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Virtual Events: Planning the New Normal

Virtual Events: Planning the New Normal - Nimdzi Insights

Report by Tucker Johnson.

This is an industry that loves conferences. It’s not surprising if you think about it. Many of us were drawn to the localization industry because of our love for languages — a love that is driven by a deeper need to connect with others. This need for connection is exacerbated by a natural feeling of isolation that is typical in the most remote-worker-friendly industry in the world. All this leads to an industry of peers from around the globe who love to travel and connect with one another. 

In March of 2020, due to the quickening growth of the COVID-19 pandemic, our beloved industry conferences started getting canceled. At first, these cancellations were seemingly controversial, but as the pandemic worsened, the cancellations became expected. Increasingly, though, events have been rescheduled and moved to remote formats. 

The widespread move to virtual events is a new development for the language services industry, and the industry has moved quickly to adapt. The research presented in this paper informs an analysis on what these adaptations look like and how well they are working. For those interested in attending, sponsoring, or hosting a virtual event, it can be useful to benchmark expectations against the feedback and data presented below.

Methodology

The data and verbatim feedback presented in this research were collected through interviews with recent virtual event/conference attendees (multiple events) and an online survey of verified localization industry professionals likely to attend industry conferences.

Information contained in this report

  1. TL;DR
  2. Event attendance
  3. Motivation to attend events
  4. What attendees are saying about virtual events
  5. Attendees have some suggestions for organizers
  6. What events people are attending
  7. Planning the "new normal"
  8. Event costs

TL;DR

People who were likely to attend in-person events in 2019 are now 600 percent more likely to attend virtual events. This is made possible as the virtual events are easier to attend logistically and because there has been an increase in the frequency of online events in 2020.

People attend for two primary reasons — 80 percent of respondents attend events to network with peers, while 66 percent of respondents attend to learn. As it is inherently more difficult to improve networking opportunities for virtual events, an increased focus should be placed on quality content that stands out from other events.

New modality needs a new approach — The best-rated conferences are those that did not try to force an “in-person” format into a virtual modality. Conferences that are designed with virtual as a priority are able to address participants’ needs more creatively.

Lower costs — Participants are much less likely to spend a lot of money on virtual events. While in-person events are typically over USD 1,000, most participants will pay no more than USD 100 for a virtual event.

Event attendance is up

Even those who don’t regularly attend events themselves recognize that there is a prominent cohort in the language services industry that seems to attend multiple conferences every month. To understand how event attendance has shifted since the onset of global shutdowns, it’s first important to get a baseline that helps us understand the “normal” frequency of attendance for in-person events under normal circumstances. 

We surveyed localization industry professionals to see how many events they attended in 2019 in order to establish their baseline behavior.

How many in-person events did people attend in 2019?

In the graph above, we can see that 90 percent of survey respondents attended at least one event in 2019, with the majority of respondents going to three or more events, and 28 percent reporting that they attended more than five different events that year.


With this baseline in mind, we now can look at how these same participants reported their virtual event attendance during May and June of 2020.

How many virtual events did people attend in the last two months*?

Surprisingly, these two charts look very similar. The data show that those who had attended at least one event in 2019 were more likely to have attended a virtual event in the last two months. Those who reported attending between one and four in-person events in 2019 were likely to report attending between one and five virtual events in the last two months. And lastly, those who had attended more than four in-person events in 2019 were likely to report that they had attended more than five events in the last two months.

Insight #1: These data suggest that the switch to online conferences has not had a profound impact on who is attending. Those who were likely to spend a lot of time at conferences before are still the ones who are spending a lot of time at conferences now. Those who were unlikely to attend industry events before are just as unlikely to attend virtual events now.

Insight #2: The second thing suggested by these data is that we are attending more events online. In fact, people are reporting attending the same number of events in the last two months alone as they attended in all of 2019, suggesting a 600 percent increase in the number of events people are attending. This is to be expected given the accessibility of virtual events is much higher.

Motivations to attend events

Now that we understand who is attending, let’s look at why they are attending. In order to understand participants’ motivations for attending events, we asked them to rank their top three reasons.

Why do people attend industry events?

The two most common responses participants gave were to extend their personal networks and to keep up to date on industry information and trends.

Insight #1: People want to network. The majority (80 percent) of respondents report that extending their personal networks was one of their top three motivations for attending an event. This has been a struggle for virtual events, which have not yet been able to recreate the networking opportunities of in-person events.

