In 2020, as the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the world of live events became alarmingly clear and, almost overnight, the global programme of in-person events was put on hold, pivoting to virtual event delivery became essential for almost every brand.

But this presented other challenges. It was unexpected and within this ‘new normal’, there was something else you had to figure out. So, what exactly are virtual events, what’s different about them and what do marketers need to know to meet client objectives and maximise ROI?

Royal Navy Virtual Event

What is a virtual event?

A virtual event takes place entirely in a digital environment using digital architecture, as opposed to a face-to-face experience in a physical space. Through experience in delivering many digital activations, we have found that for a virtual event to be a success, it needs to as closely as possible replicate a traditional live event. Why is mirroring the face-to-face experience so important? Specifically, delegates have certain expectations when it comes to events, with fundamental activities such as planning their itinerary and networking in particular being of paramount importance to overall satisfaction. So, these must be given significant consideration during the build phase.

There is an overwhelming volume of virtual event platforms available on the market, each with a variety of features, functions and pricing models.

What are my options when it comes to budgets and technology?

While we wouldn’t class them as true virtual event platforms, the entry level solution would be something like Zoom or Microsoft Teams. In this world of sliding scales in costs and technology, they’re very much a minimum viable product (MVP) for brands, but they have absolutely conditioned the business world to be comfortable in virtual environments over an intense and short period of time during the pandemic, so let’s give credit where it’s due.

The middle-tier options are webinar platforms and similar off-the-shelf solutions, which are still quite basic and limited in scope, with end-user functionality and important aspects such as customisation. They’re fairly affordable if an ‘out of the box’ approach meets your needs, but they typically provide more of a broadcast experience than a truly immersive virtual event.

On the other end of the scale we go all the way up to bespoke solutions. This is where the biggest and best agencies operate, delivering innovative, cutting-edge solutions for brands that demand an authentic end-user experience, total customisation and absolutely no limitations on features and functionality. Typically filmed in COVID-19 compliant virtual studios and then simultaneously digitally amplified, within this sandbox you get to play with augmented, virtual and extended reality (AR, VR and XR), digital twinning, Pixel Streaming and more, with platforms that are often powered by video game engines such as Unity or Unreal.

The only real barriers here are imagination… and budgets! But if the appetite and imagination is there, because the virtual environment literally has no tangible barriers, if you wanted to host your event “on the moon”, you could!

What are the main benefits of virtual over physical delivery?

The biggest USP in virtual event delivery is the sheer abundance of data and how that impacts return on investment.

In the world of face-to-face events, even the most measurable pre-event marketing campaigns typically become almost entirely anecdotal once the live event begins. It’s no accident that business cards are still the contact exchange mechanism of choice at these occasions… when you move from digital to physical, the dots just don’t join up.

However, with an entirely digital event delivery model, all of those data touchpoints are connected from start to finish, from pre-event audience acquisition through to live and post-event comms. This provides a huge advantage over face-to-face experiences in that the data enables demonstrable analysis of ROI throughout all touchpoints.

What do marketers need to know?

A well-strategised and intelligently implemented marketing roadmap should be essential for every live event, but it’s often overlooked or delivered with limited resource and budget. Pre-pandemic, you could kind of get away with that because one of the biggest advantages of live events, certainly when we’re talking conferences, exhibitions and major public activations, is that everybody at these events benefits from the same thing: footfall. Every exhibitor at a large expo gets to enjoy all of those attendees walking around the show passing by their stand. Better still: it’s free! Who needs marketing?

But the rules are very different in virtual events. Let’s take my earlier example of hosting your event on the moon. You invest a significant amount of resource into doing just that and design, build and deliver an incredible 3D virtual environment, where delegates can interact with the event and each other whilst walking around the lunar landscape. Amazing!

Except… digital production cannot take place in isolation. You’ve literally launched an event on the moon but unless you’ve told people when it takes place and how to get there, literally nobody will show up. There is no free digital footfall within the virtual realm. Without an audience it’s just you, in the cloud, alone. In space, nobody can hear you scream.

This is actually great news for marketers as audience acquisition has never been more important. It’s no longer optional, or a ‘nice to have’. It’s essential. A carefully-planned and well-orchestrated digital marketing pre-event campaign is fundamental to success in virtual event delivery. It doesn’t matter if attendance to your event is free or comes with a lofty price tag, everybody has to invest in their marketing resource to make this work. What this means – just to be clear – is that unless you’re only inviting clients and colleagues to your virtual event and you have a world-class CRM database, you’re going to have to put your hands in your pockets and sign-off on a paid campaign using social media, PPC or both, particularly if you’re prospecting to a cold audience. I’m talking a highly-targeted, data-driven digital marketing strategy, geolocated and centred around audience psychometrics, with a test and learn approach that improves with every iteration.

This is the new normal. There’s still no clarity on the timeline for us all to return to the mass participation of face-to-face events and yet, even then, the likelihood is that the next most logical step is hybrid events; a blend of limited in-person with amplified digital. So, as I said, it’s good news – marketing is back, it’s more important than ever and for the foreseeable future at least, it’s very much here to stay.