Lessons From A Year of Online Events: “The Genie is Out of the Bottle”

Frances Ferrante, Senior Editor
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After a year of trial and error, organizers of online events have learned that entertaining, engaging TV-style productions are what’s needed to keep attendees tuned in.

The past year of pivoting to digital has taught many organizers that what they thought they should be doing with their online events was — in many cases — off the mark. During the April 29 webinar, “How to Create Must-Attend Events,” moderated by Michael Barnett, CEO of InGo, and panelists Rhonda Wunderlin, SVP Performance Marketing at Questex; and Ben Chodor, President of Intrado Digital Media, openly shared lessons they’ve learned creating online events since the pandemic — and mapped out a new model for the future.

Webinars Aren’t Enough

When COVID hit, Questex, which had derived 70 percent of its revenue from F2F, was able to pivot quickly, creating its first online event by March 23 of 2020. The company was already used to producing 200-250 webinars a year, and, said Wunderlin, they thought they knew what to do. “When we started, we were doing webinars followed by more webinars, but we soon learned that just doesn’t engage. You can’t duplicate a live event online.”

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They began adding elements like breakout sessions where the speaker or sponsors could talk to small groups of people, and entertainment such as happy hours and virtual photo booths. “We realized that those types of elements implemented in the right way and for the right audience were what we needed,” said Wunderlin.

“I get to see every event our customers do and I think the ones that are the best mix it up, with engagement elements, one-on-ones and entertainment. They enable me to have a more personal experience and don’t treat me like every other attendee but allow me to have some control over the experience,” said Chodor. “I never thought gamification was important, but for a virtual event it is. At a live event, you can do things at the booth, like a cappuccino bar or a cocktail hour, that get people to engage. You need that online, too. You can’t expect people to just click a button and watch for the next four hours.”

Chodor saw many companies doing whatever they could right out of the gate just to keep their events alive. “They soon realized that the voyeuristic model they were using doesn’t work. When they started, it was more like movie theater tech, and now it’s interactive. You can go into a virtual booth and have a two-way video chat. Just like at a physical trade show, where the attendee has to figure out who to see, we can use AI and matchmaking to do the same thing.”

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It’s also important to take cues from live TV, to create a run of show and make sure the moderator mentions the gamification and promotes what’s happening next, resulting in a seamless production.

Unleash the Power of Virtual Events

One of the greatest benefits of virtual events is that they’re not limited, like a live trade show, by the fact that they only have the convention center booked for three days. “The power of virtual is that you can do things leading up to the event, then following it. You can keep it going,” he said.

And then there’s the reach. While Questex was used to webinar attendance of 300-500 people, suddenly, said Wunderlin, she found herself putting on virtual events with 5,000 registrants and 3,000 attendees.

Even as we emerge from COVID, she predicts that the virtual side will remain strong. “We have attendees as well as sponsors who are still not ready to travel,” she said. “So we are planning our live events with a virtual component.” The company has already done 21 virtual events in 2021, on track with the 97 it did last year.

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“Once you do a virtual event where you have thousands of people, how do you go back?” said Chodor. “We’ve seen all sizes of organizations make the leap. It’s an exciting time in this space now that the genie is out of the bottle.”

Reach Rhonda Wunderlin at rwunderlin@questex.com and Ben Chodor at ben.chodor@intrado.com