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The 2020 Virtual Event Wasteland

By Kaylee Sandstrom and Spiro Skias

The days of airport lounges, pressed suits, conferences, and firm handshakes were wanted memories this year as we all transitioned to a virtual reality. Although any return on investment (ROI) was uncertain at best, many companies gambled on virtual event sponsorships, but did this new virtual reality deliver the goods?

Event organizers have always had the difficult challenge of making each event unique, gaining attendance, and offering great content. This year, those challenges were exacerbated with the dilemma of whether to hold the event virtually or to hold the event at all. Postponements led to further postponements, cancellations, and finally, the brave ones went virtual. This shift affected everyone at every level and put sponsors in a difficult position.

From a sponsor’s perspective, some of the insurance industry’s 2020 virtual events got it right and others failed miserably. At the outset of the year, there were roughly 20 industry conferences in the plan; however, due to the pandemic and other related challenges, only 12 events made the final list of those attended or sponsored.

Show Me the Money!

When it comes to the financial aspects of any event, the math is pretty simple. Organizers need to make money and cover costs, sponsors want the biggest bang for the proverbial conference buck, and everyone wants great content, meaningful business connections, and a memorable overall experience. Moving events to virtual in 2020 didn’t change any of that.

However, this year, something went fundamentally wrong. For in-person events, sponsors can measure sponsorship ROI more effectively because the metrics are tangible. They can physically see people/attendees, manage booth traffic, and so on. Virtual events don’t provide the same experience. Regardless, just about all of the virtual event opportunities were at the same price point as in-person events. Virtual events are cheaper to host; so, from a sponsor’s perspective, if virtual event organizers are going to deliver less (sessions, attendees, speaking opps) and charge the same, where is the incentive to sponsor?

The benefits of sponsoring any event include brand awareness, attendee engagement, attendee contacts, 1:1 meetings, and limitless connections, and all at an affordable price. Conference organizers have traditionally demonstrated a keen understanding of this. So, why did so many conferences miss the mark this year?

From Zoom to Bizaboo

Almost every conference wanted to reinvent the “event platform” wheel, trying to build something bigger and better than what is already available. With so many proven options out there the biggest question is, “Why?” 

One insurtech event held later in 2020 built an entire platform from scratch to provide a unique virtual experience to attendees. But it was so complex that the search engine for making connections didn’t even work. This problem was not revalidated after a couple of days of failed attempts. The worst part is that sponsorships paid for this “unique experience.”

The reality is that the more complex the platform, the harder it is to navigate, and for sponsors, that is extremely frustrating. In the virtual world, the event platform has become the gateway for sponsors to interact with attendees. If the platform requires a “training session,” it’s probably too complex. Nobody attends or sponsors an event because of the platform, so KEEP IT SIMPLE!

Networking - Um, Not Working

In this day and age, where swiping left and right through the masses and endless scrolling has become a norm, it becomes all about who you know, who you want to know, and making real connections.

But networking was a missed opportunity altogether. Many conferences allowed for networking where you could request as many meetings as you wanted. However, with no real incentive for the attendees to click “Accept,” meetings fell to the wayside.

In theory, virtual networking should work great for these events. Most of us do some sort of virtual networking on a daily basis via social media platforms. However, when it comes to industry events, attendees are less apt to network. This is not an opinion, but an observed fact.

Part of the problem is that every event has a separate platform, for which every attendee has to create a new profile every time. It would be like creating a new profile on LinkedIn every month and have to start networking from scratch all over again.

Virtual Coffee? Virtual Wine? Or, Virtual Swag?

Setting up an exhibit is a great way for sponsors to create a brand showcase and generate leads. This works great for in-person events where foot traffic in the exhibit hall is tangible, but virtual exhibiting needs a facelift.

Just about every conference provided a virtual space where exhibitors could upload promotional content, brochures, and create a virtual face-to-face experience. Some even created an actual virtual “hall” that users could navigate. But attendees simply did not engage as they usually do in person. If they did, most did not turn on their camera and mic, essentially ghosting the exhibitors.

The reality is that attendees can’t blur their faces and mute themselves in a non-virtual world. It’s hard to imagine that people today will turn on their video for an Instagram post of brushing their hair, but are hesitant to video network at a virtual event. Regardless, the whole point of networking is to interact, talk, and engage. Without incentivizing your attendees to visit the virtual booth hall, the value of the virtual exhibits greatly diminishes.  

Pay to Speak

Every conference tries to differentiate itself based on the experience and content provided. In 2020, everyone nailed it on the content. Despite COVID being a common mention at each event, there seemed to be more content diversity this year than in prior years. It is clear that the industry has a mostly successful formula for delivering educational content in a virtual world.

