Events: How virtual is reshaping what it means to engage an audience

How the necessity of virtual events became a virtue for laser technology brand Cynosure.

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When the live events team at laser and RF technology brand Cynosure was grounded by the lockdown in March 2020, they launched an entire new virtual events department, Cynosure University, as a way to retain contact with their customers. While they initially expected the effort would only span six weeks, their webinars and virtual events are still going live, with more planned for the future, said Josh Smith, Cynosure’s National Field Marketing Manager.

Smith said their live events team has found benefits not only in the ability to engage new customers, but also in providing a resource to existing customers. When a medical practice that uses their devices brings on a new employee, they now have an entire library of content to refer them to.

Cynosure, like the rest of us, were learning that many uses of technology — from telecommuting to virtual events — have gone from being a convenience or fallback to a necessity.

R.D. Whitney, 365 Media CEO and Virtual Events Institute co-founder, said that services such as Netflix had already accustomed people to consuming content when and where they want. The ability to serve content from virtual events long-after the event has happened opens new doors for engagement. “I think for extending the life of conferences and online training, there’s just no better way,” he said.

Additionally, for many professions, a three-day conference where attendees are blasted with information may not suit how those people best retain information, Whitney said. Being able to take their time with the content and engage with it in “doses” can be helpful.

MarTech’s own Event Participation Index showed that 92% of marketers said organizers should keep offering virtual events even when in-person events return. Most cited the ability to attend more events and to more easily integrate them into their schedules. Others cited the lesser environmental impact of digital shows, but most cited the expense of traveling for in-person events.

Maintaining engagement

Whitney has been working in virtual events for over a decade. He said a combination of technological restrictions and lack of understanding of how to effectively operate virtual events kept them from reaching their potential in the past.

Some of the earliest virtual events attempted to simply recreate the live event experience, he said. Those experiences lacked the “serendipity” provided by actually walking around and mingling in person. Once people were forced to run events in a virtual space, they also had to figure out how to keep that experience engaging.

At Cynosure, Smith said that one of their webinars was created by first surveying physicians from all across the country. Physicians were asked what they were most interested to learn in regard to marketing the services they provide using Cynosure’s medical devices. With that information, the live events team was able to build a webinar around the information that is most relevant to their customers.

Whitney said virtual events also have to compete with additional distractions, from pets or children seeking an attendee’s attention, to emails popping up in the background as they watch. When the Virtual Events Institute, which launched last July, created an awards program looking at industry best practices, Whitney said that innovative ways of creating engagement stood out.

Some of those ideas have included gamification, or other appointment-setting and creative approaches that connect buyers and sellers, he said. Interactive elements can also help attendees to feel they are involved in the event, not just watching it.

One of the ways Cynosure keeps attendees engaged during hybrid events is to offer additional content for virtual attendees while in-person attendees are on a break, Smith said. That may be a live interview with a sponsored marketing partner, or a presentation about one of the company’s charitable initiatives.

Cynosure also seeks feedback from virtual attendees, which does more than just keeping them engaged. “I think the most beneficial thing has been the data and the true analytics,” Smith said. Ultimately, between the direct input and being able to see what content drives the most viewership, Cynosure is able to gather much better metrics from virtual than from live attendees.

The making of hybrid

Whitney said that even with hybrid events, the experiences for the live attendees and the virtual attendees don’t have to be perfectly mirrored. People who have gone to the time and expense of attending an event in person should get something unique for their money, and the virtual experience also has the potential for experiences that aren’t simply a substitute for the live event.

Dig deeper: Events of the future will be hybrid and “always on”

“I think it remains to be defined what hybrid is, and it’s going to mean different things,” Whitney said. “I think there is some assumption that it means putting a camera on the live stage, when I don’t think it’s that at all — it’s not a good experience.”

Whitney said a virtual event can provide ongoing engagement, and organizations can make use of that fact. Information from a roundtable discussion that followed a presentation can be included in the content presented online, and virtual attendees can be presented their own opportunities to provide similar feedback.

The virtual event also doesn’t have to have content presented in the same manner or at the same speed as the live event. “I think you can certainly make it more efficient online after,” Whitney said. “And I think it will be interesting to see how people do it.”

Immersive technologies are likely to play a part in the future as well, Whitney said, though he doesn’t believe the technology is quite there yet. Still, he believes future event attendees will have that experience. Even with what is possible through video tele-conferencing, Whitney said it’s already possible to create the deeper kind of engagement that has made people fly across the country for a one-day lunch meeting in the past.

