Are virtual events here to stay?

It’s been the year of the virtual event – but what role should you plan for them going forward?

April 20, 2021

Are virtual events here to stay?

This has been the year of the virtual event. They haven’t just stepped into the breach as a substitute when in-person events became impossible. Rather, they’ve redefined what an event is, what its role in a marketing strategy should be, and what skills are involved in putting one on. They’ve done all of this at remarkable speed. So much so that it’s now impossible to ask questions about the future of digital marketing without also asking questions about the future of virtual events.

As event marketers, we have more options to deploy than ever before – and a wealth of new skills to help us deploy them. However, we’ve also got the challenge of pulling these different event possibilities together into a coherent plan. We’ve always known that events can build excitement, strengthen relationships and start high-quality conversations. Now we know that they can reach far wider audiences and build awareness in ways we never imagined. There’s an exciting future ahead, but first we have to decide how events can best play each of these roles. When is it best to deliver events virtually – and when is it best to find a way to gather in-person?

Over the last year, we’ve learned a great deal about what a successful virtual event looks like – what it’s suited to and what it’s not. We’ve also thought about when, realistically, we can expect in-person events to return – and what roles they should play when they do. I’ve been comparing notes with our event marketing teams across LinkedIn on how we believe the next few years will play out. Here’s how we see the event landscape developing – and the role that virtual events will continue to play.

The value of virtual goes beyond the pandemic

In LinkedIn’s newly released State of Virtual Events report, 75% of event marketers worldwide say they plan to continue running virtual events over the long term – and a typical event marketer plans to run more virtual events (40%) than in-person ones (34%). The future involves both formats – so how should we think about their different roles?

Any event marketer will tell you that there are aspects of in-person events that we simply can’t replicate virtually: the chance meeting in a buffet queue, the organic, opportunity-generating conversations that come about through face-to-face contact, the excitement of sharing a room with big-name speakers, the extended attention you get from people who have consciously set time aside to be there.

At the same time though, we’ve discovered unique advantages to virtual events that we’re not willing to give up either. There’s the scalability and accessibility that can translate audiences of a few hundred into many thousands. There’s the opportunity to work with a far wider range of expert speakers without having to find time in their diaries and fly them over to your event location. There’s the extended lifespan of content that enables you to keep getting value from your event as an on-demand experience. Virtual events can’t do everything themselves – but having them in your strategy transforms the scope of what events as a whole can do.

The bar has been raised for digital experiences

It’s hard to imagine now, but just over a year ago most marketer’s idea of a virtual event was a webinar. As an audience, you got to listen to speakers and watch slides – and a lot of the time, those slides were focused on selling you something. Few people would recognise such experiences as a virtual event today. We expect to be treated with respect as an audience, both in terms of production values and in terms of content. Virtual events have become video-driven experiences with expert speakers who know how to engage visually through concise, punchy presentations. There’s a real hunger for innovation in making them more interactive, more responsive and more entertaining.

This creates both opportunities and challenges when it comes to fitting virtual events into your strategy. There’s far more of an engaging creative canvas to work with. However, failing to use those creative options means audiences are likely to switch off. It’s true that virtual events avoid many of the expenses of in-person ones – but treating them purely as a cost-cutting opportunity isn’t a sustainable strategy. Expectations have been raised and we need to invest in meeting them.

Virtual events play a specific role for customers and for sales

Virtual events engage audiences in a different mindset – and this has to involve a mindset shift on the part of event managers and their sales teams. A virtual event has to respect its audience’s time – and it has to stay rigorously focused on customer value. You don’t have a captive audience who’ve given up their entire afternoon and are happy to spend half an hour of it hearing a sales pitch in exchange for drinks parties, dinner or hearing from celebrities. You have an audience with a range of other things they could be doing right now, on the same screen they’re watching you on. That means your event has to keep providing compelling reason to put those things to one side.

