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  • Writer's pictureAdam Malik

Why Do Virtual Events Still Suck, and How Can We Make Virtual Events Work?

Updated: Oct 18, 2023

Remember the pandemic? It wasn't that long ago when event organisers had to become virtual event organisers overnight. But here's the problem: virtual events never had a real spark and are losing what's left of it with every edition, and we all feel it. So why do virtual events, after all this time, still suck?


A Real-World Example - The Allure of Medium Day

I recently attended "Medium Day," an event that promised to be a haven for content creators and readers alike. As someone who loves Medium's platform and the rich content it offers, my expectations were sky-high. I thought, "If anyone can crack the code of virtual events, it's Medium." It will be a fun online event.


Medium Day is a microcosm of how our approach to virtual events is stuck in delivery, not experience.

But then reality kicked in, and what unfolded was the polar opposite of my expectations. The event just turned out to be a series of lectures devoid of the interactivity and personalisation that make virtual spaces come alive. Chat functions were initially disabled, creating a one-way flow of information that felt more like a broadcast than an event.


Zero Personalisation to Disengagement

What struck me the most was the lack of personalisation. Despite filling out a pre-event questionnaire, something only a few people do, which initially fueled my optimism, detailing my interests and expectations, the event felt like a one-size-fits-all affair. There needed to be more effort to tailor the content or the experience to individual participants. It was as if my input, along with that of countless others, had vanished into the digital ether.


Medium Day invitation
A one-size-fits-all affair -- whose story?

Within moments, I found myself disengaged and disconnected. I logged out, thinking I'd catch up on demand later. But even that experience needed to be more robust. If it's just about watching again on demand, it might as well be left on YouTube. This made me wonder: if a platform as powerful as Medium can't get it right, what hope do other virtual events have?


I want to mention that Medium Day was a valiant effort, and the top-level stats are impressive, but it is a microcosm of how our approach to virtual events is stuck in delivery, not experience.


Illusions of Success Hide The Real Challenge

The pandemic forced us into the digital realm, but that wasn't the real challenge. The real challenge is making these virtual spaces as engaging and valuable as their physical counterparts, but in a very different way. And so far, we're failing.


How do we sustain engagement in a medium that inherently lacks the sensory and emotional cues we're used to?

The entire world was forced into a digital transition when the pandemic hit. Virtual events became the “new normal”, and for a while, it seemed like we had it all figured out. We forgot, however, that when people are confined to their homes, even a mediocre webinar can feel like a welcome distraction. It created an illusion of success, making us think, "Hey, this virtual event thing is easy!" We don't have to tweak our live event formula too much. But relying on a pandemic to make a model work is not the way to go.


Where's The Human Element To Make Virtual Events Work

As the novelty wore off, we realised what was missing: the human element. The excitement of meeting people, the spontaneous conversations, the serendipitous encounters—all these intangible aspects that make live events memorable were absent in the virtual space.


Person looking out the window.
In a virtual or hybrid event, disengagement is as easy as closing that device.

We're not just battling technical glitches and Zoom fatigue; we're up against a more fundamental issue: How do we sustain engagement in a medium that inherently lacks the sensory and emotional cues we're used to?


The outcome of what we want to deliver is eloquently delivered by Tony Stubblebine keynote at Medium Day, now on YouTube.


Reject The Old Playbook for Linear Experiences

As more people cut their teeth on virtual events, like the folks at Medium, the stakes increase. We're past the point of collective amnesia; we can't just go back to how things were. The question now is not whether we can host virtual events but whether we can make them worth attending.


And, more importantly, how can we navigate our way to a blueprint that shows some semblance of working and evidencing engagement and knowledge exchange in digital cues and not the sensory and emotional cues we are used to?


In the real world, the human element breaks up the linearity of events. But in the virtual world, that linearity is a problem. Virtual events feel linear, confined, and boxed in. We need to unlearn the old playbook—it's not working, forget it, let go.


Enable non-linear participant journeys: give the control back to the participants, empower them to make choices, and put them at the centre of the creative process.

For years, the event industry has relied on a tried-and-true playbook: You sign up, make travel plans, arrive at the venue, and follow a predetermined schedule. It's a linear journey from start to finish, and it works when dealing with physical events.


However, this linear model falls apart in the virtual realm. Virtual events can and do feel like a dull, one-way street without the human interactions that naturally break up the monotony—like the excited chatter before a keynote or impromptu conversations in hallways.


The result is audience fatigue. The excitement and anticipation that should be the lifeblood of any event is almost always missing. Participants log in, passively consume content, and log out; event organisers run a poll or questionnaire but are no closer to understanding low engagement metrics.


