With the COVID-19 global health crisis continuously evolving, the term “virtual events” has become a part of our daily vocabulary and has fundamentally changed our personal and professional habits. It is now common practice to work remotely, conduct virtual meetings with colleagues and business partners, and make even more purchases online. This forced shift in behaviours has also meant the adoption of new technologies, with a new, more digitized standard that will no doubt remain in place even when we do return to our normal habits.
In a B2B environment, virtual events can vary from a highly interactive, multi-day event that tries to mimic the experience of a big conference in a web-based format to a variety of other web-based strategies that deliver shorter content, like training sessions, sales presentations and meetings. The formats and mechanics of these events can be equally as varied, ranging from interactive livestreams with Q&As and networking capabilities to pre-recorded on-demand videos.
Although some of these events have yet to happen, here are five examples of B2B events that went (or are going) virtual.
Collision – Collision from Home
North America’s fastest growing technology conference, Collision was scheduled to take place in Toronto in June 2020. The three-day event, which expected to attract over 30,000 attendees from around the globe, will still take place online under the name Collision from Home.
Collision is attempting to disprove the widespread belief that virtual events don’t provide the same opportunity to network. While the event does admit that virtual networking isn’t perfect, organizers are reassuring attendees that they have adapted their proprietary event app to make one-on-one and group video calls feel natural. Moreover, the app virtually connects fellow attendees, potential investors, and keynote speakers for the duration of the event and allows them to build a new contact book.
During Collision’s Web Summit in 2018, organizers already noticed some attendees who were not physically present at the conference but were nevertheless using the web and mobile apps to network, connect and chat with exhibitors and attendees. Though it was originally intended to enhance the in-person experience, the app has now become the focal point of the virtual experience.
For over 15 years, SponsorshipX has been connecting the sponsorship marketing community through curated content, sessions and immersive experiences. This year, the conference, under the theme of ERA 2020, was set to take place in three different locations including Montreal, Las Vegas during the NFL Draft, and a once-in-a-lifetime experience with Team Canada during the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo.
In light of having to cancel all three events, SponsorshipX decided to launch a series of free webinars on current sponsorship marketing topics including sustainability and diversity, sports, and the impact of COVID-19 on the consumer landscape. A recent example, which likely would have taken place at the Las Vegas event, included a virtual panel discussion featuring five speakers from NFL teams across the league who shared their thoughts on the first ever virtual NFL draft.
Individuals who are seeking professional development opportunities in a more interactive and intimate group setting can register for SponsorshipX Virtual Classrooms for an additional fee. These virtual sessions offer hands-on opportunities for marketers to learn best practices, tips and tools across a variety of sponsorship marketing topics.
Game Developers Conference & Awards Show
The Game Developers Conference (GDC) was one of the first major events to pull the plug (no pun intended) just two weeks before it was supposed to open its doors. The decision came after a number of major companies—including Microsoft, Sony Interactive Entertainment and Electronic Arts—had already bowed out. Thanks to video submissions from many of the original speakers, organizers were able to stream pre-recorded versions of the talks they would have given in person, all free of charge on Twitch.
GDC organizers have already announced a new, fully virtual, GDC Summer event from August 4 to 6, which will feature sessions, networking, and expo activities on a robust digital platform. Although we can only speculate, it appears that organizers are trying to use the greater lead time to plan a more in-depth virtual event that will help recoup lost ticket sales and retain sponsors. This potential shift in their approach also speaks to the difference in perceived value between pre-recorded virtual content and a robust interactive conference or event platform.
Salesforce – Dreamforce
Salesforce announced early on in the pandemic that it would postpone upcoming events and replace them with virtual experiences. This also included Dreamforce, the largest software conference in the world and a highlight for members in the Salesforce ecosystem.
Organizers have yet to announce many of the logistics and details surrounding the massive event. Although it is still not clear what Salesforce has in mind for Dreamforce, the company announced that they will be programming virtual events through their video resource site, Leading Through Change. The conference will include a mix of live interactive sessions and on-demand recordings available on the website. However, as the event is known for its famed extracurricular activities and parties, it will be interesting to see what Salesforce chooses as their value proposition and whether they decide to ticket the event and content or offer it free of charge. The question remains: Will they be able to attract the same number of attendees without the in-person “party” appeal?
World Economic Forum
The 2020 World Economic Forum (WEF) takes place every January in Davos, Switzerland and was one of the last global events to be held in person. The NGO, which is committed to improving the state of the world by engaging business, political, academic, and other leaders of society to shape global, regional, and industry agendas, has already announced that they foresee a combined in-person and virtual event next year.
