By Dale S. Laszig
Businesses across the globe used digital platforms to augment in-person interactions for years before the COVID-19 pandemic forced a dramatic pivot to virtual formats. In the payments industry, in-person tradeshows had been a mainstay for decades. Not knowing yet whether virtual formats could measure up, organizers reinvented industry events with characteristic gusto.
Issue 20:06:01 of The Green Sheet examined the industry's early virtual conference experiences in "The show must go online." In this series, industry leaders share what they've learned from hosting virtual conferences to date and how they plan to improve future online events.
While virtual conferences will never fully replace on-site shows, executives interviewed agree that online events are redefining networking and deal-making in the digital age. At issue is how to make them more engaging while combating a new syndrome: virtual conference fatigue.
Jodie Kelley, CEO of the Electronic Transactions Association, grappled early on with the gulf between online and in-person interactions. "Figuring out how to engage in dialog virtually is obviously so different and not nearly as easy as it is in person," she said. "And this encompasses more than what we have learned from planning virtual shows. We have also seen an entire ecosystem grow up around these virtual events, with entirely new platforms that didn't exist before the pandemic, that are being improved upon every day."
Konstantinos Papakonstantinou, founder and CEO of Board Studios Inc., found that overlapping virtual events have pressured executives in diverse industries, who struggle with conference fatigue and too many demands on their attention. "In the past few months, we've seen an explosion of virtual events and digital-first content," he said. "Audiences are tired and don't have the time to engage with all of the companies targeting them."
Papakonstantinou also noted that large-scale events with free admission and lower ticket prices may attract thousands of sign-ups, but the number of attendees who show up and engage tends to be smaller than the number of registrants. This underscores the importance of delivering tremendous value and tightly edited sessions, he stated.
"Today's audiences have a plentiful inventory of virtual events, and many offerings are available on demand," Papakonstantinou said. "This climate makes it more likely for audiences to fast forward if they are not getting value every second, and attendees that are not fully engaged in an event will be more likely to leave."
Venue settings may be different but the principal motivations have not changed, Papakonstantinou stated. People still want to connect and sell. Promoters can capitalize by creating exclusive live-only events with one-on-one networking opportunities, he suggested. Additional proven strategies include connecting registered guests with high-profile people and offering free services in exchange for one-on-one meetings with vendors and sponsors, he added.
Danny Klein, chief operating officer at Obsecure, saw the power of prerecorded demos and one-on-one meetings at FinovateFall 2020. After pivoting to digital in response to COVID-19, planners vowed to make future venues accessible digitally worldwide, he noted.
"Overall it was a very interesting experience, Klein said. "The Finovate team invested a lot in trying to replicate an in-person conference experience as much as possible. In many ways they succeeded. For example, I feel the opportunity to prerecord the demo strengthened the presentations in many ways. I also found that with the limited ability to 'walk the floor,' attendees were more open than usual to accept direct communication."
Papakonstantinou observed that live chat and interview formats that work well in on-site venues can fall flat online, because virtual audiences lack the patience to sit through extended discussions. "On-site audiences are captive and can't escape," he said. "Virtual audiences tune in from home, where distractions are endless. To hold their attention, it's best to pre-record interviews and edit them down to their essence."
Klein acknowledged that Finovate's virtual exhibit hall felt different than previous on-site experiences. Participants who had planned to dedicate their complete attention to the virtual event found it difficult to enforce their plans, he stated. In fact, he found that numerous attendees were distracted by unexpected meetings set in their calendars that were unrelated to the event.
"Because of the virtual nature of the event, many attendees were more receptive to confirm off-event demos and communicate via email and LinkedIn," Klein said. "My advice to remote event organizers would be to find ways to pre-set attendance in sessions, booth visits, and facilitate one-on-one meetings. Events are all about having everyone in one place, and that is hard to replicate. At the same time, with COVID restrictions, remote events help the show go on."
Jaqueline Bartzen, marketing senior manager at EBANX, and head of Latin America Summit, powered by EBANX, said that producing the summit forever changed how she and her teammates see events in general, even physical ones.
"EBANX is a fintech specialized in Latin America, so we are always looking for ways to create experiences about Latin America, and not only payments, but in our events," Bartzen said. "Our experiences are based in three main pillars: content, networking and in having a 'taste' of Latin America. We want attendees to get to know more about Latin America not only through what we say at the event, but also through what they see, witness, hear, taste, etc." Bartzen advised planners not to think of a virtual event as an online version of a physical event. "Your base has to be online, digital or at least at a distance," she said. "Your benchmark needs to be that way. And you don't need to put together a live show. You can do a webinar, which is a great format for some occasions. But have in mind that a webinar is not a keynote you would normally watch live but in front of a camera. It has to be a format on its own, with its own characteristics and requirements."
Bartzen also noted that virtual events, by their very nature, are competing with platforms that stream movies, documentaries, television shows, homespun videos and other forms of entertainment. This means people can leave your event at any time to watch TV, listen to music, etc., and that is why it is critical to present dense business content while paying attention to the format, length and secondary experiences you offer, like networking possibilities, she added.
Bartzen emphasized making virtual events as interactive as possible and recommended helping your audience connect with each other via Q&A tools and live chats that enable them to engage in real time with speakers. "It is important to offer a plural experience exchange," she said. "At our Latin America Summit, we had a team ready to reply to all attendees' interactions and questions live, on the platform, so hosts wouldn't have to."
Also, pay close attention to technical aspects and make sure you have backup plans, Bartzen added. The same principles used to stage a physical event, such as using a VPN or exclusive network, implementing network redundancy and back-up generators, will help to optimize connectivity. Don't underestimate these aspects when going online; they are just as essential as they are in the "real" world, she stated.
Deborah Reuben, founder and CEO of TomorrowZone, proposed that staging digital events requires a digital mindset. "I don't think about attending digital events in the same way as I would in-person," she said. "Digital venues enable radical inclusion, access and choice. Prioritizing live interaction, collaboration and networking during digital events enables me to make new connections more efficiently than when I am traveling to events."
Reuben called the virtual world her turf, stating that the pandemic has increased her event participation by enabling her to attend events that she may have passed up in the past. Barriers to attending have evaporated, which means less cost, less travel and more awesome, she stated. Another advantage of virtual events is that they afford opportunities for laser-focused thinking and strategy, Reuben noted. For example, she can review an agenda to prioritize topics and then selectively consume the content asynchronously and on-demand, according to her schedule.
"It's my timeline," Reuben said. "That type of thinking changes the game not only as an attendee but as an event designer. Forget tradition. Shift to digital-first thinking, and you will see new possibilities. Expecting to simulate the in-person event experience in a digital-first world is a waste of time. It's better to embrace the difference and run with it—leverage digital capabilities for an entirely new and reimagined experience."
Part 2 of this series will showcase novel approaches to digital conferencing as payments industry leaders leverage nascent virtual platforms to drive digital-first content, audience engagement and excitement.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter at @DSLdirect.
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