Two Things Every Virtual Event Must Get Right

We get together every other Friday, the four of us—our self-styled “brain trust” of three CEOs and one VP–to share ideas about how to salvage our events business. Before the pandemic, live events made up a significant chunk of my business at Fast Company and Inc, particularly the tentpole gatherings of the Inc. 5000 Vision Conference and the Fast Company Innovation Festival. The pandemic has rocked that business. For perspective: One of the “brain trust,” who runs a professional organization anchored around global trade shows, reported that revenues for his first ever virtual show this spring, fell 96% compared with the previous year’s live version. If you rely on events, this pandemic ain’t no flu.

There is one bright spot. One of our group, who runs medical education conferences, is actually making the pivot to virtual work. Her conferences are matching pre-covid levels. Out of that encouraging result, I’ve drawn two conclusions that could apply to anyone standing up events in this era.

It’s not about the content. It’s about the value It was easy to say in pre-pandemic days that what drew attendees was the star wattage of the speakers. And indeed, roping in Lin-Manuel Miranda (as Fast Company did last year) would reliably pack the house. But the pandemic has changed all that. Sure, it’s still great to see Miranda, but if you see him only on screen, you and millions of others could do the same on YouTube. What people paid for in live events was to be in the room where it happens (pardon the allusion): just you, Lin-Manuel and a few hundred other privileged attendees, sharing a unique moment in time.

So why do my colleague’s digital medical conferences work? Because they provide credentials: a predictable, identifiable return on a ticket price. That kind of value survives the virtual transformation with no diminution: A certificate or continuing ed credit earned by attending a digital lecture is as valuable as one earned live. That just isn’t true of content: No matter how hard you work to recruit A-listers. No matter how much you strive to make their interviews unique. Virtual content is less valuable.

Give them a reason for being there A live conference session happens at any point in time. To experience it, you have to be there. A virtual session, even if it is recorded live, can be seen anytime. It will be just as good five hours or five weeks later. That’s a problem if your business depends on assembling a crowd at a particular hour on a particular day. Why should prospective ticket buyers interrupt their schedule to be online at a particular time?

One powerful answer: to meet each other. Networking has always been one of the key reasons people would get on a plane and travel to a conference. As a conference organizer, you did not have to do a lot of work to get people to meet each other at live events. It always just kind of happened. It’s why people came.

That’s not true in a digital world. You need conscious effort to throw your attendees together with others who can help their business, with whom they can commiserate, or who are just interesting to know. You have to provide plenty of roundtables, small breakouts, guided networking sessions, and opportunities to participate. And make sure that as many of your speakers as possible will be around after their session (even if pre-recorded) for the attendees to hang out with digitally. And then make sure that you market the hell out of it, so that your attendees know that those opportunities will be there, in abundance.

That’s what we’ll be doing with the Fast Company Innovation Festival and the Inc. 5000 Vision Conference. Yes, our editors are still working hard to recruit headliners (Robert Downey Jr., Daymond John, Michele Pfeiffer, to name a few.) But we also plan to sprinkle the days liberally with facilitated workshops and roundtable discussion, peer group sessions, one-on-one and group mentoring sessions, and a variety of sessions gated for members of Inc. and Fast Company communities. Will those interactive touch points bring us back to the heights of our pre-pandemic conferences? Probably not. But they do one great thing: They help Fast Company and Inc. make a virtue of the digital platform rather than be its victim.

Let me know what you think of this —or better yet, come to the Inc. 5000 Vision Conference or Fast Company Innovation Festival in October and let me know how you think it worked.    

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