Virtual Event Tech Is Booming as Companies Scramble to Take Conferences Online

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With the coronavirus pandemic preventing any large gathering for the foreseeable future, The One Club for Creativity was one of many conference organizers that announced plans earlier this month to move its slate of major industry events online. Now, with a mid-May deadline looming, the nonprofit’s executives are finding that preparing large-scale virtual trade shows and awards ceremonies—Creative Week, The One Show, ADC, Young One Student Awards—is much easier said than done.

“Whereas we initially said, ‘OK, this is going to be simple, we’re going to take this online,’” said The One Club CEO Kevin Swanepoel, “it is actually slightly more challenging than that.”

He’s far from alone in feeling overwhelmed by the prospect of virtual event planning right now. Even under normal circumstances with less hectic time frames, there are a host of challenges: engaging a disparate, screen-bound audience, replacing the energy of a live crowd and keeping the technology behind it all running seamlessly.

Scott Varland, svp of event agency Jack Morton Worldwide and head of its Genuine X innovation practice, said, “You can’t just take what you did offline and transcribe that to an online experience and expect that you’re going to meet your objectives. …. We lose attention moving to an online format.”

Now with a global outbreak cooping jittery and distracted audiences indoors, companies are being forced to reckon with a question that has persisted since technology first made quality video streaming possible: How does a virtual gathering transcend mere webinar status to actually feel like an occasion at which exciting things are happening?

The crisis will likely be a moment of truth for event-tech companies, which will have to provide an answer to that question at an unprecedented scale.

High-quality video streams with TV-level production and interactive audience engagement tools are some of the biggest keys to competing with the offline distractions people face, according to Varland, who said his calendar has been fuller than ever in recent months.

Ben Chodor, president of webcasting company Intrado Digital Media, said he’s seen a similar surge in business, with sales calls currently up around 1,000%. One of the biggest early clients was Chinese ecommerce giant Alibaba, which was forced to move its startup pitch competition online in mid-February.

“We had to train all their presenters—all these men and women who were pitching these companies—to present [online] in just a couple days,” Chodor said.

Intrado uses a live polling system to recreate the natural feedback of a live audience where participants submit questions throughout a presentation and the speaker responds in real time. For some events, the web platform will feature an actual image of a convention hall with small photos of people on the guest list standing in it. Trivia contests or yoga breaks are used to break up the monotony of staring at the screen.

“Add fun elements, add mean tweets, little contests, allow the audience members—if it’s an internal program—to send some videos in advance and play them throughout,” Chodor said.

At the same time, however, it’s easy to overcomplicate the process, said Dan McComas, vp of product and engineering at community management platform EveryoneSocial. Smaller virtual events can be as simple as a Slack Q&A session or a Google Hangout call as long as you have engaging presenters.

That sense of community can be one of the most overlooked factors in the success of an event, said Robin van Lieshout, co-founder and CEO of Amsterdam-based community management platform inSided, who has also seen a huge uptick in demo requests and web traffic in recent weeks. He thinks the ongoing crisis could end up being a turning point in terms of how people view remote events and community building.

“Just having these face-to-face meetups or an annual user conference just doesn’t cut it anymore,” he said, “especially if you only had one conference a year and that got canceled. You need to find other creative ways of staying connected with your customers so they remain engaged.”

Back at The One Club, Swanepoel said similar tactics have helped maintain hype around its events, like circulating more written articles and video clips from its awards judges. As for the event itself, the organizers are considering video streaming platforms like Facebook, Twitch, Vimeo and YouTube, and there is a possible surprise element on the table that Swanepoel declined to reveal.

“One [idea], which is very New York-centric, we are working our damnedest to make a reality because it’s pretty crazy,” Swanepoel said. “But it’s going to take a lot of persuading people who are no longer able to go to work and get the production value of this put together. That’s going to be our biggest challenge.”