Coronavirus Scare: How to Make Virtual Events Not Suck

eWEEK NEWS ANALYSIS: Many small and major IT conferences are being canceled due to the worldwide health crisis. As a result, many of these events are in the process of converting into virtual conferences.


With the Covid-19 virus spreading at alarming rates, every conference between now and June has either been canceled or postponed. Among them are major IT events that had been planned by Google (both I/O and Cloud Next), Facebook, Okta, Adobe and the Mobile World Congress.

Many of these events are in the process of converting into virtual conferences. You might ask—given the travel, food and hospitality costs of a traditional conference and the massive amount of collaboration and video conferencing technology in the market—why firms weren’t already doing this. I know that, in my case, about one out of three conferences I attend give me a special gift of a virus that I get to share once I get home. So concerns about picking up the Covid-19 virus are well-founded.

Back when I worked at Giga Information Group—before it was acquired by Forrester—a bunch of us with entertainment backgrounds that were sick of conferences sucking put together a program to train companies on how to do conferences better. What we learned and shared works for physical conferences, but they work even better for virtual conferences.

Let’s talk about that this week.

The problems with virtual conferences

The issue is that most virtual conferences are like physical conferences, and the term “death by PowerPoint” comes to mind. Now in a physical conference, you have a captured audience that, even if they are bored to tears, generally stays seated throughout the event. I’ve advised over the years that people putting on those conferences put a camera on the audience. This camera is to see how many are paying attention and how many are instead doing their office work, playing with social media, or browsing the web instead. Now you do the same thing to someone at home, and they are likely to minimize the window, turn down the volume and tune out.

But people do engage with content on the web, they can be held (social media platforms like Facebook are pretty sticky), and they can be useful. But to do this, the organizers have to step back, and instead of focusing on getting through the conference, giving executives that suck in presenting in front of audiences face time, or seeing just how many products they can get into a presentation, they have to focus on entertaining and holding the audience first.

The core issue that makes virtual conferences bad is that they tend to be cheap. I don’t mean frugal, I mean they aren’t funded to a level where they can be successful. Think about a play; if you were to do a movie that cost less to produce than a play, it would probably look a lot like a daily soap opera, and while we have had low-budget movies do well, they tend to be the exception, not the rule. They use the lack of budget to create (thinking of the “Blair Witch Project”) a sense of reality.  

But have you ever seen a movie or a play use PowerPoint? You could put the scripts up in the abbreviated form on a screen behind the actors, and the actors wouldn’t have to learn their lines (kind of like using a TelePrompter). But the result would be pretty stiff and likely not hold interest.

Creating a compelling story

The best video content has a story. It has a beginning, middle and end. And it is wrapped, ironically, with the technology a lot of the technology vendors sell: technology that can let the speaker drop into the background and feature the product; you can then share the case more compellingly.

For instance, rather than talking about a new processor or graphics card, why not use the technology and a green screen to put the audience into the technology, showcase real places where the technology is in use, and showcase the office of tomorrow that will best make use of it? You can take the audience into a better future. You can even do multiple videos on a topic, each focused on different customers segmented by company size and the nature of the person to whom you are talking.

A pitch to a CFO should be very different than a pitch to an engineer, for instance. Or a pitch to a hospital should be very different than a pitch to a petrochemical company.

You can do things virtually you couldn’t hope to do physically; for example, they’ve been experimenting with in movies where you can choose your path. Eventually, you’ll be able to use a focused AI to interact with each audience member. This approach will allow you to automatically create a unique program they’d enjoy watching rather than one they won’t tolerate.

Some companies that build graphics cards or workstations could even use these virtual events to showcase how their customers could use the technology they sell more effectively to close more deals using web-based virtual video segments.

Finally, with a virtual format, you can engage customers by asking them questions in line with the presentation to see if they are picking up your messages, determine what you can do better. You want to simply engage them, so they don’t minimize the screen and go to something else. This is a problem regularly addressed by those that do well on YouTube.


Now, if you see a compelling film at an IT conference, you probably don’t realize that casting doesn’t include everyone with an executive title to act in it. They do a “casting call” and choose the best people they can find to go in front of the company. I saw this demonstrated at CES this year, where Intel had a presentation by an executive out of Adobe who blew the doors off. He was presenting Photoshop, and he covered the content in a way that was engaging and compelling. I knew I wanted a power powerful PC and Photoshop, so I too could do what he did.

Some people are outstanding in front of an audience and camera, but there are a whole lot more who are not capable at it. Rather than picking people because of their titles, choose them because they are good on a stage or in front of the camera, and don’t be afraid of using professional talent.

Wrapping up: Virtual conferences can be better than physical conferences

If you approach a virtual conference as you would approach a movie, you will cast the parts, you’ll create an exciting script, and you’ll use technology to engage the audience. Rather than focusing on saving money or giving executives face time, focus on making the content entertaining, make it something people not only want to watch but want to share. You want to deliver a message that will be remembered, rather than capturing an audience and punishing them with boring content.

Successful politicians, religious leaders and media companies do this.  The technology that makes it possible for many of the vendors in the technology market make. If you do this well, not only will your audience appreciate it, but it will help everyone else learn to make the events you have to sit through more interesting. And if people share the content, you get far more impact on the money you have spent than if they wished they had their time back.

In the end, if you do this right, all of us can stay home more often and avoid getting on the flying Petri dishes that too many of us too often have to use.

One more thing: Virtual events, if done correctly, can have content that lasts yearlong and not only one obscure month in an already indistinct year. Virtual can be better than physical—why not make it so?

Rob Enderle is a principal at Enderle Group. He is a nationally recognized analyst and a longtime contributor to QuinStreet publications and Pund-IT.