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Virtual conferences and journalists – are online events good, bad or just different?

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In a normal year, July would be the first bit of breathing space for journalists and PR teams after a busy event schedule. From vendor events that bring together customers, partners and press through to independent conferences and exhibitions based on bringing together guest speakers and sponsors, the period from March through to the end of June is a busy one. This year, all those events were either cancelled, postponed, or moved online.

What was the impact for press around their work, and did virtual events step into the gap that physical conferences left behind? We asked journalists for their feedback so far so we could share some guidance for any companies planning their conferences in the future.

The results

Virtual events did attract press to attend – of those we surveyed, 91 per cent said that they had attended an event during the lockdown period. However, when asked for their thoughts on how good those virtual events were for them as journalists, the results were more mixed.

  • Around 66 per cent of respondents said that virtual events delivered what they needed in terms of content, but that the approach they had to take was different to physical conferences
  • Only 12 per cent said that they got the same results and in the same way as in-person events
  • 14 per cent said that sessions did not provide what they needed, leading to a waste of time for the journalists involved

Alongside the initial results, comments ranged from the positive side – virtual events let them concentrate on content, rather than meetings – through to the negative. Sadly, the negative elements were higher, as journalists pointed to lack of interaction, more difficulties in getting questions answered and less opportunity to create their own content, particularly when it came to video. 

Next, we asked around what were the main draws for registering to virtual events. It should not be a surprise that key industry speakers were the biggest reason to attend, with 58 per cent of press stating that this was a reason to attend. Alongside this, roundtable sessions were the second highest reason (40 per cent) and brand news (37 per cent) came third. Access to breakout sessions on relevant topics came in at 28 per cent. 

Interestingly, some of the other reasons to attend hinted at where online events can help journalists be more productive. The ability to create bespoke video interviews with speakers just after their sessions in order to create distinct content could make virtual events a great alternative to physical conferences for one respondent, while case studies was also mentioned as a specific draw by another.

Planning ahead

For those companies planning their events for later in the year, there was some good guidance on what will be needed in order to get press attention, as well as how to help them report on those events more easily.

The biggest reason for attending will be the quality of the information being shared – 64 per cent of press called this out as influencing their decision to attend. Exclusivity on content and access to speakers in real time were also called out as swaying decisions on event attendance, with 32 per cent of journalists marking these requirements out. Interestingly, access to transcripts from conversations was another big incentive to attend, with 30 per cent of journalists stating this would be useful to them. 

Customer case studies was lower on the list of priorities – only 18 per cent of press stated that these would be required for their attendance. Compared to more traditional conferences where customer access was needed to entice journalists to attend, this figure being lower was a surprise.

When asked about was problematic about virtual events, the following responses came in:

  • 43 per cent of respondents said there were no opportunities to get ‘unplanned’ stories beyond what was scheduled
  • 41 per cent said that virtual events don’t offer the same experience as physical events
  • 35 per cent stated that there are too many virtual events taking place
  • 27 per cent said that time spent on virtual events was not as productive as time at physical events

Around this set of questions, there was plenty of additional comment. For many press, the ability to ask questions and clarify points after a presentation was much harder after a virtual event compared to a physical one. As one journalist stated, “You simply cannot network as well. In addition, many stories are truly made by a quick follow-up conversation with a panellist. That is no longer possible.”

Alongside this, the control that marketing and PR teams have on the content involved was seen as problematic: “Some organisations record panels in advance and then stream them. This offers no opportunities to ask questions,” noted one journalist, while another pointed out that, “The balance of power has shifted too far to the marketing / PR side – an expression of interest which once may have been a short casual chat at a stand is now a surrendering of contact details with inevitable, repeated online follow-ups.”

The last major problem was around how little spontaneity there was around virtual events. The difficulty of getting personal interaction and follow-up on interviews was a problem for several press. Alongside this, the fact that many sessions are pre-recorded for broadcast at a specific time can mean that the content is duller or hard to consume and use for stories. The lack of one to one time also makes it harder to create differentiated or unique content that each journalist’s readers will want to consume.

What does the future hold?

For some press, virtual events were preferred to physical events – the ability to dip in and out of content from home, with no travel expense and coffee the way you like it was a real positive. For others, the lack of customer access was a problem. For others, physically attending events was seen as an important experience in itself.

