What Have We Learned about Virtual Engagements?


In the early months of 2020, when our in-person events were suddenly transported to virtual platforms—if not canceled outright—we were catapulted into a new event landscape as exhibitors/sponsors, participants, or event partners. Now, as the event industry looks forward to recovery, all signs point to the predominance of events that have both live and virtual components. Call them hybrid events, call them the new or next normal) there is an opportunity to revolutionize the event formats, reach broader audiences, and strategically and creatively break down unnecessary channel walls.

So as we map out the future and join the chorus of everyone making projections, we start with the most pragmatic question we can think of: what have we learned about virtual events in 2020 that will enhance the virtual component of hybrid experiences?

Here are some of our insights:

A strategy is critical. Strategy evolves from goals, so ask what you hope to build or reinforce with this event. Are you generating loyalty and brand engagement? Are you offering experiential education? Are you launching a product, or strengthening your marketing message or position? Also important, who is your audience? What do they want to accomplish? And what’s the sweet spot between your objectives and theirs?

In other words, how can you both walk away feeling like the engagement was a success?

When you understand and agree on your goal (or goals), you can build your strategy. One thing is sure: we learned that we couldn’t merely transition from a live event to a virtual platform with the same expectations, triggers to measure, and even, definition of “what’s good.” That is a sure road to disaster.

Know your audience and their expectations. Speaking of audiences, content is critical: creating compelling content in the virtual space is not as simple as it sounds. Do you issue a call for papers? Recruit speakers? How do you present relevant, anticipated content to your audience? How do you vet your speakers? We’ve learned that mediocre or poorly prepared speakers do not get the easy pass in the virtual space that they might get in person. If you aren’t preparing your speakers—not just their content but also their appearance, body language, clothing, and background on the screen, you are risking audience engagement. Be honest: haven’t you left meetings this past year where the speaker was ‘meh’? (Maybe you even left early.)

Promotion has never been more important.  Perhaps pre-show promotion has fallen off the radar for in-person events, but it is absolutely essential for virtual events. Web banners, social media, sponsorships, early sign-up for targeted chats, or special interest meetings during the event—the only limit is your imagination. Talk to the organizer about existing promotional opportunities—or suggest your own and get their support. Promotional experiential tactics are a great way to blend virtual to hybrid to in-person.

Engaging a virtual audience is hard. Yes, it is. Look at the research from the Center for Exhibition Industry Research (CEIR). The top expectations of attendees at events are education and networking in addition to fun and enhancing their personal reputations. For years, we’ve been advised that at live events, the competition for attendees’ attention is just across the aisle. That competition is nothing compared to the disruptions to virtual engagement. There is competition in the traditional sense, yes, but now, the competition is for time and attention. Many attendees work from home, so there are demands from their’ day jobs,’ their families, their pets, their neighbors, and deliveries. We’ve learned that small chunks of time scheduled over several days are more effective than replacing the live event’s multi-day continuous nature.

We need to rethink measurement. Measuring the impact of the virtual event, as we’ve mentioned elsewhere, makes us long for the old days of discussing in-person measurement. Event organizers need to be our allies in collecting data that lets us know whether the event was worth the investment. Many people register for virtual events and never show up, so registration data isn’t necessarily helpful. That’s why it is critical to capture the data from those who actually connect with our participation. Engagement can take many forms that will yield this data; the user experience should capture relevant information such as buying intentions, current prescribing habits, budgets, and the like. There is a strong argument to be made for games to engage visitors to capture this information; offering downloads is another. Lean on your event partner to help you come up with the best ways to measure your ROI.

The best virtual events offer networking. Small, topic-centric chat rooms are often not only successful but sought after; pay attention to your capacity (bandwidth) for these sessions. Breakouts that allow group discussions or ‘meetings within meetings’ that target specific groups facilitate networking goals. To replace hospitality, exhibitors and sponsors are sending curated food boxes or themed gifts when allowed.

We’re all learning new skills. There is no longer an excuse to avoid technology and the opportunities it offers for virtual engagement. Plus, there are new certifications—virtual meeting management, Covid compliance courses, GBAC (sanitary certification)—and an openness to understanding that there has been a seismic shift in the way we do our jobs. My favorite question, “What are you being asked to do today, that you didn’t know how to do yesterday?” is becoming de rigueur.

These are the top lessons we’ve learned so far as we pursue a successful ROI for our virtual events. We acknowledge that once we harness the virtual platform’s potential, identify tactics that work, trim the bloat, and back it all up with metrics, we will have the opportunity to open our hybrid events to a larger, more engaged audience than the numbers we have seen for either live or virtual.