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Are virtual congresses the new ‘jetpacks’?

By Nick Burgoyne

So, jetpacks and webinars. What do they have in common? The answer is they were both once heralded as the technological ‘future’ in their respective fields. The former as the future of transport and the latter as the future of business.

Since their inception, only one has lived up to the hype.

Fact vs fiction

In the 1960s, jetpacks and flying cars were touted as the modes of transport for the approaching turn of the century. Traditional transportation would be outmoded, and we would all fly through the air unfettered by traffic jams.

The rise of video conferencing was supposed to do a similar job in the business world, removing the burden of commuting for meetings. Less exciting than a jetpack, but no less of a revolutionary concept.

As jetpacks were slowly confined to the ‘fictional’ department and reserved for Bond movies, technology progressed enough that video conferencing became not only possible, but commonplace. However, as it turned out, just seeing someone on a screen was not enough.

Real human-to-human action and being present ‘in person’ always yielded the best engagement results. Not only that, but there were frequent technical issues with software and download requirements, as well as reliable connectivity and attendance. Video conferencing and webinars were seen as the second-best option – for good reason!

Enter COVID-19

Recent world events mean live, present and ‘in person’ is, at least temporarily, impossible. The necessity for business, and indeed friends and family, meetings to continue has driven the exponentially increased uptake of technology and digital solutions. It has left many feeling as though they are participating in a global ‘webex’ experiment. Meetings, events and congresses are still essential for most industries, particularly pharma, so this need won’t wait for the experiment to end.

The good news is ‘webex’ has come a long way in the last few years, with digital experience platforms such as Veeva Engage Meeting and ON24 taking the place of traditional video conferencing and webcasting. Even pre-pandemic, digital-first was becoming the new normal in the events space.

Physical vs virtual

Companies, participants and sponsors all want different things from their events. Whether they happen in the real or the virtual world, many of these things will remain the same:

  • Brands and sponsors: marketing and promotion, reach and attendance, engagement, ROI
  • Participants: education and inspiration, networking, escapism, freebies.

Physical events are risky and expensive to produce. They are a wonder of coordination and planning, and are subject to the impacts of world events and weather. Attendance is unpredictable; their ‘success’ is difficult to standardise, measure, quantify and analyse. Although they can be great fun!

Taking your event online removes the limitations of time, space, geography, reach and other incidents that may affect attendance. Not only that, delegate capacity can be almost unlimited and can also be accurately measured. Digital content can be repurposed and translated too.

There is, of course, a catch. As with physical events, everything hangs on the strategy, marketing, promotion and promise. And, once the planning is over, the content, design, interactivity and delivery must be coordinated to ensure consistency and alignment with the chosen platform. The technology may support us in our jetpack endeavours but, before we strap in, we need to learn how to fly.

Beyond the webinar

Digital experience platforms now offer a huge amount over and above the uni-directional ‘broadcast’ which was filling in as a secondclass substitute for the ‘real’ thing. They now offer opportunities for direct, immediate dialogue and one-to-one engagement. Live polls, downloads, live chat, work stream registration, presenter profiles and social links all add up to an enthralling experience for all in attendance.

Rich and detailed data is another digital draw. All interactions can be recorded and measured in real time and collated into comprehensive performance reports covering everything from attendance to conversational insights.

Through these insights we can analyse and understand our audience behaviour, helping us build a more complete profile of our potential customers. This, in turn, will help us continue to engage with them in a more meaningful way post-event, with datadriven content focused on interests and intent pre-loaded into the CRM. From a marketer’s standpoint, this is a new insight-driven world, where individual conversations are a reality.

The ‘bigger picture’ of how virtual events will evolve remains to be seen. The experiment is still running. Will they replace physical events and face-to-face meetings completely? Probably unlikely. However, the overwhelming benefits, and the now-proven ability of the virtual congress to be delivered, in terms of attendance, engagement and new data has left many in the industry convinced that virtual events will become commonplace and part of the marketer’s toolkit.

In the meantime, in order to continue to thrive, we must master the controls, strap on our jetpacks and fly.

Nick Burgoyne is Client Service Director at Purple Health

In association with

22nd June 2020

From: Marketing

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