Virtual events aren’t anything new. The humble webinar has been around for years which itself could be considered a virtual event as audiences attend and participate digitally.

The COVID-19 pandemic has by necessity, sparked a huge migration of live events to digital platforms and what’s most fascinating is the speed and scale of which this is happening.

Some events which have been cancelled or postponed are beginning to re-emerge as virtual only. Apple’s Worldwide Developers Conference (WWDC) which has been running for over 30 years will see its first foray into online-only, is this a behavioural shift and an insight into the future of events or a response to COVID-19?

As you’d expect, it’s both. Apple has been brave and decided to opt for an entirely digital conference, proving to its 6,000 strong developer audience that the show goes on. It’s a brave move because the scale of this event is greater than a single webinar and success is far from guaranteed. Make no mistake, had the COVID-19 situation not materialised, Apple would still be hosting its conference at a convention centre as it has done every other year. If all goes to plan with this year’s online-only conference, we expect Apple to run both formats in the future.

We’re not for one minute saying that virtual events will replace live events, though there are compelling reasons to consider each. Logistics aside, the preference is always likely to be face-to-face and in-person events. There’s little that can achieve the same positive feelings as interacting with a brand in person, digital engagement can come close but it’s not the same. The restrictions and cancellations that have arisen due to COVID-19 have effectively forced companies to embrace the digital event or at the very least, consider it, far more aggressively than expected.

This means there’ll be a huge wave of innovation within the digital events space as organisations, event organisers and delegates identify issues and attempt to correct them, all in a bid to add value, maintain engagement and justify the change. Giveaways such as power banks are always welcomed – but what if the giveaways became digital? Gaming companies are in a prime position to do this, think of a new weapon skin or unique DLC (downloadable content), simple to produce and effective. Additional benefits surrounding the digital giveaway include a positive environmental impact through no landfill and greater turnaround times due to instant delivery.

Other more technically heavy improvements will be made too, such as more efficient video compression through the development of new codecs. How can you guarantee a high-quality broadcast to thousands, maybe millions of concurrent viewers? That’ll put significant strain on servers – just look at Netflix’s response to the COVID-19 outbreak. This need is also compounded by the rise in extremely high-resolution displays across devices, 4K TVs for example are more affordable than ever and having a 720p image displayed is going to look awful – hardly a glowing endorsement for the digital event, especially if it relies heavily on visuals.

Virtual Event

The main difference between live and digital events is how delegates behave and spend their time. Delegates that attend in-person are more likely to ‘get their money’s worth’ and experience more of what’s on offer due to the effort they’ve made to attend, while digital attendees can choose to leave in a second. The fickle nature of the digital audience means they’re harder to engage with and every second counts.

What is the ideal solution?

This might appear obvious but combining the effectiveness of live events with the versatility of digital is the best-case scenario, AKA the hybrid event. Delivering an emphatic and resounding experience for both the physical and virtual attendee should be the goal for any brand or event organiser wanting to connect with its audience and deliver on their ROI.

The next few years in the events industry will be extremely exciting and really start to snowball once we’ve moved past COVID-19. As brands look to regain any lost momentum and people are champing at the bit to attend live events again, we’ll begin to see the true potential of the hybrid event shine through.

Virtual alternatives aren’t limited to exhibitions or conferences either. Experiential programmes can leverage the power of technology and social media to quash feelings of exclusion in those unable to experience them live and in person.

Our ideal solution:

Using the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) as an example, our ideal solution looks a little like this…

The event itself is still the main attractor, with almost 200K attendees arriving from all over the globe. Each brand at the show has provided digital assets which are accessible to delegates via a central platform (app) – the CES experience, let’s say.

A succession of 360-degree cameras are placed strategically throughout the venue allowing digital audiences to traverse the vast event at leisure and explore it as if they were there, of course they’re VR-friendly, headset compatible and networked appropriately. Similarly, each booth has a dedicated camera(s) allowing virtual delegates to interact and experience as normal.

Each exhibitor has access to a unique chat platform, allowing users and brands to interact directly with each other and facilitate the digital meeting. All of this functionality is provided by the CES experience (our fake app).

Users can access the digital assets provided by the various brands, which include videos, 3D models and interactive specifications. For those brands that have announcements, any sensitive information can be time gated, only accessible after a talk or product announcement has been broadcast. Sessions and networking sessions are still very much available to the digital attendee and can be accessed remotely. Live streaming of all sessions and talks are once again accessible while networking sessions are handled similarly to a mix of a chatroom and a video conference.

Engagement through gamification is hugely important too. In-person attendees have step counters which provide rewards once targets have been met while digital attendees have a virtual equivalent, such as minutes of video watched. Each of these milestones accumulate for the duration of the event and offer the chance to exchange for something tangible, providing delegates with a genuine reason to participate and stay the course.

Spatial analytics monitors are installed at various junctures around the venue helping to monitor delegate flow and identify any pain points. These can be combined with online delegate metrics to pain two extremely accurate pictures of event success on physical and virtual levels. The data helps ensure the next iteration of the show is more harmonised and that bit better.

Lastly, all content and metrics are available post-event to delegates and event organisers respectively. Content such as interviews and demonstrations are accessible through the one app, which is continually updated. Outdated content is available through an archive which adds value and ensures the app stays installed on the delegate’s device for as long as possible.

What does this all mean?

Hybrid events were always likely to be the future but their sudden ubiquity has been born out of necessity rather than growing organically; without them a whole host of events would’ve been postponed or cancelled. Applying the same strategies and structures to both live and virtual events is likely to end in disaster – engagement and behaviour are the two main considerations for engineering a successful event and must be catered to accordingly, personalised experiences are still vital. Where possible, whatever is available to the in-person attendee must also be available to the digital attendee.

The future of events is undeniably bright but is far from laid out in stone. There will be a vast amount of trial and error but the end results will be spectacular and delegates will be spoilt for choice.

There are a number of options available for brands and event organisers, if you’d like to know what can be done – get in touch!