When Will the Quest for the Perfect Virtual Platform End? Spoiler: The Journey is Just Starting.
Recently, I saw a tweet from Jason Lemkin, founder of EchoSign and SaaStr (see tbelow). Jason’s experience as a serial tech and event entrepreneur lends a unique perspective on the software industry, as a whole, so my ears always perk up whenever he talks about events. His tweet cuts deep—right to the heart of what we all know to be true… while virtual events have come a long way, they still have a long way to go.
I want to pick up where Jason left off and explore the journey of virtual event technology from version 1.0 to 2.0, and beyond. Because from our perspective, creating and delivering the perfect virtual event platform only gets more difficult moving forward for all players. But, like any quest worth embarking upon, the opportunity to transform the entire industry is incredible.
Virtual Events 1.0 (Mar – Dec 2020)
“It’s January 2021 and there still is no great digital events software, despite torrid demand post-Covid. Still, what we have is much better than January 2020.” – from Jason Lemkin
We’re coming up on one year since the COVID-19 pandemic hit, and by now, most software vendors have figured out how to provide, at the very least, a basic virtual event product that helps everyone stay afloat and allows the show to go on. As an industry, we’ve seen at least one company knock it out of the park from an execution perspective: Hopin. They’ll be the first to admit they have a long way to go, but in terms of early execution and traction, they’ve done a spectacular job. Every vendor in the space can learn from their flywheel approach and ability to convert attendees to organizers and deliver the foundation necessary for running a virtual event. To be fair, other vendors, like SwapCard, Socio, Bizzabo, and Attendify, have caught up in many respects, and while each vendor has different strengths, weaknesses, and areas for improvement, the past nine months have been about executing on the foundation of what was immediately required to enable customers to run virtual events last spring.
Where things go from here will be really interesting; versions 2.0 and 3.0 of all these platforms are going to diverge along several vectors. None of which are mutually exclusive, but as the leaders in the space, we all will have to pick our battles and decide where we will create the most value. The good news for customers and vendors is that the market is huge and only growing. As such, as we all proceed along the virtual event journey, the market opportunity is unprecedented, and as a result, there will be increasingly more incredible choices.
Virtual Events 2.0 (Jan – Dec 2021)
Event Management & Registration
“Almost none [of today’s virtual event platforms] allow true session registration” – Jason Lemkin
Integrating traditional event management technology features, like session registration, speaker and sponsor management, agenda management, and the like, into a world-class virtual event experience will take time. The foundation is there for those platforms that have historical strengths in registration, like Bizzabo, and others, but the degree, to which most event organizers want to customize and configure such experiences, makes it challenging to create a beautiful, intuitive, and elegant solution. It doesn’t necessarily have to be this way, but unfortunately, there’s a tradeoff between customization and a great attendee experience.
The level of customization that many events desire makes it difficult to create an elegant, modern, and easy-to-navigate user experience and, more importantly, these types of features make building new, cutting-edge functionality more complex and unwieldy in the long run. For example, when you need to support hundreds, if not thousands of configurations, building new features that integrate seamlessly with all custom legacy modules becomes a slog, regardless of how much capital companies can raise. The bottom line is that event organizers and vendors will need to meet each other halfway, if we want to create incredible attendee experiences and also introduce truly powerful, valuable, and novel capabilities. While historically event technology vendors that prioritized customization over user experience won, we believe the future of the event industry favors companies that do the opposite and focus on the user and her experience first.
Engagement & Networking
“Almost none [of today’s virtual event platforms] have non-random networking” – from Jason Lemkin’s tweet
For today’s virtual event technologies, enabling meaningful networking continues to remain a massive gap. The reality is that nobody has a great solution for solving for networking, although some vendors are better than others at marketing the features they do have. There are a few essentials that power the basics of event networking and engagement: activity feeds (timelines), private messaging, attendee profiles, group messages, polling, Q&A, push notifications, and the like. Most vendors have some, or all, of those capabilities with back-end management systems. However, very few have what matters most to event organizers: group video experiences and AI-powered, algorithmically-driven networking and matchmaking.
Building these types of solutions is not rocket science; it’s data science. The really hard part comes down to designing great networking experiences that work at scale. Additionally, because AI technologies, like machine learning, require massive amounts of data in order to drive accurate recommendations, it’s a balancing act, given nobody wants to overburden and bombard attendees with surveys and other types of data capture mechanisms to help improve matchmaking capabilities. Products will get better at networking across the board in 2021, but vendors need to be honest about how they work and avoid the temptation to oversell solutions that don’t truly deserve the label, machine learning, much less AI.