“You get to know each other a little bit. You really can build trust online,” he said.

While there are differences in preparing for a virtual event versus a live event, many of the priorities are the same, Whitney said. “What’s the backup plan? What’s the contingency plan on the contingency plan?” he asked.

The biggest error that can be made in planning the virtual side is to place the technology at the front of those plans, though. “I guarantee you, there’s technology that will fit what you want to do, but if you go to the technology first — they’re gonna wedge your foot into that shoe,” Whitney said.

Whitney helps organizers to begin by considering what they want to accomplish, as well as what they have to leverage. The Virtual Events Institute’s training covers such areas as event marketing, engagement and preparation, with selecting technology coming only after those aspects are covered.

Watch next: MarTech Live’s guide to hacking virtual events

Extended reach

A Cynosure live event brings in around 100 attendees, Smith said. Though they are doing more of those live events once again, having a hybrid experience means that they are more than doubling — sometimes tripling — the number of people they are reaching.

“We never had done a hybrid event before the pandemic,” Smith said. “We can just do so much with that broadcast that we really were never able to do before.”

From reaching customers and potential customers in places such as Canada and Hawaii, where large events still aren’t possible, to drawing in attendees from areas where they wouldn’t normally have a live event, Cynosure’s virtual events have greatly extended their reach, Smith said.

“We definitely, definitely saw a lot of new customers — or non-customers really — on the virtual events, and that actually turned into sales opportunities very easily,” Smith said. “We created quite a bit of a revenue stream directly from these virtual events.”

Having a virtual event — whether it is standalone or a hybrid tied to a live event — lowers the barrier for many attendees, both in terms of cost and time, Smith said. It has meant that they are able to draw in people from regions where, whether due to difficulties with hosting an event in a large population center or due to the cost barriers of hosting an event in a low-population area, they wouldn’t have had a live event in the past.

“It allows us to still capitalize and engage with those customers without having to have a formal event there,” Smith said.

Whitney said the virtual events make it possible for a regional live event to have global attendees. Someone who wouldn’t fly from Dubai to attend a conference in Las Vegas can still attend. “People that run events professionally, they clearly found out that there’s an audience out there they weren’t capturing, and it could be as much as ten times as big as they thought,” Whitney said.

Smith said he is sold on the power of virtual events. “I think every company should really look at doing virtual events as a part of their marketing strategy, because it has been proven to be very, very effective,” he said.

Building something bigger

A live-event creates a one-time experience that ends with “see you next year,” Whitney said. “That’s not an engaged community. That’s a one time thing. That’s a traveling circus.”

Whitney offered what he and his co-founders have done with the Virtual Events Institute — and what they plan to do with the soon-to-launch Community Leaders Institute — as an example of what is possible with creating an online community that extends engagement beyond the few days a live event is in town.

In the case of the Virtual Events Institute, they started with online learning to help people get their feet on the ground. Then, they introduced the awards as a way for the developing community to share their best ideas.

From there, the model offers membership, providing those members with tools and resources and a professional “home.” Whitney said that a community has a number of pillars that makes it strong, with events serving as just one of those pillars. “The more pillars you can have working together, the stronger your community is going to be,” Whitney said.

With the advent of social media, marketing moved from a one-way approach in which customers are talked to, and began to more closely resemble a conversation, Whitney said. Yet, that environment was chaotic. Community marketing offers something better than the chaos. “Which is, giving everybody the ability to communicate with each other, giving them that sense of belonging, but in a structured way,” Whitney said.

The communities already developing online — from cause-based to brand-based — took on greater importance during the pandemic, he said. Lockdowns “woke everybody up” to the importance, and potential, of those virtual communities.

“If we didn’t have these online communities, how could we have communicated? We couldn’t meet face-to-face. We couldn’t meet at the office,” Whitney said. “This gave us the ability to sort of interact with the world within our specialized area.”

Opinions expressed in this article are those of the guest author and not necessarily MarTech. Staff authors are listed here.

About the author

Benjamin Kibbey
An Ohio native, Benjamin Kibbey got his start in journalism with the U.S. Army. He has written on subjects stretching from military logistics software to natural resources management, and has won multiple journalism awards with his talent for exploring the human element behind the technical details.

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