I glanced at my calendar earlier this week and froze—the realization that we’ve been in lock down for a full year hit me suddenly. I have a vivid memory of stepping off a plane at SFO on March 4th, 2020, returning from a short trip to host a field marketing event in Denver. When I powered up my phone, it was already buzzing with news of an impending lockdown, travel ban, and office closures. That trip to Denver would prove to be my last and I’ve only visited the office to collect some work-from-home essentials since then.

I was also deep into the final planning stages of an annual user conference scheduled for St. Patrick’s Day, with a goal of bringing over one thousand B2B sales and marketing professionals (customers and prospects) together in San Francisco. Within hours of landing, I was in discussions with my team, vendors, and sponsors about canceling the in-person event and (maybe) pivoting to a virtual event. No pressure, right? Talk to any marketer about their experiences one year ago, and you’ll likely hear a similar story.

Reading AnyRoad’s latest report, The State of Virtual Events 2021, solidified so much of what I’d been thinking about the fast pivot so many marketers have made in the past year. Moving from the tried and tested formula of hosting and sponsoring in-person events and industry conferences (which generated a significant amount of pipeline, might I add) to running “digital experiences” has been a major shift in both skill sets and focus. I’ve seen many teams, including my own, struggle mightily with this shift, but I’ve also been so impressed by the flexibility and creativity that marketers have shown in making virtual events successful.

While it’s true that I’m a sucker for a good benchmark report that leads with data-driven insights, I’d encourage any B2B or B2C marketer to read The State of Virtual Events 2021. It’s packed with real-world perspectives from marketing professionals at over 100 companies, including LinkedIn, HP, Nestle, Volkswagen, and Anheuser Busch (to name a few). To give you a taste of what’s included in this report, I’ve pulled out some key highlights—there’s no question that I’ll be using many of these findings to adjust my team’s go-to-market strategies for 2021

1. Measure what matters
When marketers measure what really matters, good things happen and smart investments become the norm rather than the exception. But what should brands measure and how deep should the metrics run? According to AnyRoad’s benchmark report, 45% of respondents measure topline metrics like registration and attendance to gauge event success. For me at least, it’s encouraging to see that 24.9% of respondents are willing to go deeper by measuring real outcomes such as the impact an event has on Net Promoter Score using pre- and post-event surveys. Even better, 14.8% of those polled in the survey are measuring actual revenue generated from virtual events, which is the surest yardstick for total ROI and impact analysis. 

2. Plan to succeed
I know first-hand that running successful virtual events is damn hard; this survey bears that out by showing that 46.6% of respondents consider it “moderately challenging” and 6.3% rate it as “very challenging”. Despite these challenges, brands who invest time to plan their virtual events carefully will reap the rewards. For example, 63.4% of respondents ran a live rehearsal before each virtual event, greatly increasing their prospects of success. With good preparation and attention to detail, there is much to be hopeful about virtual events—particularly when 91% of respondents felt that their virtual events were either “very successful” or “somewhat successful”.

3. The future beckons
We should always keep it real when evaluating marketing channels and activities. Virtual events face many headwinds from the oft-quoted “Zoom fatigue” to difficulty capturing the “magic of an in-person event”, as one survey respondent in AnyRoad’s benchmark report puts it. But there is much room for innovation in this category, and I’m encouraged to see that participants in this survey are already thinking about concrete ways to improve the virtual event experience. With ideas like enabling multiple hosts from different locations, focusing on richer and more interactive experiences, and tightening up overall attribution, it’s clear that this is a space ripe for innovation. 

At the end of the day, the numbers don’t lie in a report like this. 85.3% of respondents feel that online experiences are here to stay, and 57.7% expect their budget to increase this year. As a marketer with a lot at stake in this channel, I can’t wait to see the impact of virtual events this year as the pandemic eases and everything starts to return to normal.