How should we be approaching digital events? That question — on every event organizer’s mind — was among the topics explored in an April 21 “Restarting Events in a COVID-19 World” webinar led by Karrikins Group founder Peter Sheahan. More than 200 participants tuned in to his conversation with Sherrif Karamat, PCMA president and CEO; Kati Quigley, senior director of global industry marketing at Microsoft; and David Peckinpaugh, president, Maritz Global Events.
Peckinpaugh argued against trying for “overslickness” — overproducing a digital event can kill authenticity, he said. He said that digital event producers should be aiming for a mix of pre-recorded content and live Q&As and polling, which gives people the flexibility to view presentations and then come to live sessions prepared with questions. Peckinpaugh also recommends using the breakout room feature in Zoom and giving participants 15-minute breaks. No session, he said, should be more than 45 minutes in length. At Maritz, he added, digital events include well-being sessions with meditation and breathing exercises.
For Quigley, short sessions are also key. Even the best speakers, she said, shouldn’t speak for an hour but to aim for more succinct, 20-minute presentations. Event producers should be seeking out creative ways, she said, to get participants to engage — to “come off mute” and take part in the conversation. At a recent virtual meeting, she said, there were about 50 participants, and each came on screen to introduce themselves, providing the kind of “human connection that people are craving.”
Karamat underscored that regardless of the channel — digital or in-person — event organizers should always be asking what is of value to their audience. “If it’s not solving for a problem,” he said, “people will not tune in.”
The question of what impact the coronavirus crisis will have on organizations’ event budgets was also discussed. Peckinpaugh said that it will depend on the organization, but that it would seem that budgets overall are going to have to be “redeployed.” The cost of moving to a digital environment is something many organizations have been “woefully unprepared” for, he said, as most have been operating with face-to-face events as their most significant revenue source.
“The fundamentals of gathering,” Peckinpaugh said, “are still there — it’s about moving from face-to-face to a different format.” And while budgets will “be challenged,” he said that he is “bullish” on the future of face-to-face events, understanding that the timeline for meeting again in person “is fuzzy.”
Peckinpaugh said that it’s important to keep an “infinite mindset.” Yes, it’s important to conserve cash right now, but “don’t get caught up in this wormhole” and “lose sight of the future,” he said. At Maritz, he said, “we are doubling down on innovation now.”
Quigley said that at Microsoft, a growth mindset is part of the culture — “try new things and fail fast,” she said. She talked about the importance of being “authentic” and “thoughtful” in messaging about digital events during this time and keeping in mind that “content is the most important thing,” she said, “whether it’s face-to-face or digital.”
Sheahan said that he thought there had been a devaluing of digital versus face to face over the past 10 years, and Quigley agreed that they had become secondary in importance.
Karamat said that as an industry we have not figured out the financial aspects of digital events — “the revenue streams are not there,” he said. The question organizations have yet to answer is how they are handling commerce online.
He also said that edutainment needs to be a part of digital events to keep the audience engaged, but that speakers can’t be purely inspirational. “They need to provide practical solutions,” he said, “to help people.”
Michelle Russell is editor in chief of Convene.
PCMA has created a COVID-19 resources page to help event professionals find reliable information about the pandemic and to share events industry-related resources to ensure they are prepared now and in the future.