September 7, 2021

What is the future of virtual & physical events?

The pandemic made business owners and marketers (including us) take their physical events online. But when will physical events come back? And when they do, what form will they take?

We recently caught up with Kate Anstis, co-founder and director of Freshly Squeezed Events and one of our Part-Time Marketing Directors, to find out what the future holds for physical and virtual events.

Virtual events are here to stay

Large-scale events that draw an international crowd are unlikely for the next 12-18 months. But smaller events inside the UK could be back within six. That said, Kate believes that virtual events will stick around and could be more common than physical events going forward.

“There are some events that will naturally revert back to face-to-face,” she explained. “But virtual is definitely here to stay. It has now become a permanent fixture.”

So why does Kate think virtual events are here to stay?

They can be cheaper and easier

Physical events can be expensive and often require a large investment of time to prepare, not to mention the physical cost of attendance for staff and guests. Overall, the cost of customer acquisition is much lower in the virtual environment which makes it an attractive option.

They’re more sustainable

Sustainability matters to many businesses, and this has only been highlighted throughout the pandemic. It’s become clear that virtual events are more sustainable for all kinds of reasons.

From travel to the energy used by the venue to wasted merchandise and exhibition stands, large physical events can negatively impact the environment. This is something that a lot of brands have become acutely aware of and will be a key consideration moving forward.

Greater reach

Virtual events have a much lower barrier to entry and, theoretically at least, practically no limit on how many people can attend or where they can attend from. While physical events can draw huge crowds and many will continue to when they return, getting people to attend in-person may become harder going forward.

“You can reach more people in more locations without the limitations of a physical venue,” Kate explains. “And people can attend a virtual event that wouldn’t otherwise have been able to. We saw this with a recent EMEA virtual conference we ran. It was for a cyber security client and ended up having the highest registrations in their history, generating a £5m pipeline.”

You can encourage more interaction

Getting people to engage and holding their attention them for the duration of a virtual event isn’t always easy (as we’ve written about ourselves) but it is possible and, when you get it going, it can be amazing.

You can also measure how many people are attending and how engaged they are, then try out different things like gamification to improve the level of engagement you’re getting. Kate shares some incredible examples of interactive virtual activities later on in this piece.

The rise of hybrid events

Another trend that Kate thinks is set to grow is hybrid events. This usually means events that happen both online and offline simultaneously, usually in the form of a live talk or performance which is streamed online. But it can also be online events with a physical component like sending welcome packs or merchandise to attendee’s addresses.

“We haven’t run a virtual event that hasn’t had a physical aspect to it. And quite often, whatever you’re delivering to an attendee physically enables them to interact with the virtual experience, like product, welcome packs, drinks and nibbles, event props, bingo cards or prizes. We believe that the physical aspect helps your brand to connect with somebody without them being there.”

What are some of the best virtual events Kate has run recently?

As you can imagine, Kate has run a lot of virtual events over the last year or so. So what has worked particularly well?

“One of them was a conference that has historically been face-to-face. It was an EMEA prospecting event for a leading global cybersecurity company.

“We delivered a stunning 3D virtual environment with embedded keynotes videos, 12 simultaneous breakout rooms, eight regional booths with one-to-one live video chat, eight languages, 40 different speakers and a personalised attendee journey depending on which country you registered from. The results were record-breaking and it ended up being the most successful event for them to date, with over 1,780 registrations.

“We got over 3,500 views of the embedded videos, 6,000 asset downloads, 2,000 booth visits and 2,500 booth chats. It also generated a £5m pipeline for the business.

“We drove attendee behaviour using live data analytics and notifications. We included live video chat on the booths so you could do business in a similar way you could at a live event. We attracted more attendees by securing a brilliant guest speaker, a former counterintelligence specialist at the FBI.

“We were delighted with the results considering this event was turned around from brief to live in just 8 weeks. It was great to see that at any one time we had over 250 people engaged in live chats on the country booths proving that business really can get done in a virtual environment. Let’s face it – events have to deliver ROI for our clients, something that is a priority at Freshly Squeezed Events.

They’ve also run virtual events that were less about business and more focused on fun.

“We recently completed an extremely successful 3-month virtual incentive for a global software manufacturer. They needed to incentivise their resellers to sell more of their product and were struggling to know how to do this in lockdown.

“Rather than sending out vouchers, we felt there was an opportunity to create competitive advantage by delivering three months of sustained fun, excitement and empathy.

“The target audience were young salespeople who were struggling with being remote. Our team created and executed an action-packed 3-month virtual programme of fun events, activities, celebrities, prizes and competitions blended with physical and personalised home-drops (product deliveries to their homes).

The campaign was designed to maximise registrations, engagement and interaction and keep our client’s brand front of mind. We designed a party hub in the form of a bespoke WordPress microsite with a live leaderboard, virtual photo booth, live mosaic photo wall and surprise announcements.

“There were six monthly awards, three ‘Thirsty Thursday’ events, spot prizes and a finale event hosted by Russell Kane who also delivered an hour long live virtual stand-up show with special front row winners in the chat room with him.

“The results were amazing. 400%+ ROI against a target of 17%. Double digit growth for the partner and over 300 registrants against a target of 100. And we got this quote, which I love: “Freshly Squeezed Events proved that virtual isn’t boring!”

How to run a great event (no matter the medium)

Obviously, the events that Kate is running are very ambitious. But there are plenty of things she’s picked up along the way that will help your events run better, even if it’s just a humble webinar.

Switch things up every 11 minutes

Try to keep your overall event to four hours or less and switch up the format on a regular basis.

“We’ve learned that really every 11 minutes you need to refresh the format. A human being at a screen needs to have something change often to keep them engaged. Maybe just change from a gallery format to a presentation screen, or play a video, run a poll or survey or send people into breakout sessions. Just regularly switch up the format to keep people engaged.”

Give people breaks (and make them long enough)

If it’s a longish event you will need to give people a break. But if you’re going to do this, give them long enough to get a coffee, go to the toilet and check their emails.

25 minutes is much better than 10 minutes. If you only give them 10 minutes, they will check their emails, not get enough time to finish replying, miss the start of your next session and probably not come back.

Ideally, you should also have some kind of countdown on the screen to when things will resume.

Put your star at the end

To make sure that your attendees stick around, always put the thing they’re turning up for at the very end. This is conferencing 101, but it works just as well online as it does offline.

Don’t wing it

Virtual events may often have a lower cost than physical events, but they’re no less important. While there are self-service platforms out there that make it sound easy, nothing is ever as easy as the vendors tell you.

“There is a myth out there that you can just wing it. And actually, this is still your brand, this is still your business. Yes, we’re all online doing different things, but it can be really damaging if you do things badly. Or if you look unprepared or if the microphone doesn’t work and you can’t fix it and you don’t have a back-up plan. Just because everyone’s at a computer, ultimately, it’s still your brand and that’s important in any context.”

Thanks to Kate for making the time to catch up. You can learn more about her events work at Freshly Squeezed Events.

By Brian Hardie

See more content from The Marketing Centre here.

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