Lately, I get a lot of questions about “virtual conferences” and how much I believe they will replace the struggling live conference business of today. My answer? In the next 12-18 months we will see a lot of awful failed experiments. Just like the ones we’ve been seeing for the past 12 months or so.
Compare today’s virtual conferences with the movies of 100 years ago. In the early days of film, many productions used a single camera in front of a stage, documenting an existing art form instead of innovating a new one. Creative types soon realized that location shots, multiple cameras, closeups with close-in subtlety rather than theatrical exaggeration – and eventually, montage, sound, and more – allowed new forms of communication with the audience.
Virtual conferences are at the same point in their arc – they pride themselves on reproducing the “real” conference experience – even when that is almost impossible. And worse, some of the “successful” aping of live events reproduces the worst parts. Like “chat rooms” designed to let you interact with people, just like you do at shows. What’s wrong with that? Well, many of the best non-programmed interactions at conferences I go to are random. Often everyone I might want to talk to is busy with a concurrent activity they couldn’t miss, so they aren’t in whatever meeting space is provided. There is one guy in the room or at the table drowning everyone out with his theory of life, the universe and everything, though, and it’s not easy to leave. The limitation is time – it has to happen on schedule. I want A-synchronous; I can’t get it in “real life”, but I could in cyberspace if we worked on it a bit. Then I could reach the folks I really want to talk to and have time for a real dialogue, even if they’re busy at this moment.
Or consider how we do keynote speeches at live events. You can’t get close enough, it’s hard to see, and there probably isn’t enough light, power or room to make notes. You certainly don’t have a copy of the presentation to annotate in digital form, just one of those boat anchor books. You may write on it if you can see and have room, but you will likely leave in your room to save weight and space, or send it back at great expense so you can throw it into the trash can in your office later. Then there is the “this just in” update that the presenter should have put in on time but didn’t, so now you have a ton of loose ones…. Now, in a cyber-event, we could make the presentations available in advance (and “just in time” would be fine) but we rarely do. Instead we spend a lot of money on live streaming that often suffers from poor network speed, bad camerawork, and the inevitable high-cost video that is NOT streamed. And an analyst/blogger whine: guest content, live customers, and panels rarely have associated content we can refer to later without logging in to a site we rarely use and don’t want to keep IDs for.
There are many more issues I could raise here, but let’s end it with this thought: Virtual conferences are an opportunity to think about what conferences are for again. There are big social opportunities that can be enhanced, made asynchronous, documented better, and extended beyond the event. But they rarely are. There are chances to provide data in crisp, correlated ways and learn who was interested and why. There are ways to make interactions into more qualified leads than the ones from the person who couldn’t hear your pitch on the trade show floor because someone was shouting about handing keychains in the next booth over.
We can do this better. So far, we are failing even to do it as well as we have so far. As we say on Twitter: FAIL.