As commentary around reopening begins to accelerate, the sentiment from marketers is that virtual events will remain a part of the marketing mix for the foreseeable future. 

Despite all the hardships of 2020, many brands have shown tremendous creativity and resilience in responding to the confinements of shelter-in-place, working from home, and the prolonged absence of in-person events. It certainly hasn’t been an easy journey for the past year, but it is impressive to see how brands have pivoted their marketing strategies to accommodate our “new reality”. 

After tracking and analyzing over 200 virtual event ideas, we decided to go one step further to directly survey marketers in order to better understand their general sentiment on virtual events, examine how they are using them, as well as uncover the key trends impacting the future of the medium. Our survey was launched at the end of 2020 and on February 23 we unveiled The State of Virtual Events 2021a global benchmark report based on responses from 100 companies managing approximately 20,000 annual virtual events collectively. 

While the companies who participated varied in size, several global brands were among the respondents, including Anheuser-Busch, Nestlé, HP, Condé Nast, Pernod Ricard, Volkswagen, LinkedIn, and more. Our primary goal is to gain insights into how companies are running online experiences and events, identify the common challenges they face, and highlight the best ways to measure success.

What did we learn?

Most respondents (51%) revealed that they were new to virtual experiences in 2020, and with the future of in-person events still unclear, 58% of respondents expect their virtual budgets to increase over the next year. The vast majority (85.3%) say that online experiences are here to stay even after the pandemic subsides. 

For many brands, the shift to virtual events has meant a quick pivot with a steep learning curve. Over half of those surveyed described it as either moderately challenging (46.6%) or very challenging (6.3%) to run effective virtual events that deliver a consistent return-on-investment. That’s why careful planning and execution are critical for success. 

Zoom is by far the most popular technology for hosting virtual experiences, at least for now. Zoom is the platform of choice for 48% of respondents, followed distantly by Microsoft Teams (12%) and Facebook Live (9.4%). However, with little prospect of live-events returning anytime soon, many platforms are gearing up to serve the overwhelming demand for delivering online event experiences, and technology preferences will undoubtedly shift over time. However, despite the dominant position of Zoom, a long tail of 39 different providers was shared by respondents with 30% of respondents using more than one technology. Interesting to note that many of the newer platforms including Hopin, who announced they raised $400M on March 4th, didn’t register at scale in the research. We expect newer entrants to take a more dominant position in next year’s survey. 

Satisfaction with online experiences is high, but there is room for improvement. One in three respondents (33.9%) rated their virtual events as very successful, which shows that experiential marketing can demonstrate great potential when executed effectively. However, it’s still a new motion for many marketers, and the majority of respondents (58.2%) described their online experiences as only somewhat successful.

Rising above the noise to run an engaging and well-attended virtual event is not easy, especially with audience fatigue setting in. Compelling content is the key to unlocking this attention challenge, but 27% of respondents found it difficult to create content that’s both interesting and engaging to the audience.

One of the biggest challenges with online experiences involves demonstrating impact. 46% of respondents felt that they did not have sufficient measurement tools to show the full impact of their virtual events. Respondents also struggled to identify suitable KPIs to measure the effectiveness of their online experiences.

Conclusion 

The research shows that brands around the world plan to continue to use virtual events to engage audiences even after the pandemic subsides. But it’s equally clear from the comments in the survey that marketers are eager for a return to in-person experiences and that contingency planning is in flight for what the next normal will be. We predict that hybrid experiences will exist alongside in-person events, supported by a broad range of technologies and service providers. However, in order to return experience programs to pre-pandemic levels, marketers must take steps steps to solve the measurement challenges they face with experiences.

More details about the survey methodology and a full analysis of the findings can be found in this downloadable report