opinion sections, polls, virtual breakout rooms, QR code scanning, social community, and more. It is also a good idea to track and record user activity logs (provided that the event tech vendor has that option) - to understand audience behaviour.
If a virtual event is coming up in a month, and a fully live version is scheduled next year (when, hopefully, the Covid situation would improve significantly), people can simply skip the virtual edition. In order to avoid this, event planners have to deliver certain exclusive benefits for the participants who sign up for the online event. For example, certain livestreams can be made available only during the event days (with no recordings available later). Certain documents and resources can be provided to the virtual audience. Participants can also be offered exclusive discounts on the ticket prices to the live event next year. The bottomline is simple - people have to be ‘motivated’ to register for virtual conferences.
An event management platform might boast of the most advanced features - but even then, it cannot be expected to fully replicate the live event experience. While this fact is not lost on most event planners, problems creep up when the expectations of the participants are not properly set. The entire schedule, features and resources should be provided to the audience from the very start - with a clear explanation of the resources available. Many event organisers also make the folly of worrying too much about technological limitations - and neglecting the bigger picture of content strategies and audience engagement in the process. The host should plan the web event and then select a platform that would be the best fit, and not the other way round.
Sponsors and partners are often rather reluctant to take part in virtual events, and there are genuine reasons for this. There are no exhibition stands, advertising standees, and banner ads at the event venue (well, there are no venues, for that matter!). This can be a major problem - because without adequate sponsorships coming in, organising the virtual event on a big-enough scale might not be feasible. The mobile app that is being used for hosting virtual events should allow sponsors to easily connect with all participants, as well as to advertise their latest products/services and grab eyeballs (once again, the social community feature comes in handy for this). The same goes for exhibitors.
This can be a tricky thing. There are specialised event app builders, ticketing platforms, Q&A platforms, and more such digital products - each of them claiming to provide best-in-class services. However, if an organiser uses multiple platforms for a virtual event, things are bound to become confusing - while the total expenses (because separate subscriptions will be required) will also spiral upwards. Therefore, it makes a lot of sense for event planners to go for a platform that delivers end-to-end solutions, with all the required functionalities under the hood. A single subscription should suffice for the event. Less expenses, less tech worries.
A lot of the time, organisers promote virtual events as forced replacements of live events (pandemic-induced replacements). As such, the targeted audience can view these events as ‘dumbed-down versions’ of live events, and maybe not worth attending. It is here that the organisers have to get creative - highlighting the advantages of attending the virtual event, and how participants can leverage the maximum value out of these events. Social media channels - like Facebook, Instagram and LinkedIn - are best-suited for this, while planners can also consider sending personalised bulk emails. It’s important to change the perception about virtual events - they should be projected to be important in their own right (and not just a poor cousin of a live event).
At a virtual conference, all content and video assets (live sessions and/or recorded material) are premium content. As such, organisers have to be wary about unauthorised access, and take steps to rule out such possibilities. By the same token, people who have signed up should be able to access the sessions they register for (imagine paying money for a virtual event, only for a blank screen to stare at you on D-day!). Event planners have to select a tech vendor that ensures full data security, and seamless access to registered users. It’s also a good idea to enquire about where the event data is stored - during and after the event.There is a general feeling of ‘disconnect’ about a virtual event - there’s no denying this. The buzzing environment of a live event - along with the face-to-face interactions and the consequent trust-building - are all absent. This, however, does not necessarily have to be a deal-breaker. Professional event planners have to realise that virtual events are here to stay (at least for some time) - and if they plan carefully, have an eye for detail, and go with a reliable event management platform - they can overcome all the challenges above.