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I was fascinated by an article in Science Magazine on a huge NASA event that sought to massively reduce the cost of a conference by making it virtual – only to find that engagement had dropped off a cliff.
In looking at the methodology used I could see why they tried to preserve the format while massively changing the interactions mechanisms. This would be like a car builder trying to preserve the elements of a car when building a boat or plane. It would tend to end badly. When you make any dramatic change like this you have to go back to the goals of the exercise and then start from scratch with the new tools.
Now the reason folks try to preserve the old with the new is because this is what they know and folks don’t like change. The reason they fail is because the real goals are then superseded by a far less important one having to do with limiting that change.
I’ve participated in a massive number of virtual events over the years most of which fall well short of their goals, but this is largely because of this unintended goal swap. Let me explain.
Because events tend to be done year after year it is easy to focus on the mechanics of the event and forget why you are having it in the first place. Comdex, a massively successful event, failed because the organizers decided they wanted to expand it to consumer electronics and focus on attendance, rather than keeping focused on its primary purpose, which was to hook up professional IT buyers with professional IT sellers.
Two things killed the show. Folks found other ways to engage outside of the event that were more effective. And the massive expansion into other markets made the event too crowded and ineffective for its primary audience. Finally it came too late in the year for consumer electronics so the audience they gained never made up for the one that was lost.
They tried to virtualize Comdex and that failed, too, largely because, as noted above, they tried to preserve how Comdex was done with a virtual show. I was, for a time, on Comdex’s advisory panel and got to see these mistakes real time.
Virtual vs. In Person
There are advantages to both formats. In person is a richer experience because you are physically there and it may (note the word “may”) be easier to form personal relationships and interact dynamically.
However, being at an event in person requires uncomfortable travel, isn’t very time efficient (you have to physically move between events and meetings), and you are often not at your best due to jet lag or travel difficulties. Real events have to occur at locations and times that are the least inconvenient to most of the attendees so you often have the same event at different times in different locations.
Virtual events don’t require the travel but they are easy to ignore and have proven more difficult to create engagement. However, people engage virtually all the time on social media, in forums, and through email. In fact, sometimes asynchronous communication is more productive than synchronous because it gives people more of a chance to think and it allows folks in vastly different time zones to engage when they are normally awake.
Virtual events are not location or time dependent, or at least they don’t have to be, and this can make them timelier and certainly more convenient.
LinkedIn, which was one of the most successful social network company launches, is designed to hook up business people. And while not focused on a specific market it does showcase how a virtual mechanism between business people works successfully. You engage when you need to engage, dialog is asynchronous unless you want to pick up a phone, and people do form and leverage relationships through the service. There are active discussions both public and private, and engagement is far higher than most virtual events achieve, and far more timely than most physical events achieve.
The model in the physical world would – for a successful virtual event – would be more like an outlet mall than an event like CES or Comdex. A place where people go to engage with companies when they need that engagement virtually with people that can guide them on their way, often peers.
Jaguar Forum Example
One place I hang out virtually that I think comes close to this is the Jaguar Forum. Here I can drop in when I need an answer or can help others with problems on their cars.
There is Jaguar representation where you can engage the vendor and Jaguar can monitor or engage as needed. This should help them figure out what to put into future cars and how to pitch us on new products.
It isn’t working like this at the moment with Jaguar but I can see the potential to create a stronger link with present and potential car owners than currently exists, and to forge the kind of relationships and collaboration that otherwise might require physical presence. But the end result wouldn’t be an “event” but an ongoing process focused on creating engagement between people interested in a particular technology, vendor, product, or market space.
Wrapping Up: Rethinking Virtual Engagement
The key word I think we forget when we build virtual events is engagement. This isn’t about doing something more cheaply, it is about using a new set of tools to create equal to or better engagement than if people met in person. This means you have to have more interaction but that you can more easily rely on asynchronous communications methods.
Unlike Comdex or CES, the future event may not be an event at all, it may be a site where people congregate and where products are launched when the products are ready and not at some arbitrary event date.
To do this right will likely require instrumenting a social media construct so that event management can create what will seem to be true dialogs that scale to hundreds of thousands of attendees, creating a communications gestalt between the funding vendors and the virtual, engaged, attendees.
We’ll see who gets this right first but just remember: if you do a virtual event, it isn’t about emulating a physical one, it is about engaging the audience and driving sales (at least for this kind of engagement).