Can virtual events fill the physical conference gap?

As COVID-19 locks down the events industry, we look at the ramifications for brands and investigate how virtual conferencing can fill the gap

The long-term impact of the COVID-19 lockdown on the Australian events industry won’t be known for some time, but one immediate outcome is the rapid rise in interest in virtual conferences.

With the banning of mass gatherings having led conference organisers to cancel or postpone most events, some are pressing ahead with heavily modified agendas designed to be delivered digitally.

That has been good news for platform companies such as Cisco WebEx, LogMeIn (maker of GoToWebinar) and ON24 and streaming services such as Akamai. But it has not provided much comfort to the nearly 200,000 people who work in the Australian events sector – many of them in small businesses or as casual or contractors.

According to Exhibition & Event Association of Australasia (EEAA) CEO, Claudia Sagripanti, representations have been made to government seeking support for the sector, and a sustainability plan is in development.

“We have been told right that across the industry redundancies have started to occur, or reductions of hours,” Sagripanti tells CMO. “The Prime Minster has said there could be six months of economic pain, and certainly there would be very few companies who could survive with no cash flow for six months.”

With the sector in shut-down mode, brands are quickly working to investigate other ways they can reach audiences. Hence interest in digital platforms.

Salesforce’s virtual bet

Much of this interest was sparked by US marketing platform maker Salesforce’s decision in March to translate its Sydney World Tour event to run digitally.

That gave the company’s local vice-president for marketing, Renata Bertram, and her colleagues 13 working days to reinvent an event that was planned to feature more than 150 presentations. But in just 10 days, the first session had been recorded, followed by approximately 100 more, most of which were live-streamed.

“We transformed the space in the International Convention Centre into a series of Salesforce-branded studios,” Bertram explains. “It was from these studios we actually recorded some sessions before the actual [event] day, and also where all the live sessions happened.”

Many sessions that couldn’t be streamed from the ICC were recorded using meeting rooms at Salesforce’s offices in Melbourne and Sydney, to create an online expo.

“It was in those meeting rooms our solutions experts and engineers led their live demos and consultations,” Bertram says. “What the online expo gave attendees was 18 different ‘rooms’ where they could access a product expert to explore Salesforce Customer 360 through demonstrations, and also ‘asking anything’ sessions, and we were able to offer one-on-one consultations.”

Bertram says more than 1.5 million views were chalked up across the main conference day, coming in via Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and YouTube.

“But the number we are really proud of is the 80,000 [who tuned in to] Salesforce Live, which meant they gave us some of their details, and also meant they were able to engage with everything we had to offer on day of launch, including the online access to all 100 sessions,” she says.

Virtual considerations

Stories such as these have created a significant upswing in interest in virtual conference platforms.

According to LogMeIn head of marketing for Asia-Pacific, Peter Vasey, his company has witnessed worldwide growth in interest in its GoToMeeting and GoToWebinar products of about 20 per cent month over month.

“But when you look at some of the harder hit areas, we are seeing increases of more than double,” Vasey says.

Similarly, director of demand generation for the digital experience platform company ON24, Tim Johnston, says his company has seen interest double this quarter. That, in turn, has raised interest in the quality of the networks that carry these events, especially as the greater number of people working from home has the potential to put strain on broadband links.

“It’s important the live stream is a smooth, high-quality experience to avoid users becoming distracted and losing concentration,” says Akamai Technologies regional sales director for South Asia, Matthew Lynn. “Our research shows users will disengage and react negatively to low-quality streaming incidents, such as buffering, regardless of the brand or interest in the content. Companies need to ensure they have the proper infrastructure and streaming capabilities to offer their audience a seamless experience.”

Lynn also warns companies that adopt virtual models need to ensure they are protecting the experience.

“These digital experiences could experience a number of cyber-attacks, such as DDoS attacks, pirated content and website defacement, which could hurt the brand reputation,” Lynn says. “Privacy of users and data should also be a consideration, as thousands of business professionals will tune into the live stream.”

Up next: The wider event impact, content, plus we try and answer the looming question: Can virtual events deliver the same sales goods?

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