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Change for good: the virtual congress audience is too big to be ignored

By Matthew Strawbridge

In 2020 a global pandemic made the world pause, but scientific research and discoveries continued.

The medical community still needed a platform where it could connect and exchange knowledge, but travel restrictions made traditional face-to-face conferences impossible.

What happened?

In 2020 some congress organisers cancelled, some delayed, but the majority rapidly shifted to an online, fully virtual setting. This format shift significantly increased delegate numbers, eg EHA: 26,000 online registrations in 2020 versus 12,000 physical registrants in 2019. So, in 2020 congress organisers were introduced to a large, new, virtual audience.

Within Ashfield we supported our stakeholders to swiftly navigate these changes, but we also wanted to learn as much as possible from this ‘unprecedented’ time:

“To gauge the success of virtual congresses and explore the delegate experience, we conducted surveys, ran desk research and digital listening throughout 2020. We utilise our in-depth insights from this data set to better advise clients in a constantly changing environment,” explained Cassie Liddle, Associate Research Director, Ashfield Health.

“We surveyed over 700 healthcare professionals (HCPs; EU5/USA) who had attended a major virtual congress; the two largest surveys were run in partnership with the International Pharmaceutical Congress Advisory Association,” Cassie added.

What did we learn?

First let’s get one thing straight – regardless of format, it’s clear that HCPs hugely value medical congresses and these congresses remain a premium channel for medical education.

“Our insights show that, from the congresses attended by survey responders, the overwhelming majority (84%) would have attended in person, if this option had been available. Clearly, the ability to connect face to face is still a primary motivation,” said Andrew Moore, Client Partnership Director, Ashfield Event Experiences.

However, we have witnessed record virtual delegate figures in 2020. In addition, our survey found that 92% of HCPs would consider virtual attendance at congresses which previously they would not have attended in person. Interestingly, when given the choice, 16% actually prefer the virtual format:

“If you consider this in the context of ASCO, which typically attracts 40,000 global HCPs, over 5,000 would rather attend an online version,” commented Andrew.

Overall, the transition to virtual was well received, with HCPs scoring their experience a favourable seven out of ten, many appreciating the convenience of virtual attendance. Delegates are most positive about the overall content quality as well as the broad accessibility of content when provided on demand.

The congress elements that best transitioned to the virtual environment were oral presentations and industry symposia, whereas the least effective virtual elements included posters, networking and virtual exhibitions. However, there are signs for optimism:

“In our first survey, a disappointing 20% of HCPs visited the virtual exhibition hall, but this increased to 32% in our second survey. Further insights suggest there is both a low awareness and expectation of the virtual exhibitions, highlighting an opportunity to better promote and elevate the online booth experience,” observed Andrew.

What do we predict for the future?

These insights reinforce some naturally intuitive predictions – virtual cannot fully replace face to face. Several elements of a major event are challenging to fully replicate virtually, eg the anticipation of attending, networking with colleagues, serendipitous connections that spark new ideas.

“2020 has reinforced the true value of in- person events, but this traditional format will continue to evolve. Moving forward, great programme design and innovative meeting tools will be used to maximise these precious face-to- face interactions,” predicted Richard Lawrence, President, International, Ashfield Health.

However, in the whirlwind of 2020, the industry has shown that many congress elements work well virtually. With more preparation time and planning, the virtual delegate experience can be elevated:

“Virtual is great for consuming content and information sharing. This is most impactful when content is available on demand for an extended period following the conference. An exciting opportunity is to further personalise this content experience. In the future, congress platforms will have a better understanding of user preferences and be incredibly easy to navigate, resulting in an optimised user experience,” concluded Richard.

Post-COVID, many are predicting long-term changes across both personal and professional aspects of our lives. As an optimist I see these changes resulting in positive choices, particularly in the context of the medical conference. Congress delegates will have greater choice. Not only to determine how (and when) they attend, but also to shape their own personal congress experience, whether in person, virtual or a combination of both.

The best of the industry will embrace this change and see it for what it is, an opportunity to connect with delegates wherever they are. Simply put, the virtual audience is too big to be ignored.

To find out more about Ashfield MedComms, visit

To access the Ashfield/IPCAA survey report, visit

Matthew Strawbridge is Vice President Client Services at Ashfield MedComms, an Ashfield Health company, part of UDG Healthcare plc

In association with

12th April 2021

From: Marketing


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