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Virtual Events – What we learned in 2020

  • Azan 

2020 gave a lot of businesses the push they needed to pivot their event strategy. Did they succeed, or miss the mark?

From technology brands to fashion houses, companies had to quickly adapt their marketing and events strategy when the pandemic hit and in-person events became impossible. This new challenge presented opportunity, but also exposed weakness. As the year progressed we saw virtual events getting better- but a few still missed the mark.

We noticed that many companies were rushing to provide innovative and cutting edge solutions to the virtual events issue, but only a few companies took into account which digital channels were the best ways to engage with their specific audiences. Here are some fundamental things to consider as we start 2021 virtual event planning:

Find out what your customers can (or are willing) to do.

Knowing your customer is paramount. What kind of technology do they have access to? Do they have a strong preference for consuming content on their smartphones? Or are they likely to attend your virtual event during work hours, using a desktop computer? It’s also important to consider network speeds – even for a ‘work’ event, many more employees now work from home on lower bandwidth than they had at the office. If you don’t know your customers really well, then you may be offering a virtual event they can’t even attend – or worse, they can attend but get frustrated with their inability to do anything. 

How “digital” are your customers?

If your audiences are young and tech-savvy, you can offer more abstract virtual events. Complexland (hosted by Complex) was a virtual event that took place at the end of 2020, replacing their normal in-person event which they have run the last few years in large conference centers. This event centers around products like clothing, shoes and limited-edition collectibles, but also offers live music, panels and art shows. Complex’s young and digitally-savvy audience enabled them to take a different approach. They made a video game-like environment where you created an avatar and you could run around a virtual event space and check out booths from some big brands like Adidas and Adobe Creative Cloud. They also offered a virtual theater where you could see live-streams of concerts and interviews. Although you couldn’t see other attendees (when you navigate the expo floor it’s like you are the only attendee), there was a chat function where all attendees could talk to each other. This chat was busy from open to close every day of the event. Why was this event great? They targeted it specifically to their audience, making an interactive and immersive video game environment and focused on what people cared about- the products being sold.

How interactive must it be?

There is no replacement for conversations in the hallway, expo halls, or with post-conference drinks. Although we saw some companies try, with use of breakout rooms or virtual “tables” where event attendees could network and chat- this often doesn’t translate well, sometimes due to the inability to see more than a couple people on the smartphone, sometimes due to background noise from participants. People are usually willing to have conversations over food or in passing when there is nothing else going on, but when people are home they have other priorities. They can have food with their family, or use the break in between sessions to catch up on work (real work or housework). Trying to replicate these low-level interactions that are super valuable face-to-face might not be worth the trouble/expense.

Does it fit your brand?

If you are a fashion brand, how do you show off your new collection and avoid super-spreader events like Paris Fashion Week or a runway show? For the answer, we look to Balenciaga- a luxury fashion house founded in 1917. Balenciaga knew that it is still all about the clothing, and used an actual video game to bring their clothing to life in an immersive fashion (pun intended). Although some true gamers had issues with the lack of challenges within the game, the fashion world was impressed because Balenciaga focused on the clothing. Other fashion brands used Instagram Stories to show off their new collections – posting 100 or more images to their feeds with a 24 hour expiration. Balenciaga took it a step further by making each outfit from their collection interactive. They could be toggled around and viewed in great detail. This provided buyers with a better view, when compared to a runway show or a slew of photos on an instagram stores feed.

Size matters.

Having run many in-person events (pre-COVID), we can tell you that size matters. From how big your footprint is in advertising during a conference (think sponsorship package), to how big your expo booth is, to how many people you can get to show up to your speaking session or happy hour- size matters. In 2020, we learned that smaller can be better. Webinars have long been the norm, a single sided way of communicating usually paired with a PowerPoint deck or, occasionally, a software demo. This last year we have seen a few companies pivot their webinar strategy to more of an “office hours approach”, allowing customers to book one-on-one sessions with thought leaders. Although a bit awkward at first, we found these more intimate sessions to be extremely effective. This allowed space for people to talk about their own challenges and get expert advice that applies directly to them.

Partnerships can provide a virtual audience and infrastructure.

Companies had to pivot their event strategy quickly last year. One easy way to make a big splash is to partner with a more tech-forward company. Gucci did exactly this and took advantage of augmented reality innovator Niantic’s PokemonGO infrastructure when introducing their new collaboration with The North Face. PokemonGO has been around since 2016 and is one of the most cutting edge augmented reality games to date. Gucci designed items for the players’ avatars “as a gift to the community who may not be able to experience this collaboration due to local restrictions”. Looking closer at this collaboration between The North Face X PokemonGO X Gucci one can see the synergy. This collection is focused on getting people outdoors, which is an inherent part of the PokemonGO game. Gucci also had to pivot their strategy quickly when launching this collaboration, originally the user had to go to a specific Gucci store to spin a virtual Poke-stop to get access to the in-game clothing. However, after a few days of backlash from people who aren’t supposed to be leaving their homes because of covid, they made it available to everyone with a promo code- allowing users to access the collection from home.

Future events will be hybrid.

At the end of the day, it’s important to remember that virtual events cannot replace in-person events. Companies need to think about what else they can do that didn’t previously fit the in-person event mold; what other value can you provide to take things to the next level. Be it a closer look at your products or better access to the thought-leaders in your space. Anticipate virtual events working in tandem with your in-person events in the future- how can we take the best of both worlds to provide a better (more valuable experience) for your customers. One great example of this is from a Texas based cookie chain- Tiff’s Treats. They have recently started offering “CookieVision™” which allows customers to leave an augmented reality video message when they send someone a box of cookies – combining the in-person experience with the virtual one.

If you are still working on your 2021 event strategy, or would like to talk more about how to connect your events to the rest of your marketing/brand strategy- call us. We can help you identify what your customers can do versus what will provide them the best experience.