A person at their desk, viewing a virtual event on their laptop
PHOTO: Shutterstock

Amidst the Coronavirus epidemic, many B2B brands are left with huge event marketing budgets. In fact, in a study by the Events Industry Council (EIC), business events contributed a shocking $1.5 trillion to the worldwide economy. The impact of reduced company events, therefore, could be enormous.

While many brands may choose to repurpose their event marketing into other digital marketing efforts, some innovative companies are choosing to host their events entirely online. With the rise of virtual conferences underway, we’ve asked marketing leaders whether virtual events can actually replace in-person events, and how brands can plan their own virtual conferences.

Can Virtual Events Replace In-Person Events?

“When it comes to virtual events,” said Stacy Nawrocki, head of global product marketing at IBM Watson Media, “businesses should automatically think about live streaming video to provide an engaging and accessible digital experience — minus the logistical hassle of an in-person event.” With new technologies available today, companies can now organize broadcast-grade live streams to millions of viewers that far exceeds the attendance possible with in-person events. 

Virtual conferences may not completely replace in-person events, but they do offer some advantages. “As consumption habits change,” Nawrocki continued, “video streaming technology not only allows businesses to reach wider audiences, it also meets them where they are, across platforms and devices.” Add in AI-powered closed captioning or subtitles, and brands can provide a more accessible experience than would be possible with traditional event marketing. 

“The move to virtual events is one that shouldn’t be viewed as just a short-term fix,” added Dr. Zvi Guterman, CEO of CloudShare. Virtual events offer unique benefits that may have a long-lasting effect on event marketing in the future. “Also, it’s not uncommon for attendees of in-person events to say, ‘I could’ve just watched all of this online and stayed home.’”

So how brands can get started with virtual events? Here's what our sources had to say.

Related Article: Virtual Events in 2009: Then vs. Now

Identify Resources

“To get started on a virtual event now,” suggested Nawrocki, “identify your resources.” You don’t need a full convention center, but a professional setting to serve as a backdrop is important. “For larger events,” she added, “high production quality cameras, as well as factors such as sound and image quality, lighting, the strength of your connection and upload speeds, will help produce a more broadcast-grade stream.” Higher production quality is crucial for getting greater attendance from your target audience.

Choose Technologies

“When it comes to delivering sessions,” explained Guterman, “tools like Run the World will mainly utilize virtual training and IT platforms to deliver interactive sessions and enable two-way communication between presenters and attendees.” That makes these solutions ideal for delivering a rich viewer experience that increases engagement from your brand’s target audience. “If an organization uses a large commodity cloud,” Guterman warned, “they will need to find a purpose-built solution that will easily sit on top of it and deliver that same power.”

Consider Access

Depending on the goal for a particular virtual conference, you should consider whether it’s better to limit access to certain individuals. “If sessions are gated, that will limit attendee count,” Nawrocki said, “however, you can select the certain high profile sessions to open up to a wider audience — usually keynote speakers.” It’s easier to engage with a smaller audience, but public events can be much further reaching. “You will need to decide on who should have access to your event,” Nawrocki continued, because it can “inform how you track attendees for follow-ups after the event.” The larger the audience, the more challenging it is for marketing and sales teams to follow up.

Related Article: Marketing in a Time of Crisis

Foster Engagement

A highly engaging virtual event can generate a much greater ROI than a simple one-sided webcast, but brands will need to implement strategies to foster audience interactions. “For example, with a panel discussion,” suggested Nawrocki, “use a streaming platform that has live Q&A chat features for audience interaction.” It’s also helpful to include additional resources and information on-screen throughout the event to keep distracted audience members up to speed.

Final Thoughts

Adoption of virtual conferences may increase — especially in the short-term — but in-person events will always have their place. “Meeting in-person can never be fully replaced,” Guterman concluded, “but as virtual events become more of a core practice, companies and employees alike may decide once and for all it’s the better, and more convenient way to go.”