Adam Riggs is Frameable’s chief executive officer, and an experienced executive and investor in e-commerce, finance and media companies. Prior to Frameable, Riggs was a Presidential Innovation Fellow at the Treasury Department and a subject-matter expert at the State Department on a variety of open data and knowledge management challenges.
Think about the last in-person conference or trade show you attended. What stands out the most in your memory as having had the most value? Was it the physical structure of the building, or the people you met and interacted with? I would bet that for most people, it’s the latter.
While we all cherish those experiences, there is no indication that virtual and hybrid conferences, and trade shows are going away in the foreseeable future. After a completely virtual experience in 2021, SXSW has already announced that its 2022 super show will feature robust virtual offerings for those who can’t — or prefer not to — make the trip to Austin early next year. What became a necessity due to the pandemic has become integral to many events for many different reasons.
For every virtual event challenge, it seems like a new technology platform pops up to address it. Each claims to provide the best online experience for attendees. For example, many new technologies now promise to replicate the aspects of an in-person event down to the layout of the building or trade show floor. While these platforms are undoubtedly flashy, 3-D rendered environments, augmented reality product demonstrations and digital avatars may not address the primary value that people get from attending in-person events — to feel connected to colleagues and industry leaders, and build their network.
If you are planning a virtual conference or trade show, consider instead how you can leverage technology to re-create the in-person experiences that attendees find the most valuable. It’s not that a 3-D rendered environment is inherently bad, but if you’re not providing a meaningful way for attendees to interact in a way that they would in-person, then the experience is more sizzle than steak. For example, are your virtual attendees able to interact with speakers, network with lead generation or new business objectives in mind, and engage with industry colleagues?
After Mark Zuckerberg sat down with “Wired” magazine’s Casey Newton earlier this summer to talk about the “metaverse” and the future of virtual spaces, the tech world has been buzzing about the next big innovation from the Facebook CEO. While the idea of being able to leverage technology to all but teleport into virtual space is cool, it is a ways off. Conference and trade show planners, you, should first focus on the fundamentals and ensure that your virtual event facilitates connection and communication first and foremost. Here are a few things to consider when designing a conference with your attendees in mind:
The best way to be sure that you are delivering an experience that meets the expectations of your attendees is to ask them directly what is important to them. Sending out a pre-event survey to registered attendees and other contacts gives you the opportunity to ask your audience what they value. Consider asking questions like, “What is your preferred round table conversation size?” or “What do you hope to gain from this event?” Even going so far as to ask what social media channels they turn to for professional insight and information can help build a framework for a more engaging event.
By understanding what is important to your attendees, you can allocate the appropriate amount of resources to build experiences that help further those goals. If you are planning a hybrid event, data from your survey can help you know if your in-person and virtual attendees have different priorities. Start early and gather as much information as you can.
Networking can mean a lot of different things. Networking is making a connection with a colleague, selling/demonstrating a product, or generating a new business lead. Whatever it means for your event attendees, effective and engaging networking between both in-person and virtual attendees should be at the top of your list of priorities.
Aim to cultivate an experience that makes your attendees feel like more than just a number. A great way to do this is to look at technology that enables the direct and immediate exchange of information. At the beginning of your event, encourage your attendees to make a virtual business card or badge that is accessible from every page of your event platform. This encourages them to exchange information after a productive conversation just like they would on the convention floor.
Another question to consider is how many virtual rooms you will need to make your conference or trade show run smoothly. Do you need a room for each vendor and speaker? How many rooms should you have for open networking and chit-chat? How can you make sure a steady stream of attendees are in each room throughout the day? As you and your planning team answer these questions, look at technology that is customizable to the needs of your event. Like an in-person conference, there should be a balance between downtime, networking, and attending events and sessions. Creating spaces where conversation happens naturally will increase event engagement and encourage attendee retention year after year.
What sets your virtual conference or trade show apart from a webinar is the ability to engage with your audience and peers face-to-face. While it may look cool, text chatting between online avatars and product representatives can feel just as impersonal for your attendees as chatting with a customer support bot online. It can weaken engagement and doesn’t add a lot of value to your event. Instead, opt for a live-video-based model, where attendees can join a virtual room, hear from exhibitors firsthand and ask questions in real time.
Although there may be a greater cost involved in live video versus having each exhibitor provide a pre-recorded demo, it provides a unique experience to your attendees that they cannot get elsewhere online. If you are running a hybrid event, this style of presentation allows your online attendees to feel like they are standing right in front of the booth with the in-person guests. Make it your goal to design an experience that is as similar as possible for your in-person attendees as your virtual ones.
If your team chooses to invest in the bells and whistles that many virtual platforms offer — like augmented reality and 3-D renderings — instead of prioritizing technology that connects your attendees, you risk losing more than just revenue. If your attendees feel like their priorities were not met or that your virtual experience was not engaging, you risk that they may not choose to attend your event the following year in any format.
Ask your audience what they are looking to gain by attending your event. Seek out technology that is customizable and that meets their needs. Then, after your event, collect feedback to see if you effectively accomplished what you set out to achieve. Instead of using technology to try and re-create every single physical aspect of an in-person event with as much flash as possible, focus instead on using tech to create a new, equally as valuable, hybrid experience and enable the things that attendees care about most. | AC&F |