What would be your advice to an association which wants to transform its main conference into a virtual event but has no clue what to do?
Marc Mekki: Before even thinking about diving into scheduling, content or technology, associations need to understand that a virtual event cannot and should not be a carbon copy of a live event. Without real world human interaction, the dynamics of engagement are very different. When delegates aren’t in the same physical space, attention spans are shorter and tolerance for drawn out sessions much lower. So rather than squeezing a packed schedule into a compact timeline as is unavoidable in the real world for practical and cost reasons, associations should consider restructuring their flagship events into a series of shorter bursts over the span of several days or longer.
Content like keynotes, plenary sessions and presentations should be half as long as they would be in real life and should feature lots of interactivity if the subject matter allows it to compensate for a lack of real human interaction.
Managing a series of sequential mini-events is also much easier and less daunting on every level than having to perfectly execute a packed schedule in one or two days. Realities like bandwidth issues and time zones need to be factored in. These can cause lots of stress on the part of the organizers, and a quick drop in engagement from delegates when hiccups occur (and they always do).
When it comes to content like keynotes or presentations, it’s also a good idea to leverage the advantages of the virtual space; organizations can pre-record certain content and share it with delegates in advance and then focus during the conference on interactive engagement like Q&A sessions, etc.
Virtual events should be lean and succinct, which makes them more enjoyable for the attendees and much easier to deploy for the association. The next step is then to identify a technology partner and a virtual events manager who can deploy your vision so you can concentrate on content.
How can virtual events be marketed, monetized and sponsored? How can you drive engagement?
Marc Mekki: Perhaps the greatest advantage of virtual is scalability. Where a real world conference can take months and months of planning to run once, virtual events can be deployed quickly and at scale, and repeatedly. Virtual events can have an almost unlimited reach which means they can also become strategic tools in the recruitment and growth of the association, assuming that is in their interest.
And scale is exactly what sponsors and advertisers like. When the cost of running your conference drops by a factor of ten, and you can scale your audience by a factor of five – both very realistic propositions – then the scope of your event takes on a whole new dimension, which is music to the ears of sponsors whose key metric is typically ‘reach’. Associations should consider making non-members a part of these events, even if some privileges may not be extended to guest attendees as to not disincentivize full members.
A powerful way of expanding audiences is by targeting what is known in the digital ad industry as ‘lookalike audiences’ or ‘affinity audiences’. Simply put, by feeding Google, Facebook or other networks your existing member list – without disclosing any personal details, to be clear – they can identify people who match the profile of your existing members very closely. This way the association is not only filling their sales funnel with potential future members, they also become much more attractive to sponsors, who invariably want to know that your reach is growing.
Economies of scale become a factor at this stage, often leading to a significant drop in overhead and operating expenses while boosting revenue. That leaves more money on the table to create better content, get higher caliber speakers and other enhancements that in turn boost the appeal for both audiences and sponsors; it’s a positive feedback loop.
Finally, in terms of engagement, the virtual space offers a broad range of possible activities that are much harder to achieve in real life. For example, in the virtual space it is relatively simple to deploy interactive elements like quizzes, polls and voting. Not only does that provide the association with a lot more data that can be analysed to detect interesting patterns and insights not otherwise visible, it also creates a lot more engagement and interaction which is key in extending already stretched attention spans.
Can all events be turned into online events?
Marc Mekki: Probably, yes, but not by simply extrapolating the same old processes into the virtual world. Consider the difference between an opera and a blockbuster film. Both have a predetermined narrative structure, involve actors and sets and require an audience to be successful. But few people would sit through a Verdi opera in the cinema and equally few would be drawn to a 4-hour version of Superman on a theater stage. Nothing inherently wrong with either narrative, but every story needs an appropriate stage. Online events need to have a much higher ‘popcorn-quotient’ to thrive, which is to say they need to take into account shorter attention spans, all sorts of distractions and screen-fatigue. In the same way a stage script can often be successfully rewritten for the big screen, most events can be reconsidered and restructured to perform very well in the virtual space.
How can online networking be helped with? That’s the trickiest thing I find…
Marc Mekki: The solution to the networking conundrum requires a reframing of how we think about the nature of events and engagement. The right question to ask is not: how can I get my attendees to engage during the event? The right question is: how can I create engagement throughout the year so that the success of my community does not depend on brief spikes of engagement for a few days a year, as is the norm.
Events of the future are not events, they are communities. Your engagement should not start on day one and end on day three. It should start on January 1st and end on December 31st. If you need to wait for the event itself to kickstart networking engagement between members or delegates, it’s already too late and the uptake will likely be poor.
So how do you solve it? By thinking in terms of communities rather than events. If you can achieve a sustained release of content, interaction and engagement throughout the year, then networking is already in full swing by the time your flagship event comes along. It’s much more reasonable to expect engagement between groups of human beings when there is preexisting familiarity and the only way to achieve that is to foster a sense of community. Create a 24-7 community in the virtual world where members can share, cooperate, learn and commiserate and you won’t have to worry about starting the engine cold when your event comes along. We are tribal creatures and love the comfort and security of ‘belonging’, which is an expectation a single spike of engagement, a single event or conference, cannot fulfil.