The past two years have been a roller coaster ride for event managers as they pivot toward virtual and hybrid strategies amid the twists and turns of a wildly unstable pandemic environment. Along the way, they’re dealing with a flood of new event technologies that often come with steep learning curves and inadequate support. Where’s it all going and what are the long-term implications for the industry?
EventMB spoke with several event management experts on what they’re experiencing in the virtual/hybrid landscape, one that increasingly looks like it’s far more than a temporary fix. While acknowledging the challenges with virtual and hybrid, they also see these formats bringing opportunities for building ROI and changing the way organizations approach event marketing
Learning Curves and the Need for Support
Event MB: Our most recent survey indicated a decline in the comfort level that planners are having with event technology. What do you think is behind this?
STEEP LEARNING CURVES
Liz Caruso, CEO, Liz King Events and techsytalk: There’s the evolution of the different event tech platforms — not just virtual platforms, but across the board with event technology. What I’m seeing with event planners is that, while they may understand the importance of technology in the events strategy, in terms of the personal understanding of how to use the tech, there’s still a gap there.
Renee Radabaugh, president, Paragon Events: Issues with products continue to persist from a perspective of how fast they are changing and being assessed as service requests expand. I call this “2.0, 3.0 and 4.0 expanded requirements.” By the time the event is occurring, updates are still coming through to the products.
Kathryn Frankson, director of event marketing, Informa: Event tech evolved at an impressive rate over the past 21 months and providers are scaling through product builds and customer success staffing to manage demand in unprecedented ways. The challenges for organizers have been there’s a “we don’t know what we don’t know” mentality around new platforms, given the steep learning curves which puts pressure on tech companies to provide deep and ongoing training. There’s often a quick go-to-market turnaround needed from organizers and the live virtual or hybrid event is where nuances and challenges may be surfaced in real time.
LACK OF SUPPORT IN A TIME OF GROWING NEED
Radabaugh: With that [rapid change] comes the stress of the human support, as vendors don’t always have their staff trained and caught up to speed fast enough. At times, staffing must be outsourced, so people are learning as they go.
Caruso: [Many tech companies] are providing much less support. I’ve seen a lot of companies who are charging for support based on the package that you get. And their default is moving to chat support and other services where planners don’t get answers to their questions quickly. This model simply doesn’t work for a live event where problems need immediate answers and time is of the essence.
Radabaugh: Online chat is an offering that helps when you aren’t in crunch time, but when you need assistance in real time, a live person is needed.
Radabaugh: We find ourselves offering suggestions, expressing needs, and sharing ideas with development teams so they can improve along the way.
Frankson: Aligning on implementation and support of virtual technology between organizers and technology providers is critical. The path to success here is a shared ownership model with an established communication plan on the front-end and assigning directly responsible individuals (both within your organization and within your chosen provider) who own setup and testing.
The Potential of Virtual and Hybrid Events
EventMB: While the pandemic brought them into prominence, virtual and hybrid events are looking to be more than temporary solutions. As they become permanent fixtures, how should we be viewing their long-term potential for positive change?
CONVENIENCE AND MICRO COMMITMENTS
Frankson: Virtual and hybrid events have become such an incredible opportunity for planners. We have real opportunities for audiences to make micro commitments prior to attending an in-person event experience that arguably has a high price tag attached to it and requires a multi-day commitment.
Caruso: I think that the companies who run “back to in-person events” will get an audience, but after a year or two they’re going to see that audience go away quickly. Attendees are excited to get back after having been locked down, but then they’re going to say, “Oh my gosh, all that travel, all that expense. I could have gotten all of that for free at home, in my pajamas with my kids running around.” And it’s only the smart brands who stick to virtual now who will get it really figured out by the time everyone else is just thinking, “Okay, we need to add this virtual component back in.”
SPONSOR VALUE FROM LARGER REACH AND YEAR-ROUND ENGAGEMENT
Radabaugh: Anyone who still thinks virtual and hybrid platforms are a band-aid or temporary solution should reconsider this point of view. If this Covid situation has taught us anything, it is that nothing is normal, and nothing is the same. Building audiences with them is a no-brainer. We have seen a wide net cast for attendance, sometimes reaching up to 300 percent, while also seeing free or lower pricing options for attendance. That unfortunately doesn’t help to show value for the content, but it’s a great way to keep sponsors happy during a time when sponsorship dollars are more important than ever because sponsors are struggling to understand the ROI for virtual.
Caruso: It will help if we can prove more value to our sponsors through a larger reach, or even just a more targeted audience that they can reach asynchronously with all these different channels. If you add in things like podcasting, you could raise a lot more money on the sponsorship side. Everyone’s talking about losing sponsorship money, but actually I think there’s so much potential here. We need to come up with ways to expand ROI beyond the event itself and create annual sponsorships with extended reach and richer partnerships. Sponsors are likely going to continue struggling with virtual events, as they have been conditioned for live events that include handshakes, looking potential partners in the eye, and robust audience engagement.
MARKETING VALUE FROM CREATIVE CONTENT
Frankson: There’s also a tremendous opportunity to provide value, deepen relationships and use virtual events as an incredible marketing channel. The key to success is in believing in the power that virtual offers, letting go of the idea of virtual as secondary to in-person events and anchoring into the value that it offers both you and your audience. This is also where creativity in programming, content formatting and timing come into play. Audiences spend plenty of time staring at screens — and they’ll give you their attention, if you are able to develop something worthy of their time. I’m a believer that event planners and professionals should continue to individually lean into tech the way we have with registration, A/V, etc. The reality of the virtual and hybrid components of events is that organizers should continue designing content and experiences that facilitate engagement.
