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In 2019, the year before COVID-19 became the single most disruptive force in recent memory, the events industry was valued at $1.135 trillion worldwide. Since then, physical gatherings have been heavily impacted by social distancing and pandemic-related lockdowns. Still, the industry pivoted, with digital events at the forefront — both for personal activities like birthdays and weddings and for businesses that relied on in-person conventions for sales and marketing. It’s worth asking the question: As vaccines roll out and governments ease restrictions, will digital events survive?
In 2020, B2B software marketplace TrustRadius conducted a survey of 2,000 tech buyers and vendors, finding that 72 percent of those surveyed would not feel comfortable attending an in-person event until 2021. Another 40 percent said they would feel more comfortable waiting until the second half of the year. As more people venture out, some will choose to stay home either way, which may lead to more businesses downsizing their events, according to a survey of event organizers.
However, as much as digital events have helped keep industries afloat, there’s growing evidence that people have grown tired of digital webinars and conventions.
Returning to previous levels of production in the event space cannot be solved by digital events alone. More likely, industries will have to shift to a hybrid approach, infusing small physical events with digital features to draw a wider audience and appease both viewpoints.
For more information on what customers are expecting post-COVID:
If you’ve been fortunate enough to continue working through the pandemic, you have almost certainly transitioned to remote meetings via Zoom or another video conferencing equivalent.
Though initial growing pains are over for the majority of workers, we all remember the first time we logged on to a zoom call after being sent home indefinitely for lockdown. Now, many of us feel more confident with online spaces and more positive toward using them in our daily lives.
That doesn’t mean professionals aren’t looking forward to returning to in-person activities. At the time of the survey, three-quarters of respondents said they feel either positive or neutral about attending physical events once safety can be assured.
While the TrustRadius survey reported hesitance to return indoors for work conventions and events, it also found a force driving those same workers out of online spaces: digital fatigue.
Since the pandemic began, the number of people who said they received between seven and nine webinar invites increased by 80 percent, those receiving just four to six invites per week grew by 95 percent. A majority said this was too many.
There’s evidence that the vast majority of these email invites are going unheeded as well, not surprising considering the sheer amount of time it would take to actually attend each event. The average worker attends zero to three events every month while collecting five times that amount in invites, according to TrustRadius.
For more information on how to build your email list:
Another survey of Australian workers found that 86 percent reported leaving a digital event early, up from 66 percent in 2019, with the most common reason being a presentation was too sales-oriented.
Early in the pandemic, sociologist Tracey Bower told Forbes that the “deluge of information” consumers and workers received from corporate sources increased rapidly and began to provoke anxiety. Any digital event organizer must factor in this fatigue, limiting unnecessary communication and advertisement while enticing their visitors with content and experiences they will enjoy.
Ungated content can be a valuable tool in this effort as it allows attendees a chance to attend at their leisure, with no added marketing pressure. When TrustRadius released its findings on post-pandemic spending among tech companies, the firm promised viewers it would not add them to its marketing cadences. This led to an increase of 30 percent in its registration rate compared to the average.
For more information on how agencies sell advertising post-COVID:
Prior to COVID-19, there were three main reasons why professionals attended in-person events: content, networking, and location. As physical events become more commonplace, organizers will be wise to focus on these reasons to entice in-person viewers and attendees.
Recently, organizers for the Dick’s Sporting Goods Open, a golf tournament and entertainment event held in New York, announced it would allow up to 5,000 to attend in person — though the outdoor event will look drastically different from previous years. There will be no bleachers, and fans will be encouraged to bring their own chairs and practice social distancing. Masks will be required, and sanitation stations will be provided.
Events like this will provide a roadmap as more organizers look to move away from digital-only events.
While sporting and entertainment have been the first to draw in new crowds, others will still have to wait well into the future for a full return to normalcy. E3, a computer gaming event hosted by the Entertainment Software Association, has transformed from a relatively exclusive convention to a free, all-digital event to be held this summer. While this represents a downgrade from the excitement garnered by the physical event, it’s the first E3 to be held since 2019.
Although E3 and the Dick’s Sporting Goods Open represent two different approaches to the same problem, they do suggest that the events industry is on its way to a new status quo.
The next step is to prepare your company for the new normal. One of the most effective ways to do this is to transition your events to a hybrid approach, adapting digital technology to supplement a physical space. Another common option will be to host a digital event in parallel with a smaller physical event, allowing your company to reach an audience that may have stayed home either way.
If it’s not yet possible for your company to hold a physical event, work on enticing attendees with the same goodies they might have packed away in the past. Consider adding swag bags as a benefit to signing up to a virtual event. You should also keep all the information and resources normally found in exhibition booths in an easily accessible database for attendees. Don’t forget: AdRoll is here to help too.
Originally published on April 22nd, 2021, last updated on June 16th, 2022.