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How to win at virtual conferences in 2021

By Ian Burrell | Columnist

January 12, 2021 | 8 min read

As a packed schedule of 2021 virtual conferences gets underway, Ian Burrell explores how the media world's event organisers are attempting to replicate the togetherness of in-person gatherings for online delegates dispersed by Covid-19.

Virtual conferences are evolving as competition hots up

Virtual conferences are evolving as competition hots up / Adobe Stock

In times gone by the diary of the well-connected media professional promised plentiful travel to conferences and festivals with the ensuing prospect of new contacts and fresh ideas.

June inevitably meant Cannes, and the chance to network along the Croisette or at villa after-parties. A chunk of March would be blocked off for SXSW in Austin, Texas. August offered the charms of Edinburgh and its annual TV festival. September was Dmexco in Cologne, and possibly onto the IBC Show in Amsterdam. And for anyone with an eye on the tech future, this time of the year was spent in and around the Vegas strip for CES.

In its 54th year, the trade expo once known as the Consumer Electronics Show, opens on Monday without the 180,000 delegates who might otherwise have swarmed Sin City. But the show goes on, virtually. Microsoft and Verizon will deliver keynotes, while Audi and IBM will use the moment to launch new products, an essential part of the CES appeal.

Back in London at the same time, Reuters has put together a stellar line-up of speakers, including Alphabet’s Sundar Pichai, Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg and European Central Bank president Christine Lagarde. You can’t physically attend the inaugural Reuters Next – but 30,000 people from more than 150 countries have signed up to watch it unfold online.

What will be the impact of all this virtual conferencing? Will it endure as a convenient and cheaper way to experience international events, or fade away as media folk, overloaded with remote messaging and craving personal interaction, decide that even free access is not worth their time?

“I know my own appetite for virtual events is waning, as many of us are already tethered for hours in-front of our screens,” says Becky McOwen-Banks, executive creative director of VaynerMedia UK. “The challenge here is to make the format different to that we have to endure on calls.”

She laments the sudden demise of the live sector. “It’s not just the organisers and ticket sales but the bookers, designers, sparks and chefs. It is now a terrible time of reckoning, asking them to completely reevaluate what their expertise and knowledge is, and how it is possible to deliver that in a virtual experience.”

But for publicist Mark Borkowski, a veteran of the media conference and festival circuit, many of the formats had grown tired even before Covid-19 struck. “We did get to the point of conference event fatigue and the heady days of those bacchanalian festivals where most of the work was done in restaurants, bars and parties,” he says. “It became more and more expensive. The (World Economic Forum) Davos moment became a cliche when delegates were flying half the way round the world in private jets to talk about climate change.”

He thinks the pandemic, and the consequent loss of human interaction, will help to “reinvigorate” conferences that offer genuine value and eliminate those that had lost their way. “We passed peak conference before Covid and Covid has helped people rethink the purpose [of these events] and whether or not anybody gives a damn about them in future.”

Many companies and brands had come to depend on live events as a crucial component of their business model. So how to get it right?

Reuters has had to adapt fast after it bought the British-based specialist events business FCBI in October 2019, shortly before Covid-19 emerged. That operation, rebranded Reuters Events, has put on 62 virtual conferences and events since the start of the pandemic.

Josh London, chief marketing officer for Reuters, says the high level of interest in Reuters Next is a culmination of a strategy which “all stems from customer experience”. The historic news agency is “maniacal about analytics”, he says, and has based its conference agenda on continual polling of the needs of its audience. “Thousands of hours worth of research [was conducted] to understand the needs of the delegates and match that with a speaker agenda so that we can make sure that the time that they are investing is best spent.”

The result was a four-day event featuring five themes; covering future working, policy, economic recovery, sustainability and freedom of speech (the latter featuring such luminaries as Tim Berners-Lee, the BBC director-general Tim Davie and the CNN correspondent Christiane Amanpour).

Equally compelling for the audience, London says, are “up and coming” speakers such as the Alaskan indigenous peoples leader Ilarion Merculieff, who will provide insights on the impact of climate change, and the young Kenyan insurance tech entrepreneur Jihan Abass, 26.

Most delegates will access this content for free. But some are paying for “professional passes” costing US$ 699+VAT, and including additional perks including a post-event report and access to a networking programme which enables scheduling of one-to-one meetings with other attendees, potentially including speakers. “This is something that both parties would opt into and the system would set up a time for you to connect,” says London. “It’s similar to real world [conferences] but. with some advantages; so you are not standing on the outside of a circle waiting for a break in the conversation.”

All delegates have access to Q&A and audience polling, which aims to bring some of the interactivity that is integral to in-the-flesh events. At CES this week, virtual delegates will be encouraged to create their own profiles to receive personal recommendations and arrange one- to-one chats with exhibitors, speakers and other attendees.

“Relevance and quality” are the keys to successful virtual events, argues Andre Laurentino, chief creative officer of Ogilvy UK, which runs Nudgestock, the world’s largest festival of behavioural science. Laurentino notes that people happily binge on Netflix so “being glued to a screen for hours isn’t the problem”. Nudgestock was previously staged to a niche gathering in Folkestone, but moved online this year with 12-hours of content from an international line up speakers. “It grew exponentially from 300 attendees to literally thousands from over 150 countries.”

The potential of virtual events was shown in Tomorrowland’s Around the World festival in July, which attracted more than 1 million people to its two-day mix of electronic dance music, 3D design, cutting edge video production and special effects. It demonstrated that a “pandemic-driven leap in digital capability allowed for the creation of experiences that would be impossible at scale and in real life,” says Christophe Castagnera, head of connected experiences at Imagination. He predicts that such virtual experiences are “here to stay for the foreseeable future”.

Russell Schaller, executive creative director at Cheil UK, reminisces on Cannes Lions and “hazy days fuelled by rosé, spent on tech yachts and navigating the Palais”, asking: “Just how alien does that seem now?” While nearly a year under pandemic restrictions has “strengthened people’s desire for togetherness”, Schaller believes the best solution for later in 2021 will be a “hybrid” event format that can combine safe in-person attendance with a virtual alternative.

“As long as organisers also design their events for more cautious audiences who prefer to engage from home, and make the digital experience as engaging, interactive and enjoyable as possible, they’ll be onto a winner,” he says. However, real creativity is needed to combat the ubiquitous Zoom-fatigue we’re all wrestling with.”

The Drum will be kicking off the year with its own event, Predictions 2021, from January 25-29. Find out more.

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