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Top 5 Problems in Taking Events Virtual

With the cancellation of nearly all live events the difference of in person versus virtual is felt by everyone who tries to put on, be part of, or attend a show. What are the top 5 problems in taking events virtual?

As a cynical New Englander wanting to complain about “Why Virtual Events Suck” I’m working hard to have a positive attitude and talk about what’s being done and “Where we can improve in these uncertain times?!”

Problem 1: We Can’t Go Anywhere.  Obvious, I know, but for this we wouldn’t be taking them virtual. Events are effective and fun because they break you out of your routine. The most common routine breaker is to go somewhere new, and leave all the stuff that eats your day 5 minutes at a time behind. From the moment you get out of bed in a city where you don’t live, everything you do is something new to experience (and hopefully learn from some of it.)

In contrast, my last 3 virtual events have gone like this:

  • 1 week out: “Hey, these sessions are awesome, I’m going to sign up!”
  • 1 day out: “Hey, those sessions are on Tuesday and Wednesday! Awesome!”
  • 1 day after: “Oh… too many zoom meetings this week, I missed it all.”

People are forced to put greater value on experiences that are unique and scarce. If you’re not in San Francisco the right week in the fall, you don’t get to experience the insanity that is Dreamforce. If anybody can sign up to your event and watch it from anywhere, and if they miss it can watch the same videos any time, you’ve reached zero scarcity.

Solution 1: Sorry but it’s time to adapt. Nobody is going to travel to our events with a fantastic history and attendees are going to be watching from lockdown. If we don’t make significant changes our work is going to be just another webinar.

Problem 2: How Do I Take My Event Virtual and Not Be “Just Another Webinar”

Solution 2: Decide what the goal of the event is. Are you trying to gather a crowd right now or are you trying to create great content? If you are trying to gather a crowd to take action on a specific day and time, this will probably be an exceptionally painful transition. The other option is to make great content that will have a long lifespan, trying to gather a crowd to watch it the first time is a nice to have to add energy, but you won’t consider it a failure if 4 people show up to watch.

Problem 3: How Do I Get Appointment Viewers that Show Up at Our Date and Time?

Solution 3: Be great. Be scarce.

You need to let go of what we’ve previously embraced as the benefit of the web – all info available all the time from anywhere. The key here is compelling content + scarcity. Sessions should not be recorded, if you miss the live show, you miss out. A mistake I see a lot of musicians making now – “I’m live every Friday night!” For someone that might check that artist out, if they can’t make it tonight, well, there’s always next week. If you already have a crowd following you and your weekly sessions are growing that’s great, but if your numbers are flat or dropping the last thing you want to do is add more sessions to your event.

This is very similar to many events that used to be multi-track with dozens of speakers. A couple of empty conference rooms at Expo Hall means nothing, but if an attendee has to surf through a list of 50 sessions to figure out which one to watch you have a paradox of choice problem. An “event” of only 3 killer keynotes is going to destroy your pre-covid event of 12 good keynotes at 127 sessions of varying quality.

There’s a hidden problem here that you can’t overcome though. If you’re not locked in by geography, timezones are a knockout punch here. At events people travel to they break out of their timezone. They absorb this problem to get to your content. Asking people to wake up in the middle of the night is not the same offer as some global travel. When you factor all the problems in, if possible you might want to consider giving up on appointment media and change your goal to creating great content. Then you’ll get to:

Problem 4: Ok, we’ll give up on live viewers, how can we get people to engage with our content?

Solution 4: It’s a bit of a cop out to say “Be Remarkable” but it is true. Anything The Rock creates will attract an audience. Content aside, what can we work on for the process of getting it out there. While it’s great if you can do a Tony Robbins thing of an LED wall of 10,000 attendees coming in on your gigabit fiber, (and even that isn’t improving the attendee experience) one solution is scaling down. Having breakout groups of 3-8 where attendees participate and solve problems makes online learning more effective.

Increasing participation can go from as simple as surveys prior to sessions to customize the content, all the way up to stunts like shipping wines to make virtual tasting part of the show.

Christopher Penn said this well in his latest Almost Timely Newsletter (sign up now):

The bigger question I have is – should we be trying to shoehorn a conference into a format that is suboptimal, or should we play to the strengths of the media we have? We have livestreaming, private communities like Slack, outstanding digital courseware software, and always-on smartphones at our disposal. Instead of trying to create an “event”, perhaps we should be working towards a sustained, beneficial experience. I’ve gotten more value out of Slack and Discord during this pandemic than any event, hands down, from learning and sharing to emotional support and having a place to vent.

Problem 5: Nobody wants to watch hostage videos

Solution 5: I’m just astounded at the people who say they are experts in the virtual workforce and when you see them on zoom it looks like a homeless person stole a laptop and jumped in the meeting. Learn about lighting and camera angles, get some earphones/headphones and a good microphone. Do a trial run before you try to gather a crowd.

These are just a few things I’ve been working on and watching on the fly. I’d love to hear what’s on your list or if you have other problems you’ve seen or solutions that have worked for you.

Remember “There’s no business that’s not show business!” – from a mural at Jordan’s Furniture


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