I spent some time last week with someone involved in business development for a tech consulting firm. The starting point was a question about what sorts of things might attract people to participate in online events. This isn’t quite how the conversation went, but it does recall some of the challenges I think online event organisers need to confront…

I don’t think I’ve ever been invited to as many events as I have in the past 12 months. After the initial confusion, events have moved online in a big way. You can see that (possibly not their day job) event organisers have started to think that by removing physical space from the complexity of events logistics, a wonderful new world of eventing has been opened up. The new event normal.

But although I’m being invited to more events than ever before, I’m attending hardly any. It’s simply not working for me, and I reckon I’m probably not alone in that.

Let’’s first of all step back into the world of events before Covid. There were many sorts of events; events you had to pay to attend; those that were “free”; all day events like conferences; evening (or breakfast) events that were usually linked to a meal; sporting events that were basically an excuse to get a bit drunk. I’ve probably not covered them all.

There were also Webinars. Webinars were mostly shit and indicated that whoever was organising it didn’t really have the money or commitment to do things properly.

For a moment let’s take out of the equation paid-for events. Let’s now just think about the sorts of events that are organised by a company essentially as a way to generate new business. And let’s also think of those things as a value proposition to the attendee rather than too the organiser.

From an attendee’s perspective, attending an event has a load of potential value. And not much of it comes from the “content”.

  • The opportunity to meet new people from different organisations to share expertise, knowledge and experiences.
  • To raise your own personal profile
  • To get some time out of the normal workplace to think and be inspired
  • To have a nice time
  • The chance to learn about a providers products and services

When looked at through that lens, you quickly see why webinars were so dreadful. And still are.

Online events take the one thing about in-person events that is easily transferable online – presentations mostly – and strip out all the other value.

But moreover, by making events online, you do something that has happened in many other media worlds over a number of years with the move to digital. You make the cost of distribution of your product basically zero. There’s no venue to hire. No food to prepare. No lecterns to brand, light and wire for sound. No entertainment to organise. No bar to stock.

Every single additional guest in the physical world had additional real cost. Online, the additional cost of extra guests is zero.

And when the incremental cost of delivering a digital thing becomes zero, our view of the worth of it becomes zero, as Nicholas Lovell noted in his great book The Curve. Give me a webinar and immediately sense less value because it’s just internet stuff on the internet, rather than a day out in a fancy hotel. Or even a day out in a crappy event venue.

In the world of online events, event organisers need to really stop thinking about what’s in it for them, and instead need to think about what is in it for the attendee. They need a value proposition that is significantly more sophisticated than a few boring presentations and panels.

At very least, think of the time commitment. For round numbers, let’s say that the value of an hour I spend on an online event is £100. The opportunity cost might well be greater. Is an online event giving me a return on that £100? In the physical world, a nice meal would offset the time commitment at a personal level, and the networking at a professional level. The content could be utter crap if the company was good enough.

A few videos of people presenting stuff? I can get all of that and more on YouTube. Your video isn’t that special (unless you are Marcus Brown in which case it might be).

What sort of things do cut through? Well, the events that I have made time for are the ones that have given me more than content.

There aren’t that many, to be frank, but they are all highly participative – IDC’s weekly CIO forum that is partly co-ordinated by my Podcasting co-host Chris is something I make the time for. Tortoise’s Think Ins are so good (which I’ve actually paid for through my subscription). I get to meet people. I get to share ideas. I get to interact, not just passively consume.

It’s going to be interesting to see if any of this influences events in the physical world going forward. I fear that empathy-free CFOs will see the difference in the numbers and just clamp down on in person events in the future (as they will with travel and office space I would wager). But hopefully we’ll see less sitting shoulder-to-shoulder, in rows, staring at a stage going forward, and more face-to-face interaction that’s cleverly facilitated. Here’s hoping.

3 thoughts on “Why I struggle with online events

  1. Just about to send out a message about an online event when I read this. Has given me pause for thought, and a different perspective to consider. Clearly ‘if you build it, they will come’ isn’t going to cut it anymore.

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