Not all events are created equal - a reality reinforced by new decisions about which format is best suited to the objectives of a particular event. But determining the best approach requires a nuanced understanding of what each format has to offer.
Physical events will always have the appeal of a more personal networking environment, not to mention the greater likelihood of multi-sensory experiences. But they also entail greater investment and commitment for all involved. Moreover, virtual formats have their own advantages. They have the potential to reach a larger audience, and from the perspective of the participant or visitor, they require a much lower level of involvement. For someone who does not want to incur the expense of attending in person, virtual can be a welcome alternative.
Some argue that virtual events are better suited for short durations and top-of-funnel engagement, while longer durations and bottom-of-the-funnel lead generation are reserved for physical events.
However, not everyone agrees that this clear framework truly reflects the preferences of participants or visitors. Some see the potential of virtual events as the perfect testing ground for all kinds of content that can help shape the direction of physical agendas.
Physical events must - especially now - offer a higher value
For Diego Dupont, CVO of Bruges-based Fairtual Technologies, the higher level of engagement required by physical events is exactly what makes them valuable for inbound marketing: only those who have already invested heavily in the brand will attend. Similarly, there will be an implicit expectation that the physical event provides a high-quality personal experience. Physical event organisers need to show that they are rolling out the red carpet to attract new customers and maintain existing relationships.
"I am convinced that shorter physical events are still attractive, but not that existing customers will prefer them to virtual alternatives. Because the stakes are higher for both the visitor and the organiser, physical events must offer the best possible experience. Organisers should not assume that visitors will automatically prefer physical events simply because they have more contact".
Virtual as market expansion vs. virtual as market research
The other side of the coin is that some virtual events require less commitment from participants. They are often accessible at a much lower cost - sometimes even for free - and participants can drop out at any time if they start to lose interest.
On the one hand, this holds the promise of attracting new audiences who may be willing to try a low-stakes engagement. But how will this different level of engagement affect the content of events?
Dupont believes that virtual events should keep their message as broad as possible. Brands have the potential to reach a much wider audience, but their focus should be on big brand awareness rather than specialised content. Event organisers need to be realistic about the potential for lead generation. "Just because you went from 8,000 to 70,000 attendees doesn't mean 70,000 people will buy your product," he explains. "But if there is no significant financial risk, you now have eyeballs on your content." To match the viewing preferences of online audiences, Dupont suggests keeping the user experience as simple as possible by offering a limited selection of short, accessible content.
When it comes to on-site event activities, Dupont recommends offering much more specialised session topics - with content bordering on training material. Organisers should assume that physical visitors have already done their research on the brand and are looking for a more in-depth conversation.
While Dupont agrees that event planners should take into account the expectation of low participant engagement when designing their virtual events, he has a different take on what that means for event design.
Dupont believes virtual engagement should be structured around what he calls 'micro commitments'. He gives the example of a survey delivered via email - if attendees can respond by clicking on an interactive number scale in the email itself, response rates will jump. "You can only expect one click from the visitor," he says.
If the virtual visitor's experience should be as frictionless as possible, does that mean that the content should be different too? Dupont doesn't think so. Instead, he thinks virtual participants will function as a focus group for physical events, which generally involve a much higher level of investment. There is more scope to put virtual participants to the test, and the virtual environment can be ideally suited to this kind of market research. For example, virtual events may make it easier for participants to drop out, but that makes them all the more valuable in terms of identifying the most engaging content. Moreover, all their actions can be tracked through data analytics. Organisers can identify not only which sessions were the most popular, but also which segments of the session had the highest engagement. Did participants leave the screen? On the other hand, did they respond to a poll or make a comment in the chat area? A virtual platform can give you all this information.
According to Dupont, these metrics help event organisers determine not only what content to include at a physical event, but also who to invite. Only the most qualified leads and the most engaging speakers will be forwarded.
What about year-round engagement?
Dupont believes that an event organiser's virtual and physical events should all contribute to an ongoing brand engagement strategy. It is less about the duration of an event, and more about holding the audience's attention throughout the year through a series of different touch points.
"Turn your event into a content machine," urges Dupont. He believes that physical events can also be a means of creating content, but that virtual formats through analytics will help organisers determine which clips to include in highlight reels.
The content of physical events will also eventually reach an online audience, which in turn will facilitate a similar form of automated curation.
Repeat viewers will also be able to see their viewing history at a glance, with the additional option of integrating recommendations based on their past behaviour. The platform will then act as a de facto content library.
Virtual platforms may eventually play a similar role to trade shows, where brands compete side-by-side for audience attention. In this model, platforms could recommend content from different brands based on their visit and engagement history. For now, event content is still housed in branded event spaces. "We want to create an experience that is focused on a specific brand," explains Dupont.
What about hybrid events?
Despite all the buzz around hybrid events, they may not be as popular as some initially predicted. According to Dupont, most of its clients and respondents have indicated that they would like to organise either physical, virtual or hybrid events, with Dupont emphasising that the formats can be used independently of each other.
"Don't force the buzzword into your planning. Hybrid events can work, but a combination of just physical events and just virtual events can also work. You have to offer the format that best suits the category of visitors you want to reach.“
- Diego Dupont, CVO, Fairtual Technologies
Ultimately, both tech providers and event organisers are still in an experimental stage. There are no right or wrong answers, and the field is ripe for innovation.
Virtual and physical events can function equally well as parallel worlds. Ultimately, different approaches to event formats will lead to more data for making informed decisions in the future. And there is no reason to believe that different schools of thought cannot eventually be combined into the most comprehensive best practices possible.