Insight #2: People want to learn. The second most common motivation for attending events is to keep up with industry trends. This is an area where virtual events have been performing arguably better at accomplishing the goal.

What attendees are saying about virtual events

Research participants were asked in surveys and interviews to describe how they feel about the switch from physical to virtual events. Below are some samples of verbatim feedback received. All responses have been kept anonymous in order to encourage direct feedback and have been edited for clarity and context.

Lamenting the lack of networking

  • “I miss the in-person networking opportunities. Nothing like sharing a couple of drinks to cement a new business partnership.”
  • “With online events, there's no networking, no one-on-one honest discussions.”
  • “While remote events do lose some of the networking possibilities because of their very nature, I am sure there are many creative ways that this could be incorporated.”
  • “Nothing beats an in-person event when it comes to networking. I've always been great with face-to-face interactions. On a digital platform, I'm just another name in a chat forum or sending a LinkedIn request. It makes it difficult to show that I am a legitimate professional with real value to offer.”
  • “The networking part is mostly missing due to the lack of personal contact.”
  • “I was missing a bit the food and the networking opportunities they normally have.”
  • “[Virtual events] just don't excite/reward me in the same way.”
  • “I understand the reasoning why... But I do miss our in-person events.”

Frustration with technology issues

  • “I recently attended an event that was originally in-person but transitioned to all virtual, and the event was held by a very large technology company. The experience was terrible, riddled with technology issues and disruptions on the event producer's part. Had the event not been free I would have asked for my money back.”
  • “There always seem to be technical issues somewhere.”
  • “Some events in my region (South America) didn’t work because of the lack of organization (instructions sent at the last minute, participants had their mics on) and boring presenters (no headset for better sound, they just read slides)."
  • “One keynote speaker had a dodgy microphone, but that was on their end, not the conference.”
  • “Some technology glitches such as video or audio freezing happened, but that might have been due to the increased use of Zoom conference software or the presenters' hardware or internet connection.”
  • “For some events, the intention was great, but the technology was less than desirable. One event was technically canceled because the platform just wouldn't work for the organizer. Other events have delays, lags, and microphones with poor quality. I am sure the organizers put a lot of work into making the technology work as well as possible, but I would have been upset had I paid for the conference.”
  • “Virtual is much more prone to technology failure. It is very difficult to pull off a highly successful virtual event and remain profitable for most organizations.”

Some people love virtual events

  • “I prefer remote events as they are better for the environment as there is significantly less travel. They are also generally cheaper, as you don't have to pay for travel and accommodation. This could allow people to attend more events if they are saving money on those costs.”
  • “Remote events are more affordable since I don’t have to pay for the plane tickets or housing.”
  • The “SimuLive” presentations worked a lot better than I thought they would. While the presentation was pre-recorded, the presenter was there watching with you and you could ask them questions in chat without derailing their presentation.”
  • “The good side is that we could put more people to attend these events. The bad side is more related to Internet conditions but this is a problem for us and not for the organizers."
  • “Both have their benefits. I like them equally! I would be able to attend more remote events but also enjoy looking forward to in-person events.”
  • “Many events are free, which is great and means we can attend more.”
  •  “An online event allows me to attend no matter what is going on in my life and for zero travel expenses.”

Attendees have some suggestions for organizers

The same respondents providing the feedback above also had some suggestions for event organizers, based on their observations from virtual events they have been attending. All responses have been kept anonymous in order to encourage direct feedback, and have been edited for clarity and context.

Think hybrid

  • “My ideal would be to have in-person events that are also live-streamed to those who cannot attend in person, due to cost, distance, or schedule conflicts.”
  • “Going hybrid like Tekom seems like a good offer to me."

Think outside the box

  • “Main issue: you can’t keep the same format of in-person events for remote ones, it simply doesn’t work.”
  • “At some point, we should think about moving away from the "talking head with a slideshow" model. I know that cost is a factor, but surely we can make webinars more attractive and entertaining by a more creative approach, even if it means the webinar is prerecorded rather than live. Holding people's attention on a computer screen for an hour or more is difficult at the best of times, so anything that can make the experience more appealing would represent major progress!”

