Virtual events will never be like IRL events

Credit: Pablo Heimplatz
Credit: Pablo Heimplatz

Sorry to say it, but it’s true.

Nor should they be. But we all know that. So the more interesting questions are, how will virtual events change the way we approach IRL events and where do “hybrid events” fit into the landscape? 

Prior to the pandemic, my agency designed 100+ experiences every year, with a large percentage occurring annually.  Every time we’d push to make the experience richer, more interesting and a better return for our clients. We focused on the objectives and on what worked the prior year. But we didn’t ask ourselves deeper questions about our audience that we are now asking for virtual events. 

When planning virtual events, we’re hyper-focused on our audience's mindset, the political landscape and where the event fits into the current zeitgeist. We are more sensitive to what we say and how we say it.  We are far more aware that people have lives outside of work and have responded by consolidating events, distilling a formerly three-day event into a single afternoon. That's forced us to refine our messaging by winnowing it down to the most important details.  We are even providing experiences at home that the whole family can enjoy, rather than just our intended participants.  

While virtual events will never replicate the magic of in-person connections, the shift from hard messaging to a truly audience-centric narrative will make our return to IRL so much richer. Most people are ready to get back together, put their “out of office” on, pack a bag, even eat canapes and call it dinner.  But some will remain virtual — and brands are seeing that as a huge advantage. 

Marketers have witnessed the vast reach that virtual events offer, as well as the valuable metrics and insights they can use to fine-tune messaging.  As IRL returns, virtual attendees will want even more personalized experiences, while in-person audiences will want experiences that deliver everything they've missed and have been craving. Hybrid events will need to play to both sides — honoring the journey people choose while fulfilling global reach.

As marketers, we have proven our ability to adapt to constant change this year. And as a result, we have even more insight into what our audiences are truly interested in. This is the gift that virtual has given us. We should throw away our old event playbooks, and even some of our new ones, and continue to shift with the market. 

Virtual, hybrid, IRL: it doesn’t matter as long as we consider the audience’s and relationship to their chosen experience. We can’t just simply film our IRL experiences and call that a hybrid event. We must design experiences for both audiences and, if we are clever enough, find the sweet spot where the two can not just merge, but enhance one another.

Mia Choi is founder and CCO at MAS.

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