This week I “attended” three virtual events. They were all multi-day and two of them were on topics that I have a sincere and vested interest in. Here’s how my experience generally went:

9am

Join the event - Attempt 1

I go to my registration email and click the link to join. Each event has its own issues — 404 errors, resetting my password, etc.

9:10am

Join the event - Attempt 2

After resolving the issues logging onto the event hosting platform, I navigate to the keynote address. In 2 out of 3 cases, the site crashes and I get an email from the organizer saying they’re having technical issues.

9:30am

Keynote

I get into the keynote halfway through the discussion and watch for 20 minutes until it ends.

10am

Panel #1

I watch the first panel for 20 minutes, at which point I can’t fend off the phone calls I’ve been getting and put the event on mute. After another 20 minutes, I realize I’m not making it back to watch and close the window altogether.

 

These events had hours and hours of quality talks, yet I only spent 90 minutes at each.  The speakers were experts in their field and had a compelling message. But my phone kept ringing, email needed to be checked, work fell on my desk that needed attention. There was a missing incentive for me to stick around. I could always watch the recorded keynotes later. I wasn't getting enough value from attending.

It got me thinking about the differences between virtual and in-person B2B events. What is being done well, virtually, and what is not?

Let’s start by comparing my virtual event experience to my agenda from one day of a recent in-person trade show I attended. It looked like this:

 

7am

Morning Jog

Organized by the trade show to give an informal way for attendees to meet. I’d later run into someone I met on the run, who in turn introduced me to a potential client.

9am

Watch opening Keynote

 

9:45am

Coffee Break

Have 4 conversations with people I haven’t met before while I’m getting food and waiting for colleagues to arrive. 

10am

Walk trade show floor

Visit the half-dozen booths I had pre-selected before the show started.

Noon

Lunch

I leave the show and cram as many emails and calls into the hour as possible.

1pm

More trade show floor

Walk the rest of the floor, stumble on 2 or 3 booths I never would have known I was interested in. Collect some swag to bring home to my kids.

3pm

Attend a talk

Wait for the speaker afterwards so I can introduce myself, ask a follow-up question and discuss a potential partnership.

4pm

Attend a breakout session

 

5pm onwards

Happy hours and dinner w/ clients

 

 

After comparing the schedules, I could see what is missing. The talks and breakout sessions are the obvious wins for Virtual since the content can be scaled and archived. However, there’s an important element missing: connection. I’ve made wonderful connections by waiting to introduce myself to a speaker right after their talk or introducing myself to someone in line for coffee. These are connections that would never have happened with a cold email or direct message via a conference networking app. Virtual events aren’t able to give me that opportunity — they have a coffee break problem.

In-person events succeed when they create community. Within the community, it’s not only fun to make new connections, but you maximize the chances that those new connections are valuable to your business. The serendipity of meeting someone while waiting in line for breakfast is very challenging to emulate digitally. 

One of the virtual events I attended asked me dozens of questions about who I was hoping to meet, what I wanted to buy, what I sell, etc. It promised to match me with people that want to buy exactly what I sell. While I understand the intent of these apps, the approach is flawed. If I can categorize exactly what I want to buy, I would rather search online for potential vendors and tightly curate which demos I put my time against. Using an algorithm to match people is the opposite of what makes in-person events successful. It’s an over-engineered coup attempt on Google, and it has low potential to add value.

At Luster, we’re turning our focus to creating virtual serendipity. Our Virtual Mosaic invites attendees to contribute their photos to a collaborative work of art. They watch the Mosaic be assembled in real-time as each photo is received. Each photo is a story. Browsing and searching the Virtual Mosaic allows you to learn those stories from the people in the community you’ve joined. 

Our future products will continue this exploration. What can a group of people accomplish, in spite of being apart, that will unite them? How can someone stumble upon something interesting about a fellow attendee that makes them happy to be experiencing the same thing at the same time, albeit in different locations? What makes them want to reach out for a quick hello? Those are the problems that we’re solving because it's what makes in-person events worth attending, and it is what will make people stay at a virtual event for longer than 90 minutes.


Michael Lipton is the CEO and co-founder of Luster. You can find out more about Luster’s Virtual Mosaic at www.luster.cc/product/virtualmosaic