COVID-19 outbreak pushes virtual technology events to sink or swim

Events in general and global annual events in particular have been slow to adapt to a changed world

So many things have changed in the business and technology environments over the past two decades, but in-person events have maintained their importance. Even as digital marketing has replaced most traditional mediums and activities like cold calling and outbound email have waned, in-person events still play a huge role in most technology vendors’ go-to-market investments and strategies. However, there certainly have been changes to the types, frequency, audience and purpose of the events. Many of these changes in strategy are driven by a fundamentally different customer buying cycle. Through online research, customer reviews and other peer interactions, customers now have a very high level of knowledge before they even interact with a salesperson. Also, the pace of modern life and changes culturally make prospective clients less likely to spend business or personal time with salespeople while participating in leisure activities like golfing or attending entertainment events. As a result, many vendor marketing and sales teams utilize smaller, shorter and more meaningful events aimed at customers that have already expressed an interest in a solution, rather than targeting customers at the top of the funnel. Those changes have mostly taken place for local and regional events, while the global annual events have continued with largely the same cadence.

It is sink or swim for technology vendors with near-term annual events

Sometimes people and organizations do not know what they are capable of until they are forced to find out. Faced with no alternative, vendors like IBM (NYSE: IBM), Microsoft, Dell Technologies (NYSE: DELL) and Google (Nasdaq: GOOGL), among an ever-growing list of others, will need to recreate the in-person event through a virtual experience. The good news is that most of these companies have significantly increased their video production and social media capabilities over the past decade. For most in-person events over the past five years, video replays of the sessions are available and of good quality. Beyond video production of core content, below are some of the changes that can allow vendors to achieve the best outcomes from the necessary shift to virtual events:

  • Replicating the in-person “feel” — There is an aspect of performance during the large events that draws in the presenter and audience. The size of the crowds entering the venue and the audience for keynote sessions, the music, and the theatrics of the speaker are all part of the experience. Finding ways for virtual platforms to capture those elements can build and hold the interest of customer and partner audiences.
  • Soft selling — Nobody wants to sit through a shameless sales pitch for multiple days. With in-person events, vendors have broken that tension by bringing customers, analysts, partners and even celebrities to participate in presentations. Virtual events need the same level of third-party participation to keep the audience engaged and make the sessions more than just a vendor-to-customer sales pitch.
  • Training and certification benefits — For customers and partners, these events are great opportunities to take advantage of discounted training and certification testing. Vendors can use online platforms to increase participation through a virtual format.
  • Networking and social interaction — Informal and formal face-to-face meetings might be the most difficult aspect of in-person events to replicate virtually. Between social media and online networking platforms, there could be ways to connect people with similar interests and facilitate communication during the course of multiday virtual events.

Old habits die hard, and for technology vendors global annual in-person conferences have been a mainstay for 20-plus years. Although IT purchasing and smaller events have evolved a lot over the years, large technology events have remained largely unchanged since the mid-1990s — until COVID-19. Until at least early May, most technology vendors will have no choice but to make the best of virtual events. Modernizing the traditional annual in-person event may be one of the long-lasting impacts of the COVID-19 virus on the technology industry.

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