If you’re like us, upending your travel schedule early last year took a lot of professional gatherings off the board. 

The pandemic marked a Cretaceous-scale extinction event for live conferences, trade shows, and the like, and it’s still unclear how many of them will return IRL even after coronavirus is contained. 

But historically, online events are hardly novel. And even more historically, people have found ways to gather under all sorts of adverse circumstances since long before the Industrial Revolution. 

We’ve helped the biggest brands and CEOs put on events pre- and post-pandemic. And we’ve found the quality of an event has much less to do with the platform on which it’s staged and much more to do with … well, how eventful it is. 

Whatever a herd-immunized event calendar looks like, sponsors of shows from CES to SXSW have stepped up with online shows to fill the gap. And based on the chatter we hear from our clients and colleagues, these virtual events just can’t match the focus and personal connection of their in-person counterparts … right? 

While in-person events have been valuable to brands, it’s fiendishly difficult to engage audiences meaningfully. Yes, if you assemble a critical mass of like-minded people who fancy themselves on a work-sanctioned sojourn, good things can happen. But when you add critically short attention spans and constant distractions, engaging meaningfully with this crowd as a host organization is difficult whether you are on- or offline.

In-person events weren’t simply undone by a virus, and making virtual events more meaningful doesn’t require trying to emulate online an ideal that those gatherings never achieved anyway. 

Instead, organizers need to focus on the intent of a virtual event: gathering people around an idea. In that context, the event is just the eye of the needle to thread the audience through. 

To inspire more clear-headed approaches to the challenges and opportunities that lie ahead in the virtual event space, we’re considering three key questions: 

  • How do organizers strategize for hosting a virtual  event? 
  • What virtual experience attracts and engages an audience? 
  • What should hosts and guests get out of the virtual conference experience? 

Our conclusions to date: If it’s easy to be distracted at both live and virtual events, and people come to be entertained by a break from work, then organizers of virtual events need to: 

  • Center the event around thoughtful, provocative, useful content.
  • Hire excellent on-screen talent, which may not be the same thing as your charismatic C-level exec. Not all Broadway stars can make it in the movies, and movie stars don’t all belong on stage. 
  • Think about how to balance making your keynote a show as much as it is a vehicle for marketing. (The line between entertainment and a business conference are blurred — it’s not a product of the pandemic.)
  • Be realistic about the attention economy (how good is this keynote, really?!?), and set the length accordingly.
  • Give the audience a sense of involvement through pre-selected Q&A submissions and group chat.

Bottom line: Things will never be the same. But when has it ever been? When the world comes back to in-person and hybrid events, we will have rounded a corner on mastering expectations for meaningful audience engagement. We’re laying the groundwork for optimal networking conditions in the future — and the choice between in-person or virtual probably won’t be the defining characteristic of events that create those conditions. 

Sure, uncertainty is the (overused) watchword these days. But this moment is also transformative. Now is the time to leave behind the baggage of legacy assumptions in favor of something more functional, fruitful, and fun. 

We want to keep the conversation going. Please tell us about your experiences with virtual events; your hopes for (or fears about) a return to in-person events; and especially whether our observations line up with your own. 

See you on the Zooms.