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Lessons to be learnt when pivoting to digital

Stephanie Selesnick says the brave new B2B world of hybrid events is here to stay.

Hybrid exhibitions and conferences will stay as part of the business-tobusiness event fabric going forward. This is part of the ‘Brave New World’ and we’re all learning along the way.

A colleague invited me to check out a virtual conference he was attending. This event was a pivot of a very expensive (USD$4,000) live four-day long event, featuring many educational sessions and a 30-company exhibition/sponsor floor.

The virtual platform was robust and there were areas to visit between sessions – a chat room as well as a lounge with games. The organisers made no price accommodation after moving to virtual. I found that surprising. Did it fully deliver? In a word, no. Could it have? Probably not, even with some tweaks.

Virtual events are a good alternative to celebrate and educate a community when they cannot be together live. Digital platforms allow for a more diverse and inclusive audience as delegates don’t have to travel and incur all of the related expenses. They open the gates to literally the entire world.

Unfortunately, this format did not include an adaptation for a different platform and user experience.

Organisers (wrongly) expected sponsors, exhibitors, speakers and delegates to be engaged for four full days, in front of a computer, gazing at a screen. No face-to-face, eye-toeye human interaction was provided. The only method of communication between sponsors to visitors, and visitors to visitors was ‘chatting’ using avatars or static photos. This kind of virtual marathon is unsustainable for all stakeholders for so many hours a day, so many days in a row.

There are three lessons to take from the move from live to digital:

1. Timing. Be mindful of the screen time your event demands. Hold specific and different hours for exhibitions and education.

a. Time zones – Organisers all over the world seem oblivious where their audience is geographically located when it comes to scheduling keynotes and special events. Note the region where the majority of your audience lives, then design the agenda based on that time zone.

b. Whatever virtual platform you use should offer delegate schedule reminders. Not all do.

2. Exhibitor and sponsor education. This is a whole new playground for everyone. We visited a few stands and without exception, one of two things happened: 1.) The booth was empty (no one online); or 2.) The exhibit staff resembled obnoxious staffers in real life chasing visitors down the aisle. Both were poor experiences.

a. Teach your sponsors and exhibiting staff how to interact in a virtual setting (including booth salesmanship). Help them design their organisation’s online presence using content, thought leadership, and relationship building rather than focusing on closing sales.

3. Chat rooms and gamification should inspire interaction. Awarding virtual points to visitors for visiting all of the exhibitors or sponsors for a minute or two, or holding a raffle for a pair of earpods is the equivalent of using the old ‘booth babe’ attraction. To garner quality leads, try using games such as trivial pursuit to showcase your industry, speakers, sessions and sponsors to engage your audience.

a. The chat room should be more than a place for exhibitors to advertise their presence at the event. Consider having a facilitator to encourage interaction. None of this is easy. Create best practices and remember that in the end, we can provide value to our stakeholders in a virtual or hybrid world. Whether the event is live or digital, it’s our job to successfully bring the buyers and sellers together