Virtual events are the new normal

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As the coronavirus continues to threaten the business world, many agencies and brands are turning to virtual events as an alternative. We are currently living through history's highest ever rate of change, and remote innovations are arriving faster than expected.

Virtual events still sound a little futuristic, even if they’ve been around since the 90s when the world’s first livestream brought us webcam footage of a coffee maker dripping. Since then, virtual reality has been finding its way into our homes, offices and daily lives.

Moving an event online can seem overwhelming, but research shows that making it happen is often more beneficial than expected. When a virtual event is well planned and based on a well-designed platform, it can complement or even completely replace a physical event.

Let’s discover together what an online event is exactly, and how much value it can provide.

What is a virtual event?

A virtual or online event is an interactive gathering held on the internet. Unlike in-person events, virtual gatherings aren't restricted to a single location. A remote attendee can join and participate from anywhere in the world, given he has access to the web. Virtual events aim to achieve the same purpose as physical ones in that participants learn about a particular topic and may have the opportunity to exchange ideas with one another and with the organizers.

Some events have a mix of in-real-life and virtual components, known as hybrids. For example, TwitchCon hosted by Twitch, the world's leading live streaming platform for gamers, allows popular streamers to meet fans and engage in fun in-person e-sport tournaments that are then livestreamed to an online audience.

How to virtualise your event?

You have probably already participated in a virtual event, especially since the COVID-19 situation hit, be it watching an interactive webinar or for a happy hour over Zoom with friends. Technology and social media upgrades have opened the door to new ways of connecting online. Some of the largest conferences have gone partially or completely digital to widen their audience. A lot of events are already hybrids. In 2018, Coachella’s YouTube livestream brought Beyoncé’s Homecoming to more than 41 million people in more than 230 countries, rather than just the hundreds of thousands on site.

There are a variety of ways to host a virtual event, from virtual museum tours to live Q&As with astronauts in space. Here’s a round-up of the different formats along with some examples.

One way to host a live event is to start an online discussion by live tweeting, broadcasting live or hosting an AMA (Ask Me Anything) with a hashtag to help people find and follow the conversation. Everything from TED-style talks to stand-up comedy shows or intimate interviews is fair game. Interactive trivia games and contests can also keep things engaging. Bill Gates hosted a few AMAs on Reddit, allowing people to ask him questions about different topics, such as COVID-19.

An easy way to livestream video content is to use social media platforms’ live video feature. Livestreams are known for driving engagement and have a “can’t miss” factor that taps into people’s FOMO (fear of missing out). This type of event can be used to launch a new product, answer frequently asked questions, or share an entire class. A livestream event can also be a press conference. For example, in September 2019, Apple’s iPhone 11, 11 Pro, and Pro Max launch event kept 1.8 million people glued to their screens as the unveiling was livestreamed for the first time.

Apple
Apple


Another great livestream idea is to give followers a peek behind-the-scenes. Places like museums, galleries, theatres, airports and even national parks have installed livecams that give viewers the opportunity to do a virtual visit, like this online exhibition at the VanGogh Museum.

If you want to reach a larger audience, online streaming is the way to go. Many live concerts and summits already incorporate it so that people who can’t attend in person can still get in on the action. There are also many conferences that take place entirely online, with integrated networking and meetings. The world’s largest virtual HR conference, HR Virtual Summit, for example, attracts over 30,000 attendees ever year. All sessions are virtual, including keynotes and breakouts, and chat features support audience participation.

With a raft of cancellations and postponements to the sporting calendar, the worlds of esports and traditional sports are converging more than ever as traditional audiences find new platforms. We covered that in detail in our previous article on e-sports. New solutions are enabling fans to continue watching their favourite sports virtually. Formula 1 launched a new F1 Esports Virtual Grand Prix series, featuring a number of current F1 drivers competing through a video game. The broadcast is available on the official Formula 1 YouTube, Twitch and Facebook channels, as well as F1.com.

F1 Esport
Formula 1


During the Mutua Madrid Open Virtual Pro in April 2020 the best tennis players in the world swapped their rackets for game consoles and played against each other from their homes via the videogame Tennis World Tour. The matches were livestreamed on Facebook Gaming. In parallel, the tennis players as well as content creators participated in a virtual charity tournament.

YouTube also launched a 10-day digital film festival with 20 partners, including the Cannes Film Festival, Toronto International Film Festival, Sundance Film Festival, Berlin International Film Festival, Tribeca Film Festival and Venice Film Festival, with free streaming to cinema fans everywhere from 29 May to 7 June 2020 on Youtube.

