Virtual events are the future: they just need a rebrand

Vincent Touati-Tomas
Nov 19 · 6 min read
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Slush, in 2017. (Slush.org)

As a marketer, I have been organising events for a couple of years now. When we decided to hold Northzone’s Annual General Meeting online this September, I felt quite nervous that the virtual format would fall flat. More recently, we experimented with an online afterparty with Slush, featuring the singer Tove Lo. It attracted thousands of attendees, but still, I was petrified that people wouldn’t feel the vibe. On their end, my investor colleagues are navigating all sorts of new virtual experiences around deal flow hunting, visibility, and networking as a VC.

Event organisations have experienced a lot in the last couple of months: In the tech industry, The Next Web held their first big online conference, and Slush went from hosting 25K physical attendees to gathering their community on Zoom and launching a custom-made, pandemic-fueled product. The most successful organisations have not tried to reproduce their physical format virtually; they’ve spearheaded the creation of a new media platform instead.

Virtual has expanded the events universe: it’s now.

Hopin.com

I’m not saying that we’ll never again gather around fancy cocktails at the end of a long conference full of amazing attendees in one physical place. But I do believe we are witnessing the birth of a new, hybrid market for events that is here to stay.

The events industry is already massive, worth over $1T globally with double-digit growth per annum. It touches literally every sector — spanning music and festivals, sports, industry conferences and corporate seminars. The virtual events market is currently valued at roughly $45B and is expected to grow 20–25% per annum. And still, we don’t know the true market size of virtual events.

Even before the pandemic, events were moving towards a hybrid structure. Organisers have been increasingly willing to assess what can be done remotely (more people working from home) vs. physically (more intimate events, fewer mass gatherings). One-sided and passive webinars are quickly falling out of favour. The most successful up-and-coming platforms supersede traditional video tools by focusing on engagement and user interaction through features like video one-on-ones, breakout rooms, pools, roundtables, and more.

And the pandemic could be the turning point the event industry has been working towards these last couple of years. While it has adversely impacted the global tech ecosystem, it has also shifted the market landscape and left pockets of opportunity in marketing budgets. How can we capitalise on these opportunities? By turning virtual events into a new kind of medium.

The perfect virtual event is not an event. It’s a media experience.

Virtual events should not be considered as a single moment in time. They should be the stepping stone to a new media experience.

Think of newspapers, for example. Successful papers like The New York Times and Financial Times use their brand to create events, physical products, and niche content in addition to their core offering. As a medium, television encompasses TV shows, films, news, sports, game shows, etc., all of which build out their own consumer touchpoints, like a Sherlock escape game or a Love Island podcast.

For decades, publishers made a fortune selling ads. As news moved online, most of this ad spend went to Facebook or Google, and newspapers had to adjust their business model to survive. Unable to rely on external sources, it became clear that outlets should build their own audience and channels, through newsletters, social media, SEO, and so on. In 2008, advertising revenue dried up and publishers launched new revenue streams, such as tiered paywalls, branded events, products and services. The New York Times executed this brilliantly: they have more than 6.5 million paying digital subscribers every month, which drive 73% of their revenue. It’s no surprise The New York Times and Financial Times were among the first to host online events during lockdown.

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minesafetydisclosures.com — The “Not Failing” New York Times

The economics of virtual events

Virtual events have the opportunity to claim a similar space in mainstream media. The biggest hype-busting caveat is this: while event software companies are seeing explosive growth right now, there is so far little evidence that they are making any real money yet.

For months now, event organisers have primarily seen themselves as advertising and networking businesses, believing that sponsorships could be replaced with digital ad revenue and attempting to copy token physical event elements into the digital space. But things like “booths” just don’t work online — we need to free ourselves from the constraints and habits of the past, and build a new narrative that is better suited for the online world. In fact, we should embrace this newfound freedom and come up with a freshly tailored business model.

It will take time: you can’t build enough of the quality content required for free. Yes, the easiest way to get more online traffic is to provide free content and sell it to sponsors for exposure, but it’s neither sustainable nor crisis-proof. The only way forward to ensure not only the quality but also the longevity of online events is to make attendees buy tickets and have brands invest in content, not exposure.

The proof is out there: some promising examples

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Platforms like Lunchclub are looking to monetise one-to-one connections, and I believe that’s one of the value propositions virtual events have. The one-shot event doesn’t exist anymore. People want community experiences; they want access to organisers on-demand. Femstreet and Dave Gerhardt’s Patreon are great examples of this transformation: virtual events are just part of their offering. Subscribers don’t pay for events; they pay a monthly subscription that incorporates everything from a Slack group and podcast to newsletters and, you guessed it, virtual events.

Hopin (also a portfolio company of Northzone) the online venue for virtual events, just has raised $125M in Series B funding, less than a year after a Seed round in February. In just eight months, Hopin grew their customer base from 5,000 registered users and 1,800 hosting organisations to more than 2.5 million users and over 46,000 hosts. That is an astounding leap, and it’s just the beginning.

Events have often been catalysers for change in society: the World Economic Forum organised Davos to solve big economic problems; international governments founded the G20; CES was created to support the consumer electronics industry; and many tech companies have followed suit with niche events ranging from AI to cloud services and everything in between. This year’s pandemic has undoubtedly positioned the event space for a similar ground-breaking moment — one which not only presents obvious benefits from time and environmental perspectives, but which also democratises the access to content and networking for everyone. That means even more smart people around a much larger table, reaching an unlimited, unconstrained audience.

PS: If you’re building something at the intersection of events and media experiences, I’d love to hear from you!

Northzone

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