Content, networking, and engagement are the key ingredients of a successful meeting. But when events go virtual, delivering all three of those experiences gets tricky.
Event tech has stepped up dramatically during the pandemic to emulate in-person experiences through virtual platforms and tools such as livestreaming, virtual photo booths, and interactive features within event apps.
“The challenge is there’s been this explosion of tools and platforms, some of which are existing tools that have evolved into
solid virtual options. Others that are brand new to the market are seeing an opportunity to be able to fill that need,” said Eric Kingstad, principal consultant with Kingstad Event Technologists.
This can make for an overwhelming learning curve for event planners trying to keep up with the latest tech toys. The key, event tech experts say, is for planners to think about what they want the event to look like, then look for a platform and tools with the features to pull it off.
Choosing a virtual event platform
Virtual event platforms have stood in for physical meeting venues during the pandemic, and they provide the scaffolding for planners to build out the event. Several platforms provide end-to-end event management, offering everything from registration and marketing to video and networking.
But building a virtual event is not the same as planning one that takes place in person, and there is no one-size-fits-all platform. Dana Pake, events strategist for MCW Events, said that when choosing a platform, planners need to design for the experience they want to create and anticipate problems ahead of time.
“Nine months after the pandemic, I still see this ‘panic to the platform,’ where a lot of folks think you can simply take your live event and shoehorn it into a digital program without planning for the digital experience,” she said.
Event producer J. Damany Daniel said it is not so much which tool planners use, but how they use it.
“The first question everyone asks is, ‘What platform are we going to use?’ I say, let’s take a step back and ask, ‘What stories are we going to tell?’” said Daniel, chief imaginator for event production firm The Event Nerd.
The challenge is stories once told in a 5,000-square-foot ballroom are now reduced to a 27-inch monitor.
“All of those things have been taken away from us. But our ability to tell the stories should not have changed,” Daniel said.
Here are some considerations:
As in-person meetings resume, event planners may consider platforms versatile enough to handle hybrid and virtual events.
David Bruce, founder and executive director of the Alliance of Independent Meeting Professionals, believes hybrid meetings are here to stay because of the revenue potential they offer.
“I think the associations will see there’s a great market in being able to bring in people other than who can show up for a particular event,” he said.
Kingstad said platforms like EventMobi, SpotMe, Socio, and Swapcard that existed before the pandemic have the advantage of versatility.
“Event apps that have the capability of embedding video will be preferred and have the legs to fulfill the needs of the hybrid market because they’re already being used for live events. They’re kind of a natural fit,” he said.
Newer to the scene are Hopin and Hubilo, which also offer all-encompassing platforms for virtual and hybrid events. The platform Bizzabo has gained momentum since the pandemic for being able to serve in-person or virtual events, or a hybrid combination.
Broadcast and livestreaming
For event planners looking for something more polished than Zoom or WebEx for streaming, there are some mid-range streaming tools that can provide better production quality.
StreamYard allows users to bring guests ‘on stage’ and ‘off stage’ for interviews and to screen share and stream directly to social media. Restream makes it possible to stream to more than 30 social platforms simultaneously.
“These are DIY tools that someone with a little bit of a skillset can easily produce and stage manage,” Kingstad said.
Open Broadcaster Software (OBS) offers free, open-source software for video recordings and livestreaming to social platforms, although it may require more skill and training, Kingstad noted.
“It allows you to mix and match and do some really nice transitions to be able to stream content to virtual events,” he said.
An experienced production partner can help event planners sort out some of the different technologies, Daniel said.
“You have to hire someone who knows how to translate your story into the tech tools,” he said.
Some of the most valuable connections people make at meetings take place in the coffee line, or with the person one seat over at the keynote speech. But virtual events take away those kinds of conversation opportunities.
“What folks are really missing in events are those moments of serendipity,” Pake said.
The networking platform Virtual Braindate by e180 builds on the technology used for online dating apps. Attendees can book virtual one-on-one or small group conversations based on shared interests in their profile.
Virtual meeting platforms Remo and Airmeet allow attendees to move between virtual tables to have social interactions and network before and after events. For smaller meetings of up to 1,500 guests, the platform Wonder allows guests to see who is speaking to whom, and then join conversations by moving their avatars closer with their mouse.
Engaging attendees requires extra effort with virtual meetings, so planners are finding ways to differentiate through interactive activities for participants.
“It’s that real-time interaction and giving them a reason to connect to sponsors, to other attendees, and to get something more out of that experience than just the content,” Kingstad said.
