Conferences and events aren’t going away; they’re just going to look different in the months and years ahead — and that’s a good thing.

It’s well-documented by now that countless events shifted online in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. But what does the future hold as the “next normal” emerges?

I recently caught up with Cynthia Beckham, event strategist and creator at Tied Together Marketing, to gauge her thoughts on the state of events and conferences and how they might look moving forward.

“Instead of saying ‘canceling,’ say ‘shifting engagement,’” she shared, noting that many conferences remain on the books, albeit in a new format.

Indeed, meeting planners and event organizers are using virtual tools in exciting ways. Here are a few takeaways from my conversation with Cynthia.

Sharpen the focus

One bright spot is that hybrid events — which include both virtual and in-person elements — can cost a fraction of a full-blown in-person event. But, it requires organizers to reckon with the nature of their event.

“Is your event for your current community or a lead generation event?” Cynthia asked.

Before COVID-19, many didn’t seriously consider virtual conferencing a viable alternative to an in-person event, especially if it was geared toward lead generation, a real missed opportunity. However, virtual or hybrid events are a popular way of holding a gathering without endangering safety.

They also offer the opportunity to reach audiences that might not attend an in-person event. Guests worldwide can gather and exchange ideas and best practices. They can participate from the far reaches of the globe — all they need is an internet connection.

Make sure what you deliver is worthy of your attendees’ time

As the world emerges from the pandemic, many may quickly return to in-person events. But, others will not. Regardless, any event must deliver value to attendees, no matter how the content is consumed.

“Virtual events may never replace a live event, but there are opportunities to use them to enhance an event,” Cynthia said. “Virtual events can deliver incredible value and provide a strong return on investment. But, organizers need to look at an event through a different lens.”

Give the audience a reason to come back

Even though the world has been coping with the pandemic for months, organizations cannot stand pat and wait for the landscape to improve; they need to chart a path forward. People want value, and they are willing to reward companies that deliver it.

The key to a virtual event is not that dissimilar to an in-person event. Are you going to deliver something unique that no one else is?

Ensuring that your event provides value and unique content is imperative for success — no matter whether the venue is online or in person.

Don’t compromise quality

An online event must be as polished as an in-person event. Speakers, for example, must be great speakers and take the time to properly prepare, Cynthia added.

Additionally, make sure the ecosystem is easy for attendees to navigate and have enough representatives to handle questions. It is easier than ever for an attendee to leave a gathering, so don’t give them a reason to do so.

One way to accomplish this is to keep your agenda realistic. Don’t be afraid for the audience to ask questions or take a poll to understand what they are thinking. Once you have an understanding, make sure the content delivers against their mindset to make the event even that much more engaging.

Be as honest and human as possible

Many people struggle to present to a laptop, so it’s incumbent that participants figure out how to see and engage with other attendees on a platform and for a presenter to appear as natural as possible, Cynthia notes. It will elevate any presentation.

Unfortunately, people are more reluctant to start conversations with people online. But, there is an opportunity to use these technologies to foster dialogue and drive discussions.

Some consider virtual events a cheaper alternative to in-person events: You’re not on an airplane, you do not have to drive to meet with customers or attend meetings. “For decision-makers and enterprise-level attendees to dedicate the time to attend and receive value from the event, you have to promote quality over quantity,” Cynthia told me. “This means that you can’t just hand your CFO all the budget back.”

“If you do an event correctly, you can make a significant leap forward in business,” she added. But, no event should be one and done. You would never have one event and say, “we’ll talk to you next year.” Instead, set up multiple virtual events throughout the year.

To keep the energy going, don’t be afraid to try new things. Your audience will reward you for it.

Mark Roberts serves as PGi’s CMO responsible for all marketing operations worldwide, driving growth opportunities and building brand recognition for the company within the communications market. @MarkRobertsCMO

Events stock photo by metamorworks/Shutterstock