The Emergence Of Virtual Events In The Covid-19 Pandemic

This article explores how virtual events have risen to the occasion when the Covid-19 pandemic showed up.

Virtual graduation ceremony in 2020
Just like a virtual graduation ceremony, many event organisers have transformed their physical events into virtual events to stay safe during the Covid-19 pandemic.
Image Source: Mohammad Shahhosseini

Pandemic’s impact on events

Events, particularly conferences, have traditionally witnessed attendees closely gathering, socialising and eating together in venues. Many of these attendees are willing to cross state and national borders to experience the fun of such events. However, as a BBC Worklife article put it, conferences are the “worst kind of ‘super-spreader event’ during the Covid-19 pandemic era.

“It’s large numbers of people coming together, social inhibitions and norms being relaxed, and people spending time together that makes for a higher risk of transmission events. Conferences certainly do fill that criteria.”

said Paul Hunter, professor of medicine at the University of East Anglia.

Obviously, holding any large-scale event is a definite no-no as long as the pandemic remains. And because of that, the impact on the events industry has been rather disruptive.

To gauge this impact, event magazine Live Design found in its July 2020 survey that, out of the 107 event organising firms that responded, almost 45% reported an annual company revenue of $1 million to $30 million, almost 40% reported less than $1 million and almost 16% reported $50 million.

This indicates that the majority faced challenges in maximising their event revenue. Consequently, 77.57% of the firms have downsized their teams. On the bright side, 58.88% shifted their focus to new projects such as digital streaming, virtual conferences, UV tech and future event planning.

Meanwhile, a survey conducted by the Professional Convention Management Association (PCMA) showed that 7 out of 10 businesses have switched their events to a virtual platform.

That’s right. The pandemic has pushed many organisers to bring their events online by relying on virtual event tools like Zoom, Attendify, Sli.do and, of course, having their own websites to host the virtual events. These tools allow attendees to register, attend, ask questions and network without stepping out of their homes or even suiting up.

An example of a virtual event is the Big Data Conference that I attended in 2020.

“Everyone was talking about e-conferences before the coronavirus, but few bothered to explore it as an option. We were in that situation of doing what we’re used to. This has forced everyone to embrace it, and made companies realise some of these things can be done in a virtual world, rather than sending people on a train or plane around the globe.”

said Mandy Jennings of Paje Consulting, an event-planning business based in Cheshire.

Are virtual events all the hype?

Anyone with just enough life experience will understand that even the greatest things have not escaped tomatoes being thrown their way. It seems that virtual events have joined this band.

Time zone differences, bad internet connections and simply the lack of physical presence have been cited as reasons people hate virtual events. Physical events have given many people the chance to engage all five senses, so maybe people miss feeling that sort of excitement and fun.

 “We all know that networking is a big part of conferencing. The ability to speak to the speakers or your community, to communicate your ideas and get inspiration – that’s the conference experience.”

said Lester Mordue, the director of PROMAX Europe conference.

But, since health and safety need to be prioritised over pleasure, there are more important reasons why holding events virtually is necessary.

As a Martech Today survey found, 66% of respondents won’t attend a physical event until a Covid-19 vaccine is in circulation, indicating that many people are still too scared to go near crowds, similar to the fear of contamination in public transport.

Public transport occupancy data can put the fear of contamination in public transport to rest.

Aggravating this fear is the uncertainty of mask, hygiene and social distancing measures. We even suggested holding virtual Christmas parties in 2020 because that’s the much safer option. If an event is still held in person, organisers will have to take measures like limiting the number of attendees and choosing an outdoor or spacious venue.

And even if the pandemic is over, virtual events result in lots of savings. Attending physical events involve the costs of travel, accommodation, and registration for attendees. Event organisers also need to consider the costs of extra hygiene measures and pre-packaged refreshments. On the other hand, virtual events forego all these costs.

Besides cutting monetary costs, virtual events can cut environmental costs as well. It removes the need to travel, so less CO2 emissions. It removes the need to order food in disposable packaging, so less waste. And it gives the attendees the choice to not shower or wear a complete suit, so less water is used.

Data’s role in assessing the success of virtual events

As with anything online, another important advantage is that the success of virtual events are easier to track and analyse. There are several metrics organisers can use to determine how well the event went.

Getting to know the attendees

Open and click-through rates of email invitations give clues about the demographics of potential attendees who are interested in the virtual event. Attendee demographic information like age, gender, location, occupation, industry and so on can inform future targeting efforts. Improved open and click-through rates reflect more effective targeting of attendees.

One way to collect attendee demographic information is to ask a set of networking questions during the onboarding process such as:

  • What is your occupation/job title?
  • Which industry do you work in?
  • How long have you worked in the industry?
  • What topics interest you the most?
  • Which area would you most like to improve in?
  • Which of the following products and services are you interested in?
  • What are you looking to gain from this event?

This will not only help the organisers improve their future targeting efforts but also give attendees a personalised experience and match them with the relevant connections, topics, sponsors, etc.

Insights on sessions and engagement

Several virtual event metrics can be used to gain insights on how engaging the sessions and speakers were:

  1. The total number of registrations is the most basic metric to gauge the overall interest in the virtual event.
  2. The number of session registrations is another metric to rely on to determine the topics or speakers of higher demand (besides asking networking questions as mentioned earlier).
  3. Speaker engagement and attendee satisfaction can be measured using the number of unique speaker profile views, dwell time, live polling, reviews, surveys, live chat and social media activity via the mobile app or website.
  4. Networking experience can be gauged using the total number of attendees who exchanged contact details, networking session attendance, dwell time during networking sessions and the number of private chat conversations on the event platform.

Customer acquisition and revenue generation

Large-scale events are usually paid by sponsors in exchange for exposure to potential customers. Sponsors will want to know if the sponsorship worked in spreading the word about themselves and expanding their customer base.

  • Sponsorship page engagement: The level of engagement (views, likes and reactions) attendees had with sponsorship pages.
  • Content impressions: The number of times the sponsor’s content was displayed during the event.
  • Content click-through rates: The number of clicks the sponsor’s content received out of the impressions.
  • Content cost per click: The total the sponsor invested in the content divided by the total number of clicks to determine how worthwhile is the investment.
  • Average content dwell time: The average length of time the sponsor’s video content was watched.
  • Qualified sales leads: The number of prospective customers generated from the virtual event.
  • Acquired customers: The number of attendees who became customers thanks to the event.

At the same time, the organisers will also want to know if they made money from the event.

  • Gross revenue: The total amount of sales from the virtual event before deductions from expenses.
  • Efficiency ratio: A comparison of the expenses to revenue (Cost/Revenue) to determine the profitability of the event.

What will become of physical events?

Live streams of virtual events are here to stay.
Image Source: Heshan Perera

Physical events might still be organised in 2021 and beyond but they won’t be as large as they used to be, mainly because organisers will have to limit the number of attendees, replace handheld microphones with boom microphones, choose Q&A or online chat systems, space out furniture, replace physical goodie bags with digital goodies, provide individually-packed meals and other measures introduced to prevent contamination.

Looking at how much easier it is to organise and attend virtual events compared to physical events, we’re less likely to attend physical events in 2021 despite the lack of human touch. Plus, there are so many virtual events planned for 2021, so why not make the easier choice?

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