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What are types of virtual events and can they be improved?

Video conferencing software has helped companies connect with their employees and customers, but it hasn't quite filled the bill when it comes to supporting virtual events.

Video technology has proved itself again and again over the course of the COVID-19 pandemic. We were able to use it -- easily, affordably and reliably -- to stay productive with various team members as we adjusted to working from home. We also used video to stay in touch with family and friends. While we may prefer to do things in person, in most cases, video provided an acceptable alternative.

One big exception is virtual events.

Indeed, the shift from in-person meetings to virtual events has not been seamless. People aren't satisfied with the virtual experience. The technology worked as expected. Presentations and sessions --both live and recorded -- were streamed with high-quality video and audio.

But there is far more to an event than sessions. Attending an event is not a passive experience. It is an extremely interactive one. We go to a conference or convention to be part of the event. Chatting one on one with colleagues, partners, customers and providers is as big a draw as the keynote. The sessions themselves have become highly interactive, depending on how the presenters engage with the audience.

There are three types of virtual events:

  1. Video meetings. Many organizations simply create video meetings and call them "virtual events." They create webpages and social media campaigns promoting them as occasions, but when the day comes, they are nothing more than a schedule of video meetings presented via software like Zoom or BlueJeans. If the content is good, the presentations are worth experiencing, but they aren't virtual events.
  2. Video webinars. Some organizations take presentations to the next level by using webinars instead of meetings. These do a better job of recreating the live presentation and seminar experience and provide Q&A management tools to replicate the interactivity of a live session. While these are more akin to live events than meetings, they still feel as if you were sitting through a bunch of webinars. They don't feel as if you're attending anything.
  3. Virtual event platforms. There are some platforms attempting to recreate the physical event experience. They generally rely on video meetings and webinars for the sessions but go beyond those applications to include more of the components expected from an actual event, such as a lobby, information about sponsors and speakers, easy navigation to content and ways to interact with other attendees. I love the idea of these platforms, and I think they are the future of virtual events. But UX thus far is less than ideal.

Why event platforms fell short

Part of the challenge plaguing virtual event platform vendors is that the software underpinning them was originally designed to manage in-person events. When the pandemic hit, vendors quickly reworked the software to support online meetings, and as a result, the platforms became convoluted and overly complicated to manage. My clients, for example, couldn't simply pay for the platform and host their event; they needed to hire someone like me to manage the software. It was difficult to set up the meeting's agenda, sessions, links, notifications and other elements. Attendees often complained it wasn't always easy to find the link to the sessions they were interested in. For now, at least, people seem to have given up on virtual events and are just hoping they can go back to live events soon.

One bright note: Zoom Events appears to be a step in the right direction. The platform seems relatively easy to manage, has a unique approach to helping attendees find the sessions they want to attend and boasts several features, like the recently announced Expo, designed to enable interactivity. It's too early to determine whether the software will make people behave more like they are actively attending an event rather than passively sitting before a screen.

I certainly hope that the other types of virtual event providers take this lead to wrap an event experience around their software to get it right. I am in no rush to get back on a plane to travel to conferences and meetings, but I need a little more than what I am getting from today's virtual event platforms.

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