Busting 7 Myths about Digital Events
by Cristian Dinu
Myth 1: Digital events will disappear once the pandemic is over
Nobody expects Apple to launch an iPhone in an amphitheater again. There are no amphitheaters with 2 million seats and there is no way an event venue would allow them to showcase all the product details so exquisitely. Apple perfected the art of the virtual launch for real products and they will not abandon it.
Education companies saw students joining them from halfway around the globe. They will want to keep that. Corporate event organizers realized they don't have to pay ad nauseam: hotel fees, plane tickets, restaurants, etc. Post Covid, Corporates want to keep NOT paying for all these expenses. But traditional in-person events will create a new online dimension. Technologies that made leaps in the last two years – such as affordable streaming, 5G networks, remote captioning and interpreting – will help event organizers increase their reach by orders of magnitude. These are hybrid events and they combine the physical and virtual. In these events, a fraction of the audience is at the venue, and the rest are enjoying the experience online. After so much time spent getting used to digital events, it is likely that the in-person attendee would ask for some of the good features they enjoyed online: chat, translations, recordings or seeing who else is there with them. And, of course, a freebie from their local coffee chain.
↪ Verdict: Busted. Digital events are here to stay, both in their pure online and hybrid forms.
Myth 2: Digital events are much cheaper to organize than physical / in-person events
The cost structure might be different and there might be no catering services to pay for, but a digital event is still an event. It requires planning, moderation, production, equipment and infrastructure costs.
Digital hosts, real people, hired by the organizers, need to attend to their participants' needs (technical issues, administrative questions), animate them, and guide them through the event platform. A good digital event needs video production quality, similar to a live TV show, so it means that it needs a professional setup. The best in breed digital event organizers hire TV studios and TV crews to produce their events and the results are amazing, but not cheap.
Yes, one can have their keynote speaker stream from their bedroom using a laptop webcam and sitting in the front of an open window with dogs barking in the background. But this is not April 2020; people expect to see proper lighting, crisp focus, makeup, creative sets, crystal clear audio and multiple camera angles. A professional moderator can also add to the ambience.
All these video feeds need to be properly streamed at HD-quality: stamp sized and super-compressed videos. 'Three frames per second' videos that save Zoom money don't cut it anymore. Especially when people paid for the ticket, they expect to watch the event speakers at the same quality as Netflix. That $15 a month Zoom subscription cannot help too much if tens or hundreds of people need to be served. High quality streaming is expensive and it offsets some of the savings of not catering salmon sandwiches and wine for lunch.
There are also platform costs. You can create a simple web page and put your video there, but that's not enough; it would feel too much like watching YouTube. People need to be able to chat, network, speak to each-other, challenge the speakers, feel involved and engaged. This is the main reason for hosting an event. They also want other features such as subtitles and interpreting which adds to the cost. There are good platforms to help organizers with delivering online events. Although the features and the prices vary a lot, the platform is probably still less than a real-world 100+ person coffee break.
↪ Verdict: Plausible. Digital events might be cheaper, but not by the orders of magnitude you think.
Myth 4: Digital events bring accessibility out of the box
There are 360 million deaf people in the world, and around 40 million people are blind, while another 250 million have some form of visual impairment.
While digital events are, of course, accessible for wheelchair users, there are other types of physical disabilities that can impact how an attendee experiences an event, such as having a platform that visitors can operate without a mouse and with one hand.
Technology can help, but you need to know what kind of features are necessary.
For the visually impaired
- have a stage or use the interpreter feature to add an audio description channel
- have the translation as both audio and text caption
- have as little text in images as possible and always add descriptions to images
For the hearing impaired
- enable automatic (or if budget allows human powered) captions consider adding a sign language interpreter or a lip reader
- setup the event stages so that speaker faces are well lit and ask them to speak one at a time
While disabled people usually have some accessibility software installed, the software itself is not enough. There are steps that an event organizer must take to make their event accessible. Accessibility is not a built-in feature of digital events.
Bonus: accessibility benefits everyone. Not only will hearing impared attendees thank you for the subtitles. Someone watching the event in a noisy cafe or trying to put their newborn to bed will enjoy the accessibility.
↪ Verdict: Busted. Accessibility is not usually included.
