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How Do You Do Virtual Events During COVID-19? Let Me Show You the Ways

29 May 2020

Over the last month, I rarely left my house, certainly didn’t travel, yet I participated in five virtual events, and still managed to get my regular slate of work done. Pre-COVID-19, I would travel to one or two events a month – maybe three during busier times, but never five.

I could just leave it at that for this post as a statement for how much things have changed in so little time. There’s enough there to run through your mind without saying anything else to contemplate how so much of what was routine for so long in our space now seems like from another time. Seriously, do any us really miss all that travel? Sure, being cooped up at home gets tired pretty fast, but I’m just fine with the slower pace, and my business has never been better.

As analysts, we don’t earn the big bucks for pithy two paragraph briefs, so there’s gotta be a bigger story to tell. There are a few angles worth exploring, and for this post, I’m going to share takeaways on the state of virtual events circa May 2020. The longer this pandemic plays, the more important it will be for anyone doing events to go virtual, and I’m getting regular inquiries now from vendors about what’s working for this format.

Consider this post a primer on that, and having done my share of event programming and producing, it makes me wonder about wearing those hats again. There’s no business like show business, and it would be a sure-fire way for our SIPtones band to get more gigs. I digress, but BCStrategies readers should find this post timely given how our bellwether event – Enterprise Connect – has again pushed off from being live, and the new dates for August will now be virtual.

Big, small and everything in between

Here’s a quick visual of screenshots I took during three very different events in May, and it really shows how diverse the virtual landscape can be. From the left; Huawei’s Rotating Chairman Guo Ping during their analyst event in Shenzhen, a collage of speakers from Cloud Conventions, and Jeff Pulver’s re-boot of his #140ConfLive event.

My main message here is that nobody knows what’s going to work, and there’s no formula for success. Each of the five events I participated in over the last month had a distinct flavor, and they all had their virtues. Starting from big to small, here are some quick impressions.

Huawei analyst event. From what I could tell, it looked like there were live attendees, so it wasn’t a totally virtual event. This was definitely a full-scale, professional and polished production. Too slick for my liking, and politics aside, the event was an important platform to articulate their ambitious global roadmap. This was a full four-day agenda, and with time zone differences, it wasn’t practical to livestream the sessions, but I could tap the replays a day later. We rarely get to see Huawei this close up, and it’s going to take some time to digest all the content. I can only watch video presentations for so long, but the sessions were pretty rich, and overall, they did a first-rate job pulling this off. It was definitely a marathon, and while this format works fine in-person, it’s really not the model for doing a fully virtual event, where screen-based attention spans are going to be much shorter.

Opentalk event for Talkdesk. Overall, I think they struck the best balance of event duration, content and engagement. All vendors are challenged to re-make a live event as a virtual one, and they paid a lot of attention to detail to make it worth attending. The vibe was informal, the team spoke from their homes, the pacing was good, and the bold colors and visuals kept you interested all the way through. Another nice to touch to add some fun was providing Uber Eats vouchers so we could have breakfast or lunch on them while taking in the event on our screens. This was a very different experience from Huawei which used the classic, but static model of speakers on a big stage making prepared presentations as if in a classroom. With Opentalk, they also made good use of audience polls to get real-time feedback, and I really liked the mix of live presentations during the event, followed by a solid variety of breakout sessions which are available on demand during May.

Pexip analyst event. This was another live event that had to change gears. This was their first analyst event that I know of, and being just us, it was small and intimate. Of course, they used their platform, so it was a nice break from the usual of Zoom, Webex and Teams. This was a great way to showcase their video technology, and it came off very well. They provided a nice mix of dialog and prepared content, with lots of time for our questions. Like Opentalk, the length was just right – three hours. No need to travel to NYC – just start at 9, and done by lunch. Neat and tidy in true Nordic style.

Cloud Conventions. This was a bit different, since it emulated a full trade show with keynotes, breakouts and a virtual exhibit hall. I was invited to speak, and presenters had the option of doing their talk live or recorded in advance. The organizer, Convey Services, used two video platforms – PGi for the keynotes, and Zoom for the breakouts and after-events. This was also a four-day event, and to keep attendees engaged, they used some forms of gamification so they would visit the exhibitors and earn some virtual swag. The overall content was quite good – geared to the channel community – but four days seemed pretty long to me. The virtual cocktail after-events were fun, and they did a great job to make everyone feel welcome – let’s just a say a heapin’ helpin’ of Southern hospitality. I’ll be back.

#140ConfLive. Last, but never least was Jeff Pulver jumping back into the event space. Nobody did big events in our space better than Jeff, and it’s cool to see him going completely to the other end of the spectrum. This was the most low-scale virtual event of the bunch, and it’s important to include here to show the wide range of what’s out there at the moment. Like the other events, Jeff’s was free, but unlike them, the approach was more informal and less structured. Being a bit of a pilot project, Jeff kept it brief – just 75 minutes, so it hardly killed your day. Despite being a VoIP pioneer, Jeff didn’t talk much about technology at all – the event had no agenda or title, so you were there because it was a “Jeff event” rather than to get visionary insights on tech. In time, that will come, but this event had more of a Zen vibe, with live music performance and aspirational talks, such as one speaker sharing her journey to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro. I didn’t learn a thing about collaboration, but I did learn a lot about how to find balance and purpose in today’s always-on, digitally-but-not-humanly connected world. Keep it going, Jeff!

Conclusion and more food for thought

As a wrap-up, these are my personal takeaways from the last month’s worth of virtual events. I’ve got more such events on tap for June, and it will be interesting to see if our space gravitates to a particular format. Until then, I’d say it’s a great time to experiment and try different things.

It’s harder to engage attendees virtually, so don’t just cut and paste what you’ve always done with live events. Collaboration technology is so good now, and with a little imagination virtual events can be fun and inspirational, which goes a lot further than just being a firehose of information. If this post piques some ideas, then make sure to check out our latest BCStrategies podcast, The Future of Conferences, where several of us share our thoughts on how virtual events are trending.

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