Virtual Events Suck

by Dave Michels

I typically attend about 15 industry analyst events a year. Probably even more over the past 12 months, but who knows? It’s all a blur. 

Many of my peers consider industry analyst events to be a perk. I felt that way for years. They are typically in wonderful resorts, but, too much of a good thing is real. Wonderful resorts are usually not next to an airport, so it can take some effort (time) to get there. And, it’s not like a wonderful location matters much when the events are full-days of presentations in windowless rooms. They typically include meals, so start before breakfast and end after dinner. There’s also quite a bit of overhead associated with the travel, esp when flights get cancelled.

When the pandemic started I pretty happy to embrace virtual events. If anything could adapt to a virtual model, it should be a slide presentation. And, I should say that the enterprise communication industry pivoted quite well. However, I’ve become frustrated with virtual events. They really need to improve, and I suspect they well. Like all new things, we tend to use advanced tech to mimic the old model. It’s time to reimagine the virtual event. 

The events are just too stressful. Content presentation works well, but there’s just too many distractions. Online events are, in a word, exhausting. 

Let’s Compare 

Traditional In-Person Events

  • My attention is focused as there are few distractions. 
  • My laptop only has one screen and I flip between two apps: notes and Twitter. 
  • I might snap some photos of slides
  • I speak up if I have a question. 
  • Regardless of where the event is located, once everyone arrives we are in one time zone.  

Virtual/Online Events

  • They start based on their location (which works well for some). The whole schedule, including meals, is skewed +/- a few hours. 
  • I still use notes and Twitter, but there’s a few more apps now: 
    1. I grab screenshots. This is actually better with virtual events because the snipper can paste directly into my notes (my smartphone pictures don’t always make it to my notes). However, the snipper introduces a new app to toggle. On the other hand, the phone camera is easier for tweets. For tweeting, the snipper requires the additional steps of saving the photo and uploading to Twitter. 
    2. I also need to open and monitor the in-meeting chat for group and private messages (be sure to keep those separate). Sometimes this is where you ask questions too. It’s yet another window to manage (and move when taking a screenshot). 
    3. There’s inevitably a few related, private conversations in other apps. 
    4. Quite often there’s also another group channel for persistent chat. Sometimes organizers send the content via a shared drive and email. 
  • The in-app experience is complex enough, but there’s also distractions in my physical environment. The place I leave behind at in-person event is now surrounding me with distractions: spouse, doorbell duty, kid duty, pet duty, lawn mowers, etc. 
  • Don’t forget to mind/manage the camera and microphone mutes. 
  • Then comes the issue of breaks and meals. Physical events usually have snacks, coffee, and meals provided. All of these things are, of course, self-service at home. Instead of recharging during the lunch hour, I am cooking, eating, and cleaning. And, “lunch” unfortunately is not a mid-day meal due to time zone issues. 
  • Perhaps the biggest distraction of all is other work. When I travel I use my laptop, but at home I have a more capable PC with some 50 tabs open plus all the clutter on the desktop calling me.

To juggle all these things while also being engaged in the presentation and taking good notes is exhausting. I’ll go further, it’s too much. Yes, I saved time by not traveling, but I simply don’t receive or retain as much information.

Virtual Meetings are Too Stressful 

Many of my colleagues are looking forward to the return of live events, but I think it’s a bit of grass is always greener syndrome. It will be great to get out and see people, but I don’t see myself ever returning to my pre-pandemic rate of travel. On the other hand, these virtual events aren’t particularly effective either. 

The Answer is More Async 

With the last few events I mostly gave up on real-time participation. I find that playing back the recordings to be more effective. I can pause and adjust the playback speed, even rewind when appropriate. I can examine the slides at my own pace, and put a little more effort into my tweets. I prefer to review the chat log once rather than try to keep-up during the event. My notes are better and more organized.

I do value live interaction, but that’s only a small portion of a virtual event. I’d rather watch the content on demand, and then show up for shorter, more interactive discussions. 

Improved virtual events is my preference. I expect to travel less than I did, but do intend to travel.  It’s going to boil down to the social opportunities. Social is still challenging online, so events that include interaction it will make more sense for travel. I also need to see if I can reduce the number of apps I use during a virtual event. Twitter, a distraction that I can control, is likely the first to go.

Kinks in the Armor

The first issue is getting timely recordings. I’m prepared to give up on real-time attendance, but I’d like it to be the same day. It’s a mystery to me (is Kodak backlogged) why it can take days to receive a link to a recorded event. The second frustration is the chats, often filled with relevant Q&A, disappear without notice. Event organizers should only use persistent solutions for Q&A. 

The Promise

Virtual events just happened in 2020, now it’s time for them to evolve. The virtual event industry has emerged and there is evidence that the enterprise meetings providers are adapting too. Zoom just announced a new Zoom Events service coming this summer. Cisco is acquiring Socio. Events are different from meetings, and I look forward to seeing how the functionality matures.