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Virtual events; the pros, the cons and the future

Membership bodies and trade associations often run events for their members. Trade shows, seminars, award ceremonies, conferences and private dinners form part of their communication and member engagement strategy, and for many are also major revenue drivers.

With physical events not taking place this year, how have we faired online?

We brought together a panel to share their experiences, good and bad, with the aim of bringing some best practice learnings together.

The challenges

While it’s been encouraging to witness the agility with which membership organisations have responded to ‘the new normal’, moving live events online has not been without difficulty.

Front of mind for many has been the financial implications of going digital. Is it appropriate to charge members to attend online events? How can you still offer value to members? How can you secure sponsorship?

Secondly, there is a tangible loss of the social aspect of live events. As Tom Bowtell, CEO of British Coatings Federation, pointed out, ‘speakers are often just there to fill in the time between networking’.

It has also proved difficult to replicate the energy and atmosphere you get at a conference or awards ceremony, which in turn makes maintaining engagement a challenge.

All this is compounded by the very 2020 phenomenon of ‘Zoom fatigue’ as well as technical issues that arise from inadequate recording equipment or slow internet connections.

The positives

But it’s not all doom and gloom. Moving events online has had a plethora of benefits.

Virtual events are a convenient means of CPD delivery, resulting in higher attendance rates from a global audience.

There have also been plenty of creative ways organisations have tried to retain the social element of events, with drinks tastings, Taskmaster challenges and live bands all used to keep energy levels up.

In terms of revenue, while membership bodies have been reluctant to charge for online content (our recent research shows 71% have been offering free webinars), those that have charged have not met resistance.

Russ Magnuson, CEO of RD mobile, noted that while pricing has been adjusted to reflect new offerings, people are still willing to pay. This is likely because, without the cost of travel and accommodation, virtual events actually represent incredibly good value for money.

And without the need to travel, organisations are able to attract delegates in much greater numbers, as well as a higher calibre of speakers.

As to the issue of securing sponsorship, getting sponsors on board means creating value for them. Interestingly, this means some sponsors are actually spending more in the virtual space than they did for live events. The key is finding out what they want – data collection opportunities, digital marketing, platform content – and tailoring your sponsorship offering accordingly.

However, online events are much more cost-effective to run, and in most cases should mitigate the loss of sponsorship income.

The future

As Iain Bitran, executive director of The International Society for Professional Innovation Management, commented: “Anyone who thinks things are going to go back to the way they were before is mistaken, and missing an opportunity.”

Virtual events are here to stay until at least summer 2021 and perhaps later, depending on the development of a COVID-19 vaccine.

Lee Davies, CEO of the Chartered Institute of Patent Attorneys, hopes after that we can return to a world where we can bring people together in one place. But, he says: “There will always be an online element to attract a broader audience.”

This being the case, it seems likely that hybrid events are the future, where we can enjoy face-to-face networking and get dressed up for an awards ceremony, but not miss out on events that take place in other countries and time zones.

However, if virtual events are to succeed in the long term, they must evolve. Online presentations must become more engaging and TV-quality production values must be applied. In short, online events must become more entertaining.

There must also be greater levels of personalisation. After all, at live events people only visit the stands and listen to the speakers that are relevant to them. There needs to be an easy way for delegates to only view the content that offers most value to them.

Recreating the social aspect of networking will require more creativity. Creating more intimate online spaces, such as Zoom breakout rooms, is perhaps a next step in helping people to nurture professional relationships until we can meet in person once more.

Finally, we will develop a new etiquette for online events, which will take different cultural approaches into account and allow virtual delegates to feel comfortable and engaged in this brave new world!


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