Pre-2020, almost no one had really taken virtual events seriously. Events, in large part, were executed the same way they had been for decades. Many would argue that virtual events are a fad, the result of a black swan event, and the world of events will return to the way it was before soon. Others would argue that virtual events are a trend, accelerated by the coronavirus pandemic and that the future may be hybrid, but it’s definitely not absent of virtual.
Early on, virtual events were seen to be simply slightly better versions of a webinar and the default reaction was to turn to Zoom. The truth is, they were (and Zoom was, many turned to it), but 2021 will be very different. Back in March of 2020 though, when it was all a mad scramble, the industry certainly felt otherwise ...
Back in March 2020, though, Julius was right. Which is why we waited a year to write this article instead of knocking webinars when they truly were the industry's best option.
Virtual event platforms like PheedLoop (or in our case, a component of a larger event management platform), have matured substantially over the last year with immense engineering, research, money, and time investments. Webinars, on the other hand, were already mature platforms and optimized for short and simple meetings, not experiences and events. Webinars are not highly engaging (and the engagement features they do have break down at scale), not optimized to drive revenue or sponsorship, not designed for networking and community building, etc. They’ll work, but they're simply not designed for virtual events as they are for virtual meetings.
So as you look to the future and think about your virtual and hybrid event strategies, you may be wondering what the key differences between virtual events and webinars are? Let’s look at 5 key advantages we’ve identified after running thousands of virtual events on our own platform.
A good virtual event is focused far more, or at least as much, on the experience as it is on the content. A webinar, fundamentally, is the distribution of content. Virtual events and the platforms that power them are optimized to keep conversations, ideas, and engagement flowing constantly. The venue, so to speak, is available to attendees ideally days or weeks before and after the event itself.
For example, we ran our Trailblazers User Conference just a few weeks ago. We opened up the virtual venue to attendees a few days in advance.
52% of attendees logged in and engaged prior to the event itself by chatting, participating in games, personalizing schedules, checking out exhibits/sponsors, and announcing to 1,000 attendees that they’re excited about the event! Impossible for webinars.
What virtual events do that are well planned and run on good platforms is they encourage their attendees to forge connections outside the context of the event itself. If bringing your members, partners, customers, employees, students, and more together - beyond just being largely passive observers - is important, then virtual events are key.
Webinars are optimized for short one-to-many experiences, whereas virtual events are for both short one-to-many and most importantly lasting many-to-many experiences.
There’s one crucial thing to be aware of on this note. If building a community is important to your event strategy, make sure you choose a platform that doesn’t charge you based on the number of days your event is active. Such a restriction will significantly limit your ability to maximize the benefits of your event and the return on investment for attendees, sponsors, and speakers because communities are formed over days/weeks/months outside just the core event days.
A critical aspect of virtual events so many of us are still working to develop is how you generate more revenue. Traditional in-person events relied on high priced tickets and had a proven business model behind them. That doesn’t mean the business of in-person events is a great one, but it’s definitely a good one with relatively predictable profits. It’s uncertain if attendees will want to pay as much, or at least as frequently, for in-person events in the future. With virtual events being so new, so is figuring out how to generate revenue from them.
92% of events that used a virtual event platform after using a webinar tool increased their revenues by an average of 320%. Virtual events, instead of webinars, are a lot easier to charge for because they simply offer more, and more lasting, value. *
More opportunities to network, promote sponsors, and monetize year-round (more on that in #4 below). These benefits and many more help attendees, sponsors, and exhibitors realize the value of attending a virtual event versus a simple webinar. Webinars have their place as well, but it’s tough to generate considerable revenue.
It’s important to choose a virtual event platform that promotes features that assist with generating revenue. What you want are predictable and limited costs per head for your virtual event, and at least 10-20 clear opportunities for sponsors. PheedLoop’s pricing helps with this as it is per attendee, pay as you go, and has dozens of built-in registration and sponsorship options. We’ve seen some events successfully charge upwards of $10,000 per exhibit and sponsor booth at PheedLoop powered events, but the price varies greatly by event. If possible, you want to drive as much revenue as possible from sponsorship versus attendee ticket sales to lower the barrier to entry for more attendees, which sponsors inevitably want.