When it comes to group video things get a little more complicated, particularly given the inherent limitations of the only video standard for web browsers, WebRTC. I expect the streaming capabilities of virtual platforms will greatly improve over the course of the next year. Attendify is making investments in this area by building upon the 1:1 video experiences we’ve launched for sponsors and attendees called, MeetNow. Group video, packaged in many different formats, will be the go-to networking experience for virtual events for years to come. Vendors will figure this out, but it will take time and may not scale to the level that large events, like SaaStr’s events will need in 2021.
“Most [virtual event platforms] have terrible green room experiences, full of glitches”- Jason Lemkin’s
Live streaming is, candidly, one of the biggest technical challenges that virtual event platforms face. The reason streaming is so difficult stems from the simple fact that until last year, only a select few technology companies had extensive experience with live streaming video. Also the fact remains: video is hard. There are many well-known limitations to WebRTC, and scaling native video capabilities online has always been a difficult and involved effort.
To level set, when I talk about live streaming, I’m referencing an all-in-one streaming experience that allows you to onboard speakers, provide a practice, or green room, and stream video natively to thousands of attendees right through the browser. Support for embedding existing video platforms and integrating RTMP endpoints is a far less complex challenge and can be easily added in most cases. This is why live streaming integration options are common in today’s virtual event platforms.
The truth is most video streaming technologies aren’t quite ready for flawless video experiences, and at this point, most organizers know to expect issues even with leading video collaboration platforms, like Zoom. There are lots of potential points for failure, including the network connections of speakers and attendees. We’ll continue to make rapid progress over the next year. For Attendify and all other non video-first players, transitioning to the world of online live video experiences is certainly a challenge, and if anything, the progress already attained in this area has been incredibly quick.
Virtual Event Sponsors
The ability to have face-to-face conversations is what makes events such a powerful marketing channel. Having someone’s undivided attention is rare, and events deliver this unique dynamic, unlike any other marketing channel. But, when it comes to virtual event experiences, it’s hard to replicate that personal touch. If anything attendees are more distracted juggling their day-to-day responsibilities at home when attending a virtual event and in many cases tend to join for the sessions and other content, rather than sponsor networking.
A constant topic we hear from customers is to help them do more for their sponsors and their frustration that most platforms have little to offer to support delivering sponsors meaningful value. This is an area that Attendify has prioritized, and we’re approaching it with the aim of maximizing lead generation and fostering personal connections, through 1:1, real-time video call conversations.
“Almost none [of today’s virtual event platforms] can integrate with IRL events” – from Jason Lemkin’s tweet
We’re excited about the prospect of hybrid events; we all want to get back to normal, and hybrid events are a natural stepping stone. Attendify is a leader in the mobile event apps space, and we’re excited about the role mobile apps can play as the glue between IRL (in real life), or in-person, and virtual audiences, helping everyone connect and experience the event fully regardless of physical location. The problem, unfortunately, is that the pandemic isn’t going away anytime soon. I sincerely hope we’re wrong, but even with the overwhelming eagerness to get back to real-life experiences, most organizations won’t take the risk of running in-person events with new mutations of coronavirus currently spreading quickly. Hybrid events will emerge at some point in the near future, perhaps later this year, or early in 2022, but it probably won’t happen as quickly as many have suggested.
Virtual Events v3.0 (Mid-2021 and Beyond)
Data and Business Outcomes
Looking beyond virtual events v2.0 means focusing squarely on the underlying value of running events in the first place. Events are not an end in themselves. They exist for a reason, and in most cases, their purpose is to drive business growth by accelerating the process of converting sales leads into won business, or by engaging attendees in a community that’s monetized through sponsors,membership dues, or the like. The bottom line is events are a uniquely high-performing marketing channel. But, event technology needs to catch up and make it easier to realize the incredible value contained in event engagement data.
Most event technology platforms shine at facilitating event execution, but they are awful when it comes to plugging into other modern sales and marketing tools that actually move the revenue needle. It’s incredible to think of the amazing data and intent signals generated at events, only to become lost, because the data is not captured, or too difficult to put to work. While digital marketers obsess over scraps of website traffic data that could signal purchase intent, event marketers and organizers are missing out on heaps of intent signals, because with the technology options available today, they’re prioritizing tactical event execution, and there’s no way to get at the data to begin with.
We believe change is inevitable, and like many other trends, the pandemic has accelerated industry progress across the board. The alignment of event and marketing technology will be the most enduring technological outcome of the pandemic. The future of events is capitalizing on the incredible intent signals generated before, during, and after IRL (in real life, or in-person), hybrid, or virtual events and easily harnessing that data to drive business outcomes. When we reach this point, we have finally reached our final destination in the quest for the perfect virtual event platform. Until then, we look forward to all the innovation to come.