Uncertainty and chaos: An ideal time for online events to get a makeover

There is room for innovation from both the hosts and the tech platform to improve the user interface and experience of virtual events.

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Lets’ face it, most online events are underwhelming. Attendees, sponsors, and hosts have voted with a thumbs down, a yawn, a raspberry.

If we want to create business impact using this important digital channel, B2B marketers must re-imagine and re-invent, well, most everything. The experience, the format, the content, the tech, the integrations and even the follow-through is underwhelming for the attendee and for the marketer. Virtual events, digital events, webinars, hosted sites – all flavors. We can and need to do better. 

This lockdown, work-from-home, physical event-less world has exposed the degree of challenge. Avatars, virtual booths, talking head webinars, endless slide presentations, etc., combined with viewer online fatigue and monotony are accelerating the need. Buyers’ and marketers’ reactions range from “tone deaf” to “I’d rather hear fingernails on a chalkboard” when the 111th online event invitation or sponsor opportunity hits their inbox. 

Before everybody starts caveating, I realize there are exceptions. And, this is not a dig on online event providers or platforms or even marketers (holding mirror up here). It’s a call to use this whacky time to shake it up and make everything better about online events. 

Our current reality with online events

We need these platforms and channels to perform, better. We need online events to build community, educate and delight our audiences. We need them to generate new audiences and start new relationships, and not just deliver webinars to known prospects, customers, and partners in our database.

Times of crisis often spawn innovation and reinvention. Before we dive into how to re-imagine this channel, let’s recap where we are today and our own version of Maslow’s Hierarchy of needs. 

We made a rush to replace planned face-to-face events to produce “Virtual Events.” It’s what we had to do after investing time, money, agendas and speakers into in-person events we had scheduled for Q2 and throughout the remainder of 2020. The Virtual Event platforms and experiences are still sub-par for the attendee and low value for the sponsor or host. 

We need experiences and a compelling reason to not just attend, but to participate.  

The field teams have relied on “events” for meet ups and sales pipeline, so we turned up webinars to fill the gap. Corporate digital teams got overwhelmed with field requests. Our webinar calendars bloated from a handful a month to a dozen (up over 400% according to webinar providers). Our audiences and prospects email boxes were flooded with “can’t miss” webinars. We’re grinding through our database trying to get audience with content that all sounds the same. Bottom line is we’ve actually pushed a portion of audience away as they not only didn’t attend, they’ve opted out from our brand. 

We need audience, we need engagement and we need conversations. 

We’re beginning to host smaller groups, just as we held intimate meetups in our local cities and communities to network with our peers, talk a little shop and maybe share a beverage or a meal. This time the “experience” is virtual wine tasting, guacamole making or a cooking class – anything but another online meeting. 

We need to figure out how to scale these types of smaller, more intimate digital experiences. 

Make online events more conversational, more human, and more interactive

Formats, content, and most tech being used today limits the interactions, delivers lackluster experiences, and minimizes the human factor. As Angela Earl, marketing exec, states, “The goal is NOT to replicate the in-person event in a digital format but instead to re-imagine the experience altogether.”

Carlos Doughty of MarTech Alliance advises us to look elsewhere for inspiration: “I would say the educational tech space has more answers than the marketing. The features and functionality of Learning Experience Platforms (LXPs) are a lot more extensive and engaging albeit not designed for the same use case as a virtual event. Gamification, social learning, multi content format aggregation, supporting UGC are a few of the examples. Outside of work I think there are also some great insights from Peloton’s model which can translate. Completely owning experience from software to equipment (bike, shoes, drink, bottle, for example) to community. This is what Scott Galloway describes as vertical integration as part of his T algorithm which I’d love to see applied to virtual events.”

Anand Thaker, strategic advisor and noted martech influencer, emphasizes, “Online events need to offer side conversations and event assignments. Conversations between presentations are our headspace to really absorb what we are hearing and learning! Then, offer team assignments with follow-up giving everyone a level of accountability, not just participation. If you want to move the needle on interactivity and collaboration, this will immediately up level their value.”