A few years ago, nobody would have thought that a peer-to-peer (P2P) fundraiser could be held virtually. People coming together to run a marathon or ride their bicycles across the city for charity is such a communal activity that had up until recently been considered outside the realm of virtual. Come 2020 and even that has changed. Thanks to the growing popularity of wearable fitness tracking devices, it has become much simpler to arrange P2P campaigns where supporters participate virtually on their own time, from wherever they are. Virtual P2P campaigns have proven their worth with events like the British Heart Foundation’s My Marathon.

Along the same lines, Olympic gold medallist Jan Frodeno completed a full Ironman triathlon at home to raise more than €200,000 for charity. The entire triathlon was streamed live, with several athletes joining the livestream to support him in his effort. With these virtual P2P events, organizations can deliver on the sense of community that drives the campaigns while facilitating participation from anywhere in the world.

Virtual Reality (VR) is one of the most hyped technologies of the last decade. Global giants Google, Microsoft, Apple, and Facebook have all invested billions in developing applications. Event professionals are jumping on the trend and realising the potential of VR in transforming their events. VR totally takes over your guests’ senses, commands your audience’s attention and offers unparalleled engagement. VR is a great icebreaker and novelty to get your guests talking, to stand out and be remembered. They say doing is far better for learning than just seeing or hearing. And when you can’t physically demonstrate the new product, service or solution, VR is the next best thing.

There are several off-the-shelf VR experiences such as NRMA Insurance’s designed car crash simulator or The Toms Virtual Giving Trip that offers dinner guests at a gala fundraiser a virtual trip through Peru, where the popular shoe company’s team visits a school of children who are about to receive the shoes they need for the first time. This considerably increased donations, as you can imagine!

VR can also be done remotely by sending the equipment to your audience. For instance, Montblanc wanted to give their influencers a special treat, so they sent them a package containing their new smart watch and a cardboard VR headset. Using the headset, they were able to see and learn the features of their new smart watch in a 3D environment.

Avatar-based events are another type of virtual gathering that encourage and facilitate networking. Thanks to interactive 3D technology from the world of simulations, each person controls an avatar that allows them to move freely, talk with other users and even participate in fun interactions. Participants interact in the closest way possible to a real-life event, similar to the virtual world Second Life, which was created in 2003. In the same way that it happens in real life, the visitors of a 3D virtual tradeshow can access the different pavilions, visit their stands and speak with their own voice through avatars with the rest of the attendees or sponsors. Like countless companies and organizers around the world, Laval Virtual had to cancel its 20,000-person event in France because of the pandemic. Instead, it was held on a virtual campus where thousands of people took their avatars through virtual auditoriums and breakout spaces to follow programmes centred around VR and AR (augmented reality) technologies.

laval Virtual
Laval Virtual

Are there other virtual event cool factors?

Naysayers aside, the advantages of the virtual world are many and overcome many of the limitations of physical events. According to Facebook, live video averages six times more engagement than regular video, and Facebook users comment 10 times more on live videos than on regular ones.

Geographical and time barriers are a major constraint when organizing an event. Virtual spaces make it easier for attendees to access remotely from anywhere with an internet connection. Virtual events widen the demographic of your potential attendees and enable you to engage with people beyond the conference.

By setting up interactive elements, you can create an online community that lives on months and years after the live event. Another benefit of virtual events is real-time access to all participant data, which helps companies measure their ROI and make immediate and future improvements.

It also makes it easier to personalize events. The days when events were designed for a single user profile are long gone. In such a competitive digital landscape, it’s essential to offer participants valuable experiences that are unique to them and their preferences. Last, but clearly not least, one of the biggest advantages of online meetings is the huge reduction in costs compared to physical events. No physical space or equipment is needed. Not to mention that the reduction in travel contributes to a sustainable economy by reducing the carbon footprint. Virtualizing an event is a way to go green(er)!

Virtual Events


Of course, nothing can completely replace the real-life experiences that stimulate our senses and create feelings and memories that last a lifetime. But there is no denying the rapid evolution of human interaction. Covid-19 is accelerating the digital transformation that was already underway, pushing virtual into sectors we all thought would stay offline forever.

Event organizers are increasingly open to including virtual elements, not only for the reduced infrastructure and cost savings, but also for the increased engagement. Companies are innovating experiences in immersive environments to stand out from the competition and develop a niche in an increasingly changing market.

In times of uncertainty, when participants aren’t sure they can make it to an in-person event, online events are a smart way to ensure human connection is not lost. But more than an alternative, online events should be seen as a new format to engage with your audience. Physical events will return, but virtual events will remain an interesting investment and should be carefully considered as part of every smart marketing strategy. Will you integrate virtual events in yours?


A The Consultancy Group article, written by Justine Gilliot

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