Virtual Events Are One Big Mess, And Vendors Aren’t The Only Ones To Blame

2020 had started under promising auspices, and yet by end of February it was clear that this wouldn’t be a “business as usual” kind of year. Due to health safety requirements, potential risks and expectations of low turnout, events ended up being cancelled one after the other.

Ultimately, most of the vendors decided to replace physical conferences with virtual events this year as a way to keep their audience (customers and partners) engaged.

Physical Events And Peer Pressure

Physical conferences may have all sorts of quirks, except for three constants: w are physically present, we are usually not distracted, and we hopefully came there for a specific purpose. Being physically present means that unless we have the gift of ubiquity, we are doing something else at a different location (hello, Mr. Obvious).

Also, being physically present and being there on purpose means that we are generally not overly distracted. We all know the reality can be entirely different: we can be distracted by that customer deal we need to close, that unexpected serious issue going on at home while we are at the conference, that major incident that we’re the only ones able to solve, etc.

Unexpected issues aside we went to the conference, we are all ears, and there’s nothing else to do than attend the sessions, crawl back in a cramped / uncomfortable seat, and listen. Focus is one particular thing though. We’ve all been at *that* particularly soporific keynote, each of us has endured the mandatory buzzword bingo part and sometimes we only want to sulk off in a corner while we die inside.

Nothing beats a buzzword bingo session during a keynote. Thankfully, peer pressure is here to keep us in control. “Visionary” session during NetApp Insight 2018 Las Vegas.

But we’re in a big, silent dark room, there are hundreds to thousands of folks, and we have peer pressure. Even a deserved laugh at a fundamentally stupid assertion is frowned upon, therefore out of professionalism (and sometimes of despair) we just abide, do our best to listen and to take notes, all while hoping that Jesus was wrong, and that the first won’t be the last, in other words that we’ll be amongst the first to make it to the bathroom before a giant queue forms after 2+ hours of bladder control.

Virtual Overcommit

Most of the events started happening from early June, and the movement seems to have held steady until at least end of July. These were two very intense months, especially for those of us who attended multiple industry events – that is generally the case for industry analysts, press, etc.

At the same time, several vendors restarted briefing activities, and thus calendars started to suddenly fill up.

Multiple events happening in parallel is nothing new. The physical world forces us to make a choice, but the virtual world doesn’t. It brings us back to our miserables lives of multitasking, where we tend to overcommit and where we fill up our calendars to attempt to please everyone. Most have thankfully the sanity to own their agenda, make choices and say no.

Keeping Focus Is Hard

With events gone virtual, there is still a completely different set of problematics at play. Being alone in front of our computer puts us into the unproductive yet addictive multitasking mindset, where our brain thinks that we cannot fully focus on the presentation because things are going on and we need to check on them (example: I checked on my mails while writing this article).

Some folks have great self-discipline abilities and are perfectly able to control their time, others have it way harder and must master those healthy time management habits.

External distractions of all kinds affect those at home: it can be the kids asking for something, the kids running around and playing / shouting or even beating each other to a bloody pulp because hey, doing this while mum or dad are working is the funniest thing ever. It can be the cats deciding that laying across the keyboard is the right thing to do, or that now is the ideal moment for playtime, and repeated loud meowing is a fine way to remind it to our minion human.

While those annoyances are tolerable in a passive content consumption setup, it quickly becomes hell if we are actively participating (camera / microphone on).

Virtual Events Are Flawed… In Their Current Shape

On top of this mess, virtual events are really hard to consume. Some empiric observations: sessions are very long – too long, in fact.

It’s hard to expect someone to watch a keynote video for two hours, unless you’re the latest blockbuster movie. No matter how charismatic some CEOs might be, watching some dudes talk for two hours about digital transformation has never been my thing.

“Wait, isn’t it the same when we are in a physical keynote?”, you might argue. I beg to disagree, because in a physical keynote you can at least “get the mood of the room”. It’s all those little body signals that are so essential to the social creatures that humans are, and we aren’t getting those signals when we are alone in front of our screen.

Complaining about lengthy or bland content is a luxury we’d love to have when the virtual conference website is hard to navigate. One event used a particularly user-hostile interface, where all of the elements were made to confuse the user, links were not properly identifiable, and when a link was clicked, it was not sending me anywhwere. It took me 5 to 10 minutes each time to join a session, and I had to ask help to friends.

The lack of interaction is yet another problem. It’s hard to engage people who aren’t physically present, especially if the only way is to do so via chat. Even during analyst or Q&A sessions, interacting is more complicated. The few Q&A slots end up being quickly hijacked over by folks who love brushing the vendor’s ego in the right direction while spitting out a hairball of buzzwords.

