Alex Paine, CEO and Co-Founder, The Virtual Conference Network
The pandemic has highlighted the importance of customer communication and how approaches to customer communication could be “make or break” for business leaders. Those who go quiet risk customers being lost to more proactive competitors, while those who find innovative ways to stay connected are more likely to be remembered and engaged with throughout the ongoing changes to the economy.
In the pre-pandemic world, conferences, tradeshows and events were a highly effective way of attracting and retaining customers, but with social distancing and lockdowns to navigate, virtual conferencing is proving to be just as dynamic and impactful while also drastically reducing the financial risk to conference owners.
The Virtual Conference Network and other innovators in the conferencing industry are experiencing first-hand the high demand for cutting edge technology platforms that help brands and membership bodies stay connected with their customers, without having to give up all the benefits conferencing and events can deliver.
The future of customer loyalty will depend greatly on business leaders’ openness to trying and testing new technologies.
There’s been a sharp growth in online events driven by remote work during the coronavirus pandemic, which could become permanent, according to a new study by Redback Connect.
Almost two in three Australian respondents now attend six or more digital events a month. And live viewing is increasing, with four in five respondents attending at least half of all digital events live rather than on-demand – up from two-thirds who did so in 2019.
More than half of the respondents to the Australian study also expect to attend even more virtual events this time next year.
The digital event specialist’s research, perhaps not surprisingly, has found four in five respondents say virtual events can be as good as or better than their physical event counterparts. The most common digital events attended include webinars, internal company meetings, workshops, briefings, external conferences and customer meetings.
However, the study, which comprised quantitative analysis of more than 1500 digital events conducted from July 2019 to June 2020 as well as quantitative and qualitative research with 100 survey respondents, includes a warning about people leaving digital events early.
Downs said virtual event organisers must guard against ‘digital event fatigue’, with 86 per cent of respondents saying they have abandoned a virtual event early – up from 66 per cent a year earlier. The most common reasons to leave a virtual event early include content that is “not what I signed up for” and presenters who are “too salesy and not educational enough”.
“People won’t put up with irrelevant content, disengaged presenters or a poor technical experience. Digital events must offer valuable content and be executed well, with engaging presenters, easy-to-use technology and crystal clear audio,” he said
The research also indicated some misalignment between when organisations are scheduling digital events and when people want to watch them. While people appreciate the convenience of virtual events, they will watch the content on-demand if the live time doesn’t suit. But the increase in virtual events is raising the bar for the quality and design of the experience, with audiences becoming increasingly sophisticated, demanding a more social, innovative and engaging event.
How the events and conference industry can mitigate financial risk during COVID-19
By Alex Paine, CEO and Co-Founder, The Virtual Conference Network
Throughout the coronavirus pandemic, conference organisers have had to completely re-imagine how they design and deploy their events. Some major brands are switching from multi-day events with dozens of hour-long in-person sessions to niche virtual events with a handful of attendees for less than 15 minutes each. Others are taking a ‘hybrid’ approach by having the speakers appear in front of each other or a panel moderator in person while audiences tune in from home.
However, the ongoing economic uncertainty, travel restrictions locally and internationally, and shift to working from home continue to introduce new financial risks to conference organisers while exacerbating risks that existed before the pandemic.
It is clear that communities, workplaces and membership groups need events more than ever to stay connected and up to date. Conference organisers have a clear place in the ‘new normal’ but to survive they will need to change the way they operate to mitigate financial risk and capitalise on the opportunities introduced by the pandemic.
Start by measuring risk exposure It will be impossible to mitigate financial risk if the risks themselves are not defined and analysed in the first place. Particularly during the pandemic, conference owners have overlooked some of the risks that have been introduced or heightened because of being distracted by the overall contraction of the in-person conference market. The conference industry has changed, but it hasn’t disappeared, and conference organisers need to start analysing their financial risks and opportunities from a new lens.
Pre-pandemic, the majority of financial risk came from the significant outlays required ahead of an event, including venue hire, catering, staffing, equipment hire, and travel costs for international guests. In 2020, the shift to online events has seemingly removed many of these costs, but only at first glance. Many conferences are still being run from remote studios, requiring hire of makeshift studios, employment of contract staff, one-off equipment hire, and travel costs for special guests to a set location. While simply shifting the outlays from one area to another, the added health risks of still requiring groups of people to be in one room mean the chances of last-minute cancellations and changes are high – a conference organiser’s worst nightmare.
With conference technology, go hard or go home The challenge with the aforementioned type of event which requires in-person development, online deployment and a virtual audience, is that many are misunderstanding this to be a ‘hybrid event’. But a truly hybrid event allows audiences to be physically present for parts of the event as well, which means these new types of conferences are not only high risk, but they also don’t deliver the benefits that hybrid events initially set out to deliver for attendees.
The future is virtual. Professionals are confirming this every day by attending more and more online events, applying for online training sessions, and choosing to work from home as much as they possibly can. To survive long-term, until truly hybrid events can be delivered – which will be impossible until domestic and international borders are re-opened, and social distancing is no longer required at scale – conference owners need to go all in on virtual events to meet audiences where they want them to be.
Virtual conferences are not only the most obvious response to market demands, but are also the option with least financial risk. With the latest technology, sound and audio quality of an in-person recording can be captured remotely, schedules can be flexibly controlled and changed minute-by-minute, and content can be designed and deployed to be accessible before, during and after the event to maximise engagement. As well as completely removing the costs of having to set up a physical studio, the health risks are self-managed while everyone works remotely, and the financial risks associated with potential ticket refunds due to last-minute cancellations are eliminated.
Flip the script on financial opportunity While the conferencing industry is evidently shrinking if defined by its traditional forms, the new conferencing industry can take on an expanded definition if conference organisers embrace the latest technology. With a technology-first approach to conference design and deployment, content – rather than ticket sales – can form revenue stability and introduce new revenue streams.
Traditionally, conferences have relied on the timeliness of an event to sell tickets – i.e. on a set date at an exact time, you can pay a set amount to experience a set volume of content. This is the ticket-led revenue stream. But with virtual events, the revenue streams can multiply. Content can be bundled, edited, and customised based on an audience member’s individual interests and the cost they pay can also be proportionate to the level of customisation and volume of content. It can also be made available at different times, become shareable with certain parties, and be engaged with ongoing – again, each of these variables introduce new business model opportunities and chances to up-sell or productise a piece of content.
Once conference organisers start to view events in these new ways and stop grouping all online events as video recordings of in-person performances, the conference and events industry can emerge from this slump and regain financial sustainability.