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Virtually, the same: Is it time to rethink congress strategy?

by Jonathan Andrew

March 2020 saw the entire pharmaceutical congress scene turned on its head as COVID-19 swept across the globe, bringing face-to-face gatherings to an abrupt halt. The congress organisers, pharma firms and their logistics/creative med-comms agencies rallied at speed to adjust to the new normal of running events virtually, and still managed
to still put on an excellent show.

Twelve months on, we now have a year’s worth of learnings and engagement metrics to reflect on; but what, if anything, has changed? What might ‘good’ look like, taking the insight into consideration?

Let’s start by taking a look at some of the findings. In removing some of the barriers to attending a congress (time, cost, travel), we have seen congress registrations increase by up to four times versus their physical counterparts. Despite this increase in registration and attendance, there has been a relative drop-off in the volume of content that delegates are interacting with and are consuming.

This relates to both live meetings and on-demand content that can be found at virtual booths. As delegates no longer have to physically transport themselves, they are able to weave live events of particular interest into and around their daily schedules. At a physical congress, delegates would typically look to fill their schedules with live meetings, and if there happened to be gaps or breaks, would attend the exhibition hall to grab a coffee and network with their peers. It’s during this period that content at a physical booth would be engaged with, and where connections with representatives of pharma firms and their medical-
affairs colleagues would take place.

Of the content that’s interacted with and consumed virtually, it’s no surprise that the most popular items attended were live speaker and scientific sessions. On-demand video content and speaker sessions also proved popular as delegates could consume them in their own time – though we have noted feedback that delegates do miss the live Q&A aspect when viewing on-demand content.

There’s no doubt that networking is the aspect that has been impacted the most by the move to virtual congresses, with a high percentage of delegates stating that the ability to meet speakers, colleagues and peers in person is one of the largest attractions, with exhibition halls typically playing a large part in facilitating this. Perhaps surprisingly, then, only just over a quarter of delegates attending a virtual congress said that they had attempted to engage in online networking activities.

I believe virtual congresses are here to stay, whether they remain the primary main events of the year or smaller, more regular events that provide enduring content and support for physical congresses. I also believe much more can be done to drive higher content engagement rates to truly take advantage of the increased number of registrants and this something we’ve been working hard on to get right.

We're taking what's good from the insights we've gleaned and making the delegate experience great. It's a really exciting time to be in this space.

For me, it starts by acknowledging the differences between physical and virtual experiences; the way in which
a user interacts with content in a web browser is very different to that in person. By attempting to create a like-for-like congress environment – complete with 3D-virtual exhibition halls and 3D-virtual booths, we have inadvertently broken what makes an online experience great, and subsequently made content much harder for delegates to locate and interact with.

Greater emphasis must be put on a positive delegate user experience, content must be structured with a coherent and compelling narrative, be served up in a format that delegates can easily find and that they can easily navigate on their preferred device.

Think of it this way – when e-commerce was introduced, we weren’t presented with a 3D representation of a shop where we had to move around 3D aisles in our web browsers to find the products we wanted to add to our trolley. If this had been the case, the high street might be faring better, as you can be sure online users would have been turned off by the experience.

A year later, then, I ask the question – why are we still trying to recreate like-for-like the experience of a congress hall in a web browser?

Jonathan Andrew is the Technology Director at Bluedog, part of the Lucid Group, and heads up both the Development and User Experience teams.

If you need to rethink your virtual and live events then get in touch, email

Jonathan Andrew is the Technology Director at Bluedog, part of the Lucid Group, and heads up both the Development and User Experience teams.

16th April 2021

From: Research


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