As we’ve quickly gathered experience of running virtual events, we’ve increasingly focused those events at the awareness stage of the funnel, compressed them into tighter timeframes, and thought differently about how we integrate sales into the experience. Earlier this month, our global events team launched Spark, an event that set out to energise and inspire our Sales Solutions customers for the year ahead. It featured 25 speakers, high-profile names like the producer Shonda Rhimes and the presenter Barbara Corcoran, and yet it lasted just 90 minutes. It produced some of the strongest NPS scores that we’ve ever seen for any type of event. It worked by packing value into an extraordinarily concise format. And it didn’t’ feature a single LinkedIn sales presentation.

With virtual events, the best sales opportunities come after and around the event rather than through speaker slots and pitches. They take the form of follow-up calls, breakout-room discussions, exclusive roundtables tackling the same issues in more depth. Events strengthen sales relationships through the value that they help reps to deliver. They seed sales conversations rather than trying to act as a sales conversation themselves. This is why there’s such an important role for both virtual and physical events going forward. We’ve separated out the different types of value they deliver to marketing strategies. The first is the ideal way to drive awareness and generate opportunities; the second is the ideal way of following up on them.

The return of in-person will be phased, focused and (at-first) exclusive

The big question, of course, is when in-person events will be ready to return? When should we realistically start fitting them into our evolving events strategies?

Just because marketers and their sales teams miss important aspects of physical events doesn’t mean they’ll return in a rush. Businesses won’t deem travel to conferences essential just because it’s possible – and the psychology of potential delegates will have changed too. If they have to stay socially distanced and they feel less comfortable mixing face-to-face, does travelling to an in-person event have as much to offer them?

For event organisers, there are other issues too. The supply chains that we relied on to help organise physical events have been hugely disrupted by the pandemic. The same agencies, services and support staff won’t become instantly available at the drop of a hat. It will be a case of redesigning the ecosystem for physical events to fit the role that they now play.

At first that role will involve enhancing the production values and experience of largely virtual events. When you can gather speakers and guests in a studio, you’re able to create TV-style broadcasts with a professionalism that fully virtual events sometimes struggle with. You also create a focal point to which sales teams can exclusively invite their highest-value contacts. This white-glove, in-person experience provides the opportunity for detailed discussion, facetime with speakers – and hospitality. It becomes something worth travelling for.

From this starting point, there’s an obvious transition to intimate roundtable gatherings where limited numbers of senior buyers reduce people’s sense of risk – and increase their sense of the benefits. Organising smaller gatherings also de-risks things from an event marketer’s perspective. If circumstances change, it’s easy to pivot back from an in-person roundtable to a fully virtual one. And smaller venues and catering requirements mean you’re likely to lose less of your budget if you do.

As society opens up and confidence returns, we’ll see companies stretching their way into hosting larger and larger physical events. Always though, we’ll be asking ourselves the question of what we gain by getting more people together at a venue when we have the option of reaching them virtually instead. In the future of physical events, bigger will not automatically be better.

Hybrid events are the big bets of your marketing strategy

Hybrid events that stream content from a physical event to a wider, virtual audience seem like the obvious way to get the best of both formats. However, marketers literally can’t afford to make them the default option for all events going forward. Turning an in-person event into a hybrid one adds at least a third to the budget – and an equivalent amount of time to organisation and production planning. We will need to think carefully about where we direct those resources.

For this reason, hybrid events will represent carefully considered big bets within the marketing strategy as a whole. With the right audience and the right focus, they can act as powerful marketing centrepieces that can be spun into different campaigns, content assets and experiences – and deliver benefits all the way through the funnel. However, they will need investment, planning and commitment to play that role effectively.

There is no one-size-fits-all solution to the future of events. They have a wider range of roles to play, at different stages of the funnel and over time periods that stretch far beyond the events themselves. Events are becoming digital marketing campaigns and event calendars are evolving into digital marketing strategies. The future for events isn’t just becoming more virtual. It’s becoming a lot more exciting as a result.

To learn more about how you can adapt your events strategy in a post-Covid world, download Virtual Events: A New Reality.