Will We Ever Meet In Person Again? (A Review Of Virtual Events)

Last week, I attended the AMA virtual event, “Unveiling Marketing Research’s Future Online”. I was very excited to see just what this virtual event would be all about. Mentally, I was trying to marry the idea of a Webinar with the experience of a live event and was left wondering what the union would look like. On Wednesday, I logged in and was prepared for technical difficulties but, surprisingly, I connected without a single hitch! I immediately began to explore, trying to acclimate myself to my virtual surroundings. The environment was easy to understand and navigate. Areas were clearly marked so you knew exactly what was going on where and when. Again, I was pleasantly surprised. Overall, I found a great balance between content and exhibitors and enjoyed the ability to listen to a session while also perusing the materials in the exhibition hall — yes, I admit, I was event-multitasking!

The topic of the future of market research (MR) is obviously a big draw, and sessions like those on DIY research and social media research in the B2B sphere could create quite a lot of chatter. But I think the virtual nature of the event itself is a topic to be discussed. Is this the future of events in general? Will networking over evening cocktails be a thing of the past? Will we simply know each other by our avatars? Here’s my take (the good and the bad). For me, virtual events:

  • Create opportunities to learn. For many departments, travel and conference budgets are still on the slim side after being cut during the recession. Events were one of the earliest- and hardest-hit areas for cutbacks. Free virtual events allow people who wouldn’t otherwise be able to attend events to sit front and center. These individuals not only get to learn all sorts of interesting things but also bring new voices to the MR conversation, which can be dominated by the “regulars.”
  • Facilitate the introverted nature of many MR professionals. Let’s face it, many MR professionals feel more comfortable with numbers than with a large group of people they don’t know. Virtual events allow the introverts among us to network from the safety of their cubicle or office. Similarly, individuals who may not be able to present in front of a large room of people may feel much more comfortable presenting a Web conference with a live audience of just one — themselves.
  • Allow attendees to multitask. For me, this is a pro and a con. The reality is that we’re all extremely busy. We all know the stress that the state of your inbox can cause at the end of a long conference day. The virtual events allow you to work on other materials simultaneously, focusing on the key sessions that you want to hear while also allowing you to carry on your routine daily tasks. For attendees, it’s seemingly a win-win situation: You get great new information and haven’t lost days of productivity. However, attendees also lose the ability to fully immerse themselves in a given topic for a few days when they have a project they’re working on on the side. For presenters and conference coordinators, it leaves you wondering just how much of your attendees’ mindshare you really have at any given point.
  • Stifle the personal aspect of events. The great thing about conferences and events is that they bring people together who wouldn’t necessarily be in the same room otherwise. While this can still occur in the virtual space, it’s not quite the same. At last year’s TMRE, for example, some great conversations were sparked after a presentation on online panel quality. Vendors and buyers batted back and forth in a way that would never happen otherwise. Similarly, the great “tweet-off” that occurred at last week’s event probably could have extended well past the end of the session with a group of interested participants that would have been in the room at a live event.

Overall, I think the virtual event was a great success. The feedback that I saw on the chat wall in the auditorium was overwhelmingly positive. I also think that these virtual events are a great addition to the MR conference schedule and offer unique opportunities for us to learn new content and connect with each other virtually. But, I think the mainstay MR events aren’t going to disappear anytime soon. After all, we do need to leave our cubicles and talk with each other in real time at some point! Until then, however, I still look forward to chatting with your virtual selves through the blog and Twitter!


AMA's Virtual Conference

I would agree with almost everything you wrote.

The main benefit of a free virtual conference is that there's a low barrier to entry. It cost me nothing to log in and check it out. Like you, I was pleasantly surprised by what I found- no technical problems, easy to navigate and lots of attendees. I ended up spending much more time there than I had planned, but that's a good thing. Once my coworkers heard that I was having good conversations at the conference, they were able to sign up and jump right in even though the conference was already under way. I'm sure that happened in other offices too and that helped the conference gain steam over the course of the day.

There is probably a downside to this low cost of entry. If I were traveling to a tradeshow, I'd do a lot more work to make sure I was getting a return on the investment. I'd schedule as many meetings around the conference as possible and I'd try to generate conference specific offerings. I can't see a virtual conference generating that sort of activity.

I wouldn't say that the "meat world" conference is dead just yet, but I walked (clicked?) away with the sense that the virtual conference might have a place in the industry as well.

I completely agree with your

I completely agree with your points as well and also like the low barrier to entry. I completely agree that they make a great supplement and not a replacement.

Great post

Jackie: great post. I'd like to chime in with a few additional benefits of virtual events:

1) Invite the entire team!

Especially with a free event (like AMA's), there's virtually no overhead to join (pun intended). If you're finding the event useful, you can invite your extended team to join you there.

2) Return to visit after the live event date(s)

Unlike a physical event, the booths and exhibits are not "torn down" at day's end. With virtual, attendees can return days (or weeks) later to find that useful document or re-watch a captivating session (on-demand).

3) Find precisely what you need

Every walk the floors of a physical event, not sure which exhibitor you wanted to visit? In a virtual event, attendees have a "search" capability, which allows them to find documents, videos and even booths - that match their search criteria.

