2020 is changing the game when it comes to virtual events – especially with the impact COVID-19 has had on remote working and travel restrictions. When you rethink virtual events as a more sustainable option rather than a simple replacement for physical events, says Runa Macleod, Vice President of Marketing, you can unlock new levels of engagement, interaction and insight.

COVID-19 has accelerated the shift to virtual events and other digital trends, and many organisations have had to pivot from adapting in-person physical events to virtual. But as we move towards a ‘new normal’, we are likely to see virtual events playing a bigger role as businesses recognise their broader value.

Seven out of ten respondents to a PCMA survey of event planners have moved their face-to-face event to a virtual platform due to COVID-19. Tellingly, most don’t see that as a short-term fix during the pandemic but something that will continue going forward. By applying careful planning, creative thinking and digital innovation, organisations can deliver engaging and interactive digital experiences that go beyond the limitations of physical events, often exceeding expectations and business objectives.

Why go virtual?

There are clearly cost and diary benefits of going virtual, but online events are also hugely flexible and can attract a broader audience, transcending traditional boundaries. Done right, they provide new levels of engagement and interactivity and rich, real-time data that prove the value of the event and ROI to the business, sponsors and participants.

You can tailor and customise virtual events to your needs, and scale up or down to reach any size audience, wherever they are in the world. With venue hire and travel costs no longer an issue, you can re-allocate funds to create richer content and engage higher-calibre speakers.

Polls, surveys, break-out rooms, Q&A, live chat, event recordings and downloadable resources all help drive registrations and audience engagement. And you can transform your event from a one-off into a live, ongoing community space for people to interact, share thoughts and network in real time long after the event.

Open up to the possibilities and get creative

It’s not just a case of replacing like for like. Although it is possible to recreate physical events in a virtual environment, there is an opportunity to be creative and rethink what was possible with traditional formats. You can create incredibly interactive smaller events, with high levels of collaboration and the possibility to build virtual communities. In our business we already run virtual roadshows, town halls, round tables, advisory councils and solution design workshops for our channel partners.

Don’t forget the fun factor

Virtual events don’t need to be boring. The opportunities afforded through digital technologies, imaginative content and creative thinking can keep audiences engaged from start to finish. Re-evaluate your content from the lens of a virtual audience. Use rich media, creative content, high-impact sessions and entertainment to excite, delight and inspire as well as educate your audience. But keep a clear eye on your event objectives and the business outcomes you want to deliver against. The technology should support, not be, the story.

Planning is critical

Don’t be fooled into thinking virtual events require less effort or are free – if you want to provide best-in-class events that attract and engage your customers then you need to put the work in. Take time to think, plan, build and promote your event. High-quality digital content takes time to produce, and presenters and event teams need to factor in prep and rehearsal times.

Engage your teams early. Approach it as you would physical events, and involve your sales teams throughout the process to help drive attendance, provide support through the event, and, of course, for follow up on opportunities.

Virtual events = goldmine of data

Of course one of the key benefits is the data and insights afforded through digital. Event performance and audience engagement can be measured real-time, and event intelligence can be used for lead generation and to inform and optimise future content development as well as sales and marketing activities.

The future is virtual

Physical events won’t ever be replaced completely, but when things get back to ‘normal’, virtual events should continue alongside in-person events. It’s not either/or – virtual events can be a powerful addition to your go-to-market toolkit, opening up new possibilities and opportunities. It’s time to re-imagine what events can deliver, and think of virtual as value-added, engagement-driven digital experiences that extend well beyond the screen.