A newly released ESG Brief gives insights into how IT professionals are feeling about in-person conferences and other events that have been such a lynchpin of their (and their vendors') marketing, educational, and entertainment calendars for decades...and which have essentially all been replaced by online events since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. You can read the ESG Brief here. The ambivalence of the results was perhaps predictable. While it took a while for us to all settle into the "new normal" it has also made us both long for and question the "old normal." There is value in each. It will be interesting to see how things shake out as COVID—at least as a pandemic—"passes" and we all (vendors, end-users, and commentators) have a genuine choice.
But my point here is not to re-hash the data or analysis in the ESG Brief; instead, it is to highlight one very important point that has invariably been overlooked in all the debates about events being in-person or not. In my opening paragraph above I was very careful in choosing the term "online events" I did not go to the oft-used "virtual events." Why? For the simple reason that an event that is not in person is NOT virtual....it is very real, but it is simply being conducted using a different medium. No one would suggest that online medical appointments, online shopping, or even online dating are not real...your potential diagnosis, delivery, or relationship are all real too. It’s just that part of the overall process is not done in person.
Sure, you can accuse me of semantic pedantry...after all, colloquially we all know what is meant by a "virtual" event don’t we? But I think there’s another— important— subtlety to recognize. It is simply that calling these online events "virtual," when they are still very real but simply online (whether steaming or on demand), allows them to be relegated to something somehow less important than a traditional real event—that is, the face-to-face, in-the-flesh kind.
And this thought (or lack thereof?) is a dangerous one, as it allows less care and attention to be lavished upon these real online events than would otherwise have been the case. It’s why we see keynotes literally transferred from Vegas and Barcelona to some executive’s kitchen with no effort to acknowledge—or better yet, embrace—the new digital medium. It’s why we see the same basic format of a stream of sermons as if the audience is still trapped in some dark, concrete, cavernous convention center space or delighting in the beige-carpet-ness of divided cavernous ballrooms. That is the point; online events are not only real but both afford and demand far more imagination and "attention-to-engagement" than a traditional in-person event.
- They AFFORD more options because of the pre-recording and range of speakers, digital effects, simultaneous link-ups, and programming that can be deployed.
- They DEMAND more options because the audience is not as imprisoned as it would be for a traditional in-person event. Sure, in Vegas or Barcelona you can Tweet, email, drift off, or zone out...but most people stay, most pay attention, and most likely they absorb at least the key points. But when they are watching from home, the distractions are greater and, to coin a phrase, they "have a choice of IT airlines," meaning they can go do something else entirely if you do not hold their attention and interest.
Bottom line? The term "virtual event" should be used sparingly and accurately—for an event you’re just dreaming about or are merely conceptualizing. Otherwise, events are real...whether they are online or in-person. And the former are—at least from a content perspective—tougher to do well than when everyone is physically together. Vendors and other organizers should not categorize them as "virtual," as all they are thus likely to do is virtually ensure a real, sub-optimal experience for everyone!