Going virtual is fundamentally a different ball game...

An interview with Dan Sobovitz, Digital storyteller and Founder of spreadable.io. spreadable.io is a decentralised agency which relies on a network of talented individuals from creative agencies, tech companies, and former decision-makers in public institutions and international organisations.

The future of virtual events

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Do you, as a digital leader, think that innovation has slowed down due to COVID? And has it resulted in missed opportunities to meet and exchange on events?

The new social norms caused by the current pandemic have forced a paradigm shift of what we used to call events. The combination of a ban on large gatherings, the difficulty to travel across borders, social distancing requirements, etc. did not entice an evolution of how we run events but a revolution in the fundamental idea of how humans meet on a large scale. Such a radical change in a very short period of time (and without any prior preparation) has unavoidably caused for lost opportunities, notably events that had already been planned and were cancelled or scaled down last minute. At the same time, it has and is still creating new opportunities. In the old world (of 7 months ago), events were much more exclusive; they required participants the time and resources to travel and their physical capacity were limited to a certain number of participants. Now that events are virtual, I could potentially speak or attend any event around the world; sometimes even a few at the same time. Their physical location has become almost entirely irrelevant. Yet, such transformation in the events business means it requires entirely new skills, creativity and innovation. Major players in the old world of (physical) events are not going to be the same in the new world of (virtual) events. This leaves room for new players to come in and shape this field, an opportunity they wouldn’t have had if it weren’t for the current crisis.


Did you attend or moderate any events in the last months? Could you tell us one or two examples where the overall experience was not that good, and you had a bad experience? Alternatively, what in your opinion, can be the highlights of holding an event virtually?

Yes, over the past months, I’ve moderated the Michelin Startup Challenge, a hackathon for the German EU Presidency, public debates for Euractiv, the Brussels Times and Start Magazine, Tincon Festival, a virtual discussion between the European Startup Prize for Mobility and the European Commission, and more. When the crisis first hit I found myself moderating from my bedroom with a green screen behind me that I ordered on Amazon in order to create a virtual background. Fortunately, once we were allowed to leave the house, I was able to upgrade from purely virtual events to hybrid ones, where there’s no live audience but at least the moderator and some speakers are on a physical stage with a professional filming crew. This allows for more sophisticated productions and a more enjoyable user experience.

What I find crucial for virtual events is live user participation. Even in the ‘old world’ of stage events, I always preferred using engagements tools (like Slido or Mentee) which allow the audience to participate in the event by sending in questions, voting (on a topic or in live competitions for example), pitching new ideas to policy makers, or answering sophisticated polls. Now that events are mostly watched on digital devices, I find the user participation to be even more crucial. It is much more difficult to sustain the audience’s attention remotely, when they are not fully immersed in the atmosphere and can click away at any given moment. That is why I don’t treat the audience as passive viewers but as contributors. In certain ways, this has become even easier in virtual events. I no longer need to push the audience in the room to take their phones out of their pockets and engage with what I show them on stage. The audience is anyway watching me on a digital device so it’s enough that I make sure the broadcast has interesting interactive features. Suddenly, any event can crowdsource ideas, solutions, policies, or voting on any given topic!


What are the most important KPIs for event organizers, moderators, and exhibitors?

Most virtual events are primarily looking at the number of viewers but I believe it’s a very narrow prism. KPIs must be derived from the event’s strategy and business model. If the sole purpose is to sell tickets and more viewers means more sales, this logic holds. Yet, if the purpose is to influence policy-makers or raise awareness among a certain demographics, the measurement of the audience should also be qualitative and not only quantitative. Of course that’s much more difficult to do.

I also make sure that at the end of an interactive event I always ask the audience to rank how much they enjoyed it. Yes, I want my events to be insightful and useful but most importantly I want to know if my viewers had a good time. Even if you just consumed the most useful information, you will probably not push the ‘share’ button unless it was presented to you in a way which was entertaining. A good moderator can turn even the most serious or dry topic into a fun experience.


As someone, who organizes and moderates' events, do you think Corona not only changed the way, we are doing events, but also will change the players in the market? 

We already see that happening. All major events since March had to cancel or go virtual. As mentioned, going virtual is an a fundamentally different ballgame. I therefore see how some  organisations which were very good at organising massive conferences are not necessarily good and creating innovative online events. At the same time, niche digital agencies can suddenly compete against the major players. The size is no longer necessarily an advantage when making the transition from physical to virtual events. The necessary resources are lower (and non-linear) and the new currency is creativity. That is why, like all other sectors that were digitised before, this transition allows the most innovative companies to disrupt the field, not necessarily the largest or best-established ones. One of the most creative agencies I’ve spotted recently is very small but has already broadcast conferences on large drive-in screens (so the audience stays in their cars), allows the audience to drive from their device a remote-controlled toy cars on stage, project speakers on real size screens, etc. This kind of new players will dominate the new market in my opinion.


What is your opinion on making events more entertaining? As a digital entrepreneur, what tips can you give us to make events livelier? And are virtual events in the future?

Always keep in mind that the transition into virtual events is not only an obstacle but a new opportunity for experimenting with new digital tools. Engage with your audience in every possible way. And of course, try to have fun on stage. If you’re enjoying yourself, your audience will as well…