Less schmooze, more substance: 3 key insights for planning digital events

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This article was contributed by Nohar Zmora, VP Brand Marketing, Kaltura
When COVID-19 first reared its head, many expected that the shift to online-only events would be temporary. Two years later, however, it’s abundantly clear that even after the pandemic fades, digital events are here to stay.
Even as some organizations begin hosting in-person conferences again, many are ramping up their online events in parallel, unwilling to pass up the convenience, engagement, and valuable audience insights now available.
This fundamental shift is about far more than event formats. As more meetings have gone digital, there’s been a marked change in how attendees and marketers derive value from events. Having worked with dozens of global enterprises to create hundreds of digital events of various sizes, and having hosted several of our own online events, my team has seen the impact of this shift firsthand. What’s more, we can quantify it — not only from our independent research and surveys, but from proprietary data gathered by hosting these events.
Here are three main takeaways from our research that highlight what marketers need to consider when planning their next digital event.
While marketers, attendees, and armchair observers have been discussing the pros and cons of digital vs. in-person events over the past two years, in truth, it’s not an apples-to-apples comparison.
Case in point: consider the significantly different reasons someone would attend an in-person conference or a digital event. A 39% plurality of in-person attendees go to an event to build relationships. The top goals for virtual events are learning about a company or product and advancing one’s professional education, according to 36% of online event attendees.
Among virtual event-goers, however, building new relationships is a lower priority than it is for their in-person counterparts, ranking third with 15% of attendees’ votes. Meanwhile, 28% of digital attendees opted for chats and collaboration as key selling points, but only 9% reported making one or more connections while attending.
In light of such results, it becomes clear that the primary driver of online event attendance is the content of the event itself. As such, event organizers need to ensure that their programming is less about schmoozing, and more about substance.
As virtual attendees emphasize content over camaraderie, they’ve also shed their hesitance to participate in one-day events. Pre-pandemic, many one-day events were shunned due to the time commitment, but now, they’re outperforming longer events in terms of attendee engagement.
We found that engagement is higher during shorter events. Users spent an average of 126 minutes engaged during one-day events — 10.5% more time than the 114 minutes of engagement averaged during events lasting two to three days. This suggests that people prefer hyper-focused, one-day virtual events over more generalized events that they can peruse over a longer period.
In the brave new world of online events, more and more people are willing to attend an event just for one session that’s especially relevant to them. Because costs are low and attendance is possible from anywhere, there’s no shame or awkwardness in heading for the exits early. Over time, this trend may intensify, with attendees showing up for the content they’re interested in but nothing more. And this is where it becomes essential for organizers to determine what will truly engage their audiences.
Back when in-person events were the default, measuring audience engagement largely came down to counting the number of people who attended each session or tracking the business leads that resulted directly from an event.
That’s not the case with virtual events. Thanks to video, event organizers can access behavioral data that is automatically recorded and time-stamped, making it possible to analyze engagement in a way that’s incredibly powerful for marketers.
By themselves, registration and attendance aren’t indicative of much. But once people show up for an event, they are much likelier to return for future events or engagements and convert into paying customers. Our data also shows that 56% of registrants attended the virtual events they signed up for, 43% participated, and 42% engaged. In other words, the biggest drop came between registration to actual attendance and the smallest between participation to engagement. Therefore, of the people who attended and participated in virtual events, engagement was high.
Engagement data is highly illuminating quantitative material, but following up with the audience is essential to obtain the qualitative data needed to round out their findings. Sure, marketers can see when someone logged off from an event — but in order to know why, they need to ask attendees. The same goes for people who absolutely devoured the content: organizers should find out why people were enthusiastic about the content they enjoyed, determine what the highlights were, and take these gleanings to design future events that will keep people engaged and coming back for more.
The bottom line? Data from virtual events is richer and yields more valuable insights than is possible with most in-person events, with more than a quarter of organizations seeing greater ROI and engagement from virtual events. Those new benefits are key reasons why 94% of organizers and marketers plan to continue hosting digital events for the foreseeable future.
In the era of recorded events and video on demand, there’s an unprecedented amount of content at our fingertips 24/7. But organizers shouldn’t take from this that timing is irrelevant. In fact, it may be the sheer overload of VOD that makes live content all the more special. Live content is what makes an event, well, an event, and not just a lecture.
Our data backs this up: among those we sampled, 60% of the total hours of content they viewed were live sessions, not VOD. This underscores audiences’ ongoing desire for connective experiences — even if connection is no longer the primary purpose behind their attendance — and the need for organizers to make audiences feel as if they’re part of something larger.
With that in mind, organizers should consider the global appetite for the content they’re presenting and ensure that they’re still staging live sessions that will resonate with attendees.
To conclude, every paradigm shift brings both challenges and opportunities. But, fortunately for marketers, the move to digital events is replete with opportunities to connect with more people.  And with a smart, data-driven approach to content creation, they can overcome their biggest challenges.
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