Welcome to Non-linear Participant Journeys

The linear model is not just outdated; it's ineffective and, I believe, the root cause of the failure of virtual events. We need a paradigm shift that moves from predictability and embraces the dynamic and interactive potential of the digital realm. Currently, none of the platforms do this because, like most event organisers, they are fixated on finding the solution at the last mile. We should by now realise that the streaming resolution, quality of production, or the plethora of chat, poll, and other widgets do not make a difference.


The key to turning the tide? Enable non-linear participant journeys. This approach encourages exploration, enhances personalisation, and sparks interaction. It's about handing the control of the experience back to the participant, empowering them to make choices that dictate the direction and flow of their journey, and putting them at the centre of the creative process of the event.


Break Free of The PowerPoint Effect

We've all been conditioned by “The PowerPoint Effect.” It encapsulates our collective reliance on linear storytelling. This approach, deeply ingrained in us through years of slide-by-slide presentations, has spilt over into designing content and journeys for virtual events. But just as non-linear presentations have proven to be more engaging and flexible, so can non-linear participant journeys in virtual events. Our thinking is deeply rooted in the need to control the story and the movement of people at an event.


An avatar at a crossroads in an online game
Why non-linearity? To empower your participants to shape their own stories.

From Personalisation to Participation

Studies and real-world applications have shown that non-linear presentations are more engaging and effective in academic settings or business meetings. This flexibility can be directly applied to virtual events, allowing for a more dynamic and interactive experience. You need to look no further than the rise of platforms like Prezi and Miro, which enable non-linear storytelling.


The weeks leading up to the event are crucial and untapped period; in fact, the event should start four weeks before any 'virtual doors' open.

The non-linear approach is not just about breaking free from a set sequence; it's about putting the audience at the centre. Allowing participants to navigate their journey can combat the "Zoom fatigue" and engagement issues plaguing many virtual events. We are not doing this because it's easy. It’s not; it’s hard, and there is no playbook; plus, we need to learn the art of telling non-linear stories and return to basics.


We can do it. I believe this area is where generative AI could be a powerful force for good. The advances in AI and the accessibility of the tools can help us create and build interactive spaces and facilitate non-linear journeys, much like how Figma and other non-linear presentation tools have disrupted traditional methods in educational settings.


Engagement Starts Before The Event

In a non-linear event, we give the power of choice back to the participant. We let them decide not only which sessions to attend, which speakers to listen to and when to take breaks, but we involve them as active participants in the creation and genesis of the sessions and content by tapping into and reimagining the pre-event phase for all participants. This level of autonomy should greatly enhance the participant's experience and increase the likelihood of meaningful engagement and knowledge exchange.


The weeks leading up to the event are, in my view, a crucial and untapped period; in fact, for virtual events in the minds of the orchestrators, the event should start four weeks before any 'virtual doors' open. I have been to countless events, and 95% of the time, pre-event just consists of registration, email reminders, and some perfunctory questionnaires here and there. Not the meaningful engagement we should be expecting.


So, what if, when you register, you get asked what questions you'd like to engage in? Could those questions be surfaced in an anonymised way to content creators? Could this be the foundation of an exchange that helps to precipitate the non-linear journeys, which could be the roots of creating a different digital first sensory experience?


A person with a VR headset
We need to deploy data science more effectively to create personalised experiences and genuine engagements.

Making Virtual Events Pop: The Science Behind Non-linear Journeys

Non-linear participant journeys aren't just a trendy buzzword. Empirical research and cognitive studies show its potential. Let's briefly segue into the science behind it.


Hypermedia Learning & Cognitive Styles. Hypermedia programmes, which offer interconnected and information-rich environments, have shown that learners benefit from self-directed navigation rather than a pre-defined linear path. However, not all learners navigate these environments with ease. Cognitive styles, such as Field Independent (FI) and Field Dependent (FD), influence how individuals interact with hypermedia. FI learners, for instance, prefer a breadth-first approach, while FD learners lean towards depth-first. This underscores the importance of designing virtual events catering to diverse cognitive styles, ensuring that all attendees can navigate and benefit from the event uniquely.


Engagement in Non-linear Presentations. Non-linear presentations, as opposed to traditional linear slide-by-slide formats, are more engaging and effective as they allow for adaptability, letting the presenter or the audience choose the direction of the presentation based on interest or need. We can apply this flexibility directly to virtual events, ensuring attendees remain engaged and invested in the content.


