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The time is coming for real digital alternatives

Jonathan Dufton says virtual events are not the answer and asks, What is?

This past month saw the first virtual editions of the world’s largest tradeshow, the Canton Fair, and one of the largest technology conferences, Web Summit’s ‘Collision from Home’.

While it is an achievement that, in little over three months both these events, along with many others impacted by Covid-19, have developed a digital equivalent to serve their communities, the virtual event model is still to be cracked successfully.

A successful physical event combines multiple elements: conferences focus more on speakers and content, while tradeshows have a greater focus on the exhibition floor to showcase and discover products and connecting buyers with sellers. Both meet a strong need for networking.

Virtualising conference content is more straightforward, and webinars and live streaming are well established. However, replicating the experience of a tradeshow floor online requires more than creating a virtual floor plan, a booth with product listings and a chat box. And, despite the emergence of AI-powered matchmaking solutions, recreating face-to-face networking remains a challenge.

Some of these challenges are technical in nature. It has taken a pandemic for event technology to really think what the right digital solution is for their participants (as illustrated by Web Summit’s decision to develop its own platform for ‘Collision from Home’), and better solutions should continue to emerge. However, other challenges are more intrinsic to the digital world. The decision of an individual to attend a physical event drives the commitment and urgency to meet and interact with others. In an online environment, this time sensitivity disappears, and the overall proposition weakens.

Furthermore, lessons learned from digitisation in adjacent sectors should be heeded for organisers launching virtual events. Once freed from the constraints of the physical version, there is no reason why the digital version should look the same.

The digital equivalent of a trade publication could become specialised news portals, a data business or a job site, the high street and shopping malls have become social networks and marketplaces, and training courses have become unbundled into online learning platforms. Building digital equivalents of physical events without understanding the objectives of customers and the resulting digital need risks the threat of losing out to a native solution.

Some organisers are starting to respond to this threat: Informa has partnered with the e-commerce platform NuOrder for its fashion retail portfolio, while IMC launched a B2B e-commerce division through the acquisitions of Pharos and RepZio.

Given the unique value of the physical event experience, it is likely that face-to-face events will return as soon as they are safe to do so. The format of these events will evolve, incorporating hybrid digital elements to adapt to the post Covid-19 environment, but also with the continued development and uptake of digital tools that can improve the effectiveness of the in-person experience.

However, in the mid-term, we will see the emergence of real digital alternatives. The diversity of industries means the solution, be it digital marketing services, lead generation platforms, digital marketplaces, online networking, e-learning, sales and marketing enablement data or more, will be different for a US retail event vs. a manufacturing event in Germany.

What is not in doubt is that event organisers who invest in digital capability and meld the right digital offering with their events by understanding their audience needs will emerge as the winners in the next era of the events industry.