Before the pandemic I was going to about 30 physical events a year. During the pandemic I haven’t gone to any, but I’ve gone to way more events virtually. And I can honestly say that in either form, events leave a lot to be desired. But at least physical events allowed you to actually see and be around people, which made up for some of the shortcomings of those events.
Jon Reed, ERP industry thought leader and co-founder of Diginomica, probably goes to more events than I do, along with putting on his own events. He’s been rating events for years, which is why I recently spent A Few Good Minutes with Jon to get his take on the current state of events, and what we should expect as things begin opening up.
Below is an edited transcript of a portion of our conversation. Click on the embedded SoundCloud player to check out the entire conversation.
Brent Leary: How have we done by way of putting on virtual events?
Jon Reed: Unfortunately, we have not done a very good job with our virtual events whatsoever. And I’m disappointed about it because I feel there’s a lot of lost possibilities that were never tried. I have some ideas behind this and I know probably some of the comments going to tick people off and event organizers are going to say, “Events are hard” and they are hard.
I am a creative event designer and I have put on events for a long time. So, I have taken a lot of chances on the ground with events and done a bunch of stuff that I’ve never seen vendors do such as unconference days, which is almost unheard of in an enterprise setting. It’s not unheard of in geeky settings, which I also frequent to learn from the geeks. So, anyway I’ve learned the hard way and so I feel like I have some ability to criticize here. And unfortunately I think the problem that we have right now is first of all, these hybrid events that are coming, they don’t deserve the word hybrid.
They’re going to be streaming keynotes and that’s it. That’s a very passive broadcast relationship, that’s not a hybrid event. If you think a hybrid event is a streaming keynote, that’s a total fail in terms of your event creativity, I’m sorry. And the thing that I’m a little worried about here is, well, two things. One thing is I think, some vendors are rushing on the ground events with optimism about people’s readiness to attend and if they had embraced hybrid a little better, what they could do is be much more flexible and say, “Hey, we’d love to have you on the ground if you’re ready or in the region.” But if you’re not, there’s all kinds of ways you can engage without being on the ground and it does.
Hybrid events are hard, they take more work to go beyond the streaming keynote. I’m not going to sugar coat that, but what if he can do it? It gives you a lot more flexibility in terms of the kind of events you can have and if for some reason you do get concerned about say Coronavirus variant that we’re a little worried about later in the fall or something, then you could scale back and go to your online, it gives you a little more flexibility around how you want to do it or if your numbers are down, you can scale back the event and do more virtual. So, I think the problem that we’re running into right now is that virtual events are hard vendors struggle with them and so they thought, well, I can’t wait to get back on the ground because that’s so much better, that’s my comfort zone.
But the problem was that, on the ground events weren’t very good either. On the ground events were broken also and this is an important point we can argue about. But, what I would say is the reason we liked the on ground events is because we saw each other and when we see each other again, even if we’re wearing masks, it’s going to be a wonderful thing to see each other and so, that good vibe is going to overwhelm the deficiencies that we’ve always had in these on the ground events. So, basically my position is that we didn’t get virtual events right and we didn’t have on the ground events right so, we don’t really have anything right when it comes to enterprise events but, there’s an opportunity to do better and there are some vendors that are fake that are starting to get that idea.
Brent Leary: You said a lot there. The thing that I think really caught my attention even more than some of the other things was, the vendors said the virtual events are hard, which are definitely difficult in a sense that you can’t do the same thing face-to-face and then try to pass it off virtually and expect it to work out. But what you’re even saying is, even those face to face things didn’t work out to begin with so, you couldn’t even bring those to the virtual stage because then you’re just bringing something that didn’t work virtually, which means there’s more people to see the fails, so to speak. But then, the thing that really got me is they’re rushing to get back to the face-to-face events, because even though there may be some fails, at least they’re comfortable with those familiar fails, and they are anticipating that we’re so happy to get back and be able to see each other, whether we’re ready to mask or not, that we’ll be more likely to overlook the fails from the previous pre COVID event experience.
We’ll just be so happy to get back that we will overlook that and so, that’s part of the reason that they want to get these things going quick.
