Reinventing Conferences Virtually

July 27, 2020

 

Salesforce’s Dreamforce recently joined Google I/O, Facebook F8, Apple WWDC and many others that have either pivoted their annual tech events to a virtual format or outright canceled them due to the coronavirus. With more than 170,000 attendees, Dreamforce is one of the largest to pivot away from a large tech congregation of people during the pandemic. 

 

We’re going to be living with limitations and risks for some time, and it’s putting the brakes on many physical events. Social distancing, mass enforcement of temperature checks, protective equipment — all of it — is just impossible at these things. Coupled with layers of ordinances and legal liability, it’s hard to see how trade shows and conferences will return anytime soon and in the formats we’ve become accustomed to.

 

Trade shows and conferences won’t go down without a fight. It’s a multi-trillion-dollar industry and big business for venues, cities and conference producers. PWC estimates that B2B trade shows are a $15.7 billion market in the U.S. These numbers are going to get hammered in 2020, and possibly even 2021.

 

For tech conferences and trade shows to come back, there are clear legal and operational hurdles. Besides the new layers of liability and risk, budgets will be a huge consideration. Companies are cutting costs left and right, and conference and trade show funds are going right back into the coffers. Companies are already experimenting with other forms of marketing and recalibrating expectations.

 

And after a 12- to 18-month trade show hiatus, there’s the possibility that companies will have discovered a less expensive, more effective replacement for flying the team to Las Vegas and manning a booth for three days.

 

Is returning to traditional conferencing simply a matter of flattening the curve? I doubt it. But it is an opportunity for disruption — the good kind.

 

Evolution Of Physical And Virtual Congregation And Community

For years I’ve heard technology companies say: “We need to go to these large conferences for the brand, to be seen and prevent competitors from gaining an advantage in our absence.” There’s a lot of corporate fear of missing out (FOMO). Those arguments have degrees of merit, but it’s rare to close deals with valuable prospects at trade shows. Sure, there are plenty of marketing qualified leads, but in the end, the brand benefit is the primary driver.

 

And in my universe — B2B technology — the large conferences haven’t changed all that much in a decade. The format is pretty standard, straightforward and uninteresting. And yet they rake in billions of dollars, almost out of habit.

 

Could we see trade shows evolve into something less chaotic and more communal? Absolutely. The best events, for me (and often my clients), are smaller, more intimate venues that go beyond the big signs, petty tchotchkes and surface chitchat. At regional security events, for example, there’s no running back and forth across the show floor, trying to make connections with as many contacts as possible. Instead, the focus is on making more significant connections with a select group of prospects. One of my clients came back from such a conference with a handful of proofs of concept (POCs). They then skipped the largest show in their market this year and are doing just fine.

 

I’m not saying that large tech events should or will go away. No one can dispute that they have their place. But right now, there’s a huge opportunity to make large-scale trade shows into something more personal and community-driven. Here’s what that could look like:

 

Build a community that transcends physical events. We need to stitch together people and events through consistent virtual engagement. Should another COVID-19-like disruption occur, your community is already bonded and more willing to participate in virtual events — and producers don’t go totally bust. 

 

Less sponsored stump speeches. It’s no secret that mega tech events are pay-to-play. You buy keynotes. You buy the best spaces. What if sponsorship weren’t a one-time big thing but also required regional post-event meetups at company headquarters for satellite conferences? What if younger companies could compete virtually all year long to win a few of those slots? What if the audience voted, in real-time, for top presenters and there were serious spoils that unfolded in the virtual community throughout the year?

 

The best content goes beyond archives. We know the drill. Pay the fees, and you get access to the presentations for a certain amount of time. But what if the content gets voted on by the audience and the best is expanded over a year and promoted with the same effort as the main event?

 

Develop community and event ambassadors. Unlike communities, tech congregations don’t have ambassadors who are actively doing missionary work all year long. It’s far too transactional. What if ambassadors (who could be sponsors) found ways to create a drumbeat up to their presence? These could be previous Shark Tank winners who return, like camp counselors, to guide the next generation through the community.

 

Like many things during the coronavirus pandemic, there’s uncertainty. It’s possible that physical venues will thrive as people race toward each other in search of human context. But I think that’s temporary, and like so many things that will change when this is over, we’re going to see an opportunity for reinvention. And the entities that get the new recipe right — enough human contact and physical congregation to create and reinforce community — are going to rake it in. And be better positioned to weather the next disruption.

 

This article originally appeared in Forbes.

 

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