Humanizing Virtual Events

Here are a few of my thoughts on how to make virtual events more palatable:

  • Prefer live content over recorded content – attendees will appreciate that company presenters and exec are also putting in their time into the event. Nobody likes to watch a pre-recorded video.
  • Engage with your audience on social media incorporate it live into your event journey. That is an astonishingly great way to engage the audience and keep it tuned, folks will love it. Commvault did a great job at FutureReady with this.
  • Reconsider the length of your presentation blocks. Take into consideration attention span. Everything and its contrary has been said on this. Find a good balance between monologues and discussions.
  • Do not hammer the audience with the same presenter for more than 15 minutes in a row. We know, it’s hard when doing a keynote. Try converting the keynote into a dialogue to introduce breaks and bring back attention and focus. Keep the content short and focused.
  • Involve your user community. User advocacy is important and brings a fresh perspective to your company and products.
  • Consider the availability of your attendees. A full day at a physical event is perfectly fine. Half a day for a virtual event is on the limits of possible.
  • You may want to split your analyst sessions in two: a presentation session, and a Q&A session.
  • When doing Q&A sessions, either do them well, or don’t do them at all. It’s hard to cater for 150+ analysts in a video call, but under 30-40 people it might be more manageable. Consider multiple tracks: press track, influencer / analyst track, financial analyst track, etc.
  • Offline content consumption should be mandatory, but you already know this.
  • Navigation and user experience are essential. Please be mindful of your audience. Do not ask your users to register, nobody has the time for onboarding into your special platform, storing credentials, and figuring out where to logon when we are in a hurry to join a session. Make your agenda clear, provide links, make links properly visible. Again, I have to commend what Commvault did – just keep it open and accessible!
  • Bonus: try to standardize audio / video requirements, this is essential to a successful virtual event, and the devil is in the details. The TL;DR is in our Prime Image Media friends video here.
Dialogue is a great way to break away from soporific monologues. Picture taken at Dell Technologies Analyst Event in Chicago, 2018.

Challenges Can Still Remain

There will still be inherent problems or potential risks looming over virtual events. Here are some:

  • Logistics can be difficult, especially with live sessions (availability of key presenters, especially C-Level folks). Your audience is nevertheless important, and your executives should give your audience the time they deserve.
  • Audio / Video issues: planning is key. Leave nothing to chance. Also, see the point above on standardizing audio / video requirements.
  • Technical connectivity issues. Here again, make sure your key presenters have a fallback option. If Wi-Fi isn’t working at home, ensure they can tether through their phone’s 4G connection. Ensure you have procedures in place, and that your presenters know what to do if an issue arises.
  • Doing live events is a risk, but attendees are more likely to accept a temporary unavailability during a live event. They appreciate you putting in the time, effort and risk.
User advocacy is important and brings a fresh perspective. Here, two NetApp A-Team members (Michael Cade on the left), pictured at NetApp Insight 2018 in Las Vegas.

Solutions For Attendees

While vendors should do their best to make an event engaging, what can we do as content consumers to get the best out of the experience? Here are some thoughts that might be useful for me as well.

  • Decide if the event is worth your time. There’s nothing worse than saying ‘Yes’ to make someone happy and regret it afterwards. Look at your calendar, capacity, family life and determine if you can attend while keeping work-life balance, if you believe in such things. Look at the event agenda and identify what you are willing to commit to.
  • If you are willing to invest the time, commit to make it profitable: turn off notifications and unwanted distractions, avoid the usual procrastination activities. Try to commit to the event as if you were physically present. Take notes. Look at ideas or contentious points. Bonus: some content might come up later.
  • Consider if your current setup is ideal. By setup, it can be both your actual work setup (screen, etc.) as well as your work environment. Isolate if needed, make sure to talk about this with your family / kids about it. Ensure you have air coverage to be free from any obligations during the event time.
  • Virtually hang out with friends. You may have your group of friends, colleagues or community with whom you usually attend conferences. Join them on social media or on Slack / Discord / MS Teams (if life hates you) to privately discuss the event, exchange opinions, that will help you and others create a sense of community and commitment that brings us all closer to the physical event setup.

Conclusion

Virtual events as we know them are a mess. Transposing the physical event experience into a virtual setup doesn’t works without adaptations.

Blaming vendors and virtual event teams would be unfair at this point, or at least for this first wave of virtual events we’ve just had. Nobody really has the experience needed for doing virtual events. We’re all learning the hard way. But we are still taking away some lessons out of it.

So, while we haven’t reached peak virtual event fatigue, we might soon reach it unless the way virtual events are created is re-assessed.