Will there be a virtual open bar? Addressing the challenge of B2B financial services events during social isolation

Thousands of people flying in from all over the country. Hotels filled to capacity. People packed shoulder-to-shoulder in an enclosed room. Handshakes and exchanges of business cards. Buffet dinners.

Almost everything about conferences seems foreign in our current reality. Indeed, most fall conferences have already announced that they will not take place in-person. Some have been postponed, some cancelled, many turned virtual. In a few cases, such as some recent investor conferences and a Forrester conference, the switch to remote has been seen as a success. In most cases, however, the decision to waive registration fees betrays a lack of confidence on the part of both sponsors and attendees about a virtual event’s ability to deliver value. But, you say, registrations and log-ins have increased as no travel expenses, no missed work and no registration fee lowered the decision bar almost to the floor. The problem: Any quantitative improvement likely masks a significant qualitative drop in engagement.

If we take a step back and think realistically about how conferences provide value, the situation becomes clear: Conferences create an opportunity for sponsors to get concentrated exposure to and interactions with their prospects; attendees get a break from their daily routine with the valid justification of an immersive opportunity to learn from experts and peers. Move the conference to the web and all those things disappear. Indeed, a virtualized conference in the form of a series of presentations becomes almost indistinguishable from a thematically-connected series of webinars.

As the threat of COVID stretches into the foreseeable future, it’s incumbent on all parties involved—the conference organizers, the sponsors and the prospective attendees—to think creatively about how to fashion virtual events into something that takes advantage of the positives and mitigates the negatives. Nothing about greater registration volume and potentially greater expert participation for a virtual event inherently leads to lower attendee engagement and fewer sales prospect interactions. In fact, it’s potentially quite the opposite. The first step down a path of creating valuable virtual events is to identify and isolate the key components of live events that people find valuable:

  • For sponsors: The value comes from getting their name and capabilities in front of their target audience and being able to engage with them directly to generate sales opportunities.
  • For attendees: The value comes from the opportunity to learn from industry experts and their peers, as well as the potential to find solutions to their business challenges.

Having identified these elements of value, the question then becomes: How can we create this value virtually, irrespective of the way it was generated in live events? The answers should produce a framework that would be more productive than putting two days’ worth of presentation sessions on the internet and offering virtual networking lounges that will never be used. Here are some of our ideas.

Generate marketing and sales value for sponsors:

  • Sponsored structured virtual chats and roundtables that create opportunities for peers to discuss topics of high relevance and interest to them, moderated by sponsor representatives
  • Sponsored virtual group icebreaker activities to help forge connections between peers from similar businesses and/or geographies
  • Tinder-style (“swipe right”, “swipe left”) sponsor pitches for 1:1 meetings to enable attendees to choose the sponsors with whom they want to interact, thus ensuring higher-quality conversations

Generate learning value for attendees:

  • A greater number of shorter sessions, spread over more days, because nobody will sit through multiple 45-minute online presentations
  • Asynchronous Q&A spanning the entire duration of the conference so that attendees have an opportunity to reflect on content, discuss it with teammates, and then pose questions
  • Multiple instances of live sessions to increase the options for attendees to join (thereby also increasing exposure for sponsors and presenters)
  • Small, structured breakouts to create substantive opportunities for attendees to learn from each other

We believe that these ideas serve as a good starting point and also enable a wide variety of iterations, depending on the specific sponsors and attendees and topics. They represent a sincere effort to do more than bide time until the business world “returns to normal” because at this point, it’s doubtful that anyone can accurately predict when that will really occur.