Engagement-oriented tech includes apps such as SpotMe, which has features for live polling and a live Q&A with applause. The audience engagement platform SocialPoint allows organizers to create live attendee participation games and virtual trivia to increase engagement and attract leads. For lighthearted social interaction, virtual photos booths such as OutSnapped and Pikcher Booth have become increasingly popular.
Analytics and marketing
Events can provide planners with valuable marketing data, and emerging tools are making it possible to glean this information from virtual meetings, too. One newcomer is event platform Goldcast.IO, which gathers attendee analytics.
“They were purpose-built for field marketers,” Pake said. “They’re really trying to help event planners translate their program to impact new revenue.”
Some platforms are able to create 3D experiences so attendees can feel like they are physically in the event space and interact with virtual vendors and exhibits. However, Kingstad cautions this feature tends to be better suited for gamers, as opposed to larger events.
Intrado Studio, formerly INXPO, is a customizable interface offering a virtual lobby and a 3D mockup of a physical space that can be filled with virtual exhibitors.
The vFairs platform offers custom 3D designs and makes it possible for a venue to create a 3D mockup of its lobby, office, or event space.
Beyond the platform
In addition to the tech tools themselves, there are other factors event planners need to consider when building out virtual events.
Reliable internet and bandwidth
Having the latest and greatest tech may help produce an impressive event. But without a reliable internet backbone, none of that matters.
Tech experts say it’s important to have a redundancy plan in place in case the internet goes out.
“An online event only works if the event is actually online,” Daniel said.
To supplement his events’ high-speed internet, Daniel worked with Austin, Tex., company RightRound, which offers ‘backup internet in a box.’
Planners also need to make sure they have sufficient bandwidth to support the event, Pake said.
“Do you know how many users you’re going to have? Because it might be a really cool experience, but it’s going to fall apart if your servers can’t manage your load,” she explained.
The upshot of virtual events is they can accommodate four or five times as many attendees as in person. A live event may that have been able to accommodate 500 people may be able to reach 10,000 to 20,000 in a virtual setting.
“But a lot of these technologies were not built to carry the load of viewers virtual events are demanding right now,” Pake said.
Bruce relies on outside internet providers for dedicated bandwidth at a fraction of the cost.
“Technology is great, but it’s expensive. And if it’s too expensive, then it’s not cost-effective for the client to use it to manage that event,” he said.
Sitting in front of a screen all day is exhausting, and event tech professionals say virtual event planners need to get creative to find ways to keep their attendees engaged.
“‘Zoom fatigue’ is a real thing—it’s documented. There are doctors talking about it,” Daniel said. “But you know what’s not a real thing? ‘ESPN fatigue.’”
Daniel uses ESPN’s SportsCenter as an example. Even though the show repeats the same thing every 45 minutes, people will leave it on for hours on end.
“No one is saying after the third SportsCenter of the day, ‘Oh my God, too many SportsCenters,’” he said. “But they are saying that about their third Zoom call of the day, because the stories aren’t engaging.”
One strategy Pake has encouraged her clients to use is audio-only sessions to give people a break from their screens. Another option is to offer the presentation in a few different formats.
“One of the greatest things about virtual events is you get to take three bites out of the same apple,” Pake said. “You’ve got the live stream, video on demand, and the audio transcript. You can use them for multiple purposes, especially in the B2B space and with multi-day events.”
If the event is using a video conferencing format, there can be a more interactive approach to the meeting. Pake uses the example of a meeting where participants logged on to Zoom so everyone could see where the meeting was starting.
“Then they turned off their cameras and went on a walk while they listened to the audio-only experience,” Pake said. “At the end, they turned on their cameras and showed where they ended up. It was a more surreal experience.”
Daniel suggests using virtual photo booths to tell a story. He offers this scenario: At a key moment in the program, the event moderator asks participants to grab their phones and scan a QR code that takes them to a virtual photo booth. Then everyone snaps a selfie at the exact same moment.
“All of a sudden, this virtual photo booth is flooded with photos of people who are sharing this singular moment that will never be repeated again,” Daniel said. “That’s when you take the technology and layer it on a story. It makes the technology more of an extension of the story, and not just a tool that you use.”
Putting it all together
The ‘content is king’ mantra holds true for virtual events, and Daniel said the way for planners to get people to connect with their content is to make better content. They can leverage technology to get that content out.
“No one wants to see a boring Zoom room anymore,” Daniel said. “There are far too many technologies, far too many tools out there that make it easier to create experiences than for people to still be doing their meetings and events in Zoom. It requires an investment of money, but more importantly, it requires an investment of thought.”