One year later: Online events are here to stay

Photo by Samantha Borges on Unsplash

A year ago, the events industry in Singapore all but collapsed under the strict social distancing measures introduced to fight the Covid-19 pandemic. Live events of all kinds had to be cancelled, and many events had to move to virtual platforms.

The recent relaxation of social distancing measures (up to 250 people can now attend a live event, subject to mask-wearing and pre-event testing) means that a number of live events can now resume, albeit in a curtailed form. We are still a world away from pre-Covid days where hundreds of people could gather and mingle freely at seminars, conferences and concerts.

Rather than wait upon an uncertain future where live events are able to resume in full force, it might be better — for those who can — to make the most out of the current situation by embracing (and improving upon) virtual events.

Knowledge-sharing vs Experiential events

Events can be loosely categorized into two main types: knowledge-sharing events and experiential events. There will always be some overlap between the two, but their fundamental differences in purpose determine their success in moving from in-person to fully virtual or hybrid formats.

Knowledge-sharing events are those whose raison d’etre is to impart information, such as seminars and conferences. There’s no doubt that networking forms a part of such events, but I would argue that the main point of such events is information sharing. Before the pandemic struck, it was perfectly possible for an attendee to join a conference purely for the information being shared (and to skip the networking aspects completely).

Given these factors, such events can translate well into virtual events because their main purpose can be met via one-way communication to a group of (mostly) passive participants. Even if you are running on a shoestring budget, you can tap on Zoom and Google Meets to replicate this experience for users, who are then able to receive almost exactly the same information that they would have in an in-person conference.

In contrast, experiential events are defined by sensory encounters and emotions. Think of awards ceremonies, gala dinners, food fairs, trade shows, product launches and even concerts and stage shows. The focus here is on interactions with people, food and objects. There is a greater emphasis on engaging the five senses — lighting, sound, smell, touch, taste. These events are defined by how they make attendees feel and behave.

Challenges to experiential events

Having organized an awards dinner for over 100 guests several years ago, I can appreciate the difficulty of creating an online equivalent without sacrificing the experience and emotions organizers want to create for their attendees. In my case, the event’s celebratory mood was shaped by the activity booths, live music, crowd, lighting, and food — none of which can be effectively replicated online. Many of the winners also wanted a photo with the guest-of-honor; the “proof” that they had been recognized by a VIP mattered greatly to them. I have yet to find an online or even hybrid equivalent that can deliver the same level of experience and engagement.

In events where networking is a highlight, the challenge is to create meaningful and impactful human connections without any physical interaction. Event professionals I spoke to say that the lack of immediacy impedes networking. Jephry Cheong, a veteran of the local events industry, pointed out that it takes longer (if it is at all possible) to get a good sense of a person you meet at a virtual event, as compared to an in-person meeting where various sensory cues — appearance, body language, attention and interest — quickly help you decide if this is an acquaintance you want to follow-up with.

Opportunities for knowledge-sharing events

In contrast to the limitations imposed on experiential events, knowledge-sharing events can be effectively held on online platforms. Event professionals can re-frame the challenges of producing online events as new possibilities that may reap greater returns.

Take for example virtual seminars and conferences. Although they lack a physical presence, they allow participants to actively contribute through an ongoing Q&A, Slack channels and breakout rooms. These methods can facilitate greater engagement than a traditional conference and allow attendees to participate at their own pace and comfort level. This also makes events more accessible to introverts, who may find it intimidating to engage in high-energy in-person conferences that appear to be dominated by extroverted participants. An additional benefit is that many of these tools are either free or highly affordable, and are easy for attendees to get the hang of.

Photo by Sincerely Media on Unsplash

Event organizers can also make use of the fact that online events are much more affordable for attendees, thus making them more attractive to a wider audience. Two years ago, a 3-day in-person conference in Seattle could cost up to S$5,000 after factoring in travel and accommodation costs. A beefed-up, online-only version of the same conference today costs less than S$550 for an all-access pass to 18 talks. Some conferences even allow participants to purchase tickets for specific sessions, thus making these events even more accessible.

There is a myriad of cost savings for the event organizers as well — they can save on venue, travel and accommodation for the speaker, catering etc. Australian events firm Nectar Creative Communications points out that such cost savings can be channeled back into creating richer content and hiring higher-profile speakers, which in turn would make events even more appealing, thus attracting more participants who are willing to pay.

Engaging audiences online

Photo by Compare Fibre on Unsplash

Like it or not, online knowledge-sharing events are here to stay — at least until Covid-19 is no longer a problem. There remains a high demand for such events, especially given the fact that they are much more affordable and accessible. Attendees’ expectations have also evolved over the past year, with many being more open to attending online events.

Yet, anyone who has organized a Zoom or Meet event would realize that participants in online events tend to have poorer attention spans and are prone to disengaging or even dropping off due to distractions in the real world.

How then can event organizers create engaging experiences for attendees while on a limited budget? Here are some suggestions and guidelines gleaned from Tahira Endean (The Future of Event Industry Conference), Frank M. Waechter (Congrex.com) and Ricky Wolff (Markletic) — most of which don’t require deep pockets:

  1. Be clear about your goals: What do you want your participants to take away from the session? How do you want them to feel? How are you going to drive change for them? Figure out how best to meet these objectives. Also, be aware of the expectations of your participants and make sure that you can deliver.
  2. Get passionate speakers: We’ve all experienced online conferences where the host and the speakers were speaking in a monotone throughout — this is a major put off that makes participants drop off. Enlist speakers who are excited about the topic — they will naturally raise the energy level of the session and keep users more engaged. (See my previous note on channeling potential cost savings into hiring better speakers.)
  3. Get your setup right: Make sure your equipment and slides are functioning properly and pre-empt server bandwidth issues that affect registration and logging in. Ensure that your speakers can dial in and display their slides smoothly, and encourage them to use a professional-looking backdrop wherever possible.
    If you are organizing events regularly, consider investing in a dedicated virtual studio. Hotels such as the InterContinental Singapore have set up well-equipped virtual studios to accommodate online events, but event planners on a shoestring budget can start with a room equipped with an appropriate green screen.
  4. Go beyond traditional slides: Lines of text bore audiences. Keep them interested with infographics and videos, and incorporate tools such as real-time polls and quizzes. Enable live Q&As with the speakers. By making the session participatory, one can increase audience engagement.
    Event organizers can also explore with live sketches. Skilled illustrators can transform the key points of a knowledge-sharing event into engaging and memorable visuals, often in real time.
  5. Cater to participants’ attention spans: Most people can only pay attention to one idea for 5–11 minutes before they drift off. Speakers should structure their presentations accordingly and give users sufficient breaks in between sessions.
  6. Facilitate dialogue among participants: Look into creating breakout groups (now readily available on Zoom and Meet) where participants can discuss in smaller groups before rejoining the main event. Such groups allow for more in-depth conversations, and also provide opportunities for networking.
  7. Where appropriate, explore “fun” elements, such as providing an event theme. Encourage participants to post pictures of themselves on their social media platforms pre- or post-event for a chance at winning a prize that’s related to the event.

Most of these ideas can be easily implemented at little to no cost, making them viable options for many event organizers.

While experiential events are at the mercy of the government restrictions that are necessitated by the pandemic, there is room for online events to improve and to grow. This is an opportunity event organizers can seize while waiting for life to go back to normal.

Amy is loving life as a UX researcher. She thrives on coffee and Chopin.

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