Currently 41 per cent of press believe that virtual events are as useful as physical exhibitions and conferences. Of those respondents, half stated that virtual events were proving to be really useful and half said that some of them were good. However – in a result that should be music to the ears of conference organisers everywhere – 59 per cent said they felt that in-person events were better for them in terms of content and insights gathered. 

When asked about their future plans, journalists were mixed on how they might go back to physical events. Around 41 per cent plan to return to the conference circuit to the same level that they did before Covid-19 hit, while 23 per cent will return but to a lesser extent. Only 7 per cent said that they were done with in-person conferences. For the remainder, a “wait and see” attitude was prevalent: a quarter (25 per cent) said they will wait until 2021 in order to make their decision on what to do next, while the remainder will make judgment calls at the time.

As one journalist put it, “It depends on quarantining requirements and access to interviewees while I’m there. If social distancing means no one-on-one access then it’s no better than attending something online.”

What can we learn from this?

There are a few lessons to take from these responses. For PR and marketing teams looking at how to maximise the impact that their events can have with media, here are some points to consider:

1. Content will drive the most awareness opportunities

For brands, having strong speakers and great content to deliver will be essential for journalists to use. Having customer speakers that can tell their own stories as proof points will be great for press to use. At the same time, making things too complicated or having too many speakers will affect how well journalists can use that content.

2. How you deliver that content will matter greatly

Pre-recording content can be a more reliable approach to running online events and delivering material to attendees. However, it can seriously affect the journalists’ ability to make use of that material. Having those speakers available for follow-up sessions or for distinct interview opportunities can therefore help.

Alongside your main video stream, consider having speakers participate in dedicated press Slack channels or Zoom breakout rooms so journalists can ask questions and get what they need. This does mean extra effort, but it helps media get what they need quickly and efficiently to create articles for their readers. They are concerned with helping their audience, not yours.

3. Make it easier to navigate and understand content

For virtual events that are taking place over multiple days or with lots of speakers, making it easy to understand what is taking place and when can be a big help. Look at how you organise your content and make it available in the first place, and look at recommendations and search to help answer the question, “What next?” 

This should be similar to the journey that customers or prospects might take, so any work you do on the marketing side should also help journalists too.

4. Consider exclusivity

Providing journalists with exclusive stories and access can help them build unique articles that inform their readers, while also making the management side easier for you. Understanding this means not just picking one journalist and one customer and putting them together – instead, it is about the context for that story and how it fits into your overall plan for media. 

This can also lessen the burden on customer speakers or experts – by targeting the right publication and journalist, everyone can see a good result.

5. Don’t be afraid to experiment

The growth of video for virtual events has been a plus point for companies. Virtual events that are free to attend have seen more sign-ups and attendees than would be possible for physical events. However, they are not straight replacements.

Running discussion channels like Slack or Dischord can be great to gather up those discussions, while following channels like Twitter can help to get a feeling for how media attendees are sharing out content. Getting involved in those channels with questions and polls alongside the video can help increase interaction. However, can you create something new and innovative alongside that will interest your audience, and the press as well?

For technical audiences, live events with dedicated websites to host activities can help. This could be an example game that can be used to gather data, or interactive sessions that can demonstrate a product in a more interesting way than simply running a click by click video.

For more business level audiences, looking at personalisation and recommendation around connections is also of interest. Encouraging connections to other attendees has been at the heart of several event tech providers’ offers, and the move to more online events has helped them increase their businesses over the past few months.

Alongside these moves, you can think about how journalists may be able to benefit from these kinds of initiatives – will it give them distinct and useful data, that will make it worth their while to sit in a session? Will transcripts make their lives easier so they can think through the content and what it means for the future rather than worrying about how long it will take to write up quotes? Can you make those event guests and speakers available for separate conversations?

However you approach your exhibitions and conferences in the future, there are several lessons to learn from the current situation around online events. The first is that media attendees are still time poor and on deadline – your event has to provide them with material that is worth their time and relevant for their audience. The second is that interactivity is essential – if all your material is pre-recorded, then why will they want to attend and use that content at all?

The third point is that conferences and exhibitions will be an important part of any communications strategy in the future, whether they are physical, virtual or more hybrid in approach. Planning ahead is essential for the media component to be successful and get the most out of your investment.

About the research

This research was completed in July 2020 – an online survey link was shared with journalists specifically covering the business to business technology sector in the UK. Questions were multiple choice and multiple entries were possible on some questions, alongside a free text option on most questions. In total, 45 respondents completed the survey during the week that the survey ran.

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