4) Connect with others via video

We already connect with friends and relatives over Skype video calls - virtual events provide similar technology. This can extends a key aspect of physical events (face to face interactions) to virtual events.

Dennis Shiao
Director of Product Marketing at INXPO
[Note: we are the virtual events platform behind the AMA virtual event]

I like your additional

I like your additional points. I think pt 2 is especially relevant. How many times have you gotten interesting handouts at a conference only to get back home and be unable to find them (or maybe that's just me! : ) )?

I completely agree with your

I completely agree with your comments!. The virtual events technology has achieved a level of performance that allows attendees and exhibitors to get real benefits from their participation. They can truly network and engage their audiences now, and the fact that they are able to expand their reach beyond their traditional channels is a very relevant factor too.

We have delivered many virtual fairs and trade shows in Europe and South America, and we see that hybrid events are becoming a growing trend at both sides of the Atlantic.


AMA Virtual Conference

A couple of other points to add to Jackie's post and subsequent comments around speakers/presenters at a virtual event. Not only do attendees face restrictions on travel budgets but this also applies to speakers. A virtual event potentially allows for a wider range of presenters from across the globe. All can present, either live or pre-recorded typically via a webcast and get instant feedback (perhaps more than a physical event) from the audience via questions, instant polling etc. In addition it's possible to include presenters in a virtual event that would not normally get a chance to do so at a physical event. For example let's say it's an IT event - having the head of IT from company ABC who is head quartered in Spain speak virtually to a world-wide audience would be a big draw. Additionally all of us in the virtual event space would encourage sponsors/exhibitors to include personnel in their booth that would not normally be allowed to leave their offices to go a regular trade show or conference and at the same time would be someone of great interest to the attendee, e.g. VP Engineering, Head of Research etc.

I think it's easy to see from Jackie's post and the other comments that a combination of the physical and virtual can bring huge dividends to the visitor, speakers and event organizers

Stuart Bowen, President
Momentum Events

Virtual events have been

Virtual events have been around for a long time, and happily they continue to evolve. Exhibitors can maximize their ROI if they take these events just as seriously as traditional conferences and prepare accordingly. I'm personally in favor of dedicating a team of "chat now" reps who can provide individual attention to attendees. This team, available during hours that serve many time zones, should be carrying the virtual meeting theme as far as possible, even to the extent of using videochats, "follow me" onscreen demos and personalized/customized literature kits.

Such an approach to courting prospects while their interest is highest can make virtual events more like face-to-face events than ever before (is that a bad thing?) and there's yet another advantage: a rep sitting at HQ fielding virtual trade show questions can potentially assemble a team of experts in a single room - or across many locations - for a session that will afford the prospect a very rich informational experience. By the same token, the prospect can bring other interested parties to the meeting, as well. Virtual conferencing is simply begging for this kind of opportunity to be exploited and stretched to the fullest, since the technology is available right now.

Great Insights

Thanks for continuing to offer insights on this topic. I am interested to see what additonal virtual events continue to pop-up over the year and how they evolve. As I mentioned in the post, I was very impressed with the overall functionality of the event but it seems like there are additional great technology options that can expand the experience. Live video stream from presenters or even participants would definitely help make the event feel more "live".

It's great to see a write up

It's great to see a write up of the virtual event experience and the comments are all enlightening too! :) One thing I've been thinking about is how organisations potentially need to change their culture to allow employees to take time to participate in online events, and not necessarily just at the desktop. It would be great if people could watch live webcasts from conferences in a meeting room for example, on a big screen, with a few laptops for tweeting or joining chat rooms etc. The great thing about doing things this way is that the people in the room could discuss topics between themselves (something you can't do whilst someone is presenting in front of you because it'd be rude)!

Recently I went to the ThinkingDigital conference http://www.thinkingdigital.co.uk/ and spent the whole event in their 'LiveCast' lounge instead of the main theatre, and it was really good to be able to work and chat (quietly) whilst watching the talks. So even providing this sort of 'virtual' experience at a 'real' event is something to think about for event organisers.

Whilst I think face-to-face events are fantastic and necessary, I also think the opportunities for doing things online are HUGE and really, we are just at the beginning of understanding the ways we can use networked digital tools and spaces to make the world a better place :)

You might be interested in this blog I wrote a few months ago about 'Staying Grounded' - skip to the bullets for a summary of pros and cons of virtual events discussed at SES2010 ( http://www.sustainableeventssummit.com/ )


Europe is following on the path of virtual events

Dear Jackie
An independent opinion on the value of virtual trade shows is really good these days! Although North America has made big progress over the past 2-3 years in organising and delivering various shows, Europe lags behind with an unconvinced audience.
I would like to add one more good point virtual shows bring to the table: it is green. Besides the Internet connection, there is no other carbon footprint left behind a virtual show: no wasted paper, no toxic plasic, no fuel consumption. It is pure green marketing and business development.

It is a cost effective way SME's find their way into the big world.

I would like to extend an open invitation to join the very first exclusively virtual show dedicated to ITC sector in Europe (focus on Eastern Europe) taking place in September 15-17 at www.eit2010.com

Hoping to see you there,
Ruxandra Dariescu, Founder of avanTARGET Ltd