Myth 3 - Digital events are less effective
Effectiveness is a broad term. Let's see what it can mean
- Effective for the participant
Organizers' illusion: “When someone is in the room they have to pay attention.” Remember those boring classes in school? Even without smartphones, we found other things to do – from looking outside the window, to drawing cartoon characters and sending secret notes to colleagues. A smartphone is a portal to the infinite entertainment universe. Since mobile internet became available, there is no such thing as a captive audience. Yes, it is easier to be distracted when at home where the kids, the fridge and the e-mail client are so close, but the difference is not that big. The mind can wander everywhere.
The key to keeping people focused is to have good, original, relevant content that is presented well. And pick a platform that controls distractions by offering escape routes that are entertaining but keep the audience in the same universe. An example is a virtual couch where people can chit-chat with others in the same event when the content on the stage is not interesting. So while the online/offline has some influence, the main driver here is the content.
Not having to waste time and money for travel is an important benefit. Events are great excuses for city breaks, yet city breaks are more enjoyable without work related duties.
- Effective for the organizer
Organizers have a much larger addressable market with digital events. Even if the cost of organizing a digital event can be close to an in-person event, the participants' costs and time commitment are much lower, thereby making online events more accessible and affordable. There are also no hard limits on how many people can attend, so never having to refuse someone's money or attention is another great privilege.
- Effective for the sponsors
Sponsors can showcase their message to more people, and they can also engage with them better. Many digital event platforms offer virtual exhibitor spaces where sponsors can chat with the attendees using text or voice, or where people can read, download or watch whatever the sponsor wanted to transmit. With analytics they can measure engagement much better.
- Effective for the planet
Transport produced 27% of the UK’s total emissions in 2019. Every 100 km traveled by car emits 33kg of CO2 and every 1000 km traveled by airplane 1000kg. Anything that avoids putting greenhouse emissions in the atmosphere is priceless, for current and future generations.
↪ Verdict: Busted. Digital events are effective
Myth 5: Some people like in-person events more
“I miss in-person events because I used to get so many freebies!!” Events are good excuses to give samples, merchandise and people love it. But there is no hard requirement that digital events shouldn’t have giveaways, electronic or physical.
In fact, there are online events who send a welcome pack to their attendees by post. Some organizers send coffee vouchers.
Not all events are the same and certain events benefit more than others from being digital or in-person. A product launch is okay to happen online, while an important project kickoff where people do not know each other is a perfect case for a face-to-face event.
Experience shows that people enjoy a digital event that is well organized as much as a physical event. It is the relevant content and the meaningful interaction which are important. If they can talk to their friends and ask questions to speakers and other attendees while also being able to pick the kids from the nursery, people would rather stay online.
Some others like to break the routine and escape to a place where they can have a good meal and see their idols in person. So there is no universal answer, as there are so many variables: event type, personal preferences, weather, distance, mood, how much food is in the fridge.
↪ Verdict: Plausible. Some people might prefer in-person events.
Myth 6: Digital events require less planning
Digital events and physical events share the same DNA. They have (ambitious) goals, (busy) speakers, (fussy) attendees, (late) sessions, (everchanging) schedules, (lost) tickets, (unresponsive) follow-up, (difficult) support, (hard to find) sponsors, (expensive) advertising and PR.
All of these need planning and monitoring, both before and during the event itself. No matter what the delivery medium is, the saying “Fail to prepare, prepare to fail” stands true. The time saved on scheduling coffee breaks and ordering badge printing machines is used for negotiating with the studio and/or configuring the online platform.
↪ Verdict: Busted. Digital events require careful planning.
Myth 7: You need an IT team to run digital events
In-person event organizers do not need builders, plumbers and structural engineers in their teams to bring people into a physical venue. For the same reason, digital event organizers do not need an IT team to run their event. They need to understand what the internet can do, but not necessarily how it does it. The same common sense used to NOT block a fire door in a venue applies when asking the keynote speaker NOT to use their old Nokia 3G to stream themselves into the event.
A lot of “IT” pain comes actually from data processing. For example “I want to have all my attendees subscribed to my event’s newsletter”, or “I want to give free tickets to all my VIP clients in Salesforce”. Fortunately there are simple tools such as Zapier that help with automating your workflows without writing code. Some digital event platforms offer such methods, and define them as “API” or “Integrations” or “Connect to Third Party System”.