Virtual events aren’t replacing in-person events, they are completely transforming them

From virtual happy hours and new employee onboarding, to birthday celebrations and shareholder meetings – almost no event has been left out when it comes to their digital transformation. And most everyone has stories of varying experiences for a handful of these scenarios.

For the better part of a year, our primary communication and personal interactions have been virtual. So, it is no surprise that so many people are ready to get back to in-person interactions and this includes events. But what does it mean for events now that both in-person and virtual events have meaningful places?

Is it in-person versus virtual, or in-person AND virtual?

As virtual events have become the dominant, and often only format for events over the last year – many have asked what this means for in-person events as some have said we should always opt for in-person events. But this is simply no longer realistic. So, for many it’s been a question of in-person events versus virtual events.

<span>To start, it’s not in-person events versus virtual events, it’s and.</span> In-person events provide a value and opportunity that can never completely be replicated by virtual - that human connection and spontaneity unique that comes from being physically in the same location. But virtual events provide new solutions along with scale to meet the demands of a more digitally aligned world, in parallel to changing costs, continued globalization and new behaviors.

Quite frankly, neither event type will ever return to be exactly as we knew it prior to 2020. <span>How we define events is forever changed. And very soon, if not already, they won’t be defined by their medium – but solely by the experience and content.</span>

While we are all eager to be in-person once again, a singular medium is no longer superior. Virtual events are imperative for businesses to connect with employees, customers, industry partners, prospects and more – around the world, regularly.

Technology can now remove limitations encountered through in-person events. Virtual events are now essential, and those who embrace them, will continue to grow. The advantages of remotely and virtually holding events far supersede their perceived disadvantages. And often that’s just what they are – perceived.

In-person events will be back, and virtual events will never leave

In the United States, 50% of respondents in a national survey said they are now ready to return to in-person events with proper Covid-19 safety precautions in place.  And 93% of event marketers are already planning to incorporate virtual events into their strategy in 2021 and beyond. So, it’s safe to say neither format is going anywhere, but the frequency in which they are each utilized will continue to change.

As audiences are becoming more and more distributed, virtual provides an option that is accessible to all. Although we crave physical human interactions – it’s no longer the only defining component for a successful and purposeful event. As brands create innovative and differentiated virtual experiences, attendees and hosts aren’t missing the travel, logistics and budgets required of attending events in-person.<span>Without attendance limits, opportunities for both attendees and brands alike have increased. Virtual provides a flexibility that wasn’t previously an option.</span>

Building experiences and community

Over the last year business leaders have gotten incredibly good at building experiences virtually as we’ve lived online, pretty much exclusively. Moving forward we can all agree that we don’t want to exclusively live our lives online. But the value to businesses who are embracing changed behaviors and with it building online communities and communication channels to connect, educate and engage will be an incredible advantage moving forward.

This last year Salesforce’s Dreamforce Conference reached 75 times as many people through their virtual event, as it did in-person attendees the year prior. And in July of 2020, Ford Motor Company took the launch of their new F-150 virtual, going live in an interactive format. More than 690,000 people around the world tuned in live or have watched since, a stark contrast to the few hundred that were originally planned to be in attendance in Detroit, Michigan for the big reveal.

Brands are creating highly produced video content, that following an event can be accessed on-demand and used by industries and brands for sales, marketing, education and more. The value that is gained from continued usability of content from virtual events cannot be understated.

NASSCOM, the premier trade body for the tech industry in India has over 2,900 member companies, including many of the world’s leading technology companies. In March they held their annual Technology and Leadership Forum virtually and no longer limited by geographical or scheduling constraints, more than 1,600 attendees from 30 countries joined sessions with 94 speakers from the world’s leading companies. Some of those speakers? The CEOs of Zoom, IBM, Cisco, Accenture, Infosys and Zoho, plus the COOs of Unilever and VMWare, and CIO of Adobe. <span>These leaders of some of the world’s most prominent technology companies were able to join to speak and engage in a conference that they otherwise might not have been able to attend because it was virtual.</span>

Redefining expectations

The future of how we network and interact has been forever transformed, powered by digital platforms that allow us to connect regardless of time and place.  With this, the value found through virtual events extends more broadly than as a replacement for traditional, in-person events. <span>While 80% of people join virtual events for educational purposes, the second biggest reason individuals join is networking. </span

Yet, seemingly one of the biggest faults of virtual events is that we can’t create the same experiences as in-person events. A little ridiculous, right? Just like the experience of riding in a car isn’t the same as taking an airplane. While they both might get you to the same destination, the experience, expectations and medium are very different, and understandably so

The goal of virtual events isn’t to replicate the event in its original format, but to build a virtual experience that in the end has shared the same purpose and achieves the goals set forth. It’s okay that remote and virtual events aren’t able to replicate the same experience of in-person events. <span>It’s not a medium problem, it’s an expectation and experience problem.</span>

Innovation in both technology and new experiences for virtual events will continue to change communication well beyond the confines of the traditional four walls of in-person events spaces. Otherwise, attempting to exactly replicate an in-person event, virtually, is a sure way to fail.

The definition of events, their mediums and how they are executed is evolving into something new altogether. And as technology and behavior continues to change, the expectations of what is needed to connect, communicate and educate continues to transform. Change is scary, which is why it took a pandemic to change the event industry and prominently drive virtual events.

One thing that we’ve all gained over the last year despite Zoom fatigue and technical mishaps is the expectation that we can attend more events because we can always watch them later. We can meet more people and learn more from others because geography and time are rarely an issue. And that we can opt out of attending events in person because our schedules don’t allow it, but we can still attend because the future of events allows us to remotely connect, circumstances aside. And that’s a big win for virtual events.

The ultimate power of virtual is that limitations and conflicts that were often defining obstacles for in-person events have been eliminated and channels to more easily communicate, connect and engage have been simplified. The future is live, remote and connected.

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