Learnings from an ambitious vision for virtual events in 2020
From live to virtual - a story of disruption and innovation
At the start of 2020, as we prepared to host Simon Sinek Live, virtual events were a novelty.
Then all of a sudden, events with real audiences started falling like pins.
Here, we take a look at our own experience and learnings from a forced and rapid pivot to virtual events, in particular our first, broadcast-quality, blockbuster live virtual event with Good to Great author Jim Collins. First, the benefits and challenges.
The benefits of live-to-air virtual events:
- Energy is palpable, resulting in a vibrant and compelling product.
- Content is dynamic, and can be tweaked and changed on the fly.
- It's not wrong for long. Mistakes are part of the show. The show must go on.
- Team motivation is heightened, everyone works to a strict deadline.
- Problems are solved quickly, team members forced to take responsibility.
- Higher barrier to entry. High definition live broadcast is normally the preserve of TV stations.
- Necessity - restrictions on in-person gatherings.
- Venue limitations & geography not an issue.
- Speaker flights not necessary, watch in comfort of own office or home.
- Climate responsible.
- Wider participation from disabled, housebound, and economically disadvantaged.
- Pushes companies to embrace disruptive technology.
- We're always going to have disruption. Jim Collins would say "Get used to it, like breathing."
Challenges of live-to-air virtual events:
- At the mercy of technology.
- Complex logistics to deliver broadcast quality.
- Have to solve problems rapidly, remotely and with deadline approaching.
- Anything can happen (see positives, above).
- Delegates have come to expect product is recorded. Express surprise if they miss event.
- Expect shocks. A short power outage at the U.S. production studio meant a rapid switch to generator power.
The brutal facts: empty arenas, stadiums, and conference centres
What began as a trickle in January and early February.....the cancellation of Consumer Technology Association’s CES, then Mobile World Congress......quickly became a flood.
One by one, every major live event was cancelled to prevent the spread of coronavirus.
Facebook’s F8, the Adobe Summit, Salesforce’s World Tour Sydney, Google’s Cloud Next ’20, Pearl Jam’s U.S. and Canada tours, Atlassian’s summit, Microsoft’s MVP Summit, Shoptalk, South by Southwest, the London Book Fair, sports fixtures, and Coachella....you name any event....all were pulled.
Companies like ours, reliant on big events, were swept into the tsunami.
Weeks out from our blockbuster March event Simon Sinek Live we announced its postponement to 2021, and we cancelled Seth Godin's mid-year event in Singapore.
As leadership guru Jim Collins would say, we now had to face the brutal facts.
Our leadership education events in 2020 had to go virtual, and rapidly.
Not looking like Pac-Man. Replicating a real event – the planning
Comparing today’s hyper-real CGI games to arcade games like Pac-Man, Dratowany says the “difference between a memorable virtual event and a mediocre one is how it looks.
• Replicate the look and feeling of your previous events so your attendees aren’t taken aback.
• If all you offer is a webinar and PowerPoint, it will feel “phoned-in.”
This sits with our own brand story.
We wanted to make The Growth Faculty virtual events look and feel as close as possible to the real thing.
It was a highly risky, ambitious, and expensive move, requiring a custom-built platform complete with an MC welcome, a lobby and lounge, discussion rooms and executive suites, a help desk, bookshop, and a main stage with curtains and audience.
Guests would virtually explore the venue at their leisure, while they waited for the live keynote to begin.
And, just like a real event, audiences would participate in discussions and Q and As, all in real time, live to air.
Finally, it had to be broadcast quality, which required complex logistics, including the hiring of a production company and studio, a speaker venue, an outside broadcast van.
Landing Good to Great author Jim Collins
To justify the expense of a custom-built platform, we needed a global headliner without peer.
Our top pick was the highly revered and reclusive author Jim Collins, of Good to Great and Built to Last fame.
Not only had he sold 10 million books, one of them (Great by Choice, co-authored with Morten Hansen) was on companies that thrived during global disruptive, chaotic, and extreme events.
"Whether we prevail or fail, endure, or die depends more upon what we do than on what the world does to us." - Great by Choice
Jim was in Boulder, Colorado, our production company 1500 kilometres away, and we were 15,000 kilometres away from them.
Could we pull this off?
Selling the event: “It’s not a Zoom meeting”
A recent Linked in report showed 69% of marketers say switching in-person events to virtual events was a top challenge (second only behind budget cuts).
Here we offered an opportunity for busy C-suite executives to stay put, and yet bring their team to learn from a thought leader of Jim Collins's calibre.
It held enormous appeal.
So our team’s real challenge was getting prospects to grasp our ambitious vision.
“It’s not a zoom meeting” became our refrain.
One issue is the ubiquity of zoom meetings.
- 300 million daily meeting participants stared into their laptop and phone cameras in April 2020, making zoom the generic “Kleenex” of virtual conferencing.
- It’s wonderful for zoom’s revenues (up 200% with profits up by around 300% this year) but tricky when you’re trying to launch a broadcast quality, bespoke alternative.
- Zoom fatigue was another hurdle to overcome. Could we convince people to spend time and money for a virtual leadership education event?
On the plus side, a virtual event combined with our network of alliance partners and sponsors helped us tap into a wider and deeper pool of prospects from across the world - who'd normally miss out.
In the end delegates from 100+ cities were able to join us, all in the comfort of their home, office or board room.
As one particle physicist said of a massive physics event held in cyberspace said, "I’m kind loving the minimal FOM [fear of missing out] when you’re just feeling tired/introverted/overwhelmed."
Delivering the online event live-to-air - where “anything can happen”
Early on, we decided the Jim Collins event would be a live-to-air online event, with full production crews and studios in the U.S. broadcasting in real time across the world.
