The Pivot to Virtual Conferences

Not too long ago conferences were an amazing way to convene groups with shared interests to meet, learn, see, buy, partner, network and enjoy virtually any topic, from artificial intelligence to the future of work. However, the pandemic has radically changed the conference universe, at least for the time being.  While many conferences scheduled to take place in 2020 have been postponed or cancelled, 87% of the world’s leading event organizers will run virtual events in 2020* and some are moving to a hybrid model of both virtual and in-person later this year.

We’ve all been bombarded by a barrage of emails and social media ads inviting us to attend a virtual conference. But, are virtual conferences as valuable as in person conferences?

The idea of a virtual or online event isn’t a new concept. Webinars have been around for a long time but were never seen as viable options to completely replace in-person conferences. While virtual conferences certainly can’t fully replicate what’s happening in the offline world or enable the same meaningful connections and impromptu interactions as on-site events, they can be ideal forums for transferring information and have many benefits:

Cost and time effective – There’s no denying that taking time out of the office plus the expense of travel can make you think twice about attending, or even speaking at a conference. Virtual events remove this hurdle- opening the possibility of participating in more events.

Extremely versatile – Virtual events allow the creation of more personal event experiences through data usage and audience segmentation.

Reach a broader audience – With the hurdles of cost and time removed plus the physical capacity limitations of a location no longer an issue, more people will now have access to these events than ever before. And online media channels also enable a much broader audience reach.

While there have been a lot of hastily and poorly produced virtual conferences, organizers are beginning to completely reimagine the online conference experience. For example, it doesn’t make sense to simply convert a 2-3 day physical conference agenda straight to a virtual format without making some significant changes.  While it is commonplace to spend a whole day listening to consecutive sessions at a physical conference, very few people can listen attentively for more than 60 or 90 minutes to an online presentation.  It’s usually not quite as engaging, it takes more effort, and there are far more distractions, from kids needing remote schooling help to an unlimited set of social media interactions and YouTube videos just a click away.

Many conference producers have realized this and many are restructuring their large physical agendas into a series of shorter virtual ones. CNBC, Wall Street Journal and Bloomberg, just to name a few, are all now producing a series of hour-long online conversations that will culminate into a bigger event later this fall while others are creating completely new experiences. And with over 600 speakers, 5 channels of programming, and 32,000 attendees from 140 countries, Web Summit recently held Collision from Home which enabled virtual attendees to watch talks across several different streams, participate in Q&As with speakers, and arrange one-to-one networking sessions with others in attendance.

While virtual events are still evolving, by rethinking the virtual conference as its own unique medium and implementing better design, they can be very effective and engaging events.


 * Bizzabo, 2020 Event Outlook Report