Shorter or less intense

  • I don't want full days of conferences... short bursts are best.
  • “Some events try to fill full days and this is simply too long. Full-day conferences are fine (and expected) when they are in-person, but it is impossible to sit in front of a computer all day for a virtual conference.”
  • “Good events include breaks at regular intervals like those you would expect from an in-person event. Some virtual events that I have attended in the past do not provide break sessions and this can make it difficult for some to attend. The availability of recordings after the event is also a very helpful feature and allows you to revisit a session if needed.”
  • "I cannot attend more than 1.5 hours. It is very tiring and I get easily distracted by other things.”
  • “Maybe a couple more breaks and sessions for chatting/networking.”
  • “Plan the day and break up your event so that we are not in a conference 8 hours a day."

Make sure to follow up

  • “I have to say, my favorite thing was when one of the organizers sent an email expanding on a topic that the speaker had touched upon. She did it simply because somebody made a comment, she thought she was interesting and instead of keeping it to herself, she sent all participants an email. I also loved those webinars that sent a recording of the session afterward."
  • “Moderators and organizers should make sure questions that get asked on Zoom chats or Q&As are answered - even if there’s no time left in the question time in the end. Get the speaker to email the answers after the webinar is over.”

Other suggestions

  • “Remote events (if done well) should place more focus on the content.”
  • “The time zone differences can be a challenge for virtual events. It is good to have multiple options for viewing.”
  • “Enough talking about COVID-19 already!"

What events people are attending

Respondents were asked to list some virtual events they had attended recently and to provide any feedback (whether positive or negative) they had on the event.

EventFeedback
"Happy Hours""I take part in several informal virtual happy hours that have sprung up recently. These are always a good excuse to relax and meet with friends."
#LocFromHome by Smartcat"Did very well!" / "I only stayed online for a short time." / "Too long." / "It was cool, but there was a lack of networking, which was addressed by a Slack channel for participants."
Cranfield Webinars"Great content."
Digital Future Congress"Nice speakers from well-known players and hidden mittelstand champions, you could actually go to the fair stands if you wanted to, so that was cool"
Elia Webinars and discussion groups"Great to debate in the discussion groups and the webinars work well"
Gartner Webinars"Great content"
Google Enterprise Remote Day (by Seibert Media)"This was quite a relaxed event. Funny enough, Google Hangouts/Meet didn't work that well (I would rather blame it on the speaker's network but still... It was nice to get some insights into different fields."
Insead Webinars"Good content"
InterpretAmerica"This worked fantastic using Kudo."
LocPub"These informal meetups are always relaxing."
Memsource Meetup"Too long."
Nimdzi Virtual eLearning"Very useful insights and the course was broken down to allow for the information to be absorbed effectively."
ProZ.com Freelancer Success Summit"The events were all very well organised but were all intended to be run online and I think this was key to their success. The organisers knew exactly what was required from the very start of planning, rather than changing the nature of the event later on."
ReMeP/Research meets Practice"Cool presentations (they dared to have people that speak longer than the usual 20/30 minutes but there were quite a few interesting topics). Plus, they used Hopin so you could get to know random people on a 1:1 basis, and I loved that."
SDL Virtual Roadshow"It was interesting to see the results of their latest TTI survey and to get a glimpse of Studio 2021 but I was missing a bit the food and the networking opportunities they normally have (they used to organise it in fancy hotels)."
Society for Technical Communication Summit"I was surprised with how well the Society of Technical Communication conference transitioned to virtual in about 9 weeks. It was worth attending from 10pm-7am my time!"
TAUS Conference"People who were put together to discuss were saying they were busy and did not discuss, so networking was close to zero." / "Information and learning is there. Networking reduced."
Tekom"I like the hybrid approach they have taken."
Translation Mastermind Summit"Well run."
UTIC Webinars"Great."
White Nights and Game Global Summit.N/A - No comment provided
Women in LocalizationN/A - No comment provided
XTM LiveStream"It was nice to see both the buyer side and XTM's viewers."

Planning the "new normal"

There is no doubt that COVID-19 has had a profound effect on the conferences and events industry. Before the outbreak and subsequent travel restrictions, online events had not yet gained traction and were used for niche purposes. The forced migration to remote has provided a clear mandate to events organizers to adapt to virtual events. 

Once travel and social distancing guidelines have been relaxed, it will only be a matter of time before conference organizers start holding in-person events again. In fact, many optimistic organizers are already advertising for the second half of 2020. The question that we are left with is how will event attendance be affected in the long term, even after official restrictions are lifted? Will people rush back to conferences, or will they take a more cautious approach. 

