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Virtual event platforms for conferences race to bolster features

Even as the pandemic ebbs, virtual events will remain a primary way to reach employees and customers -- but make sure you're getting what you need before you deploy a platform.

Even as COVID-19 morphs from pandemic to endemic, virtual event platforms for conferences appear to be here to stay. Indeed, many of us have learned to enjoy life without regularly dealing with the inconveniences of airline and business travel. A sales exec who attended 10 conferences a year in 2019 may now plan to attend two or three of the most relevant ones in person and the rest through virtual events. If you are an event planner, you better be ready to either host a virtual event, or at least add a virtual component to your physical event.

Providers forced to switch gears

Unfortunately, choosing a virtual events platform is not easy. The market is not mature by any means. The pandemic forced many of the leading platforms -- which, pre-pandemic, were essentially online portals engineered to sell tickets to physical events -- to switch gears so they could support virtual events. When everything locked down, they added to their portfolios capabilities to livestream or host webinars. Today, many are still adding new features to address customer feedback that stemmed from the first two years of virtual events, and the feedback hasn't always been great.

In my experience consulting with companies using several of the available platforms to host virtual events, we've regularly run across a number of issues. The following were among the most prominent:

  • people unable to log in on the day of the event after registering;
  • people unable to access live video sessions;
  • people unable to find agenda pages or other information;
  • companies dissatisfied with the way event pages are displayed on the website; and
  • experiences that were confusing, bug-prone and frustrating.

Moreover, even the best virtual events didn't always offer the same feeling a physical event generates. Instead, they felt like attending a series of webinars.

On the positive side, we still considered these events to be successful, if not ideal, because at the end of the day the video platforms worked almost flawlessly, and our presenters were able to share their content with our viewers. The virtual event platforms for conferences industry just needs to do a better job of wrapping video streams into a real event-like experience.

Virtual platforms catching up to demands

For their part, video providers are beginning to offer products geared to meeting that demand. Zoom Events, for example, provides interactive features -- among them a lobby and an enhanced chat capability -- that make virtual events more like physical events. I expect other video platform suppliers to launch similar features in the months to come.

Ensuring that participants have virtual access to your event is no longer just a benefit -- it's essential.

The best advice when choosing a virtual platform is to be sure you really understand what your final experience will be like. Try to attend another event using the platform you are considering. See how easy -- or not -- it is to find different sessions, to join sessions, to interact with other participants and determine whether you can access recordings and other information that you might need.

An important caveat: Virtual event providers will always tell you their platforms are fully customizable. In my experience, however, when you begin to ask a provider of virtual event platforms for conferences to make real changes, it takes a lot of time and things tend to start breaking. You are better off finding a platform that offers a template you like right off the bat and requires little customization.

Do your homework on video streaming options

Once you find a platform that offers the interactivity and event experience you like, the last piece to worry about is the video streaming itself. Many vendors will offer a choice of their own video service or an option to use Zoom, Microsoft Teams or Webex with their platforms.

I recommend you use the video service of choice whenever possible. If you already use Zoom or Teams, you know what the experience is like and you won't have any surprises on the day of the event. If you use some random event platform's in-house video offering, you may have problems on event day. I've attended several events that switched in mid-event from in-house video to Zoom or another provider because of video issues.

Finally, don't be put off by all the warnings discussed here. Ensuring that participants have virtual access to your event is no longer just a benefit -- it's essential. The concept is still new and the experience is still a bit muddled, but even so, the value is there. The platforms are all working hard to address existing issues, and conditions are bound to improve. As long as you fully test out your platform of choice prior to the event itself, you shouldn't have any major issues and your attendees will potentially have a great experience. At the very least, they will be able to access the key content they signed up to see.

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