How have global brands evolved their approach to virtual events?

Here’s what 7 industry leaders told us.

April 16, 2021

How have global brands evolved their approach to virtual events?

As the business world scrambled to adjust to the challenges and changes of 2020, EMEA event organisers were facing a perfect storm of factors preventing them from doing their job in any traditional sense.

But they were not alone. In a global study we undertook with Savanta, it’s clear that organisers around the world were faced with the same existential questions to their role. So what answers did the industry leaders come up with?

In our report Virtual Events: A New Reality, we looked at the current and future trends driving event organisers around EMEA. But for more specific insights, we also reached out to the people who had to adapt their own approach on behalf of some of the most recognised brands in the world.

So, to help with your own virtual event planning strategy, here’s what they learned.

Shorter sessions, multiple speakers and more interaction

There is a profound difference between engaging people online verses in-person. Without a captive audience, brands had to contend with the shorter attention spans and increased distractions that go hand-in-hand with a digital audience:

At the beginning of last year, we saw a big spike of interest in virtual events, then a gradual fatigue. But we’ve found that if an event is well communicated and well planned, then people will come. The key for us is keeping attendees engaged with shorter sessions, multiple speakers and more interaction.” Gerd De Bruycker, Marketing Director EMEA, Cisco

Find the influencers and take a data-centric approach

As more companies began to focus on the virtual event space, it became increasingly difficult for brands to differentiate the quality of their own offering. What worked in 2019 quickly became tired in 2020, with leading companies finding new approaches to improve their content:

The difficulty we have is when Covid started and we went only to virtual events, we lost the reason we used to go to events in the first place, which was to meet and exchange. The context of virtual events obliged us to concentrate on quality and creativity of the content in order to be pertinent enough for our audience to focus and listen. With any event I first look at the communities discussing the subject and then construct the event using this information. It’s about having a data-centric approach and then finding the influencers and integrating them, often either as invitee or moderator.” Marie Sophie Joubert, Global Head of Social Media & E-Reputation, BNP Paribas

It’s all about the content

With the number of events being cut significantly across EMEA, more than 40% of brands’ remaining budget went towards virtual event platforms, production and digital marketing. It was a simple equation: Better content and marketing equals better engagement:

I think the quality of the content has improved so much. In my company, people are considering running webinars that would have never done so previously. With physical events, there was always the possibility that visitors would be coming for the perks of attending any event – drinks at the bar, flights paid for by their company etc. But now with virtual events it’s all about the content.” Philip Behnke, Head of Social Media, Celonis

Review engagement in the chat box or polling responses

One consequence of the boom in virtual events was the ability to measure engagement to a much more granular level. While the old metrics remain a firm favourite, more than three quarters of EMEA organisers said they were able to make a more refined assessment of event success:

Marketers should continue to measure the volume of pre-registrations vs the number who show up on the day, as well as the drop-off rate of attendees during the event, and the feedback following the event – all very similar to an onsite event. In addition, post-show video views could also be helpful to organisers who want a bigger picture of reach and engagement. For those using platforms with more engagement tools, reviewing the activities in the chat box or polling responses are also a good way to access more context to your specific audience.” Kim Vigilia Head of Strategy & Experience, WIRED Business Services

Light commitment and real, human stories

In their ongoing search for better audience engagement, many brands realised that functional events alone were not enough. In addition to learning new technical and design skills, organisers were also tasked with finding new ways to present information to keep the attendees’ experience as fresh as possible:

I always recommend keeping your content short. Ask for light commitment from both your speakers and your audience, especially in the world of Zoom fatigue. It would have to be a very, very special subject for me to sit for an hour for a webinar. And don’t be wedded to one subject. We’ve covered everything – we don’t just focus on the financial industry. It’s about real, human stories. Not just KPIs, products and data.” Rob Coble, Social Marketing Lead, EMEA at London Stock Exchange Group (LSEG)

Prioritise engagement over revenue

Our research told us not many EMEA territories prioritised virtual events as a direct sales-driver, the ability to measure engagement more carefully has allowed brands to better understand its impact on a customer’s overall value:

We’ve measured event attendees’ engagement with articles hosted on the Financial Times website for the six months prior to an event and then for six months afterwards, to see the impact a single event might have. In the six months after their attendance, engagement on skyrocketed. In the past events have been seen as a revenue driver. Now we see them as an engagement driver. They have a big impact on our customers’ lifetime value.” Tania Marshall, Global Marketing Director, Financial Times

Harmonise the physical and virtual domains

Of course, virtual events are not a panacea. Many brands are looking forward to returning to physical events to some degree. However, their approach has now been permanently altered, with many planning to include a virtual element even when things return to relative normality:

Businesses can’t go back to physical events on the assumption that it was what they did before. Online events have brilliant virtues, and they will continue because people’s eyes have been opened. The way they can bring together a concentration of world-level speakers and content – the bar has been raised. But we do have to harmonise how the physical and virtual domains complement each other. It’s a mistake to replicate content as they simply they cannibalise themselves - they have to co-exist. Our task is working that out.” Chris Howells, Head of Strategy and Performance, FT Live

Things haven’t stopped changing yet

As much as we are all looking forward to a return to some kind of normality, event organisers are facing a landscape that has changed forever. And new technology, processes and skills are already on the industry’s horizon. So while big changes have already happened, the evolution has just begun.

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