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Virtual and hybrid events have been at the heart of the corporate event planning industry in recent times. Whether to meet, engage, learn or network, our screens have been our gateway to do it. We talk to some of NTT’s virtual event experts to look at the current virtual events landscape. We hear below from Maribeth Brown, Global Marketing Director, Digital Engagement, Melodie Hindmarch, Digital Events Product Marketing Consultant and William Rea, Sales Manager, Digital Events.

What have been the most important developments in virtual events in the past year?

MB:  The shift to virtual events began in 2020 as in-person events got cancelled due to COVID. This meant that last year organizations were becoming more and more familiar with virtual events. And now, they plan to keep using them – either instead of in-person events or in tandem, as hybrid events.

MH: Without a doubt, the event pendulum swung to a digital-only format. Out of necessity, even the most conservative of event organizers moved online. As well as organizers though, attendees are also now more familiar with the technology and can see the advantages. Instead of swinging back to wholly physical events, we’re now seeing hybrid virtual events. For example, attendees can now experience multiple sessions and communication formats within one environment in a physical event environment or online.

WR: We’ve noticed that for marketers virtual events are now used consistently for top-of-funnel, ‘lead gen’ exercises. This kind of event will typically replicate a real exhibition/conference event. You’ll have a standalone virtual lobby, plus a theatre area too. This will offer multiple keynote speaking sessions, engagement and networking areas, supported by gamification. This developed from that initial reaction to the pandemic but has developed into a consistent way to conduct events. This is now evolving now into hybrid events, as in-person events become possible again. At NTT, we have the flexibility to offer both virtual standalone and hybrid events, pivoting as client strategies evolve.

What have been your favourite client projects from the past year? 

MB: I was very moved by the Michigan Council of Women in Technology (MCWT) Foundation case study. It highlights how, together with MCWT, we connected and inspired women in technology, delivering its educational conference via a virtual platform. It was so much more than just a gathering of senior leaders. By going virtual and removing all the barriers to attend as a free virtual event, it attracted a diverse audience right across the age spectrum, encouraging and enabling networking. It was an inspiring event and produced better results than the previous in-person events.

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MH: I’d choose the Red Bull Basement project. This was a global innovation competition for students that we supported with our Digital Events division. It ran in multiple countries across the world – and going digital removed all the geographic barriers associated with having thought leaders present in person to students on campus. We were able to shape the events according to the Covid restrictions of each country, mixing live onsite presentations with online ones. The project also featured small ‘watch parties’, with groups gathering to watch the presentations and ask questions. We were thrilled to enable the program to go ahead and it was a great experience to reach this different usual audience profile, with its own set of priorities.

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WR: We saw a large number of use cases throughout enterprise organizations, for example, sales kick-offs and enablement, AGMs, education and training, marketing activities – even virtual events focused on employee wellbeing, through HR initiatives. Clients are realizing that they can hold large-scale events to reach and engage their audiences – whether internal or external – and do so not just remotely, but securely too. At NTT, we practise what we preach – so I have to say, some of my favourite events of the past year have been our own internal series of Sales Kick Off internal events and the external series of #iNTTerconnected events. These offered our clients the opportunity to hear from our senior leaders as well as clients and introduce, what we see as, the iNTTerconnected world. They provided really topical session tracks and showcased how we can help enterprises accelerate their hybrid workplace transformation. The three separate events – held for audiences in APAC, Americas and EMEA – were a great success and each is still available on-demand allowing people to access the content, and of course, boosting the ROI of the event for us.

Are virtual events here to stay – and to what extent will hybrid events become the norm?

MB: Our clients have told us that they overwhelmingly achieved higher registrations when they pivoted to virtual events. They gained greater numbers of attendees and across larger geographic landscapes. It’s going to be hard to ignore that there will always be people that prefer to join virtually. Even if there is a physical event venue. Even as we hope to soon see Covid in the rear-view mirror, attendees may choose not to attend in person. This could be for a myriad of reasons including health/accessibility, cost of travel, time constraints, just to name a few.

MH: Absolutely. Attendees are more comfortable than ever with virtual experiences and will continue to want virtual event participation options.

WR: In-person events generate arguably unnecessary travel miles, more pollution, more litter and landfill. With hybrid and virtual events, you can reach and engage your audience – and do so on a global scale. It’s becoming a very important consideration now for all event organizers. The positive environmental impact is another reason why virtual and hybrid events are here to stay.

What innovations or new features can we look forward to in the coming months?

MB: AI Matchmaking. This offers the potential to make events an even more effective and efficient experience for attendees. The technology can look at your profile, interests, objectives, previous behaviour and suggest people you should meet – there are so many data points that can be drawn upon, and the results speak for themselves. Events with AI profile matching generate far higher meeting acceptance rates and so greater potential for those wanting to network and connect with like-minded attendees.

MH: I’m also excited about the increase in streaming tools that are now being integrated into event environments. This means that almost every aspect of your event can be adapted, enhanced or tweaked in some way for greater flexibility and the ability to ensure your event is of the highest quality, both from a visual point of view and an audio one too. 

WR: Virtual events have become the norm, but your event does not have to be ‘just another event.’ Look to harness great design, easy-to-use layouts, newer engagement features, animated backgrounds and added gamification. You can use these to help generate interest to attract your audience and engage them at the event.

What tips can you give to people looking to run virtual events in the coming year?

MB: Start by identifying what your event schedule looks like. So, the number of events, the frequency, your audience, etc – and what you want to achieve. Some recurring events might be fine to manage with internal teams. However, if you’re planning a complex, high-touch, or large event, you may need support. Bringing in some level of managed services can help ensure flawless delivery. And plan early so we can advise on scoping out the event to incorporate all the elements you need. This really is essential to help you elevate your event and achieve your desired results with your audience.

WR: Absolutely. Decide which events you can handle on your own via a self-service platform. And which events you need that extra help with a managed service provider. Part and parcel of planning early is to also get your technology subscriptions in place. Look at your data integrations to ensure your marketing automation tools, CRM systems and event technology are all linked up. This will help you use all the data points to improve your ROI.

MH: Another vote for planning! Look at what you want to achieve, what are the most important outcomes and plan back from there. For example, if you want a high registration/attendee conversion rate, consider how you’re going to do this. We’ve seen 90+% conversion rates but only where attendees are paying to attend or if the event offers CPD/CPE accreditation. On the back of this, early-bird discounts are worth considering too to encourage sign-ups.  When it comes to your actual event, consider the profile of your audience and what will really engage them. Ongoing ‘treasure hunts’ within slides across a day’s presentations really can keep an audience connected. Great content and compelling speakers are always a winner. Not only do they help you recruit attendees, but they also help you avoid early drop-off from your event. Careful scheduling is a must – and once again, that comes down to planning!

This is why having an events partner can be so important. You’re the expert on who should present and who should attend, but for some larger events, support from experienced technical or production experts can ensure a flawless event that is remembered for all the right reasons.