Tessa Baron, B2B marketing and thought leader in all things digital puts it this way, “We can no longer rely on in-person events to form human connections. But, making the pivot from physical to digital is, unfortunately, not as simple as downloading an app to shop for groceries. For true digital-first event transformation to take hold, you need to do more than just upgrade your technology. You need to completely rethink the people and processes that use the technology.”

Gary Maggiano, marketing and martech leader, weighs in proposing a more personalized approach to igniting a journey: “…I see virtual events as a stepping stone to personalized online events, the ability to customize content and as well as the experience. Virtual gives us the ability to pull more data into the process to enable personalized touch points. We do this when we serve content online and build online buyer journeys. Why not start event journeys!”

Make an online events’ promise, keep it, and deliver

Trust is your most important asset in building a meaningful and sustainable business and brand. So many events talk about big value, but few deliver it. When attendees are underwhelmed, you negatively impact your brand versus driving your relationships forward. 

Katharina Moser, experience design executive, sums up the feelings of many B2B marketers and attendees: “Our current disruption gives us the great chance to move away from all those helplessly boring conferences full of never-ending panel discussions and frontal speeches, draining meetings, and workshops where the coffee break seems to be the highlight. We need to pay more attention to real human needs: the needs for security and trust. Who are the others in this event? What are the rules here?”  A starter list Moser outlines, include: “… the need for human connection (authenticity, storytelling, interaction), the need for growth (even better content!) but also our physical needs (just mentioning “Zoom fatigue”!). Our attention span online is even smaller. We need more breaks, less content, more entertainment. Let’s learn from online entertainment formats!”

Go big, go small. Wherever you go in length, format, content, and experiences, deliver on your promise to your audience and sponsors. Make the value attendees will receive by participating crystal clear. Don’t over promise, over deliver. 

If you produce a webinar, match the value to the time and let our audience know what to expect. If you can do the job in 20, get it done. Not every virtual event needs to be a 2 or 3-day online event. Most pros are fatigued from being online already. Boil down your best stuff to a few hours, half-day. One strategy, for example, is to create 20 sessions. Then cut in half to 10 sessions, and over-deliver on quality. Put your energy and resources into making these killer experiences and best value for the participants. What to do with the other 10 sessions? Save some content/sessions/insights for your on-demand offerings or white papers or individual focused webinars. This helps you align your content and experiences with the buying journey to meet specific needs with better value. 

Make online events extend beyond one channel, one format

Events that are one and done are limiting the experience. And, not all content and conversations are right for the online event platform. It’s even better when you extend and integrate with other platforms and experiences your attendees and community already use. We have breakout sessions in most events. Why not extend this breakout groups of like-minded pros that can move their conversations to dive deeper in another forum, format and/or channel?

Kate Athmer, demand marketing leader, shares: “Outreach had a Slack workspace to accompany their Unleash virtual summit. I liked how that enabled me to chat with other attendees via a platform I’m already logged into all day (I would not have used another chat platform to do this).”

Online event formats could use a good shake up. Many are in needs of “editors” and “experience designers” who re-imagine the flow, format and content. This also allowing the attendee to choose their journey, including the event organizer making suggestions based on their roles and data. There is room for innovation from both the hosts and the tech platform on user interface/experience improvement.

Gwendal Mahe, a customer experience expert and executive, sees it this way, “Going online/virtual should allow us to offer even more options for people to consume our content. We all respond differently to different formats (slides-based, one-way video, multi-screen chats, etc…) and goals of the sessions (inspiration, strategy, tactical, etc.). I believe making goals and expectations clear while offering a more tailored experience would raise engagement and connection.”

This is just a few thoughts on what’s possible and what can be done to make online events rock and work for our business. What are your ideas on how to advance the world of online events?

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

About the author

Scott Vaughan
Scott Vaughan is a B2B CMO and go-to-market leader. After several CMO and business leadership roles, Scott is now an active advisor and consultant working with CMO, CXOs, Founders, and investors on business, marketing, product, and GTM strategies. He thrives in the B2B SaaS, tech, marketing, and revenue world. His passion is fueled by working in-market to create new levels of business and customer value for B2B organizations. His approach is influenced and driven by his diverse experience as a marketing leader, revenue driver, executive, market evangelist, speaker, and writer on all things marketing, technology, and business. He is drawn to disruptive solutions and to dynamic companies that need to transform.

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