By Tod Szewczyk, EVP, Digital Engagement

The new and evolving world of B2B communications during COVID-19 is reminiscent of some of the shifts in communication and technology I have witnessed in my 20-year career in the B2C advertising space. Advancements such as Search, Web 2.0, eCommerce, Mobile, Social, Immersive, Omnichannel, Data-Driven Content, Machine Learning, Artificial Intelligence, and Voice have all come to play integral roles in the way businesses function.

The distinguishing difference from the previous shifts to what we are experiencing today is speed. Each of the above evolutions began slowly and took years to rise to prominence; the shift underway from in-person to virtual events occurred in a matter of weeks. No doubt, the pandemic was the driving force, and had it not occurred, Zoom’s market capitalization would still be at its January 2020 level of $17 billion, not the $114 billion that it is now hovering at as of November 2020. With that said, as someone who has spent the past decade working in the emerging technology, digital strategy, and innovation space, it is hard not to get excited for what the fundamentals of this shift represent: new forms of communication, new ways of working, and new opportunities for businesses to engage with their communities.

Through this lens of accelerated change, we’re establishing a regular bi-weekly content series called ‘A Field Guide to Virtual Event Platforms’ to examine how virtual event platforms are evolving and what it means for our clients. While the past six months have brought on unprecedented change, it’s the next six to twelve months that we will be focusing on as we see the possibility of change on the horizon.

As a company, we have produced over 40 virtual events since March. In August, we assembled a team to evaluate 105 software companies and identified three different types of virtual platforms: Virtual Experience Platforms, Virtual Immersion Platforms, and Custom Platforms.

We define these as:

  • Virtual Experience Platforms: video-based hubs delivered in a website format with a Zoom-like streaming experience (live, simulive, pre-recorded), breakouts, chat, tradeshow booths, and networking centers
  • Virtual Immersion Platforms: experiences that attempt to recreate the live conference setting with a simulated lobby, keynote theater (for live, simulive, and pre-recorded content), tradeshow booths, and networking centers
  • Custom Platforms: Bespoke experiences built to meet a client’s specific event need

We take a platform-agnostic approach when working with our clients because we believe the purpose of the event and the outcomes we are trying to achieve should drive the platform we use. This provides us with a competitive view of where the market is going that puts us in a position to buy the latest innovations. Our experience navigating this new mode of gathering has shown that the most important area to focus on isn’t necessarily the technology, but what behaviors and outcomes we are fostering. With this mindset, we look to use purpose-driven creativity and design to inspire our audiences during the event. Post-event, we look for ways to keep bringing the purpose of the event back to the audience, creating a state of sustained engagement over time.

Our clients often ask us how we evaluate a platform — to that end, we’ve developed a series of questions to understand what their goals are, which leads us to the type of platform we would recommend. Once the type of platform is identified, we then go through the process of demo’ing the leading platforms and companies in that vertical. At a high level, when we evaluate platforms, we start by asking the following questions:

What are the client’s goals for the event?

  • What content does the client need to share?
  • What are the overall goals of engagement?
  • Who is the audience (including number of attendees) and what is the desired user experience?
  • What KPI’s are important for the client?
  • What type of reporting will be valuable for the client?
  • Are there current tools the client’s IT team wants to use to support the event?
  • What is the longevity of the experience?

What is the scope & budget?

  • What is the investment appetite?
  • Is this a single-day or multi-day event?
  • What is the ROI for the client?
  • How does the client need to be perceived by audience?
  • What is the project timeline?
  • Is there a hybrid component?

What are the must-have features?

  • Will there be a live show?
  • Do we need to provide breakout capabilities for the audience?
  • Will we need a speaker Q&A within the session?
  • Do attendees need to register?
  • Will attendees build their own agenda or is it dictated by their registration type?
  • Do attendees need the ability to network, meet 1:1, or in small groups?
  • Will there be a virtual vendor/sponsor experience as part of the event?
  • What is the pre-event, day-of, and post-event messaging strategy?
  • What sort of interactivity and gamification is desired?
  • Will there need to be post-event content on demand?

The answers to these questions will point to the type of platform that is needed. From there, we then add a technology-focused set of standard functionality and requirements:

Functionality (hat tip to the Linux Foundation):

  • Web-based (HTML5) supporting Windows and Mac desktops/browsers (and also Linux)
  • Registration integrations that will comply with GDPR and privacy regulation requirements
  • Webhooks or REST APIs to integrate with security systems like SSO (Auth0) and SFDC.
  • Can be white-labeled for the client’s community’s event branding
  • Speaker Q&A chat available within sessions
  • Attendee networking capabilities
  • Integrated scheduling tools and agenda builder
  • Attendee analytics: booths visited, session attendance, etc.
  • Gamification options to drive attendee engagement
  • Pop-up notifications throughout the platform (‘Keynotes starting in 5 minutes!’, ‘Visit [Sponsor’s] booth’)
  • Guaranteed uptime, redundancies, and autoscaling

General Questions:

  • Is the platform optimized for a particular browser/browser version?
  • What are the design customization capabilities, and can we customize via Javascript & CSS?
  • Can we pull the platform experience through to a different site via iFrame?
  • Does the video streaming function accept an RTMP feed?
  • What cloud service is the platform hosted on?
  • Does the platform rely on Zoom to power any portion of the event and if so, how is licensing handled and what is the user experience?
  • How did G2/Gartner/Forrester rate the platform?
  • What type of day-of support is offered?

This list of questions and considerations should be thought of as a living document, evolving as the market evolves. Given the increase in market capitalization of Zoom, noted above, combined with the recent valuation of Hopin, we believe that for the foreseeable future, product evolution will move at a rapid pace. Competition drives differentiation — what the current virtual event platform landscape looks like now, in November 2020, will likely be drastically different by March of 2021.

When done well, virtual events can provide the same spark and inspiration as live events. The platform is an important component to the overall experience, but it is the creativity, design, and content in combination with the platform that makes the magic happen.

Look out for the next installment of this series, focused on Virtual Experience Platforms, to be published January 12th.

VIRTUAL EVENTS & EXPERIENCES

Considering a virtual event or engagement? Our team of creative strategists, content creators, and technology experts can help your brand maintain competency and credibility in times of pivot. Learn more about our virtual offerings or contact us – we’re happy to talk with you!


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