Tech Wish List
EventMB: How would you like to see tech products evolve this year? What should they be addressing?
OUTSIDE-THE-BOX ENGAGEMENT TOOLS AND TACTICS
Caruso: I’m interested specifically in engagement, any companies that are trying to think outside the box. How do we get people to interact? It could be virtual only or hybrid, with ideas around how to combine the two audiences and their options for engagement.
Radabaugh: If I had a wish list, it would include a way to engage virtual attendees in a manner that feels more like a live event and an improved way to chat and converse.
MORE CONTENT CHANNELS
Caruso: I’m also really interested in platforms that allow event planners to share content in different ways, such as podcasts. Just the idea that an engaged audience doesn’t always look like faces on Zoom smiling back at you. A lot of times that’s why podcasts are so popular. People love to just put it on in the background, absorb the content, and interact asynchronously. That sector of technology is really interesting for where we go in the future, especially this year.
THE RIGHT STRATEGY FOR ANALYTICS
Caruso: Another category is analytics. I think that virtual gives us all this data and that people look at the numbers and think, “That wasn’t that successful.” But the truth is, I don’t think we were looking at those same analytics for in-person events because we just didn’t have access to those data points IRL. Planners need to be able to make a case for what virtual allows us to do with our audiences and with our marketing and sales goals — not only compared to in-person, but year-over-year. The analytics can be so powerful, what we have access to and the story that they can tell.
Radabaugh: I believe the available analytics are pretty good. However, event planners need to know in advance what data is needed and ensure the platform can provide it. For instance, is it imperative for you to measure screen time?
Frankson: For me, having a clear customer success partner and a robust understanding and access to analytics and any aspect of the build that enables a great customer experience is what makes for a great tech partner and a strong experience.
BETTER CHAT SUPPORT
Radabaugh: Online chats need to evolve, as this is probably the biggest gap I have seen. They need to be less automated and include more sophisticated moderating. You typically can’t expect to receive any real-time answers to questions, as questions generally need to be submitted in advance.
EventMB: With all the rapid changes taking place, what is the impact on relationships between planners and tech providers? Are shorter-term contracts more advisable now?
Radabaugh: There are very few instances when I recommend multiyear contracts to our partners. The landscape for tech providers and platforms is an ever-changing market. Acquisitions occur, software providers don’t always keep up with development, or providers develop too fast to employ the service offered when the agreement was initiated. Most importantly to remember, the needs of the client are always changing as well. Every time we plan a virtual or hybrid program, we learn about something new the client needs or wants, and it is sometimes hard to find that “one size fits all” platform and tech provider who can support the immense amount of client requirements.
Caruso: Just a few years ago the typical planner would get into a three- or five-year contract with a registration company. When everything started shifting, they entered all these one-year contracts. Planners now have to reevaluate their whole portfolio of technology. That’s really hard to do when the technology’s changing so quickly. And a lot of planners just don’t even feel comfortable making the evaluation in the first place. The other component is the changing needs from their own stakeholders. I think what their boss might be saying they need is different than what the marketing or sales people are saying. There’s not a lot of alignment on what the next steps are or which direction we’re going.
Frankson: It can be very challenging to change tech providers. The goal with a virtual or hybrid event is always a clean, crisp experience with your first event. The reality can be that the learning curve does run through that event and your events continue to get smoother and more manageable moving forward. It can be tempting, if there are challenges, to make a partnership modification. However, I’d argue that there’s a big upside to going deep into a working partnership. Allowing your team the time to make a proper build, manage registration and data well, serve back analytics and understand the implications of the experience within the platform can become a huge competitive advantage.
MaryAnne Bobrow, president, Bobrow & Associates: Planners need to decide how long their contracts on these types of events [hybrid and virtual] should be, particularly where the platform vendor is new, with a relationship not yet established. Multiple-year contracts are often financially desirable when they are with a vendor with whom the planner has formed a relationship and the vendor is seen as a strategic partner.
EventMB: Are new technology and formats having an impact on how organizations regard event marketing? Is event marketing becoming more integrated with an organization’s overall content marketing strategy?
Caruso: I think event organizations are going to become a little bit more integrated with the overall content marketing teams. That’ll be interesting to see how that works, how the monetization works, how the actual working together works. But then also what that means for achieving goals when those departments are more aligned than they were in the past.
Frankson: Event marketing should absolutely become a core tenant of any brand’s overarching marketing strategy. Through a smart and strong virtual event series, you can grow your audience base, serve content up to different personas, understand which subset of your audience is engaged (or that you’ve re-engaged), create pillar content that you can repurpose into other channels, and it gives you a way to understand your market more deeply based on what’s performing and earning attendance.
With a critical topic or a big keynote, marketing a virtual event gives brands something to promote that isn’t just rooted in their own product announcements which makes the value exchange for audiences much more exciting.
As the pandemic drags on with no end in sight, planners are realizing that virtual and hybrid formats are not just temporary solutions, but hold the potential for positive changes, including building audiences and gaining marketing clout for events. At the same time, tech providers need to do a better job of providing support for planners and in facilitating audience engagement.