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April 7, 2023

Virtual events vs In person events- can they ever be a match for the real thing?

"virtual events will never be able to match the feeling of in person.."

It’s a narrative I’ve been reading a lot in Linkedin land of late.

Well no offence, but maybe you’re hanging out at the wrong online events…

I won’t lie. Selling tickets for The Digital Circus LIVE were a bit of a slog this year. Especially with the current cost of living crisis we have recognised that people are prioritising their spending in different ways. And quite simply when it comes to online its easy to excuse yourself, to book out your diary with other things. The value is seemingly weighted differently to booking yourself in to something in person. 

In fact one person excused themselves from coming by saying they felt that they knew everything they need to know right now. That same person is booked on to an in person learning event in just a few weeks time...

So what is the problem?

Death by PowerPoint. One directional webinars. Taking the lead from the Zoom host. Not having a voice.

Like I said. You’re hanging out at the wrong online events.

Now, one thing I know we can’t ever replicate are the hugs. The wonderful Jackie Goddard - Power To Speak mentioned this the other day. She’s a hugger. You definitely can’t do that online.

Nope you can’t.

But you CAN replicate so much other stuff. And in actual fact when done right I think it can be better than in person.

Here are a few thoughts I have had since reflecting on this years The Digital Circus LIVE event.

1] Efficiency.

This year at 🎪The Digital Circus LIVE we facilitated a warm up act, 4xkeynote presentations, 10x 30 minute workshops, an expo, networking sessions and a sundowners session. All in all that was 20 different opportunities on the schedule that our online guests could get involved in.

Alan and I are a small business team of two. It’s just us. There is no way we could have packed that much value into an in-person event by ourselves, not to mention juggling the logistics of moving over 100 humans around a physical space.

Think of the time wasted at physical events herding visitors from space to space. Waiting for the room to fill, getting comfy in seats, waiting for a few stragglers to come back from the loo. Waiting for the speaker to set up at the front, settling down the noise before starting. 

Using Hopin for our event was incredible and for the most part transitioning between speakers was seamless. Alan and I were in mission control throughout the day ensuring that 5-10mins before we had the next expert lined up, tested and energised.

event HQ at The Digital Circus LIVE 2023

2] Retention

We had a 91% turn out on the day which was incredible. And from the LIVE attendees [ replays were available to those who couldn’t make the day LIVE] the average time spent at the event per visitor was 6hrs and 17mins. Our virtual doors opened from 08:45 to have some opportunity to network before the first live element at 09:45 and closed at 17:30. This meant that the majority of the attendees were in it for the long haul. People fed back that they couldn’t wait for the next thing on the agenda, in fact one attendee was having so much fun that she forgot to pick up her own children from school at 3pm.

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One major win was that people seemingly enjoyed and valued the 30min session times throughout the day. No long and arduous 2hr zoom webinars but fast paced and balanced sessions filled with value and a couple of key takeaways per session that were immediately actionable. This meant that if a particular topic didn’t resonate with an individual they weren’t tied into an hour long session where they could be utilising their time better. We also ensured that there were two sessions running side by side at all times to ensure that the choice was left in the hand of the participant.

3] Participation 

Managing visitor participation at an in person event is hard. Think about it for a second from both session delivery and participant perspective in an auditorium. The speaker is delivering one to many and for the most part this is one way delivery, all be it on a stage. The room may be listening but for the most part silent. You sit with someone to your left and to your right and you may converse but you’re not chatting to the person in the back row or in seat 4F. 

In an online space the dialogue is free flowing throughout the session. If you’ve chosen to keep your camera on you can read the room, you can look at facial reactions, you can leave continuous feedback and comments in the chat, you can spark conversations for later on in the day because you’re not leaving it for the potential Q&A at the end of a physical session [ if anyone has been brave enough to raise their hand in public]

4] Freedom of choice

By running an online event somewhere like Hopin and by thoughtfully curating an event schedule that took in so much we really did put the choice in the hands of our event visitors. For those that wanted to learn? They did. For those that wanted to sit in the networking zone all day? They did. There were those that interacted with their cameras and microphones on and those preferred to stay off camera. Those that made a hundred comments and got involved in the polls and those that just listened and absorbed.

The day could be exactly what you wanted it to be. 

But yes Emily you say, it’s not all about the learning sessions at at an in person event. The magic happens during lunch or at the bar….

Well that surely depends on your own character doesn’t it?

If you’re anything like me at public events you gravitate to the people you know rather than standing in the middle of the space hoping to find a random face you’ve never met. In fact in a busy room I find it an absolute social nightmare to make sure I can give everyone the right amount of attention, making eye contact whilst eating a sausage roll at a buffet, trying to listen intently to the person next to me whilst having a sensory overload with the other conversations happening at the same time.

Arguably you have the opportunity to speak to MORE people at an online event than in person in a calmer, turn taking environment.

So that takes me to point 5…

5] Lunch

Yes you often get lunch at an in person event. Sometimes it’s provided, at other events you’ve got paid options. That doesn’t mean you have to miss out at an online event.

In year one of The Digital Circus LIVE we trialled something that we may actually bring back for 2024. Lunch in the post!

As part of our offering we wanted to feel as close to an in person conference as possible but just in an online space. We worked with two catering companies to provide post friendly lunch options to our participants. One was an afternoon tea style box supplied by Chouxlicious and the other a charcuterie box from The Slinky Fox.

People could opt in if they wanted or alternatively nip down into their kitchens to make a cheese sarnie during the lunch break meaning that those who wanted to be catered for could fully absorb the day. They had commonality with others who received their box on the morning of the event and they could use the lunch break to eat amongst their event colleagues and peers and have that conversation point you would have at an in person conference.

Emily and Alan from Yellow Tuxedo eating lunch at a virtual conference- the digital circus live

6] The bar..

Much like in point 4 we trialled this in year one with post friendly gin cocktails for the sundowners at the end of the day. We dropped the mail order gin but the Sundowners session has remained for every LIVE so far. This year Alan and I arrived at a packed full Sundowners room with two cans of red stripe and laid back in our chairs. Everyone brought a long a drink if they wanted one and we just unpicked the day that was and shared stories, wins and future thoughts. We couldn’t get everyone to leave at the end! 

Sundowners session at The Digital Circus LIVE

And lastly…

The Digital Circus LIVE opened us up to participants globally. And yes, at some stage our little event delivered by our little team of two might be the size of the likes of CEX and Social Media Marketing World whereby participants are willing to fly half way across the world to join us in person but for now we’re still Emily and Alan from Yellow Tuxedo with our bijou audience that we are growing daily.

Our online event allowed us to interact with people from USA, Australia, Finland, Germany, Dubai, India and beyond.

And whilst yes, we still agree that we couldn’t have hugs on the day, networking in the way we did online means that we can cut to the chase when we next see people in the real world. I don’t need or want to hug EVERYONE, there are some key people that I now know that I absolutely want to continue building a relationship with after The Digital Circus LIVE. I’ll seek them out for a hug later!

The Digital Circus LIVE will be back next year continuing to build human connection in a digital world. Sign up here to be on the waiting list to find out more when details are released..

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