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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The wider event impact

While the crisis is presenting some potential upside for technology providers, the same cannot be said for organisations that traditionally supply to the events industry.

Those that can reinvent themselves for the new world are doing so, such as the speaker industry. Saxton Speakers Bureau has been counselling its roster to retool presentations for remote delivery and has set up a service agreement with an organisation for clients to either live-stream or run webinars in Sydney and Melbourne.

“Virtual meetings are a great alternative given the situation we are in, which is escalating day after day, where organisations still need to be able to educate, inspire, motivate their teams,” says Saxton chief executive officer, Anne Jamieson. “That said, in a time-poor, attention-deficit world, nothing has the power to shift heads, win hearts and drive behaviour like a live event – and an event is still only as good as a speaker and the content.”

Some events agencies have also chosen to get on the front foot when it comes to increasing their ability to support digital events, such as Sydney-based experience agency, The Company We Keep, which was one of the key suppliers to Salesforce and played a pivotal role in delivering its online sessions.

“We love the live event,” says director, Nigel Ruffell. “That one-to-one connection is incredibly important, but we’re always looking for options to get things out to people who can’t attend. So we have always had that capability and in the back of our minds.”

This will help The Company We Keep weather the next few months, with Ruffell saying pretty much all the large-scale events it had on the books have turned digital.

“The period after that is going to be a little bit quiet, so what we are doing is focusing on content development and our creative studio,” Ruffell says. “And then it is just about positioning ourselves for when the industry turns around and it all comes back.”

Several event organisers are using the crisis as an opportunity to get creative. Utah-based data visualisation software maker, Domo, was due to kick off its annual three-day Domopalooza conference on 18 March, with an expected attendance of 3000. Three weeks ago, however, the company made the decision to switch the event to become a digital live and on-demand event.

“Coincidentally, the theme of this year’s event is ‘go fast, go big and go bold’, so when we made the decision three weeks out, in light of COVID-19 concerns, to keep the dates but turn this into a live and on-demand digital event, we had to do exactly that,” says Domo’s Asia-Pacific marketing director, Amy Christopher.

She says the digital format now provides an opportunity to engage a larger cohort of customers that would never have been able to travel to Utah.

“We’re taking full advantage of the opportunity to ensure they get access to the product announcements, company strategy updates and customer stories,” Christopher says. “One of the upsides of delivering Domopalooza in this format is we get to give delegates a tour of beautiful Utah while they absorb the updates. We’ll be delivering the keynotes that usually take place on main stage from locations like the iconic Bonneville Salt Flats, where people have broken land speed records, to the salt mines of south-central Utah.”

For the customer story component, Domo is ‘taking’ attendees to customer sites. It has also been recording breakout sessions from all over the world, as on demand modules.

“And because we want to use this as an opportunity to engage more delegates outside of the US, we’ve made sure we have live Q&A during scheduled times for customers in different time zones,” Christopher says. “Our bigger customers, where they can, are hosting viewing parties for their employees, and we’ve set up support to make this as flexible as possible with the COVID-19 situation changing daily.

“Our customers have been so accommodating and supportive of our change in delivery and are super excited about the opportunity to be a part of this landmark event.”

But while companies such as Salesforce and Domo have been able to pivot to virtual events relatively easily, the same cannot be said for all industries. According to eMarketer’s New York-based principal analyst, Jillian Ryan, technology companies that have an agile foundation or have undergone a digital transformation and are used to relying on technology to support communications are coping OK.

“For example, if a company has a current webinar program, pivoting to a virtual event is an easier lift,” Ryan says. “Or if a company already supports employees working remotely through video collaboration tools, they will be able to support a virtual live stream more seamlessly.”

However, she says the transition may be harder for non-digital organisations.

“I have seen companies in industries less digitally-savvy have struggled to convert to a virtual event because they don't have skills, tech or infrastructure to pivot,” Ryan says. “These types of non-tech companies are having growing pains beyond their event strategy as they figure out how to keep other elements of their business up and running as usual, especially if they have opted to close their office and have their employees work remotely.

“Their priority won't be replacing their event, but it will be making sure their employees are set up with the proper systems and tools to collaborate virtually.”

The conversion question

The key question now, however, is whether companies can turn digital audiences into revenue by generating qualified leads and lifting customer satisfaction as they would expect to from a regular conference.

“While a virtual event allows the host to share content with attendees, there is still a big missing element - the ability for other attendees to connect and engage with each other,” Ryan says. “This means missed meetings on the tradeshow floor, missed coffee connections, missed dinners and the list goes on. For now, it will be challenging to quantify exactly what these lost touchpoints mean.

“However, the cancellation of events isn't the only difference between this year and last. The global economy is questionable with a potential recession looming, which means many businesses that were planning to buy or renew, might be reassessing their budgets and making cuts, this can be what ultimately causes long-term damage, not the lack of the event itself.”

Just how much of the shortfall can be made up using digital events is hard to determine. According to Vasey, LogMeIn’s experience with clients in the APAC region shows webinars compare fairly well to in-person events for driving leads and pipeline.

“The in-person events probably deliver more, but then we can do webinars at a lower cost,” he says. “So when you are looking at that cost per lead it probably works out very similarly. What it boils down to is making sure you have compelling content that will draw an audience in.”

One silver lining of the switch to virtual events is the ability to tap into the data they generate. According to ON24’s Johnston, this can reveal much more about the interests and intentions of audience members than a physical event might provide.

“When you take an event to digital you have the ability to understand the digital body language in the room - the ability to capture behaviours and capture interests and signals,” Johnston says. “So you are not just showing who has attended and who hasn’t, you are understanding other collateral they consume during that experience. You are understanding the questions and answers they received, how they responded to the polls, their direct feedback through surveys, what they are tweeting on Twitter.

“So you get all these different data points that you can have a better understanding or a profile of who is attending your events. And that data is gold. That allows us to make our marketing smarter.”

Johnston says this data can be directly integrated into scoring models and nurture programs, and used to direct attendees down curated follow-up paths after the event. Furthermore, the content of a virtual event can live on well after the event itself – something Christopher and the team at Domo are planning to capitalise on.

“We will be using this content to extend and engage more customers, more prospects and more partners over the weeks and months ahead, repurposing the event into snackable content, both video and print, and finding new and relevant ways to deliver this to our audience across the globe,” she says. “For the APAC team, this changes Domopalooza from an event for a few, to an opportunity for many, and we are super excited to capitalise on that.”

Future thinking

As for the long-term future of virtual events, despite their current necessity, no one believes they will fully replace physical events in the longer term.

“All the research shows the power of live of events and the value it brings in terms of connections and networking,” says Saxton’s Jamieson. “Virtual meetings are a great option in the short term but not the longer term.”

However, for Salesforce and other organisations, the success of its virtual event is leading to a rethink of how future events will be run – creating one of the possible lasting legacies of the COVID-19 crisis.

“Circumstances gave us an opportunity to think about things differently,” Bertram says. “But although there are potentially some things missing from online events, like that true human connection, what we were able to eliminate the need to travel to Sydney, which meant that we were providing accessibility to a much broader audience. As long as you had a device and a connection to the Internet, you could tune in.

“So my aspiration for next year’s World Tour is to absolutely have an in-person event, but to have many more people streaming in from the geographies and locales that can’t make it in to Sydney. And that will give us the opportunity to serve a broader audience. It will make us think a little bit more broadly and intently around the content that we curate, and also how we produce that event.

But the opportunity for the two to coexist and provide a better experience is absolutely there.”

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