To get the greatest number of attendees, we held two events – one for the Northern Hemisphere timezone, and another for the Southern Hemisphere.
According to MarTech Today’s Event Participation Index, 70% of sessions are viewed live, even if available on demand.
What's the attraction of virtual events streamed live?
A Social Media Today article quotes an explanation from LinkedIn Senior Streaming Producer Chris Packard:
“Going live is exciting – anything can happen! Expect and accept mistakes. In fact, it’s preferable to a scripted broadcast because live comes across as authentic and more relatable.” - Chris Packard
The doors open to the virtual event
Once the virtual event doors opened, thousands of guests began streaming into the virtual auditorium.
Just like a real event, some couldn't locate their tickets, others had to access the help desk for technology advice, a few had security issues.
We'd pulled in extra staff to help with live chat support, and everyone was flat out.
As the last guests took their virtual seats, Jim Collins began his extraordinary keynote.
"[I was] very much glued to my seat for the entire session....feeling so inspired." - Estelle, delegate
"It was fantastic, thanks." - Steve, delegate
"I just loved the whole experience." Lyndon, delgate
"I felt like i was there. Jim Collins is inspiring and I felt like I had a personal session with him. Better than being 1 person in a huge event." - Rachel - delgate
"Very well organised, felt like we were in an auditorium, and Jim was inspiring." - Jynel, delegate
"...exciting to meet an idol in an interactive environment." - Angie, delgate
"Loved it! Technology was great, pity about the glitch but support team did well to recover and communicate. Thanks for a memorable session." - Linley, delegate
"Jim never fails to impress. He's the reason I've got my company sorted to thrive in Covid19." - delegate
"Jim is incredible - the virtual room is brilliant for my clients. Will recommend for next time for sure." - Hans, delegate
Challenges and learnings of virtual events
Uninterrupted, flawless streaming is THE problem to solve across all virtual events.
Many event organisers, including us, report delegates experiencing occasional streaming interruptions, freezing and log-in issues.
One tech conference had more than 30,000 people log in at once, causing it to freeze.
“The sheer volume of people logging in essentially caused the system to freeze because it suspected some sort of DDosS (distributed denial of service attack). Resolving that in real time at speed, all remotely, was quite challenging," - conference organiser
Even Niantic's Pokemon Go Fest 2020 suffered technical hiccups during its first completely virtual global experience.
But, despite having to disable social interactions in something called the “fourth friendship challenge”, it was deemed a huge success.
As one Pokemon delegate enjoying the convenience of a virtual event reportedly put it, If Niantic balance its live events with virtual events I won’t feel I’ve completely missed out.”
#2 Unexpected events
Even with the best planning in the world, few can anticipate every scenario that could disrupt a virtual event.
As mentioned, our own event was briefly disrupted by a power outage in the U.S.
"I really enjoyed the experience and even the outage which shows we are all a bit fallible. Really good platform you have going there." - Clayton, delegate
Cisco's major 2020 event (a 2-day virtual instead of a 4-day face-to-face) was disrupted for different reasons.
Hours before start time, it was decided to shut everything down to honor Blackout Tuesday (part of the Black Lives Matter movement) taking place on the day the event was going to start.
"The attention of the audience is the only aspect of a virtual event that is finite.” – MarTech Today
#3 Networking without face to face
Replicating in-person networking with online meet-ups is one of the biggest hurdles virtual events must overcome.
For many this is the core of why they seek out in-person events in the first place.
A Wall Street Journal article by Euirim Choi reported that at Apple Inc.’s first ever online-only software conference developers said they missed bumping into each other, but that presentations were more efficient online.
Our Jim Collins event saw the audience break into small discussion groups (using zoom), moderated by a host. Like a real event, success largely depended on the group dynamics, and each delegate's willingness to participate.
The break out sessions worked really well and we were lucky to have a great chair-and MC who greeted us with ease and confidence." - Siobhan, delegate.
Meanwhile, a DW article says speed-dating-style 3 minute video calls to introduce attendees was tried at the Collision from Home tech conference (32,000 attendees from 140 countries).
"In response, one attendee tweeted: 'Remote networking may be better than in-person networking after all!" - DW website.
Survey: Virtual events a success
Overall, an International Data Corporation survey found the shift to virtual events overall was "a modest success with room for improvement."
- Meeting, networking and socialising were seen as important
- Top areas for improvement from organisers and attendees included engagement, audio quality and the need for closed captions.
The new normal - virtual events here to stay
It's fairly certain all this virtual event investment and experience won't be hidden away in a bottom drawer once we're through the pandemic.
As each problem is shared and solved for, virtual events will look more sophisticated, work more reliably, and be more enjoyable for organisers and attendees.
But they will never fully replace the electric buzz of a large in-person event experience.
In the DW article Life After Lockdown, Virtual Events are Here to Stay, Diana Raiselis, a German Chancellor Fellow who researches nightlife, explained why.
"A conference's actual program is only one small part of an event — the post-session side chats, unexpected experiences, and spontaneous run-ins make up the rest. I think it's a question of depth or breadth. There's something about physically being with other people and sharing an experience that creates connection." - Diana Raiselis, from Deutche Welle.
Could future events be expanded to include virtual? Could a hybrid emerge that marries the best of both worlds? How will our custom-built virtual auditorium and stage evolve to blur the lines between virtual and real even further?
Virtual events are no longer a novelty, but there are novel solutions coming to create a truly lifelike and seamless experience.
The Growth Faculty is proud to present New York Times best-selling author, TED Talk sensation and "unshakable optimist", Simon Sinek in a powerful and exclusive two-part live virtual event this November, 2020.