Today, we take for granted that the way we use a website is completely different than the way we would interact with a bricks-and-mortar business. We’re very comfortable with online shopping looking different than a storefront at the mall.
However, this was not always the case. Perhaps you recall the Internet circa 2000 when many websites tried to faithfully mimic the in-real-life businesses they were representing. Thus, if you had a bookstore with a brand new website on the nascent World Wide Web, the chances were good that it was very similar to what someone would see looking at your actual address on Main Street. A visitor would arrive at the front door and need to walk through it. There might be pictures of shelves. There might be an image of a cash register and a counter. There are websites from this era that look quaint and antique with their mistaken belief that what we experience in person had to be dutifully represented the same online.
Yet the online bookstore we saw 20 years ago bears very little resemblance to what we see with Amazon and its progeny today. This is remarkably true everywhere online—except with some virtual conference platforms. Interacting with some of today’s online meeting and conference platforms feels like taking a ride on The Wayback Machine. The relative infancy of the online meetings market may play a part, but the degree to which these virtual conference platforms are trying to faithfully recreate an in-person experience is somewhat baffling.
Virtual Conference Platforms
If you missed the advent of the Internet, going to an online conference today offers a chance to experience that time. Rather than the menus that we’ve come to understand and appreciate on other websites or online software packages, some online conferences confront us with a fake atrium full of sponsor banners. Mock exhibitors can be found standing at vendor booths that strive for photorealism. There are virtual conference hallways to needlessly wander down. You almost expect there to be simulated bathrooms to visit between sessions.
Unfortunately, the prevailing mentality with virtual event platforms seems to be an exercise in reconciling opposite ideas:
- This is a totally different experience online.
- It should also be the same as attending in person.
That means perpetually disappointing people. After all, if you’re trying to make people think that they’re at a convention center in Orlando, but it’s really a two-dimensional rendering on a 15-in monitor, they’re probably not going to suspend their disbelief. Instead, virtual event platforms should be asking, “If this is a dramatically different experience, how can we make it new or better?”
Today, we don’t feel confused when we go to buy a book and the website looks nothing like the store downtown. And the online experience can be very fast and we can get a ton of information easily. Websites don’t make us wander around like we would in person; it’s just a few logical clicks to breeze through tons of inventory.
How can online conference platforms—and the events they host—move away from approximating in-person events and actually delivering a better online experience? There are tons of ways, for example:
- Focus more on usability and less on aesthetics. A virtual conference platform can still display branding for sponsors, but it doesn’t have to be faux signs unfurled from cartoonish ceilings. Similarly, there’s no need to make visitors virtually trudge across acres of expo space when they can quickly identify the exhibitors that are of interest and click to visit those.
- See events as part of a bigger online experience. The line is blurring between one-time events, long-term online communities and year-round learning. Although a single online platform may not do all of these perfectly, it’s easy to see how a virtual conference should be seamlessly connected to an online community, which should be integrated with year-round training and learning opportunities.
- Leverage technology to fix pain points. A lot of what we experience on a virtual event platform is a very faithful recreation of what happens in person, but perhaps unnecessarily so. For example, although online events allow for much larger audiences, they still often ask the audience for questions as if it’s a small room with 20 people. While present in some virtual event platforms, the ability for a large audience to upvote questions so the best ones rise to the top is a simple innovation versus in-person meetings and leads to a better experience.
- Allow digital tools to reshape presentations. As a foundation, virtual conference platforms have prioritized using the same old slideshows we see at convention centers. However, there are a slew of other collaborative technologies that would be difficult to use in person, but are easy to include when every attendee is sitting at a computer. It doesn’t need to be fancy virtual reality; it might be as simple as a virtual whiteboard that’s integrated into the default presentation space.
- Enable better networking. In-person events may get lots of people together under the same roof, but it becomes very difficult to find the needle in the haystack in terms of a great person that you should meet. Networking is very much left to serendipity with in-person events. If you’re lucky, you meet somebody in the lunch line, that person happens to share an interest of yours and you strike up a conversation. Instead of mimicking that hit-or-miss randomness, online meeting platforms could deliver on-target connections much as Netflix or Amazon make recommendations. And it doesn’t need to look like sitting at a virtual table or talking in a realistic hallway so long as the interaction is good.
Like the legion of other websites that successfully weaned themselves off recreating an in-person experience, virtual conference platforms should be embracing their opportunity to improve events. In lieu of virtual conference platforms promoting a digital facsimile “just like” the in-person version, let’s hope the guiding spirit is that online meetings are “new and improved.”