The platform alone is only responsible for providing the framework to make this possible, so choose any platform you like to run your virtual event. The platform can help a lot, but we firmly believe it’s ultimately the skillful, creative, and savvy event manager that really makes things happen.
A challenge with webinars is that the experience is crafted by the event/webinar host, and attendees largely sit back and engage passively. Sure, you might have simple things like breakout rooms and polls which are still initiated by the host, but after a while they become pretty tiring and repetitive.
What we’ve found work best are virtual events that simulate the normal event experience. Typically there’s a small aspect of an event where everyone is together, say the opening keynote, but after that people start branching out and doing their own thing. Chatting in the hallways, visiting the exhibit hall, hopping between concurrent sessions, etc.
Webinars are highly regulated environments where attendees are almost forced to do one thing at one time.
There’s nothing wrong with tight control over the attendee experience, but it’s certainly not a replacement for an event experience that allows attendees to do whatever they want, whenever they want. As an event manager, that too may sound a bit unsettling as you may be used to perfectly curating and micromanaging the attendee experience. However, the attention span during virtual events is a lot shorter, and it’s very difficult to control behavior. So the best option is to design your event with this in mind instead of fighting it.
One thing to watch out for is going overboard with the number of things an attendee can do. Just because a platform like PheedLoop has a lot of features, you don’t necessarily need to use them all. In fact, at our most recent user conference, about 5% of attendees commented that there were too many options and they were a bit overwhelmed. Next time, we’ll be providing more guidance to attendees to help them better navigate and understand where they will get the most value.
This is a big one, and it’s a shift in mindset that we’re finding a lot of traditional event managers aren’t fully prepared for or able to maximize.
Virtual events turn what were once ephemeral experiences as on-site events or webinars into permanent assets that you can leverage to gain recurring revenue, sponsor promotion, and attendee engagement.
We’re seeing an increasing number of virtual events understanding this idea, and starting to do things like:
It’s extremely challenging to do this with webinars because they are typically too short and fragmented, and the platforms don’t offer convenient login access to relive the full event experience after the live aspect of it is over.
Choosing a virtual event platform that allows you to gate access to different features and content the way PheedLoop does opens up this opportunity to monetize and educate year-round with ease. It also allows you to, at no cost, make all your content available on-demand for at least one year.
Webinars are excellent tools to deliver content to hundreds or possibly hundreds of thousands of people at once, but at scale, they are reduced to watching essentially a live YouTube video. There’s almost nothing more to the experience than that. Webinars can be quite engaging with smaller numbers of attendees (say, under 50), in which case we would recommend strongly considering a webinar over a virtual event anyway, but as soon as you start hitting scale, the engagement you can create in webinars deteriorates exponentially. Things like breakout rooms and Q&A simply become infeasible.
Virtual events are fundamentally designed for scale. We’ve seen events with tens of thousands of attendees work wonderfully because good virtual event platforms are built for hundreds and thousands of attendees. This means they provide many options for attendees to venture on their own and form small groups instead of getting lost in the giant monolithic herd. If you’re running a large event, virtual events are the only way to go to create engagement and a memorable experience. If you don’t think a virtual event platform is a right fit for a large event you’re running (for example, networking or sponsorship isn’t important for your event) we suggest saving yourself a lot of money and instead of spending on Zoom, pick a simple tool like Vimeo. Put that money towards creating a well-produced stream, ideally in a studio.
Webinars most certainly have their place. They’re valuable tools to provide a short and engaging experience for small audiences, or a passive and limited experience to large audiences. However, they’re fundamentally different from virtual event solutions which are designed to create truly engaging experiences for attendees who are looking for more these days than the tiring experience of watching talking heads on a Zoom call. Virtual event technologies are getting better every day, so it’s definitely worth checking out a platform like PheedLoop which can take engagement, monetization, sponsorship, design, and more to a whole new level.
* Based on post-event studies from events powered by PheedLoop