Virtual events existed before COVID-19, but in the wake of mandatory distancing, they have exploded as the must-have tactic for 2020. In a few short months, numerous vendors have jumped at the opportunity to meet this demand, including traditional webinar incumbents, e-learning providers, in-person event tech providers, and startups looking to disrupt the industry.
While each of these vendors is offering a virtual event platform, what that means has yet to be defined—before February 2020 no analyst firm, research organization or marketing influencer had even framed out this space. At a minimum, it is a set of tools that can support highly interactive, multi-session digital experiences and include an online agenda, a registration system, video delivery, speaker management, community networking and sponsorship opportunities.
How providers do that, at least for now, depends largely on their origins. As they work to expand their capabilities, knowing their heritage provides insight into areas where they are likely to have strong capabilities and where they might be less robust.
Let’s take a deeper look at the five main categories of virtual event platform vendors.
Webinar platform providers.
For many webinar platform providers, the jump into virtual events is more of a hop. They already have video delivery dialed in, as well as some registration and community engagement features. However, while these features work very well for the single-session events they were designed for, they are not optimized for the use cases that arise from multi-day/multi-session events—such as advanced registration, ticketing, sponsorships, community engagement and learning tracks.
Advantages: Webinar platforms offer a self-contained and vertically integrated experience that is ready to go for simpler virtual events.
Challenges: Designed primarily for single-session experiences, these platforms must add new functionality to deliver frictionless registration, ticketing and agenda-building for multi-session and multi-day events.
Learning management systems (LMS systems) are designed to administer and manage online educational and training experiences. Typical LMS features include registration, asynchronous course delivery, curriculum centric learning, community engagement and incentives, and a way to track and score user activity.
Because learners typically need to verify completion of classes and assess what they’ve learned, LMS systems have robust tracking and reporting capabilities. And because reflection and discussion is a vital part of learning, they tend to have strong community engagement features, such as embedded chat and collaboration. They also often have a gamification component, such as awards, badges and leaderboards, that can be leveraged to encourage event attendees to attend particular sessions, visit virtual sponsor booths, and more.
On the other hand, these platforms are clearly designed for students rather than attendees. The taxonomy and community engagement features are presented in the context of online learning—for example, discussions with other classmates—and some of the event-specific features, like incorporating sponsors, may feel tacked on, rather than integrated. And, because these providers are coming in from the education and training sector, they are just beginning to build relationships and integrations with marketing automation, CRM, and other martech platforms.
Advantages: LMS-based platforms provide robust analytics about attendee participation in everything from sessions to discussions. Incentives can be leveraged to increase engagement, drive participation, and add fun. Significantly, LMS-based platforms have the community angle going for them more so than the other platforms. Their platforms are designed for continuous learning and community engagement—not a one and done model. As virtual events become more about community building and engagement (e.g. think a series of events, similar to a series of courses), LMS-based providers may have a leg up.
Challenges: Coming from the education and training space, these providers will need to build new capabilities to deliver the experience and integrations that marketers expect. The question remains whether these providers will make the necessary investments to turn virtual event software into a core offering—or if their interest in virtual events will die away once the field narrows.
Physical event management providers.
The biggest players in physical event management adapted quickly to the shutdown of physical events by partnering with video platform providers to add digital content delivery to their existing registration, agenda and reporting packages. Many offered this additional service at no additional charge to existing customers, enabling those with already scheduled physical events to pivot rapidly.
Although these providers are now including virtual events as a core offering, components of the during-event experience —such as speaker and sponsor management, matchmaking and networking—are not yet tuned for online events, creating more work for event marketers. In addition, these providers are continuing to base pricing on physical events where fixed costs are much higher than virtual ones.
Advantages: Physical event management providers offer registration and agenda capabilities that were designed with complex, multi-day, multi-session events in mind. Strong relationships with event organizers and a deep understanding of the needs of both event marketers and event attendees, give these providers a leg up as they expand into the virtual event space.
Challenges: Because these providers have not adapted their existing capabilities to a purely virtual format, managing the “during event” experience can be extremely complex for event organizers. A lack of integration between the components used to deliver these experiences can really stand out in the virtual space.
First gen virtual event providers.
These companies were some of the first to bring out virtual event software a decade ago or more. Their groundbreaking 2D- and 3D-like interfaces allowed attendees to feel like they were walking around a trade show or exhibit hall. These platforms were designed with sponsor interactions in mind, and have a solid feature set, but tend to look and feel dated in comparison to their newer competitors, especially those that were designed specifically for digital.
Advantages: First gen virtual event platforms allow visitors to “walk” the exhibit hall, giving sponsors more prominence in the virtual event experience.
Challenges: Providers will need to update their user experience to deliver events with the same fanfare of their modern, digital-first competitors. If brand is critical for your organization, these solutions are likely less of a fit.
Next gen virtual event providers.
These small companies are looking to disrupt the event industry with new and innovative offerings. Rather than coming in with a set notion of how events (physical or otherwise) should be—and trying to recreate that perfectly in a virtual space—these companies are reimagining the digital experience. Some are focused on customizability, offering a virtual event “operating system” that marketers can plug components from other providers into to create exactly the experience they want. Others are building fully integrated virtual event software with some ability to bring in your own video platforms. Still others are thinking about it completely differently, with a mobile-first, community-first mindset.
Advantages: These solutions are being purpose-built for virtual events, not adapted, so they tend to have a very modern aesthetic and a feature set that is more tightly focused on the digital experience—making the user experience more enticing and intuitive for organizers and attendees alike.
Challenges: These small companies are moving quickly to meet the needs of the marketplace. However, their lack of experience and relationships in the event industry, limited time for real-world testing, and lack of resources for support make using these platforms not for the risk-averse.
The Iron Horse insight.
The virtual event software landscape is changing rapidly. Features and solutions are being battletested daily. Organizers and attendees are still learning what is possible with virtual events—and platform vendors are paying close attention to the preferences that are emerging. With their virtual-first mentality and ability to adapt quickly, the upstarts we are seeing now, are well-positioned to take the lead in the purely virtual events. But as we move into wave 2 and wave 3 of virtual events later this year, and in-person events make their return, we expect that providers with strong capabilities for both in-person and virtual—and thus the ability to deliver hybrid experiences—to emerge as the leaders in this space.