As the pandemic raced around the globe, it seemed as though there was no end to the rise of all things virtual. We became immune to poor-quality Zoom interviews on TV. We became used to virtual meetings stuttering and lagging through our screens. The Oscars and London Fashion Week went online. What arts output remained was also reduced to remote digital consumption. Zoom’s revenue increased by 367%. At times, it was hard to imagine ever returning to life as we knew it. The ‘new normal’ had taken hold.
Audiences and brands did their best to set about normalizing this interactivity and behavior. The narrative we began to hear more and more was that virtual event production was here to stay, and hybrid events were the perfect blend of the two. Google trends data shows that the search for ‘virtual events’ hit its highest volume in March 2020. The graph below shows that staggering increase in searches and activity.
But look more closely. From the opening quarter of 2021, the graph is actually trending downwards, and has been since it peaked in February. This proves something that we’ve long suspected, but have been cautious to say. Are virtual events virtually over? If so, what are the implications for the events and experiential sectors?
Google trends data for ‘virtual events’ search interest
One positive case study from virtual event production comes from ‘Run in the Dark’, a local running campaign that ended up reaching over a million people with their virtual outreach. In this scenario, it was possible to have your cake and eat it. But this is a rare exception. Although it’s possible to demonstrate the success of incorporating tech to effectively increase reach, this does not indicate a desire to replace real-world interaction – particularly for experiences we haven’t been able to enjoy since the lockdowns began.
This idea is not only supported by data, but seemingly every other creative in adland. Everywhere we look there is a billboard saying, ‘Hooray, hope is on the horizon, let’s get back to doing the things we love.’ Even if it’s commuting. Look at the campaigns from Lucozade, Ikea, Guinness and EE. No brand is communicating a message that says, ‘Hey guys, got an awesome idea, let’s all get on Zoom.’ The digitization of events wholesale was not laying the groundwork for permanent change. It was always a coping strategy. Brands must be careful in offering hybrid event solutions when audiences are clamoring to be out of their homes and away from technology. All of these factors undermine audience demand for the creation of virtual events in any long-term or meaningful sense.
So what’s next for virtual or hybrid events? From the positive case studies we’ve seen, virtual participation is best placed to achieve two main aims: firstly, prepping an audience before an event, and secondly, in increasing reach. It’s an obvious win that if you have a capacity event space of 200 and you can reach 2000 people online by offering a digital element to your event, you will increase reach and engagement. Likewise, brands can increase the longevity of their events, using tech to enable longer-term exclusive access to otherwise inaccessible content. In many ways, this is a return to the ‘old normal’, but with a greater understanding of the inherent opportunities that come from mixing digital and real-world experiences. Digital is the extension, not the experience.
Coke’s OOH campaign welcoming people back into the city
Ikea’s call to get people out of their homes
Lucozade celebrating being out of lockdown
So where do we go from here? Of course, agencies (and their event production companies) will keep their digital offerings available. All of the experience of putting on virtual events over the past 18 months will not have been wasted, and there are plenty of opportunities to blend digital with analog depending on the usual factors of time, budget and campaign type. But it is unequivocally clear that as demand for virtual event production decreases, the format will have an increasingly uphill battle to prove its value for engaging audiences.
Google trends data comparing ‘events’ (yellow), with ‘hybrid events’ (red) and ‘virtual events’ (blue)
Take a look at the graph above. Again, this is taken from a Google trends search over the same time period, but this time it incorporates blue for ‘virtual events’, red for ‘hybrid events’ and yellow for ‘events’. The difference in intent couldn’t be any clearer. Demand for ‘events’ massively outweighs demand for any other activity. This may incorporate searches for multiple types of events, and we do believe that future events will become increasingly hybrid in approach. But this will be as part of ‘normal’ events (and therefore normal events searches). From this data, it’s impossible to ignore that audiences are switching off from virtual events and looking to engage more tangibly as we move forward post-pandemic. Virtual events, it seems, are virtually over.
Dan Keam-George, founder and director at KGA.