It started innocently enough. It was a funny tweet from a wife musing about her husband going to a virtual conference.

“My spouse is "attending" a virtual conference for the next few days. To help simulate the real thing, I'll set out a picked-over tray of mini-muffins, soggy cut fruit, and some weak coffee, and then whisk them away just as he approaches the table.”

The replies were almost as hysterical as the original post, adding key “conference must-haves”:

  • Announce the conference Wi-Fi code…then randomly restart the router all day
  • Switch the temperature of the room from freezing cold to super-hot without warning
  • Meet him at the bottom of the stairs with a garbage bag full of random papers, a book and a couple reusable water bottles…eagerly call it the swag bag while pretending to “beep” his badge
  • Announce the keynote will be delivered in the bedroom…upon arrival inform him the room is full and the overflow room is in the garage
  • Turn on a radio or TV VERY loudly in the next room to simulate the too-loud session that sounds FAR more fun than the session he is watching

My contributions included ensuring that tiny bowls of plastic wrapped candy of no known brand that taste like fruity plastic are randomly placed on his desk…and leave out a sign announcing there is “plenty of seating in the back”…then remove every chair from the house.

By the time I sat down to write this post, the language acquisition researcher who just posted a joke about her husband had received thousands of comments, over 100.5 thousand likes, and nearly 10 thousand retweets with no signs of slowing down.

Case study in viral social commentary…sure. Case study in what we, still in the grips of the COVID-19 event lockdown, are really missing about attending live events…ABSOLUTELY!

In the shift from live to virtual events, many of us have lamented that we miss the moments…the chance run-ins with colleagues we haven’t seen in forever, the debates and dialogues that can overflow from session to hallway to drinks at the bar. We call it dreamy words like “happenstance” and “kismet” as we reminisce about the “last event we attended,” the memory still thick and intoxicating.

Meanwhile, over in event-planning-land, show producers have a real problem on their hands. How do they meet the business goals that large user groups, events, conferences and trade shows achieved in a totally virtual format? How do they keep the lead funnel moving, the community connections cranking, and prospects engaged and excited?

I am just going to say it: More events are failing in their reinventions than succeeding, completely missing the point of WHY events had been successful in the past. If Covid-19 has ushered in a new age of all virtual events, I’d like to request my one-way ticket off navel-gazing island, please.

So HOW do we start to turn these around? Here are a couple tips from someone on the verge of burning out on the fumes of conferences of the past crashing into the virtual events of today:

  • Lean IN to the absurdity. Let that be the first “joke” everyone is in on. Everyone understands this is the “new normal”…that this isn’t “what you had originally planned.” We get it. Let down your guard and have fun with it all. Show people you are in shorts and fuzzy slippers. Show off that light ring that gives us video FOMO and what your bookshelf looked like BEFORE you turned it into a rainbow. Offer moments of live engagement…time for the audience to get involved and share thoughts, ask questions or just send over a shout out they would have normally seen in that hallway. The fun and joy of our customers attending events doesn’t need to disappear just because we can't toss a beach ball around the keynote…we just need rethink what fun and joy feel like now...and then work harder to empower it.
  • Engagement and connection aren’t the same. Engagement is repeatable, iterative and simultaneously flexible. It is what we marketers have spent an LOT of time perfecting and automating. That isn’t the same as making a connection. Engagements can be interesting, entertaining and memorable, but they might not create the sticky center that leads to connection. Virtual events need to address both…the opportunities to engage in ways that are meaningful and tangible AND how to turn those moments into longer lasting and more durable connections. Navel-gazing is a by-product of focusing on what you want to engage with and forgetting that forging connections isn't just about you...connections are about the customers, prospects and the community that is engaging with you and with eachother thanks to you.
  • Embrace “winkable" moments. Something will go wrong…hello winkable moment! Something unexpected will happen...hello winkable moment! Just like in live events, virtual events are cursed to have the unexpected be the event planner’s expectation. Power goes out. Internet quality is terrible. The platform stopped accepting attendees. Earthquakes will strike. Things will implode. No point in pretending that virtual means virtually perfect. Let the bumps and bruises show…it can actually be a great moment to make that connection even more memorable and lasting. Let the unexpected happen too. Let the community talk about themselves...even if it is in that "useless" stream of "Hi from <insert city here>...because remember...this isn't about you and you alone. 
  • A lead isn’t a lead any more. Too many events redefined the experience but didn’t redefine how that experience fits into the overarching business strategy. They just made the swap..but that just isn’t how it works. Before you plan, take the time to redefine the vocabulary of success and measures. Talk about how to rethink leads while you rethink keynotes. Yes…instead of the 50,000 you could accommodate in a live session, you had a MILLION! WHOOT WHOOT! But now what? How are those million different? Do they need to be managed and handled differently to accommodate for their new context? 
  • The world isn't everyone's stage. If you thought your execs were going to be better on video than on stage…think again. Most executives who dread stage time will LOATHE virtual stage time because the fruits of their performance is quite literally staring them in the face. I think of the advice Matthew Halliday included in his assessment of presentation as performance -- read his great post here -- and your executive speakers need to be coached and encouraged as performers, not presenters. If a speaker isn’t comfortable in a traditional presentation on stage, that isn’t magically going away on video. So rethink! Have a chat instead of something planned and canned. By focusing on the comfort and comfort zone of your presenters you are inherently focusing on the experience and engagement you will deliver in the output as opposed to the video and powerpoint input you prepared.

We aren’t missing the swag bags ( toddler daughter is missing the swag bag), the long lines for lunch or even the never ending quest to find the the bathroom. We are missing being insiders on the jokes, the sneaks, the announcements and the zinger hard questions. We are missing the shared war-stories from our peers…being inspired by people in our shoes. We want to hear from our people who tried, failed, got back up and nailed it. We want to see the PEOPLE we buy from…to know that the monolithic vendors are actually smart, funny, relatable and utterly human with mistakes, flubs and nervousness included. 

We are missing the serendipity of it all – the moments of chance that end in something abundantly beneficial. We are missing the humanity of connection. We miss knowing we are with our people.

We may never know how a certain spouse fared getting into the driveway cab line to beat the rush. What we DO know and can completely embrace is that we miss it all…especially that winkable moment when the absurdity of it sinks in and we are standing on the level playing field known as our own kitchens wondering when they are going to put out the “good” afternoon snacks.