The Impact of Linear & Non-linear Presentation Methods. In educational settings, non-linear presentation methods foster more active participation and engagement from students. They allow students to explore topics in a way that aligns with their personal interests and learning styles. Translated to virtual events, attendees can engage with content that resonates with them, leading to a more personalised and memorable experience.


The Role of Interactivity. A study on the effects of interactivity in learning found that interactive learning environments, which often employ non-linear structures, lead to better learning outcomes and higher levels of engagement as they cater to individual learning preferences and allow for self-directed exploration. Virtual events incorporating interactivity and non-linear journeys can thus ensure that attendees are not just passive consumers but active participants.


Common here is the commitment to creating content that leverages and resonates with this new form precipitated by digital transformation. If we commit to non-linearity, we should make the effort to realign our content creation to fit with and fuel this non-linearity.


From Watchers to Participants

Traditionally, pre-event engagement has been a one-way street: organisers send out emails, maybe a survey, and then it's a waiting game until the event starts. This reactive model fundamentally misses a crucial opportunity to build anticipation and personalise the event experience.


In a non-linear model, pre-event engagement becomes a dynamic, two-way interaction. From the moment someone registers, they can start shaping their own experience. Imagine an ecosystem where participants vote on what topics or questions they're interested in as part of the run into the event, and this moulds and morphs the event tuned to interactions each participant would value to guarantee maximum IAEK, even influencing the spontaneous creation of new sessions or discussions.


It is all about real-time adaptation and a truly personalised experience, creating a feedback loop that makes the event more engaging and relevant to each participant. The result is the potential of a truly personalised event where attendees are not just passive consumers but active participants even before it starts. This level of engagement can significantly increase participant satisfaction and, by extension, the event's overall success.


Participation Design for Virtual Events

To make virtual events work and create genuinely engaging ones, we need to think of a system of systems. All inputs—polls, surveys, feedback, likes, views—should help create personalised experiences. We are already exploring this in the world of streaming; it's high time it happens in virtual events. Rather than viewing individual components of an event in isolation, systems thinking encourages us to understand how these elements interrelate and function within the broader system.


Traditional event planning often focuses on isolated elements: content creation, participant registration, feedback collection, etc. While each of these is crucial, the interplay between them determines an event's overall success. For instance, how does pre-event engagement influence participant expectations? How can real-time feedback during an event shape its concluding sessions?


One of the core principles of systems thinking is the feedback loop. We could use real-time data and feedback to adapt the event as it unfolds, as the confines of physical room capacity do not bind virtual events. If a particular session is garnering significant interest, can it be extended? If a technical glitch arises, how quickly can it be addressed without disrupting the overall flow?


As we look towards the future, embracing non-linear participant journeys isn't an option; it's a necessity.

The key to creating a non-linear participant journey lies in understanding your audience dynamically. It's not just about who they are but their interests, needs, and motivations. It is about knowing them in a much different sense, that is, understanding the audience and matching content that evolves with the engagement of your system of systems.


Every decision made in the planning and execution of a virtual event has ripple effects. We must start to learn and anticipate these ripples and make informed decisions by adopting a systems-thinking approach. For example, choosing a particular digital platform impacts the possible interactions, affecting participant engagement and feedback. We may also realise that the 'delivery platform' is the least critical for our aspiration of delighting participants by enabling non-linear journies.


Incorporating systems thinking doesn't just improve individual elements of an event; it elevates the entire experience. Organisations can create cohesive, dynamic, and responsive virtual events that genuinely resonate with participants by understanding and leveraging the interconnectedness of everything.


A complex flowchart.
Embrace non-linearity as a wellspring of new and exciting opportunities.

Breaking the Mold with Non-linearity a Future for Virtual Events

As we've explored, the traditional, linear approach to virtual events is rife with challenges and flaws. The need for a shift is clear; non-linear participant journeys can create a significant impact.


This approach offers the most potential to deliver virtual events that don't suck. Creating more engaging, personalised, and dynamic virtual events is worth the effort for many reasons, primarily to enhance the participant experience and offer a higher return on investment for the event creators and organisers. Non-linearity offers a potential sandbox of experiences that attendees can explore.


It's time to break free from outdated methods and innovate; we all know that doing the same thing and expecting a different outcome will not work. As we look towards the future, embracing non-linear participant journeys isn't just an option; it's a necessity. The enablement of these outcomes is fundamentally driven by understanding the data and having the right data models working in real-time to feed the system.


It's time to reform the virtual event space. Let's shift our focus from merely hosting events to creating enriching, engaging, and personalised experiences that maximise knowledge and information exchange to drive action.

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