Jon Reed: You got it. That’s a whole host of problems we could probably spend more than a few good minutes unpacking all of that. But, I do want to emphasize a little bit though that there are creative opportunities and I think that’s the thing that gets me excited is that occasionally I do have these experiences online and also sometimes in person that really show me that there are opportunities out there. Event metrics are part of the problem. I think we’re still looking at raw lead gen metrics for the most part in terms of how we judge an event’s success or failure and I think unfortunately that’s a really narrow set of metrics and we have a bunch of metrics that don’t really work very well.
We could talk about it in terms of things like this video, are we going to look at how many eyeballs did we get? Is that how we’re going to evaluate it? And Alan, what I always come back to is that what we’re trying to measure if we can, is not these raw volume metrics, it’s got, we broke our attendee record again, that’s so awesome. What kind of engagement did we get? What kind of conversations developed from that? What kind of community interactions were fostered? Those aren’t always the easiest things to measure but, there are ways of doing it, I hate to say surveys, because that’s not my favorite, but the point being I don’t know about you Brent, but when I think about what was the successful video show for me, I think about the caliber of the conversation around it. If Alan keeps commenting and then other people start commenting, that’s great. If it’s just quiet out there that worries me.
Brent Leary: I think the quality of the conversation is paramount because even if there aren’t a lot of people watching in real time, if the content is good enough and you’re able to position it in a certain way, you’ll get a level of engagement after the show. I like the real time aspect of doing this. But, I think the thing that was missed on the most when it comes to these virtual events is enticing real-time engagement, embracing real-time engagement. A lot of times these events are very scripted and there is a very big hesitancy to the break from the script and bring in that real-time opportunity.
And I understand, our attention spans are short. I think the good things that have been the cases two and a half hour key notes have been compressed into… and I’ve seen them as little as 30 minutes, 15 minutes. I think that’s a smart move when you’re talking virtual, because there’s so many different things going on and people. I’ve got five screens, I’m sure you’ve got about at least that. And if it’s not keeping our attention, it’s too easy to transfer our attention to other stuff. So, I have seen some adjustments, but I think the one thing that’s really been missing is, I think they look at the attendee as a spectator and they don’t allow them to be more of a participant in some form or fashion. I think that’s been one of the biggest misses when it comes to these virtual events.
Jon Reed: Totally. I’ll give a good example of a way to combat that in a sec. Esteban Kolsky (SAP Chief CX Evangelist) saying, what are the goals of the event? I think Esteban nailed it there because I think I would argue that most vendors who put on events, their goals are a branding, messaging and legion. And that’s why these events fall flat.
What we end up with are these broadcasting events. And vendors do fear real-time engagement and user generated content, of course they do. But, you can spend your whole life running around worrying about compliance and legality and stuff like that or you can take a break from that and obviously if you think about those things, that’s what good event moderation is all about – anticipating that stuff. The same thing comes up in online communities and we figured out how to handle that to some extent. Let me just give one example, the event producers that did Web Summit and Collision which became these huge online conferences, and one of the missed opportunities is, you don’t have to reinvent the entire event.
They still had a bunch of broadcast sessions and stuff like that, but they created pockets of creative engagement and so I think that’s one thing that event planners can start to do is to figure out, can we create some pockets of engagement that are manageable for us?
Instead of having a totally hybrid event, maybe you have a real live stream in one part of the venue and that’s the place where the live stream is happening all day long for example. So, instead of live streaming everything which could get crazy, you figure out, how can we live stream certain sessions? In the case of Web Summit, they did something amazing for media. What they did was they created these media led panels where I could go and meet people like yourself, but people around the world internationally, journalists and we would have these conversations online about things like monetization and advertising or the issue of free speech versus community moderation.
I’m talking with people someone’s in Spain, someone’s in Brazil and these are working journalists all around the world. I might not even have experienced that in a real time event, but I did online. And it just took a bit of creativity on their part to come up with this. And the thing is that, online, it creates a great format for that. All you have to do is do it and that’s what’s been so frustrating to me is how few vendors have taken that chance and say, “Well, we may not be able to create that for all participants and maybe all participants don’t want it, but we can do it for VIP’s, we could do it for people who want to pay extra and maybe have that engagement.” I’ve seen that work, there are ways to do it that are super cool.
This is part of the One-on-One Interview series with thought leaders. The transcript has been edited for publication. If it's an audio or video interview, click on the embedded player above, or subscribe via iTunes or via Stitcher.