Virtual reality: events in 2021

It’s the end of January and the Aspect team and I have had a chance to reflect on what’s in store for events in 2021.  Spoiler alert – it’s great news!

We’re a month into 2021 and one thing has become clear: virtual is here to stay.  Any optimism felt at the start of the year about an imminent return to live events has been replaced with the acceptance that things won’t be returning to ‘normal’ any time soon.

But this is no reason to feel downbeat.  In fact, I would go so far as to say the opposite.  While many businesses spent 2020 adapting and getting used to a new world and a new way of doing things (remember pivoting?), 2021 is the year to embrace the power of virtual in all its glory.

Rather than dismissing virtual as a poor relation of live, it’s time to recognise its potential as an effective communications channel in its own right.  There has never been a better opportunity to be proactive in using the power of virtual to inspire audiences and improved business performance.

Here are five thought-starters for virtual in 2021:

  1. The experience.  While we want to see the most important and impactful elements of a live event being brought to life in the virtual space, mimicking live by creating a virtual walkthrough experience is not the answer – we need to be much more creative and develop the big ideas that build excitement, anticipation and provoke conversation both inside and outside your virtual event.
  2. Content.  We’ve seen a huge opportunity for virtual to smash targets and expectations through wider reach, better data and reduced environmental impact. But if the ROI from a virtual event is to match that of live, the content bar needs to be raised. Reaching all four corners of the world without the expense of a global event programme is an appealing prospect, but if the quality of the content is lacking, its impact will be minimal.
  3. Extended shelf life.  One of the real advantages of virtual is its potential to keep on giving.  On-demand content allows organisations to maximise interactions with their audiences beyond the event itself (not to mention the sponsorship opportunities for partners).  Thinking more laterally about content sharing allows us to engage audiences in ways we’re not really scratching the surface of at the moment.
  4. Technology.  This previously unknown, and frankly daunting, element of virtual has now become second nature to most event professionals.  But there is so much more to discover in this area by keeping up with the newest innovations – a full time job in itself.  More immersive platforms will be used as we get more creative with ideas for how to engage audiences, share content and gather intelligence. Importantly, there is no one size fits all, so understanding how different solutions suit different business objectives is key.
  5. The event mix.  Pigeonholing events into virtual, live or hybrid is neither sensible nor helpful. We see events as omni-channel, or channel agnostic, giving us the flexibility to develop a bespoke solution for each one based on needs and the desired outcome.  When live does return, we are likely to see some signature, more exclusive live experiences, surrounded by virtual and/or hybrid events. Longer-term, event managers will need to reimagine the role that live events play in their marketing mix, adopting a more flexible approach to achieve their business objectives.

Far from being a poor substitute for a live experience, we need to acknowledge the opportunities virtual brings for increased creativity, engagement, and ROI – and, most importantly, take full advantage of them.  After the shock of 2020, now is the time to double down on what matters most: putting on unforgettable events that engage, inform and inspire.

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