The 2021 edition will opt for a hybrid approach not only because of COVID-19, but also as a way to reduce the environmental impact of the event and extend its reach. It will provide a unique opportunity to bring together key business leaders in Davos and invite a virtual audience to engage with them in a forward-thinking way that pushes the boundaries of a traditional event.
“COVID-19 has accelerated our transition into the age of the Fourth Industrial Revolution. We have to make sure that the new technologies in the digital, biological and physical world remain human-centered and serve society as a whole, providing everyone with fair access. This global pandemic has also demonstrated again how interconnected we are,” said António Guterres, Secretary-General, United Nations, New York.
B2B events have long been the benchmark for exchanging ideas and fostering professional relationships across multiple industries and academia. There is no doubt that, with our increasingly busy schedules, these types of events that often require travel and time away from the office, will quickly become less of a priority. The opportunity for users to save time and money by viewing keynote addresses online—and in their own time—will outweigh the desire to see speakers in person. The streaming world has taught us that “appointment viewing” is not the same priority that it was in the past.
That said, the coronavirus outbreak isn’t the first time that major conferences have been forced to move online. Other catastrophic natural disasters and unforeseen circumstances have forced scheduled events to adapt to a virtual environment before. And yet none of these events have ever triggered an industry-wide shift toward digital conferences. The fact remains that virtual elements are never going to fully replace the experience of face-to-face meetings. They are a feasible alternative and can provide a tremendous amount of value for individuals seeking on-demand content and virtual networking from the comfort of their home. But it’s human nature to crave in-person social interaction, and a large part of conference attendees benefit from spontaneous conversations in the hotel lobby bar or at event cocktail parties.
Gathering people in the same room also has measurable benefits. A study from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) found scientific projects that resulted from in-person collaboration were more novel, cross-disciplinary and more frequently cited than other projects. Parallels can also be drawn to other professions that reinforce the idea that innovation blooms when people get together.
So, while we have become accustomed to working remotely in a virtual environment, and B2B events are rapidly adjusting to the current crisis, we’ll likely see a spike in hybrid event models in the future. They make it possible for content to be consumed on-demand from anywhere in the world and have both interactive participant features and in-person attendees, not unlike the TED conference format that is widely popular.
Sponsorship activations in a virtual setting
From a sponsorship perspective, events that adapt to a virtual or hybrid model will need to clearly define their value proposition not only for attendees but also event partners. Organizers will need to create a digital experience that can both stand alone in a virtual setting and be seamlessly integrated as part of a physical in-person event. This will ensure that brands have an opportunity to maximize their reach and their potential to connect with all attendees whether they attend virtually or in person.
Properties that fail to demonstrate substantive value to partners or to provide a virtual platform that meets their needs and expectations will have a hard time retaining event partners. MWC Barcelona, an annual trade show dedicated primarily to the mobile communications industry, is a case in point. When the majority of the event’s partners cancelled their attendance over coronavirus fears this February, many of the biggest consumer-facing companies that were set to reveal their new products at MWC hosted press conferences and livestreams remotely from their own platforms. Sony launched its new phones on a YouTube livestream and LG hosted its own virtual press conference—all because MWC failed to offer partners and attendees a sufficiently robust platform for the event to take place virtually.
Sponsorship measurement & valuation
As we mentioned in our post on consumer events, business to business properties transitioning to a virtual setting will discover an entire new set of assets and opportunities that they can monetize. It is essential for properties to understand the value and benefits that these new assets can generate for partners. Attracting new attendees through a virtual platform could also change the demographic and sociographic profile of attendees. It will be equally important to capture, analyze, and communicate this new information to current and prospective partners.
Properties in the B2B industry often overlook or undervalue the benefits of digital assets in sponsorship proposals and agreements. In our experience, agreements often lack a digitally focused strategy and partnership agreements simply include isolated digital assets that fall short of a strategic plan or offering. For properties seeking to attract major partners and investments, merely boasting about the number of social media followers or digital ad impressions will not suffice if they want to remain competitive in the future B2B event world.
While livestreams and digital assets provide new opportunities, our societal shift to virtual meetings and conferences has also brought to light inherent risks. Zoom, which has become the default social platform for millions of people and businesses looking to connect virtually with friends, family, and colleagues during the pandemic, has recently been the victim of a number of cyber attacks known as “Zoombombing.” The fast casual restaurant Chipotle was forced to end a public Zoom chat that the brand had co-hosted with the musician Lauv after a hacker began broadcasting pornographic content to hundreds of attendees. The incident was disturbing for participants, and pointed to the harm that could be caused by potential future hacks, which could include identity or data theft resulting in financial fraud for individuals and organizations. Event organizers will need to work closely with third party software and technology providers to ensure that their event remains a safe and trustworthy platform when transitioning to a virtual environment.
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By Thierno Cissé, Stanislas Gavoty, Antoine Magne, Charles Maillard
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