The State of Virtual Events Today

LinkedIn has just completed an in-depth study of how marketers worldwide are pivoting to virtual events. Here are the key findings:

April 13, 2021

The State of Virtual Events Today

Once upon a time, in the dim and distant past of late 2019, an event was something you went to. It could be large or small, intimate and exclusive or impressively huge, but its value always came from the experiences that are possible in-person.

Now, suddenly, that’s no longer what an event means. Most of the events planned into marketing calendars for 2021 won’t involve the excitement of physically sharing a room with celebrity speakers, the opportunity to build sales relationships over dinner and drinks, talking prospects through solutions on a stand or serendipitous meetings in the queue for sandwiches. The last year has witnessed the sudden rise of virtual events in response to the pandemic – and an entire, new marketing skillset is being developed around delivering them.

We wanted to understand more about what the pivot to virtual events means for marketers – and for the future of events themselves. And we wanted to start by exploring how the rise of virtual events has played out. We commissioned the research consultancy Savanta to conduct an in-depth study of the virtual event takeover, interviewing 1,830 event marketers across 13 countries and every region of the world.

The result is The State of Virtual Events, an in-depth report that’s packed with insights on where and why marketers have taken events virtual, the advantages they’ve realised by doing so, and the question of whether virtual events’ sudden dominance will last beyond the pandemic.

Here are the key insights to emerge – the insights that tell the story of the virtual event takeover and how it has reshaped marketing strategies for the long term:

Different countries, different pivots

The speed and scale of the virtual event takeover is shown by the fact that 85% of event marketers worldwide have organised a virtual event in the last year. However, the extent of the pivot to virtual looks very different in different countries.

Worldwide, 28% of all marketers say that 91-100% of their events have been virtual since the start of the pandemic – and the extent to which in-person events have dropped off calendars varies hugely depending on where you operate. While 51% of marketers in the UK and Ireland have run almost exclusively virtual events in 2020, only 16% of those in France have, the same as in Australia and New Zealand. In Singapore and Hong Kong, 35% of marketers say that events have gone almost entirely virtual; in India, it’s 20%.

The impact of the pandemic and the extent of local lockdowns varies by location – and so it makes sense that the role of virtual events should vary too. However, it’s striking that marketers are opting to give virtual a far greater role, even in countries where lockdowns have been less strict and in-person has been more of an option. Marketers are discovering benefits to virtual events that will give them an enduring role in their strategies going forward.

Event organisers have learned fast – but they’re still learning

A majority of event marketers in almost every country chose ‘challenging’ as the most appropriate description for 2020. Yet, despite those challenges, they have been able to build skills and confidence quickly. Just over a fifth (21%) report that their organisation was already confident hosting virtual events at the start of the pandemic. This increased to 48% after a month and 65% after three months.

Growing confidence doesn’t mean resting on your existing skillset, though: 42% of event marketers would like more technical knowledge of event platforms, 39% want to learn how to build more interaction around virtual events, 37% are interested in improving the visual experience and 35% want to improve their budgeting skills to cope with the new event landscape.

Virtual events are here to stay as the default option

Physical events were once the default option for every marketing objective and stage of the funnel. Our research shows that event marketers now consider them just one element in a portfolio of different event formats. Even when the pandemic recedes and the barriers to in-person gatherings fall away, the average event marketer still expects to run more virtual events (40%) than physical ones (34%). They also plan to run 25% of their events as hybrid occasions, combining virtual’s benefits of scale and reach with the traditional advantages of meeting face-to-face.

The event planning mindset has changed

Managing risk for events used to mean anticipating problems with a venue, or having a back-up plan if a speaker missed their flight. The pandemic has changed this – and its influence is likely to be an enduring one. When asked why virtual events will continue to play a significant role in their strategies, 51% of event marketers chose the fact that they are ‘pandemic proof’ and able to continue in the event of another virus sweeping the planet. Even after COVID-19 subsides, its likely that marketers’ perceptions of the risk of pandemic-scale disruption will remain.

On the other hand, event marketers are increasingly focused on the opportunities that a sudden pivot to virtual has created. The opportunity for audiences to attend without travelling was cited by 46% as a reason for continuing with virtual events, while 42% chose the reduced environmental impact and 37% chose the ability to scale reach and engage a wider audience.

In-person experiences will be precious – and valued as such

The future of events will be virtual – but not exclusively so. Over three quarters (78%) of marketers say they want physical events to return to a primary role when it’s safe to do so. However, that role will be very different to in the past. In-person events are no longer the workhorse of the events calendar, rolled out for every occasion and objective. Instead, they’ll be the carefully managed thoroughbreds: precious assets to be used sparingly, when conditions and circumstances are right. Marketers will invest in fewer in-person events, but they’ll look to get far more value from those they do find budget for. It’s not just virtual events that have been transformed in the last year – we’re likely to see far more innovation and ambition everywhere on event marketing plans.

What does the event strategy of the future look like? And what skills do you need to execute it? Over the next few weeks we’ll be featuring a series of posts from LinkedIn’s event marketing leads, exploring how to make virtual events work for you. Stay tuned for more.

View the State of Virtual Events report.