‘It’s All About the Ability to Connect’; Can Virtual Events Be Successfully Reinvented?

Virtual events present good content. We know that. But so do webinars, podcasts, blogs and whitepapers. So given the resources they require, can they be made more viable for sponsors and vendors? We talked to one vendor who, instead of putting her faith in the events world that she used to cherish, started a weekly conversation/happy hour/innovation chat that’s flourishing. Can virtual events facilitate that same connection?
“Originally it was, ‘Let’s try to mimic an in-person event’—with virtual expos, exhibit halls, so we can walk the hallways, step into a booth—instead of embracing digital differently. We saw that doesn’t work. Some vendors [believe] that virtual events are now just about brand awareness, sponsoring breakout sessions or getting their logo out there. So now publishers are finding other ways [to create connections]—and really being creative. ‘How can I position you as a thought leader in the industry?’ Podcasts are creating new opportunities. For us [as a vendor], it’s all about leads. People want to have meaningful conversations.”

That comes from Joanne Persico, president of ONEcount, a customer data platform vendor. She decided quickly last year when the pandemic hit not to depend on others, and hold those conversations herself. So for the last 46 weeks, she’s hosted the Bold Minds Virtual Mixers. Number 47 takes place tomorrow from 5:30 to 7 pm.

“They’re Wednesdays, mid-week, inspirational—it’s at 5:30 so we all bring cocktails,” Persico said. (The Mixers average around 20 people.) “And nothing is recorded. So people share information and are non-competitive. It has been a great way to get people to engage, have fun and drive leads for us.”

Kudos to Persico for coming up with an innovative solution. As virtual events move into a new phase—kind of an if-we-still-need-to-do-this-we-gotta-offer-sponsors-something-different phase—Samantha Whitehorne of Associations Now offered suggestions for 2021. She based it off of a manifesto of legal technology vendors who came together for a Virtual Value Workshop.

Get vendors involved during the planning stage. “Invite us to offer suggestions, give feedback and share the lessons we’re learning (and the solutions we’re seeing) before you go your own way.”

Rethink the virtual expo hall. Organize the hall around the problems that attendees are looking to solve, or even around conference tracks. “Vendors might choose to be in more than one area, depending on the variety of solutions and services they offer.”

Build small curated exhibit spaces. “Make attendees leave their virtual sessions through a curated, mini vendor hall where they might be exposed to solutions connected with the session they just attended.”

Offer discounts in exchange for engagement and data. “If registration discounts aren’t something your [organization] would consider, you could offer other benefits like prizes or access to additional content.”

Persico has seen that type of gamification and admits it does have merit, but attending a recent event with 3,000 people, three virtual expos and “so many booths that are impossible to all go to,” she was glad that she wasn’t a sponsor. “You see a logo and you have no idea what this logo is, what they do,” she said. “There was just an overwhelming number of people and sponsors and booths.”

Instead she praises chat rooms that follow a session—“People are looking more for the content”—or an idea she saw recently at a CMSWire event. “They had something with Slack where you create a profile, indicate a couple interests, then drag yourself to a breakout room and get right in on the conversation. The leader brought me in, and I started talking to people.

“Sponsors don’t feel like they’re getting a return on investment on most of these [big events],” she said. “And if they’re free, then the leads might not be qualified enough. It might be just people thinking that the topic seems interesting, so let me join.

“It’s all about the ability to connect. People still want that human connection,” Persico went on. “As a host, I’ve really perfected [getting those conversations flowing]. I scan the room and bring people in. Christine knows trade shows and conferences, she can answer that. Leslie does sales training. We have multi-pronged conversations and get a lot of forward thinkers, so for us, even though it’s 90 minutes, no one is fatigued. In fact, they usually hate to go.”

Persico also knows that putting on virtual events is not cheap. “There are costs with technologies—it’s not one size fits all. Breakout rooms, chats, speed dating all may require different technologies. Then someone has to moderate every panel and breakout room. That can be intensive. One of my attendees had to lower her price—she was having a hard time justifying the increases” without any food, receptions or real networking involved.

“Instead of asking, ‘How can we do online what we’ve always done in person?’” wrote Whitehorne, “you should ask, ‘How can we do online what we’ve never been able to do in person?’ And then answer it well.”

It’s a challenge. While not everyone has the bandwidth to do what Persico has—47 and counting!—her success points to three things: a push for more innovative thinking, the willingness to try different strategies, and the ongoing need for making connections.

You can email Persico for more information about attending the Mixers.

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