We asked people if they had thought ahead to when conferences start happening again, and we see that most respondents were eager to start going to in-person events again, but held different beliefs about the level of caution warranted.

When in-person events start happening again...

Roughly a third (30.8 percent) of respondents are committed to hitting the road again immediately and will begin attending conferences immediately once restrictions are lifted. An additional 12.8 percent feel the same but will have to wait until their company policies allow for event attendance.

For organizers looking to hold the first conference once borders start opening back up, it will be difficult to forecast attendance. There may certainly be a rush of people that normally would not have attended but have been waiting for months to get back on the road. However, there are also a considerable amount of people (48.7 percent according to this study) who report that they will not immediately resume travel. Rather, they will choose to wait and see before they commit to attending conferences with large crowds of people.

Insight #1: Conference organizers hoping to get first-mover advantage upon the reopening of borders need to account for the fact that not all attendees will feel comfortable attending large conferences right away, so attendance may be lower than otherwise expected (all other factors remaining equal).

Insight #2: Hybrid approaches may be a solid strategy for conferences starting to transition back to in-person events. Many participants reported that they enjoy hybrid conferences, where speakers and attendees conduct in-person sessions which are all live-streamed for a virtual audience to join as well.

Event costs

The supply and demand for online events and conferences has changed so dramatically in recent months that we haven’t yet seen the market settle on a standard pricing structure. Whereas everybody had a generally accepted idea of what was reasonable to pay for in-person event attendance, we now have no collective idea of what is reasonable for virtual events.

One thing is very clear: participants are not willing to pay as much for virtual events as they are willing to pay for in-person events.

Participants in this research were asked how much they would be willing to pay to attend a virtual event. The majority of respondents (52.6 percent) reported under USD 100, which is a significant decrease in the USD 1,000 - 3,000 price tags on in-person events.

How much are people willing to pay for an online conference?

Participants were also asked to provide additional comments on why they feel the way they do about virtual event pricing. Their responses provide useful additional context to the data reported in the above graph.

What people are saying about the cost of virtual events

  • “Price should depend on how long the event is.” 
  • “If there are multiple parallel tracks like an ATA conference, with the ability to download presentations you haven't viewed live, then the USD 200-300 price range is reasonable. But for an event that would cost USD 1,000 if it were run in-person, then a higher charge would be reasonable.”
  • “It depends on the length of the virtual event. If it's a full day or several days, I'd spend more.”
  • “It's difficult to put a figure on this as many in-person conferences run over more than one day and some virtual events do too. I answered this question based on a two-day virtual event (USD 200-300). I would expect to pay around USD 100 for a one-day event.”
  • “Depends on the number of tracks on offer, and if they’re available afterward, access to speakers, etc.”
  • “It would depend on the duration, the speakers and network opportunities."
  • “If you charge any money, the organizer needs to ensure that the technology will run smoothly, and also ensure that the format adheres to accessibility standards (e.g. subtitles, sign language interpreters, etc.).”
  • “I'd be understanding of an attendance fee of a couple hundred for an in-person event, but not for a virtual event, unless it was in some way exclusive and/or had more "guaranteed" networking opportunities.”
  • “Organizers can present remotely, which eliminates venue costs, swag, food/beverage, equipment rentals and so on. So it should be far less expensive than in-person events.”

Insight #1: Attendees are not willing to pay as much to attend a virtual event as they would be to attend one in person. This means organizers need to make up for this by increasing the number of paying attendees, for which there are very minimal variable costs.

Insight #2: Participants associate the value of an event closely with the length and size of the event. People are much more willing to pay more for a virtual event if it spans multiple days, has different tracks simultaneously, and makes session recordings available for download after the event has concluded.

So what?

The barrier to organizing and hosting online events is low enough that virtually any person with an email account can organize one. Many companies and associations are taking advantage of this and promoting more events than ever. Other organizations are perhaps looking to get started hosting virtual events. However, based on the feedback received in the above research, it is safe to say that nobody in our industry has yet perfected the virtual event experience. 

By taking into consideration the feedback provided from our industry peers, we can learn from others’ (and our own) mistakes and work together to promote better events that more appropriately meet the needs and expectations of our industry constituents.

Tucker_Johnson_Managing_Director_Nimdzi_Insights

This report has been researched and written by Nimdzi's Managing Director, Tucker Johnson. If you'd like to learn more about this topic or share your own experiences, reach out to Tucker at tucker@nimdzi.com.

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