But most of the sessions lacked any kind of debate. People learn by listening to differing opinions and viewpoints. Conference attendees do too...if all the vendors, insurers, and analysts on any given panel all agree, attendees are only afforded a one-sided look at the topic in question. The reality is that not everyone agrees, and sessions or panels should reflect that.

In 2020, the rules for vendors speaking at most industry events changed. There were fewer sessions in fewer tracks, so most of the speaking opportunities were “pay to play” – if you’re an event sponsor, you have to pay to speak. If you are an insurer, you get invited to speak. Let that sink in for a moment.

This only furthers the one-sided views being presented, and gives the perception that solution providers are not thought leaders in the industry. Given that solution providers are the ones creating the latest innovative technologies in the industry, it seems right to listen when these experts talk objectively and constructively about emerging technologies and applications of emerging technologies in insurance.

Considerations for 2021

If 2021 ends up being a repeat of 2020 from an event perspective, conference organizers need to really evaluate the value proposition for sponsors. If the cost model doesn't change, sponsors will expect more value for their money, or just not sponsor at all.

Companies sponsor events for brand awareness and lead generation (networking). This year has demonstrated that virtual events are meeting their content commitments, but are not delivering on their promises for sponsors in an effective way.

So ask yourself, if you were considering sponsoring an event, what is the real incentive for companies to continue sponsoring? Here are some of our top things to consider as you plan your virtual events for 2021:

1  Scale the Cost

Hosting a virtual event is cheaper than an in-person event, so adjust your cost accordingly. Companies won’t be as willing to pay in-person pricing for virtual experiences that do not yield the same return.

2  Scrap the AI and Play Real Matchmaker

Virtual matchmaking is based on the questions asked when an attendee is setting up their profile. Bottom line is it doesn’t work, so scrap it. To provide real value to the sponsors, play a real matchmaker and offer personalized 1:1 meetings with key executives. Have the sponsor provide their target list of companies and help make those connections and meetings happen. A sponsor is probably more willing to invest in an event that guarantees those meetings.

3  Close the Virtual Booths

Virtual booths provide no real value to sponsors. It would be more effective to just have the sponsor provide a link to their landing page, and give them five minutes to showcase themselves during the event. If you still believe virtual booths are beneficial, make them more valuable. Host pre-scheduled booth visits for attendees, but make it part of the event agenda.

4  Use LinkedIn

Just about everyone attending these conferences is already on LinkedIn. As a matter of fact, linking your LinkedIn profile with your event profile is common practice, so the tech is already there. It makes no sense to create a separate profile on every different conference platform. LinkedIn connections extend well beyond the life of the conference. So, create a LinkedIn event group, add the registered attendees to the group, and let them expand their network, make new connections, and message people directly.

5  Give Sponsors a Voice

Sponsors and solution providers have much to offer when it comes to technology thought leadership. We all know it doesn’t cost more to have a sponsor speak at an event, so stop charging for it. Create more diversity in your panel discussions and agenda by mixing in a variety of solution providers and insurers of all shapes and sizes. It will spark better discussions and provide different perspectives that will engage the audience. Match solution providers with the content agenda and offer them to apply as a speaker at no additional cost. And the solution provider doesn’t have to be associated with the insurer panelists – in fact, it would be best if they were not partners. Otherwise, it just becomes a commercial for that vendor.


Our Top Picks for 2020 Virtual Events

Having attended so many virtual events this year, here are our top picks of the ones that got it right!

Best Livestream Experience: Marketforce Live - Insurance Innovators Virtual Summit 2020

Hosting a live virtual event is challenging on its own, and it can be difficult for organizers to create that unique experience. Marketforce Live nailed it, though.The livestream was more like watching a news channel on TV. Led by an incredibly talented host, they created an experience where you could turn on the channel to tune into the current discussion. It was also interactive where viewers could submit questions via the chat line. All in all, incredibly well done.

Best Networking Experience: WBResearch - Digital Insurance Connect 2020

As we previously said, networking and lead generation is one of the top criteria for any company willing to invest money for an event as a sponsor. This is where WBResearch deserves major props. Although they had general networking in their app, they went above and beyond for sponsors. WBResearch offered guaranteed personal meetings with key decision makers. The sponsor provides their top picks, and WBResearch handles everything else. By far the best networking experience for a sponsor.

We do need to give an honorable mention to Insurtech NY for incentivizing meetings with a raffle giveaway if you attended three or more meetings.

Best Platform Experience: Insurtech NY

There really is no “perfect” event platform out there; however, based on our experiences this year, Insurtech NY deserves recognition. What we liked about their platform is that they kept it simple. They used Zoom for the live sessions and Grip for the networking. What we liked about Grip is that they did not overly customize the experience. It was easy to navigate, the search actually worked, and holding virtual meetings through the app was simple.





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