Beyond the live-stream or webinar
There was a time when truly engaging virtual conferences were considered to be the realm of science fiction. And there are some promising technologies that may in the near future bring your Star Wars-style holographic presenter into your kitchen or living room in real-time.
However, the reality has been the more mundane live-stream or webinar: a ‘drop in or out’ coffee break. Often with a Zombie-audience – who may be logged-in but not tuned in – distracted by the day job, or simply waiting for a recording, they’ll never make time to watch. The poor-cousin to live events, with only a few players in the market trying to drive innovation. And, most of the innovation has been in simplifying the user interface (think Zoom) rather than transform the experience, interaction or creative collaboration.
After all, with a plethora of live, face-to-face interactions there wasn’t that much need for online engagements. The live-streams and archived webinars lack the very reason we attend live events: to build relationships, socialise, discover new ideas, and thrash them out over banter in a tapas bar or café.
Sure, there were sensible arguments in favour – virtual events can save money, increase the reach, they may even help to save the planet. Not many listened to them. Now the landscape has changed. The rebound from COVID-19 may be more protracted and a new normal may emerge from remote-working.
COVID-19 has turned the world of events upside down. Society is at war with the virus, and, as we know, adversity is very often the mother of invention. Innovation thrives.
That’s the case here too. While, according to our recently published study, 89% of Britons are currently concerned about contracting coronavirus at a large indoor event, 60% believe that people will be less likely to attend large events even after the peak of the outbreak. But at the same time 76% of respondents believe virtual online events are a good alternative to live events, during a pandemic, with 77% of senior executives and middle-managers agreeing with that statement. It’s a no-brainer, virtual events and the digital customer ecosystem are on the rise. Along with smaller, localised, connected events, the virtual engagement will become a new normal. They won’t necessarily replace face to face, but they may well re-shape events, as we know them.
Rethinking virtual engagements
Up until now, the majority of virtual events have been passive experiences, based on the “watch and comment” model. Occasionally there’s some polling. There’s a next generation coming, representing the “watch and participate” approach.
It’s more than a platform: it’s a virtual event ecosystem that integrates digital services, interactive and live broadcast tech, cloud-based ideation and multi-channel experiences, like AR and 360 VR. Algorithms create teams. Tasks, master-classes and workshops drive engagement. On the flip side of this model is a customer ecosystem that integrates community-based discussion groups that are moderated by topic-experts, soundings and conversations in social media, along with virtual and hybrid events. The relationship with the customer becomes more holistic and can evolve over time.
An example of this gradual shift to the customer ecosystem, would be Volvo’s premium sector, where they’re developing the Polestar, an electric, luxury, sports coupe. The relationship with the consumer and trade is consultative. It’s about sharing, listening, inspiring and being passionate about the environment, engineering, science, journeys and life. It’s community that cares about detail and design. It’s a kin to be a Wallpaper community for smart mobility.
So, whilst we’re getting more accustomed to maintaining relationships with others online, either by daily video calls or by playing videogames with friends (and strangers) – maintaining business relationships through digital tools has gained traction.
However, to harness the full power of business relationships through virtual engagements, we follow the 4i principle:
But how to put this into practice?
100% remote execution
One of the biggest advantages of online events is that they can be 100% organized remotely, without any on-site technical crew. Think remote technical show management via plug-and play HD pro-cameras and relay box that you can send to your guest speakers.
Presenters can stay at home and connect the equipment to their PC/laptop. Remote technicians with direct communication to presenters can manage vision mixing with multiple camera feeds and built in redundancy, if connections fail. Content can be served from a centralised server to ensure delivery quality and security.
Virtual events don’t have to give up on branding. Printed backdrops or green-screens can be sent to presenters’ homes, so when speaking to the camera there is a cohesive look to the event. A green-screen set up would enable backdrops to be remotely superimposed to reflect the topic.
From the pre-event promotion with a registration module, participant management via CRM, presenter profile archive and other communication tools, to the event itself, with multi-party video, content sharing tools, live polling, moderated chat room or curated Q&A – virtual events have gained entirely new meaning.
It’s more of a long lasting (up to a year) communications campaign, than one, single event. The excitement is built not through a breathtaking venue, music and setting, but rather through a long-lasting relationship with the participants. It all comes down to making it personal, relevant, no less unique, and a two-way dialogue – building a community around virtual engagements.
It’s a virtual customer ecosystem, where people bond with the brand and feel that their input is being valued. Breaking the audience into teams, and giving them real-time tasks enables active participation. Engage the audience at regular intervals. This creates a sense of belonging. The sensation can live long after the event, and the community may become permanent.
Peer to peer networking
One of the key reasons people attend business events is the possibility of networking and socialising. It seems harder to network effectively at an online event – it has been the main argument against online engagements for years. Well, not anymore. With the use of appropriate tech, you can easily encourage peer to peer collaboration. An algorithm can pair the invitee with other attendees, who will make-up teams that will compete in business case assignments, during the event.
The experience can be gamified with contributor badges with intellectual (soft rewards) or a leader board for ideation and team exercises.
Content is king
This old mantra can definitely be applied to the new reality of virtual events and online communities. High quality content is always in demand in B2B communications. Think about creating a content library including the agenda, speaker profiles, reports or maybe even participant-generated content. Enabling the latter can be achieved with a use of cloud-based ideation modules that involve giving the participants brainstorming tasks.
Participants can generate electronic post-it-notes with their ideas for each task. The tasks can be whatever they need to be, to explore a topic or business challenge. This will keep your audience interested, engaged and feeling part of something bigger.
Creating emotional connections
Experiential marketing has always been built on emotions. The devil is in the detail. It’s all about making it original, delivering exclusivity, maybe surprising the audience. To create an emotional and shared sense of belonging, it’s good to focus on the little things creating the experience. Merchandise can be sent to the delegates as a visual cue to the event. The same merchandise could be visible when hosts and guest speakers are presenting on the table in the 3D broadcast studio. Let’s not forget about the catering. Non-perishable snacks could be sent out to the participants too.
Most of the business events, including virtual ones, should provide a VIP experience. This can be achieved in many ways. In the modern age of cult of personalities, having a host or a presenter with a big name, can help. And online events make it much easier. Access to expert opinion and thought-leaders will most definitely help the participants feel unique. Invitations and video teasers can be personalised with reference the invitees name.
It was inevitable
Long before COVID-19 infiltrated our lives (however, hopefully temporary) the climate agenda was already sounding the fog-horn for virtual engagements. At Shelton Fleming we have been producing virtual events, often for big global corporations with 15,000 plus employees, in 20 plus countries. We’ve been discussing the merits in blog posts and discussion papers, anticipating the change in the way we engage audiences. The benefits are countless, the coronavirus outbreak just speeds up the shift.
With immersive tech, intelligent UX and UI design, and inspiring content, virtual events no longer need to be the poor cousin to the face to face event. They’re a format, complementary and effective in their own right. By embracing them, we can truly harness the power of business relationships in a brand-new way.
Author: Andrew Reid, Board Director, Corporate Strategy and Digital Solutions at Shelton Fleming, shares his experience from the world of brand engagement and custom online communities.
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