Opinion: As communities bounce back, what will be the future of virtual events?

Since the end of 2019 and throughout the past year, we’ve seen an explosion in the launch and evolution of virtual events. As COVID-19 disrupted established event formats and accelerated the need for brands to go virtual, the opportunity emerged for brands to build fully connected virtual events across the spectrum.

However, Asia Pacific is bouncing back quickly, and as communities around the world open back up and stave off COVID-19 with increased vaccination, Singapore offers a glimpse at what the near future may look like: workplaces are opening back up, 50-person physical events and conferences are back on (with all the standard social distancing protocols), and a newly built business bubble at Changi Airport facilitates smaller face-to-face meetings—meaning businesspeople can fly in, have a meeting and fly out again to minimise risk of virus transmission.

To anyone, this looks like a transition back to normal, face-to-face mass engagement. In last year’s virtual event renaissance, people have continued to seek tangibility in digital experiences: at MediaMonks, we’ve had clients request virtual events that included digital swag bags or packages of food and drinks to send to attendees, suggesting the crave for tangibility remains. So, is it time to close the book on virtual events? I don’t think they’re going anywhere—here’s why.

For many, virtual events are cost efficient

With a physical space comes onsite staff, security, staging, lighting, food and beverage… the list goes on, adding item after item to the cost sheet. A virtual platform, meanwhile, eliminates those additional overhead costs while being customizable to the exact look and feel a brand requires. It’s also more ownable; why simply rent a physical venue when you can invest in a virtual one that holds residual value and can be reused or rebranded for future experiences? While a physical venue is still massively valuable for many live events, these cost benefits will remain attractive to smaller events and brands that want to connect with audiences in impactful ways.

Speaking of audiences, virtual platforms are scalable to include broader audiences—which is one of the key reasons I think many physical events will still offer a virtualised component well into the years to come. With a digital layer, you can amplify an experience beyond physical limitations or a single geography—like how we helped scale the BRIC Celebrate Brooklyn! Festival, one of New York City’s longest-running open air music festivals, expanded to the global stage through a digital edition last year.

You can get more out of content

Digital events are a gift that keeps giving; the video content from an experience can be cut down, reused for other formats, or kept in a library to fuel your content calendar until the next event and beyond. However, the content opportunity that stands out to me is the ability to globalise an event, making it more relevant and engaging for delegates across countries.

Here’s how we did it for WebexOne, the inaugural Webex partner/client event. We built the platform in seven languages, developed local market case studies to replace global assets, and developed subtitles in local languages across all the global content. This care for localisation extended to pre- and post-event materials to ensure an optimal global delegate experience—delivering on digital’s unique ability to scale beyond the limitations of a physical event. These efforts are made easier with pre-recorded content that can be optimized in advance and delivered to a live audience.

One element of the physical experience that’s difficult to replicate is the serendipity of bumping into a colleague or old friend, or to enjoy the adhoc introductions made in an open space.

While we’re working hard to replicate this, digital events can still facilitate meaningful networking—a key KPI for 2020’s World Freedom Press Conference, which allowed attendees to question speakers directly, connect with other attendees one-on-one and form group chats around specific topics of interest. And because you eliminate the need for travel, these digital networking opportunities become more accessible to all.

What will events look like now? 

In short, I personally see a lot of benefits to virtual experiences—benefits that will likely remain relevant for savvy marketers for years to come. Virtual events are here to stay, though the role they will continue to play in the marketing mix (and budget) is still to be defined: should you stay all-digital? Would a physical event augmented better to convert an audience or speak to their need?

As the world begins to open up, I believe we’ll move closer to virtual hybrid events. Many in my network seem to agree; I polled my immediate network on LinkedIn recently to ask: As things open up slowly, how would you like to see the world of industry events evolve? While 20% of those polled wanted a return to physical events, 77% agreed that “Hybrid events are the future.”

These experiences bring together both in-person and virtual options to maximize accessibility and the audience experience, closing the gap between audiences and connecting them meaningfully. Whether face-to-face, keyboard-to-keyboard or somewhere in between, a future of hybrid events offers a best of both worlds to meet consumers everywhere.

The writer is Andy Edmonds (pictured), senior growth director Asia Pacific, MediaMonks.