Partially due to corporate sustainability reasons and partly due to old-fashioned cost savings, I’ve been thinking a lot about virtual events lately. The idea behind virtual events is pretty simple – rather than flying a lot of people to a single destination to discuss a series of topics, you have these discussions on-line. While simple in concept, in practice this leads to a number of non-trivial questions:
How do you (re)create the concept of tracks/physical breakouts in which participants gather to learn about specific areas of interest?
While it’s easy to simulate keynote presentations that are largely one-way communications, how do you allow attendees to interact with each other?
How do you encourage spontaneous discussions without disrupting the primary flow of the events?
If the speaker can’t see the attendees, how will she get the visual clues needed to adjust timing/tone as the presentation goes on?
Are attendees more likely to be distracted by email/phones/etc without the implied enforcement of the presenter seeing them?
Like most things, it depends on what you’re trying to accomplish. If the primary objective for the event is to educate an audience on a series of topics, virtual events are a natural supplement (or even replacement) for physical events. Companies have successfully used on-line learning and Web seminars for a long time.
However, most events are more than just educational opportunities; they try to foster networking and communities. While on-line communities are also common, many organizations struggle with using them because they are more difficult to control than traditional communication vehicles that are primarily one way.
Not only are they difficult to control, they are difficult to measure. Traditional success measures like # people enrolled/attended are less relevant when the objective is to stimulate community involvement. Instead, we need a measure such as % of community with active involvement. Depending on the infrastructure used, the calculation of active might be based on time spent, number of posts and questions, or demonstrated recall of the subject matter.
After many years of fine-tuning Web seminars, I now expect that 40% of people that register for an event will attend and 40% of those who attend will request follow-up information. As I get more experience with virtual events, it will be interesting to see if a similar pattern emerges. If so, 40% of the community will attend and 40% of attendees will be actively involved. Engaging 16% of the community in a virtual event might not be a bad target.