By Dale S. Laszig
When it became clear that annual on-site conferences would not take place as planned in 2020, payments industry executives looked for ways to keep their shows alive. In record time, they renegotiated hotel, catering and exhibit hall contracts, revamped keynote and sponsor presentations, and evaluated digital platforms. Despite the stressful circumstances that prompted their digital transformations, industry leaders interviewed for this article enjoyed the experience and would consider hosting virtual events in the future.
Jodie Kelley became CEO of the Electronic Transactions Association in September 2019 and had been looking forward to attending ETA's April 2020 annual conference and expo. Less than a month before the scheduled show, the escalating pandemic placed Kelley and her team in uncharted territory.
"We processed the facts and how different the world had become and had a robust internal discussion about what our community needs and how we could meet those needs," Kelley said. "I'm proud of how fast we pivoted and especially pleased by the positive feedback we've received from TRANSACT Connect participants and sponsors."
Virtual conferencing had been gaining traction, even before COVID-19 made it the only option for professional gatherings. Benefits include expanded audience reach, personalized content, real-time engagement, quantifiable leads and data-driven insights. While there are numerous conference hosting platforms available, experts advise focusing on content, not technology.
"Platforms are emulating physical conferences to a large extent, but they're not the solution and you can't rely on them and simply put up the same content," said Konstantinos Papakonstantinou, CEO of Board Studios Inc., a full-service video marketing and production company. "You have to get in your audience's shoes and figure out their true pain points, then look for the experts to answer them, and evolve your format to make the solutions engaging."
Papakonstantinou observed that on-site conferences have become complacent because attendees who travel to them become captive audiences that can't escape. Virtual attendees, on the other hand, are easily distracted and can leave with a click. He suggested creating compelling 10-minute sessions to hold their attention.
"There are so many cool things you can do to create a full experience around your virtual event," Papakonstantinou said, adding that short sessions, post-session analysis and speed-networking drive value and save the audience's time. He also recommended adding physical components, such as mailing swag bags to attendees, offering virtual daycare by hiring a magician to teach tricks to kids at home and sending out mojito kits for happy hour.
The March 2020 Identiq Member Summit drew fintechs from around the world, including Blackhawk Network, Eventbrite, Gett, Green Man Gaming, Intuit, PayU, Plastiq, Udemy and Via. Attendees, who received personalized goodie bags ahead of the virtual event, wore their conference lanyards to the Zoom meetings, according to Itay Levy, Identiq CEO.
Levy recalled that weeks away from the planned event, it became apparent that a physical conference couldn't happen. Despite the rapid change in plans, the summit was a success, he stated. Participants discussed how to use Identiq technology to fight fraud and improve customer experience without sharing user data. Attendees from leading security brands shared knowledge and drew on their expertise to engage with this new possibility.
"An important part of what made it worthwhile was that it gave folks an opportunity to see and meet other people outside their day-to-day [contacts]," Levy said. "In an era of working from home, it felt almost a bit normal for a couple of hours. I think, in the current reality, that's an important thing: finding the balance between something that feels special and something that feels reassuringly normal."
Papakonstantinou pointed out that virtual events are asynchronous, which enables planners to do more with content. They could intrigue the audience with 20-second snippets of golden nuggets from a talk or by taking something out of context, then directing viewers to sign up for the event to see what the speaker really meant, he advised, adding that planners could also share an insightful analysis of a talk, then ask viewers to sign up to get access to the full presentation.
Virtual conference attendees expect high-quality, actionable content, Papakonstantinou stated. The best way to stand out is to demonstrate what they will get at your event. This means highlighting content and what they will learn. Live polling and chat can help drive engagement, and pre-recorded content can be used to promote the event. Short clips can be shared on social media, pay-promoted on YouTube and posted on LinkedIn, he noted.
"Sharing on LinkedIn can be very powerful when you tag your speakers, because they can share and their audience gets to see it," Papakonstantinou said. "Your speakers now have content they can share with their audience to demonstrate thought leadership. And LinkedIn's conversational ads are very effective for summits. If your audience is easy to target on LinkedIn, it's an effective way to use a chatbot-like conversational experience to promote your event."
Sean Murray, chief editor and publisher of deBanked, has seen growing excitement leading up to Broker Fair. The third annual finance gathering he'd organized was set to return to New York City in May 2020; it quickly transitioned to a virtual setting in June. A two-for-one conference package enables participants to attend the 2020 virtual and March 2021 on-site Broker Fair, he noted.
"Broker Fair will not be another webinar," Murray said. "We designed a virtual world with a real tradeshow floor. Attendees will be able to walk around the exhibit hall, interact with avatars, attend sessions, take pictures of the event and do everything they normally would at a conference."
"There's no substituting in-person networking events, but kudos to the deBanked team for taking a chance and gauging the potential of an additional form of networking we can utilize in the future," added Ken Peng, director of business development and marketing at Elevate Funding, a Broker Fair sponsor. "Any new platform for us to interact with potential and existing partners is very exciting to me."
Andrew Hernandez, managing partner at Central Diligence Group and Broker Fair sponsor, expects to see more standalone and hybrid virtual conferences going forward. "We like the idea of connecting and engaging with people in a new way and forming relationships with people we may have not met otherwise," he said.
Several days after wrapping TRANSACT Connect, Kelley said virtual events will be top of mind as she reviews mobile app and survey data and explores future possibilities. Just as the payments industry has embraced omnichannel commerce, the ETA will consider deploying tailored offerings through multiple media to reach people wherever they are, she stated.
"There's a lot to learn, but humans have a powerful need to connect, and there are certain ways we can deliver content online and foster connections," she said. "It will be interesting to see how many people registered for the event who had never been to a TRANSACT.
Dale S. Laszig, senior staff writer at The Green Sheet and managing director at DSL Direct LLC, is a payments industry journalist and content development specialist. She can be reached at email@example.com and on Twitter at @DSLdirect.
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